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Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: II Samuel 23:1-7 AND Psalm 132:1-18 OR Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 AND Psalm 93:1-5, Revelation 1:4b-8, John 18:33-37

The Christian liturgical year ends with a new heaven and a new earth and Christ sitting at the right hand of God reigning forever and ever—whatever that means! That, of course, is just one way of trying to express in human language what is inexpressible.

The final Sunday of the liturgical year (this coming Sunday) used to be called Christ the King Sunday, but those who are deeply committed to democracy have trouble relating to kings. Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ is a church where issues of justice are very important. Kings are often seen as the epitome of a system of oppression—as if deep differences of wealth and power did not exist also in “democracies.” Furthermore, where there are “kings” in the modern world they are often nothing more than figureheads in nations where everyday affairs are decided in some sort of more or less democratic fashion.

It’s no wonder that some have tried to soften the emphasis upon kingship and call this Sunday “Reign of Christ Sunday,”—in my mind largely a distinction without a difference. Its still about authority, a ruling person or principle. The question put before us is what rules or reigns in the cosmos, in the affairs of this world, in our lives?

Sometimes my attempts to make sense out of things drives me to definitions—which can also drive me to distraction, or insanity. Here are some definitions I found, offered here without comment, each perhaps shedding a little light on possible foci for Reign of Christ Sunday.

"Reign” is defined as “control or government.”
“Rule” may mean “a code of practice and discipline for a religious community,” “to exercise ultimate power over (a people or nation),” “exert a powerful and restricting influence on,” “pronounce authoritatively and legally to be the case.”

A “king” is defined as “the male ruler of an independent state, especially one who inherits the position by birth,” or “the best or most important person or thing in a sphere or group.”

A “kingdom” is “a country, state, or territory ruled by a king or queen,” “a realm associated with a particular person or thing,” or “the spiritual reign or authority of God.”

The word “reign” reminded my of “rein.” I wondered if there was any connection between the words. There’s not, that I could find—but I still found “rein” to be an illuminating word. A rein is “a long, narrow strap attached at one end to a horse's bit, used in pairs to guide or check a horse.” Often used in the plural, it may also mean “the power to direct and control.” As a verb it means, among other things, to “restrain.” I find it interesting that imagery related to the control of horses is occasionally applied to human beings. In Psalm 32:8-9, God says, “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.” James 3:3 says, “If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies.” (Actually, he’s talking about the power of the tongue, but perhaps the verse can be applied to wider understandings of governance.)

Such definitions give us lots to chew on as we consider the readings for Reign of Christ Sunday, all of which are part of a focus on kingship. The first two are about the end of the reign of David, the highest image of a king in Hebrews history, yet even his reign was not without its troubles and shortcomings. II Samuel offers one version of “the last words of David.” (II Samuel 23:1) He thinks highly of his reign. A good king “rules over people justly . . .” (vs. 3) His rule is “like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.” (vs. 4) “Is not my house like this with God?” David asks. (vs. 5) Not exactly humble, is he? And all those on the other side, “are entirely consumed in fire on the spot.” (vs. 7) Did David have an enemies list? Power so often has difficulty tolerating any opposition. The reading from Psalm 132 also reflects, not too humbly, on David’s reign as well.

Psalm 93 rises to higher ground, declaring the “the Lord is king.” We could get into the whole history of Israel’s desire for a king and God’s trying to remind them who their king really was. Why are we human beings so ready to hand authority over to human leaders whether they be kings, presidents, senators and representatives, family patriarchs, or others too numerous to name?

Jesus, in the Gospel lesson, tries to point us to authority that functions on a different dimension. He is asked by Pilate if he is “King of the Jews.” (John 18:33) Although he says, “You say that I am a king” (vs. 37), it is only after he has said, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” (vs. 36) His answer leaves us with lots of questions and room for speculation and interpretation, but it is clear throughout his teachings that he called us to live in a kingdom which wasn’t based on traditional political authority. It was among others things within. He called us to consider what rules at the very center of our being.

There are two more readings this week, both from apocalyptic readings about the consummation of all history. Without getting into the details of various interpretations (many of which jump way beyond the original context of the writings), we have the picture a divine being who is “given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship shall never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:14) In Daniel he is “one like a human being,” taken by many Christians to mean Jesus. (vs. 13) In the reading from Revelation he is “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” (Revelation 1:4) He has “made us to be a kingdom.” Stated in the form of a benedictory prayer, it says, “to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (vs. 6)

As I tried to get a handle on all this king talk, I thought of a modern colloquialism, often expressed emotionally, which says something or someone “rules.” Rick “rules.” Love “rules.” It’s not a phrase I use and I’m not sure of its meaning or use, so I decided to try to find out about it on the Internet. I got lots of list of rules but no clear discussion that helped me. Finally I found this exchange on Yahoo Answers. Someone notes that “in Ugly Betty, Justin said that Betty rules. What does it mean?” The first answer is, “When someone says ‘You rule’ it's a compliment, like ‘You're awesome’ or ‘You did really well.’ It's a pretty common phrase, perfectly acceptable to use in everyday conversation. It's also interchangeable with ‘You rock.’” Another answer says, “It's an expression of admiration for someone who is an effective leader.”

It probably trivializes the majesty of kingship, and talk about power that keeps the cosmos on course, to lay it alongside the everyday comment, “You rule.” Maybe, however, when concepts are beyond the reach of the most sophisticated of theories, we can understand them in a way that captures the awe and respect we sometimes feel in the presence of even another human being. Perhaps when we are not able to easily connect with the image of “king,” we can consider crying out, “God rules” as a declaration of our awe and admiration for all that a loving God as seen in Jesus and his teaching means to us.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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