Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, on Sunday, November 20, 2022, The Reign of Christ, Readings for this Sunday: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Luke 1:68-79; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43.
Late in her life, Queen Elizabeth told a BBC interviewer that her crown was “unwieldy”. With her characteristic dry humour, the Queen was describing what it was like to wear the Imperial Crown that she would wear for state occasions such as the State Opening of Parliament. In describing how to wear the Crown, the Queen said “You can’t look down to read the speech, you have to take the speech up. Because if you did (look down), your neck would break – it would fall off”. As the Queen wryly commented, “there are some disadvantages to crowns, but otherwise they’re quite important things”.
One of the things that many of us loved the late Queen for was that she wore the Crown as a burden, a burden of duty and service that she accepted to serve us. Despite the trappings of her office -- the palaces and the estates -- Elizabeth modeled a certain kind of power, one that could often be humble and self aware. While we give thanks for that kind of servant leadership, we must note that there other models of power today that are influential and malignant. Today’s authoritarians and strong men don’t wear diamond encrusted crowns or even military uniforms. They wear suits, they run sham elections, they stoke fears and divisions, they lie, steal, intimidate, and they kill, if they can get away with it.
It's distressing how many people – friends, neighbours, family – want to be ruled by a strong man (and they are usually men). I found it ironic, and a little funny, that as I was thinking about this sermon this week, a certain Florida senior citizen and golfer announced that he wanted his old job back. In one of his last columns in The Washington Post before his passing, Michael Gerson commented on how so many of his fellow Americans “have a fatal attraction to the oddest of political messiahs — one whose deception, brutality, lawlessness and bullying were rewarded with the presidency”.
Much of this “fatal attraction” is felt by some Christians who want a strongman to protect what they see as a certain way of life. As an influential US pastor has said, “I want the meanest, toughest SOB I can find to protect this nation”. While Canadian politics is far more secular, it has also taken on populist and even authoritarian qualities, whether over land use, health mandates, or overriding municipal powers. It seems that as people get angrier, feel threatened, and become less respectful of their neighbours, they want a strong leader who will do what it takes to make them feel like winners.
The paradox of our Christian faith is that we worship the ultimate strong leader. Consider the opening verse of our second reading, from St Paul’s letter to the Colossian church: “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power” (Col 1.11). That word “power” is a translation of the Greek word “kratos” which Luke uses in the Song of Mary, the Magnificat (he has shown strength with his arm”, and the word “strength” is a translation of the more common gospel word “dynamis” from which we get our modern word dynamite. “Dynamis” is used, for example, in Jesus’ teaching his disciples to pray: “For thine is the kingdom, the power (dynamis) and the glory” (Mt 6.13). Our second reading in fact may be one of the most audacious claims in all of scripture, for Paul says that Jesus is THE cosmic power, that Jesus is one with God “in him all things hold together” (Col 1.17). Or, as Bruce Cockburn puts it in one of his songs, Jesus is “Lord of the starfields, ancient of days, universe maker”.
But notice that Paul does not promise us, Jesus’ followers, that all this power will be deployed to support our agendas. Rather, he says that all this power will make Christians “prepared to endure everything with patience” (Col 1.11). We need to note that this promise is not for Christians waiting to seize power, but rather it’s an encouragement for believers who may be called to suffer under someone else’s power. These are words for those who may face persecution under Nero, and not for those wanting to put their own Christian Nero on a throne.
Ever since kings became Christians and started wearing crowns, we’ve confused the Kingdom of God with the kingdoms of earth. The idea of Christian nationalism which we are starting to hear more of in American politics, is a belief that the will of God can be brought about by human laws, human politics, and human anger. But this was always a misunderstanding that often leads to persecution, tyranny. Again to quote Michael Gerson, when Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God, he’s speaking of a calling: “[Jesus] called human beings to live generously, honestly, kindly and faithfully. Following this way … is not primarily a political choice, but it has unavoidable public consequences”.
What might our society look like if more of us, including our leaders, followed the way of Jesus?
It would have the unity that comes from a respect for our common dignity. Jeremiah in our first lesson condemns false leaders “who have scattered my flock” (Jer 23.2). The kingdom of God has no place for those who would divide and conquer.
It would be free of voices that stoke hatred and sow fear of the stranger, the immigrant, or the transgender, Again to quote Jermiah, “I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing” (Jer 23.4). Any voice which seeks to instill fear, hatred, or suspicion is not a voice that speaks for Jesus.
The way of Jesus would mean that our words to one another were gracious and forgiving, free of grievance, slander, and hatred. Paul says that Jesus is Ground Zero for all forgiveness: “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20). Any voice which speaks arrogantly, which tries to lie about past injustices, and which refuses to seek reconciliation and forgiveness is not a voice that speaks for Jesus.
The Kingdom of God is hard to see if you don’t know what to look for. Think about the mocking voices in our gospel reading from Luke: “If you are the King of the Jews”, “Are you not the Messiah”, or Pilate’s sarcastic inscription on the cross, “This is the King of the Jews”. Those voices don’t speak for the Kingdom of God.
But if you listen to that dialogue between the crosses - one broken and dying man forgiving his murdered, another asking for mercy and receiving it – if you listen to those voices, barely audible above the baying of the mob, then you recognize the Kingdom of God.
At some point, it will please God to reveal the Kingdom of God in all its glory. But for those of us who choose to follow Jesus and who seek his kingdom, we have a clear path to follow that leads us forward. Let me give the last words to Michael Gerson, who wrote these words in what he knew were the last days of his life:
the way of life set out by Jesus comes like a clear bell that rings above our strife. It defies cynicism, apathy, despair and all ideologies that dream of dominance. It promises that every day, if we choose, can be the first day of a new and noble manner of living. Its most difficult duties can feel much like purpose and joy. And even our halting, halfhearted attempts at faithfulness are counted by God as victories.