Year B, Proper 29
Reign of Christ
Once there was a prince who was on the verge of inheriting his father’s kingdom and becoming the king. After many years of training, study and apprenticing his father and the wise elders of the kingdom deemed him ready for the role of King. His only hesitation was that he was single. He wanted reign with a partner by his side. He wanted to marry.
So far all the eligible young women that he had met at court just did not stir his heart or his soul. He wanted to marry for love and friendship. One day he was riding through the marketplace when he was struck by the sight of the girl who sold beautiful and sturdy pottery at one of the stalls. It was her eyes that captivated him at first. They were kind and sparkled with fun. They were thoughtful as well. In fact he found that looking into them was like looking into the depths of a clear, deep well. There were shadows and sunlight there. He began to observe how she treated her customers with respect and fairness, yet always struck a good bargain for her family business. He saw the steadiness and fine, detailed creativity of her work during times when customers were scarce – throwing pots at her potter’s wheel and painting those ready for the kiln. Needless to say, he fell in love.
“How shall I approach her? Get to know her? Let her get to know me?” thought the prince. As prince he could simply order her to marry him. But he wanted to marry for love. He could arrive at the door of her humble home in his regal uniform on a fine horse bearing gifts and sweep her off her feet. But he wanted to marry for friendship and shared values, not because he was a prince that could offer a life of rich luxury. Perhaps he could disguise himself as a daily laborer and get to know her at the marketplace. Then when they were in love and ready to marry he could reveal his true identity. But he did not want to marry out of manipulation.
After much contemplation and with his growing love for the young woman as a guide, the prince finally made a decision. He would renounce his claim to the throne. He would move into the neighborhood in which she lived and begin work as a carpenter for he had been trained in architecture and in the fine art of carving in his studies. He loved the feel of the wood in his hands. He would get to know all the people in her community, go to mass with them, make music at parties with them, help build their houses, shop with them in the marketplace. In this way he hoped to he would become the young woman’s friend and someday confess his love for her. And that is what he did.
(Adapted from a story by Soren Kirkegaard and found in synopsis form at http://www.michiganquakers.org/a_king_in_disguise.htm. You can read Kirkegaard’s parable taken from Provocations; Spiritual Writings of Kirkegaard compiled and edited by Charles E. Moore at http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Articles/Disguised_Love/disguised_love.html.)
This Sunday is the last Sunday of lectionary Year B. Since the early part of the 20thcentury it has been the tradition in the Roman lectionary to celebrate this day as “Christ the King” Sunday. Some Protestant denominations and churches also follow this tradition. Others have designated it as “The Realm of Christ” Sunday. Still others simply acknowledge it as the last Sunday of the liturgical calendar. Whichever tradition we follow it behooves us to deal with the images of kings and kingdoms that appear in our texts.
Kings create as well as lead their kingdoms. We know from history, biblical and secular, that as there are good kings and not so good kings their kingdoms reflect the leaders. The folklore and sacred stories that illuminate scripture in all faith traditions echo this relationship between king and kingdom. Kirkegaard’s parable draws not only on his parabolic meditation on Christ’s “kingly ”relationship to humanity but also on the widespread folktale motif of the king who disguises himself as a beggar to learn about the state of his kingdom. If a ruler is willing to leave a palace in concern for the people it says something about the character of the king and the community he wants to lead. Kings who are not concerned with the state of the kingdom can experience a stark comeuppance in folk tale traditions as in the story of King Hagag at http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/jftl/jftl11.htm.
As I read the passage from 2 Samuel Randall Thompson’s majestic choral anthem, “The Last Words of David” is playing in my memory. (Listen here for the anthem with full orchestra https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nTAUcutcC10 or here for the simpler version with piano https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-qYu3B1GO.) I sang the anthem in church youth choir and it has stuck with me all these years. Reading David’s oracle in light of our other texts and with the anthem’s melodies in my mind, I am struck anew by the king who “ruling in the fear of God” is like “the light of the morning” and “the tender grass springing out of the ground after rain.” Here is a gentle, but consistent and persevering strength. Here is constancy in the connection to the cycle of life. The king is like the sun that always rises, like morning that always comes after the darkness of night. Growth occurs with the nurture of rain and sun. The king in the ancient Hebrew culture rules as God’s right hand person, anointed by God and responsible to God for the care of the kingdom. A king fashioned in this manner tells us of the character of God and prescribes the character of the realm. Psalm 132 not only celebrates the kingship of David but also makes clear the covenant that if David’s heirs keep to the paths of God’s ways the kingdom will follow in righteousness and faith.
The vision from Psalm 93 and the book of Daniel move the images of king and kingdom into a mythic realm. In the psalm God’s almighty nature is fierce as the waters of the earth. The seas roar out God’s praise. God’s realm is sure and ancient as these waters. In Daniel’s vision we are given a precise description of an Ancient One whose throne is apocalyptic fire. Allegorically is this the Lord Almighty? The kingdom of this One seems to span the entire universe. And there are many thrones. Before we can wonder who they are for, there is another one who comes before the Ancient One like a human being coming from the clouds. This one is given a throne and kingship over the nations of the world. Reading back from a Christian perspective we tend to superimpose Christ on the one who comes before the Ancient One. We need to search for more in the images as they are set in pre-Christian context of the book of Daniel and its imagery. What can we learn from Daniel’s images of king and kingdom if we restrain our Christian imaginations and see the images set in context of this visionary who is a Jewish exile serving in the court of the king of Babylon?
In our New Testament texts we encounter God as the ancient one on the throne is Revelation with all of the earth, all of creation, set before the throne, the one” who is and who was and who is to come.” Jesus comes in the clouds like the one who comes in Daniel. Instead of reading Christ back into Daniel what can we learn from seeing Daniel as part of the Jewish literary traditions’ backdrop for Revelation? How does this affect our image of Christ coming as a king or ruler? I may be asking the obvious here. However, I know that as steeped as I am in Christian faith I have to remind myself to step outside specifically Christian imagery to get a bigger perspective on an image at times.
This is what folktales from other cultures do for me. They turn my preconceived Christian and Western Civilization notions of life and familiar imagery upside down. You might want to consider this story of the legendary king of the Uijain region of ancient India, Vikramaditya, and the character of his kingship. (For more historical information on this king, see http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Vikramāditya.)
The story of King Vikram in the tale “The Disguised King” can be found at http://mptbc.nic.in/books/class9/enggt9/ch13.pdf. Unless you are familiar with ancient Indian cultures the imagery will be startling and set you in a strange, new world. The imagery of biblical literature, of Revelation and Daniel, is just as unfamiliar to many who sit in our pews or classes. What does encountering unfamiliar imagery in a folktale teach us about teaching Christian scripture to others?
Our gospel text from John turns the notion of a king with an obvious kingdom inside out and gives it a 360 degree twist as Jesus plays with Pilates’ understanding of king and kingdom. Jesus is not the expected king. Pilate would have better understood the kingship of David. But this one standing before him who has been hailed by common folks as a king is an enigma. He appears to be a backwater rabbi with wild notions of God and the community of God’s people that frighten the establishment of Jewish leaders but inflame the hearts of his Jewish followers. Why doesn’t he take responsibility for being acclaimed “king?” What is the mysterious “this” that he says he was born to? What is the “truth” one must be clued into in order to listen to his voice? Pilate could very well have thought, “I hear your voice, It is nothing but crazy talk to me…yet you do not seem to have broken any laws.”
As we listen to Jesus’ voice as he claims the “kingdom that is not here,” what do we learn about that realm? Let us jump over the conclusion that this realm is the after death notion of heaven and eternal life for Christians. Jesus is standing in the court of the empire that oppresses and abuses his people and many others that Rome has conquered. Could that be the “here” he speaks of? The empire that is the status quo of the day, the one that achieves peace through war and domination? “My kingdom is not here. If my kingdom were from this world, [i.e. the world of empire] 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.” If it is not here then where is it? What is it? If we have read the gospel from the beginning we know what Pilate did not know. The realm that Jesus speaks of is God’s realm in which people are healed and fed and delivered from oppression and persecution.
As you continue to ponder the images of king and kingdom or kin-dom of God I invite you to consider the stories below. They may suit your preaching and teaching. And better yet they may spur you to remember stories from your own life and experience that will serve you even better.
- “The Beggar King” at http://www.inspirationalstories.com/8/832.html and at
- A story about kingdoms and the King of Prussia at
- Two contemporary stories and sermon illustrations at
Blessings on your story journeys,
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2015. Text and photos may be reprinted by permission only.