The Least, First

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Not of this world – Sermon of Nov 26, 2006

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Christ the KingReign of Christ, Proper B 29
November 26, 2006

Congregational singing:

Shout to the North
That’s Why We Praise Him
Be Thou My Vision
I Will Lift My Hands to You


Jesus has been systematically taking apart the things his disciples thought they knew – and in many cases, the things they hold dear. Think of what we’ve seen over the past few Sundays:

Wealth – they are amazed to see Jesus tell a rich man to get rid of his wealth helping the poor. The rich man walks away. Everybody knew wealth was a sure sign of the blessing of God – there must be some mistake here! And then, to completely bury the idea, Jesus virtually says, “It’s impossible for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God.” And he identifies a poor widow giving two pennies as the biggest giver in the crowd.

Silly Jewish notion – that wealth is a sign of the blessing of God – or is it? Wonder what we mean when we say, “Look how God has blessed America”? I have heard an argument that says America is rich because it has been blessed by God. I have heard it said that America is richer than other countries because America is more Christian than other countries.

Some might construe the Old Testament to suggest that – but to Jesus Christ, wealth is a hazard, not a blessing.

Religion – at first, they say to Jesus, “Don’t you know you’re making the religious leaders angry?” These people are the scholars of their faith, the people they’ve followed. Again and again Jesus clashes with them, until he becomes their target. In the temple, we’ve seen them send their best to trap him – the Pharisees take their turn, the Sadducees, the Scribes. These are the big names of their day, people known and revered as the great teachers and leaders of the faith.

They come to Jesus with calculated theological and religious arguments, and he leaves them with “Love the Lord with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” And they go home angry, certain he’s not the one.

Behavior – Jesus doesn’t even act like good people act. Everybody knows it’s good to get prestigious people in your group. But Jesus ignores them and goes instead for un-prestigious people of his day: women, even immoral women; foreigners (like the Syro-Phoenician woman); the handicapped – like the blind man Bartimaeus, whom the people were shushing and keeping away; children – again, his disciples were shushing and keeping them away, and Jesus says “The Kingdom belongs to such as these.”

Ah, Jesus, you’ll never make a church of people like this. The places good people don’t go, he goes. The people good people don’t hang out with, he hangs out with. In fact, the people good people find morally repulsive – the woman at the well, the tax collector who works for the Romans – those are the people Jesus seeks out for special tenderness. The Pharisees go so far as to suggest he must be a drunk, because he associates so freely with drinking people and in places where wine flows.

Silly Jewish notions – or are they? My eyes are so easily attracted to attractive people, people who seem to have it together. I don’t hear that Washington is scandalized by the people I know and the places I go. And our culture has real definite places where children are to be and where they are not to be. And where they are not to be, in the church world, is any place that distracts adults, for whom, you would think, the Kingdom of God must exist. Some might construe Old Testament verses to suggest that – but it’s not Jesus’ teaching.

Worship – Last week, Pastor Sharon read of their admiration of the Temple. It’s understandable. But Jesus, once again, says that what impresses them is temporary and insignificant – its time is past. Imagine what this must have meant to them – the Temple was the symbol of all the had believed in. It was the location of the Presence of God to them. It was royal, and permanent, and when Messiah came, he would take his place there – everybody knew it from the prophet Daniel. Jesus said words that could be paraphrased: “No more. That’s going to be knocked flat. It’s nothing. Worship is within you now. It isn’t about buildings and splendor and outward symbols anymore. You could read the Old Testament that way – but I’m changing the plan.” They must have been dumbfounded.

We Christians still struggle with the idea that spectacular buildings indicate the blessing of God. But more than that, amazingly enough, we still struggle with the idea that Jerusalem and Israel represent the blessing of God. It shows up in politics – Israel drops American-built cluster bombs on Lebanon, the whole world protests to the United Nations, the UN drafts a resolution condemning it, the US all alone vetoes the resolution. Why? Because there is so much pressure on American government from Christians to support Israel no matter what, certain that the Old Testament will be literally fulfilled in Jerusalem.

I don’t know if that’s going to happen or not – I lean toward doubting it – but I am sure that Jesus was in the face of Israel whenever it victimized its neighbors, and I am sure that if Jesus returns to Jerusalem it is not going to be helped by Israel cluster-bombing neighborhoods where children play, just like it won’t be because Hizbollah lobs rockets into Israel. Since his Kingdom is not of this world, and modern Israel is very much of this world, if Jesus is coming back to Jerusalem, it seems to me that it’s going to have to be a Jerusalem of another world.

I heard a famous preacher on TV telling how Jesus would return to Jerusalem, and he gave as part of his evidence Mark 13:14. I looked it up. It said, “But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be… then those in Judea must flee to the mountains.”


See, Jesus’ passion for fairness, for the underdog, still overrules religious dogma, still turns the religious world upside down, and it still makes followers of Jesus unpopular among the religious.

But the temple meant something else to them besides religion: it also meant …

Government: This was their nation, their nation occupied, their nation which (they assumed) the Messiah had come to bless and set free. But he was telling of its destruction! Wait! Everybody knew God would bless their nation. When Jesus said the stones of the Temple would be reduced to rubble, it probably had something of the effect that standing and saying it before the massive columns of the U.S. Capital might have on Americans.

When the Palm Sunday crowds cheered, the palms they waved were symbols of nationalism – as if each had a flag to wave during a military parade. It was about their country coming back to power.

And when Jesus was taken by the Jews, then held by the Romans, the crowds turned against him, perhaps because he had failed in what they wanted him to do. Here he is before the Roman Pontius Pilate:

John 18:33-37.33Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

34″Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”

35″Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

36Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

37″You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

[NIV – copyright International Bible Society]
[I describe on through 19.11
then they play the patriotism card to Pilate, v12]

It is by questioning Pontius Pilate’s patriotism, that they get him to overrule the spiritual stirring that’s happening in his heart, and condemn Jesus Christ to death.

How ironic! Jesus hasn’t been patriotic to Israel, so the crowd turns on him. And by suggesting Pilate isn’t patriotic enough to Rome, they finish the job.

Patriotism must be a tricky business. We want to be thankful for the things we have. We want to be grateful for the people who’ve suffered to secure these things for us.

At the same time, what nation on earth do you suppose God likes best? [There was an interesting silence here!]

Surely none of us would dare suggest God loves our nation more than any other.

Let me show you Joshua 5:13 – the Hebrews, in this story, are in a new day, having just crossing the Jordan to take the Promised Land. Such opportunities are before them, and they are truly God’s chosen ones on his mission. If ever God favored a nation, he was certainly doing it right here.

But look: On the eve of the battle, a representative of God himself confronts Joshua:

13 Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”

14 “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.”

What? Not on Israel’s side? Nor the other side?

I wonder, if we went to God and asked him, “Whose side are you on in international conflicts?” what he would say. My hunch is that his answer would still be, “Neither.”

And I wonder, if I am to be like God, if his church is to be like Jesus . . .

Well, you can see that I’ve put a big problem before you today. Perhaps you are feeling just a bit of what Jesus’ early disciples felt.

For we are, first, citizens of another kingdom, which has our whole loyalty, and that loyalty must not be divided. How to work that out may be somewhat different for each of us, but we must work it out.

And just like Jesus’ course in his day kept exploding the things that the disciples thought were solid and trustworthy, and just like Jesus’ course in his day kept getting him in trouble and making him more and more unpopular with prestigious leaders, so the course of those who follow him today may require us to take this nation to task sometimes and appear to be unpatriotic. When my national leaders ask, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” my answer, sometimes, may have to be “Neither. I am for God, alone.”

For Jesus does not ask us to divide our loyalty and give him a bit – he asks for all of it. He is our king. Wealth, religion, behavior, worship, government – he questioned every loyalty in their hearts. And he does no less today. He is our king. He alone is our king.

Let’s end with a reading about Jesus’ kingship after his ascension:

Revelation 1:4-8
His Eyes Pouring Fire-Blaze
4-7 I, John, am writing this to the seven churches in Asia province: All the best to you from The God Who Is, The God Who Was, and The God About to Arrive, and from the Seven Spirits assembled before his throne, and from Jesus Christ—Loyal Witness, Firstborn from the dead, Ruler of all earthly kings.

Glory and strength to Christ, who loves us,
who blood-washed our sins from our lives,
Who made us a Kingdom, Priests for his Father,
forever—and yes, he’s on his way!
Riding the clouds, he’ll be seen by every eye,
those who mocked and killed him will see him,
People from all nations and all times
will tear their clothes in lament.
Oh, Yes.

8The Master declares, “I’m A to Z. I’m The God Who Is, The God Who Was, and The God About to Arrive. I’m the Sovereign-Strong.”

[The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson]


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Written by Monte

November 26, 2006 at 9:08 pm

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