Sunday, November 25, 2018

A Different Kind of King

A Different Kind of King
John 18:28-38
            Today is Christ the King Sunday.  It usually falls on the first Sunday of Advent, so it gets lost in that celebration.  This year is different.  Since Thanksgiving is early, there is an extra Sunday before the beginning of Advent—and that’s Christ the King Sunday.
            Today we remember and celebrate the kingship of Jesus Christ.  One Scripture passage that is often used is Philippians 2:1-11.  I used it myself this morning.  For this column I am drawn to another passage.
            There are different categories of kings.  Some are absolute monarchs, like Louis XIV in 17th-18th century France.  He said, “The state is me,” and he was correct.  As king, he could do practically anything he wanted—as could his heirs until 1789, when the French people decided they’d had enough of absolute rulers and removed Louis XVI from office by removing his head.
            There are constitutional monarchs.  England is a good example of a constitutional monarchy.  The king has little power to make laws.  He can suggest laws, but not enact them.  That’s done by Parliament, specifically the House of Commons.  The ruler (at present, the queen) is the titular head of the government, but “remains above politics.” 
            There are variations on these—actually, a sort of continuum from absolute power to little or no power.  Each king in history has fit somewhere on this continuum. 
            There have been good kings, bad kings, and downright ugly kings.  Perhaps the best example of a good king is David, who, we are told, was a man “after God’s own heart.”  But even he made serious errors when he let power go to his head.  Examples of bad kings abound in every generation.  The same is true for those whose lust for power led them to absolutely horrific acts.  Some have wielded their power in an “off with their heads” manner, not caring what happened to anyone else as long as they kept their thrones, their perks, and their lives. 
            And then there’s Jesus, a truly different kind of king.  Christian theology teaches that he has been King since before time began.  Paul calls him the Lord of creation: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth,” (Colossians 1;16) Jesus did what few kings have ever done.  He voluntarily gave up his kingship.  He abdicated to bring about reconciliation between God and humans.  The only other king who abdicated (that I remember) was King Edward of Great Britain, who gave up his throne for purely human reasons.
            Matthew, Mark and Luke say very little about Jesus’ appearance before Pilate.  Jesus is taken to the governor early Friday morning.  There is a short exchange of words.  Pilate asks Jesus if he is the King of the Jews.  Jesus says, “I am.”  The Jewish authorities accuse him of heresy, to which Jesus offers no answer.
            John tells us much more.  In his gospel, Jesus gives an extended answer to Pilate’s question.  He informs Pilate that he is a king, but that his kingdom does not belong to this world.  Though he doesn’t say so, his kingdom encompasses not only this world, but all worlds.  Jesus also tells Pilate he could easily have provided forces to have prevented his arrest.  Later he says Pilate has no power except that which is given him “from above,” that is, from God.
            Perhaps Jesus’ most telling statement is that he has been sent “to bear witness to the truth,” prompting Pilate’s famous response, “What is truth?”  Throughout his ministry Jesus has been speaking truth—truth to power and to the powerless.  He continues to do so here, even in the face of his own certain execution.  A different kind of king indeed.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Trying to "Read" God

Trying to “Read” God
1 Samuel 16:1-13
            Saul started well.  He was God’s choice to be king.  Samuel didn’t choose him.  The people didn’t choose him.  God chose him, and told Samuel that Saul, son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, would be king of Israel.
            And a fine specimen he was.  The sacred writer of 1 Samuel tells us when Saul stood among the people he was at least a head taller than any of them.  We tend to look at tall men as leaders.  It’s not always the wisest decision (Isaiah says, “a little child shall lead them”), but that’s humanity for you.  We equate physical qualities with leadership skills.
            At first Saul was a good king.  He cared for his people.  He led them in battle.  He won great victories over their enemies, the Philistines.  But eventually one of the great curses of leadership affected Saul.  He began to believe his own press releases. 
England’s Lord Acton said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and that often is the way of kings.  They begin to believe that they know more than anyone else,  that they are able to make all decisions wisely, without reference to advisors who may know more about some subjects than they do. 
Worse, Saul began to act without seeking God’s guidance.  For the king of God’s people to behave that way was a fatal flaw.  Saul’s leadership began to crumble.  His greatest mistake occurred when he took it upon himself to offer sacrifices to God, a task which belonged to the spiritual leader of Israel, Samuel. 
From that moment, Saul’s kingship was doomed.  1 Samuel 15:35 says, “And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death….  And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.”  It’s a terrible thing for a leader to be rejected by his people, but so much more terrible for the leader of God’s people to be rejected by God.
God sent Samuel to the house of Jesse to anoint the next king.  Samuel asked for Jesse’s sons to appear before him.  Eliab came first, and he was such a fine looking man that Samuel was sure he must be the one.  God told Samuel that their viewpoints were miles apart.  Samuel was looking at Eliab’s physical characteristics, while God was looking at the inward person.
God rejected all seven of Jesse’s older sons.  We know the outcome.  God chose David, a boy among men, to be the next king.  David grew to be “a man after God’s own heart,” and the greatest of Israel’s kings.
We can forgive Samuel for making the wrong choice.  After all, Saul was tall, presumably well-proportioned and probably at least somewhat good-looking.  If God chose size and strength the first time around, wouldn’t God do the same thing again?
This is the problem we cause for ourselves when we try to read God, when we try to figure out which direction God will move in.  Not only are God’s ways far above our ways (Isaiah again), but God sees much more than we can. 
There have been times when I was sure I knew God’s will for my life.  I moved off in what I thought was the correct direction only to find myself on my own—not a comfortable place to be.  Turned out I was trying to make my will be God’s will, and it didn’t work out well. 
God sees much deeper and further and clearer than we can, and God knows what’s best for us.  Better to use God’s long-range sight to set our course than to live in our own short-sighted way.

Saturday, November 3, 2018


Ken Sipley will be away from his computer for the next week.  He will return with a new post on November 18.

Taking God's Test

Taking God’s Test
Matthew 25:31-40
I ended my sermon with this story last Sunday, but find it so meaningful that I want to explore it in a more extensive format.
A skeptic raises his eyes to the heavens and says, “God, if you’re up there, tell me what I should do.”
A voice from above answers, “Feed the hungry, house the homeless, establish justice…”
The shocked skeptic replies, “I was just testing!”
The voice answers, “So was I!”
It’s easy to be skeptical about God’s existence.  When we look around we see little evidence of God’s presence.  We say this is God’s world, yet the forces of evil, hate, prejudice, and oppression are so rampant that it is easy to believe they are winning the battle, and God is in retreat.  How can we believe in a God who allows such things to exist?  Wouldn’t it be easier to give up, to live out our lives in frustration, die and pass on to whatever (if anything) comes next?
Probably—at least in the short run.  It’s always easier to give up than to fight if all we’re thinking about is the present.  Easier to sit back in our recliner, make “tsk, tsk” sounds at the news (or avoid watching entirely), go about our business and let the world go to ruin.
But God doesn’t operate in the short run.  God’s in it for the long haul.  Peter (2 Peter 3:8-10) reminds us that God’s sense of time is different—longer, much longer—than ours.  If all we think about is the present situation, or even the situation for the length of our lives, we’ll fall far short of the way God thinks.
My friend Joyce reminded our yoga class recently that, despite evidence to the contrary, there is much good in the world.  Unfortunately for our emotional equilibrium evil, prejudice, hate, oppression, all make better news stories than good.  If we have a life view slanted towards bad news it isn’t completely our fault.  What we see and hear in the media incline us to think and feel that way.  We have every reason to be skeptical.
When we are, when events incline us to the skeptic’s point of view, we must remember that God is in charge, that God has a long-term—very long-term—plan for this world, and that God is—always has been, always will be—in charge of history.  We can’t ignore evil, but neither can we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by it.  When we see evidence of hatred, of prejudice, of oppression it is our task to fight back with every weapon we have.  This is what God expects us to do; this is what God commands us to do.
This is why I always come back to Matthew 25.  I can’t escape it.  Jesus makes crystal clear how we are expected to live.  Note that when the day of judgment comes we will not be evaluated by our denominational ties, how much we’ve read the Bible, or how frequently we’ve attended church.  Our final destination will be determined by our service to others—specifically to the least of our brothers and sisters, those who are the victims of evil, of hatred, of oppression.
I find it interesting that some of those invited into God’s kingdom are surprised by their inclusion.  They didn’t know they were serving in God’s name; they just did what they thought was right.  If we read the next part of this passage we see that many who expect to be included won’t make the cut.
It’s clear that God means business—which means that we’d better mean business also.  Will you pass God’s test?