Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Rev. 1: 4b-8
Today we celebrate the Reign of Christ. Christians across the world live in different countries under different regimes, both bad and less bad, but today Protestants and most Catholics take this time to remember that we all live in the dominion of Jesus Christ. You could add any number of royal titles to his name – Son of God and Son of Man, Rose of Sharon, etc.— but you don’t need to. Jesus is the Christ, the anointed.
But what does that mean? What kind of King is Jesus? What is his Kingdom like? These are the crucial questions! Is his living in his kingdom anything like living in the kingdoms of the past? I hope not! Feudalism was not that great. The Middle Ages were never as happy and “magical” as depicted in Disney movies. Royalty would bicker and fight amongst themselves, and the regular folks would suffer. And frankly, I am not sure why anyone would want to be a king or queen, because it seemed like people were always out to get you.
I like to think of a kingdom as game of 4-Square. Do you know 4-Square? Well for those of you who don’t know, 4-Square is a schoolyard game played on a square court divided into four quadrants—that is, four smaller squares. These smaller squares are about 3 square meters in size. And there is always a player in every square. The goal of the game is to defend your square and send the other players out of the big square. There is a rubber ball that is bounced between the squares, and if a player misses the ball, or they hit it out of bounds, then they are “out.” Like tennis, as long as the ball bounces once inside your opponent’s square, it is a fair play. When a player gets “out,” they leave the square and go to the back of a line of players who are waiting to (re)enter the game.
The squares will be ranked – 1,2,3,4 – and when people enter the game they start at rank 1 and try to move up to rank 4. The 4th square is kept by a person called the “king.” Everybody wants to be king. But once you are king, you face a bit of a conundrum. It’s a powerful position to be in, but there is nothing else beyond King. There is nowhere else to go but “out.” So, the King’s only goal is to try and survive for as long as they can. And survival isn’t easy because the other players are usually trying to get you out. Sometimes a king will get lucky and maneuver some of his friends onto the lower ranks, and they will defend their “king.” But in most proper 4-Square circuits, this kind of collusion is frowned upon.
4-Square can be tense, especially for the king, but it’s still just a fun schoolyard game. But in real life, kings faced greater stress, greater challenges, and even the possibility of being overthrown, or worse — stabbed in the back! And, if we’re being honest, politics today is still a lot like a deadly game of 4-Square. It still involves a lot of jockeying, canoodling, bribing, lying, and backstabbing. Sometimes good comes out of it, like an Infrastructure Bill, but it can be pretty hard to watch the whole process, to see the “sausage get made,” as they say.
I think most would agree that the Reign of Christ cannot be like that. In fact, it cannot be like any kingdom humankind has churned out. Christians — and I think people in general — want a society that is free from violence, injustice, deception, and greed. But unfortunately such things seem to be the necessary ingredients for any system that we set up.
Without any earthly referent, it’s hard for me to imagine what that “Kingdom of Christ” is like. For other’s maybe it isn’t so hard to imagine. As most of you know, I grew up in the American South, and there you don’t have to look very hard to find evangelical preachers who are willing speculate about the Kingdom of God/Christ. Most versions of Christian paradise sound about the same. Everybody is happy and content, living in peace—basically the way it is described is just as a utopian version of the world we live in now. Frankly, it can be a bit unexciting. Instead, a lot of preachers will spend more time on the lead up to the Kingdom. This is because in certain “theologies,” before we get our utopia, all of these other really dramatic things are supposed to happen. Many charismatic preachers, who believe in what we call dispensationalism like to use Apocalyptic texts like Daniel or the Book of Revelation as their basic reference, using the epic imagery of dragons, serpents, cosmic battles, and—finally—the glorious triumph of the Lord.
Of course, the way the these “End Times” are often described has very little Scriptural basis. These narratives are mostly invented using “clues” from all the imagery and signs of the Biblical prophets. To give you an example, when I was in High School, the Left Behind series of books was very popular. I don’t know if any of you have read them. I haven’t read them, I just know there were over a dozen novels and few very, very bad movies. And I’m told they dealt with things like the Rapture, the Anti-Christ, and of course – the 2nd Coming of Jesus Christ. Those kinds of things may sound cool, but most of them are just speculation. It’s more science fiction than theology.
Daniel’s dream and the visions in Revelation are truly epic, but they must be treated metaphorically. The writers used the words and symbols available to them to imagine the Kingdom of God/Christ. This is why their descriptions are exaggerated versions of the cultures they lived in. God is not a King, but a “King of Kings,” sitting on a fiery throne and served by a “thousand thousands.” But again, this is metaphor, and frankly it says more about the world that the writers lived in than the world of the future. Literally- and materially-speaking, we cannot know what the Kingdom of God/Christ is like. But I think this is because it is not something that is meant to be understood on any kind of sensory level.
Rather, the best way to understand the Kingdom is to listen to the King himself. In his interrogation with Pilate, Jesus Christ seems to reveal so very little, but he is actually being quite revealing. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he says. Pilate doesn’t get this of course. As a Roman governor, he is a traditional sort of leader, with a traditional Roman understanding of what a king is; A king is someone who holds power and influence, and isn’t so easily defeated and captured. To Pilate, Jesus must seem truly pathetic, a rebel leader handed over by his own people!
We could say that in today’s Scripture, Pilate is still thinking according to the rules of “political 4-Square.” But Jesus is not playing the traditional “game of thrones.” What Jesus means when he says that the Kingdom is not of this Earth is, firstly, that such a Kingdom is built on different rules than what everyone is used to. It is not a kingdom ruled through violence, fear, and greed, but rather it is ruled through peace, hope, and love. It is ruled through weakness, not strength. The true leaders of such a world are not those who are served in throne rooms but are servants of the people.
And the 2nd thing Jesus reveals about this Kingdom is a bit counterintuitive to our normal way of thinking: that is, that the Kingdom is not something that “will be.” Rather, the Kingdom is something that is. The King, himself, is already present, the life and ministry of Jesus—the life of the Servant-King, is already available to us in the Gospel. The Kingdom is already breaking into the “here and now.” And this kingdom is not something material that can be visualized in any one form. It has as many forms as there are human lives and human cultures. It lives in every heart.
It is true that this Kingdom is not “fully” here. In our regular lives, we still have play by the old rules of 4-Square most of the time. So maybe we can speak of two “Kingdoms.” The first is the full Kingdom of the triune God, which exists somewhere off at the end of time. But right now, we are living in the Kingdom of Christ, which is present through the transformative message of Jesus. The Reign of Christ is a present possibility, not some distant, future utopia. It exists in the reconstituted and renewed hearts of those who listen to His voice. It is here with us now, sitting in this church. It is with the poor on the streets. And it is with those sitting in prison for daring to challenge the old rules of the old political games. And of course, it was there with Christ, before Pilate, as he awaits death in the Gospel of John. Such as it was, Jesus’ “earthly” kingdom did die that day. But this day, on Christ the King Sunday, we celebrate the founding of his true eternal Kingdom. Amen.