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SERMON FOR SUNDAY 26 NOVEMBER 2023. “Christ the King”

Readings: Ezekiel 34: 11-16 and 20-24; Ephesians 1: 15-end

This Sunday brings to a close what is sometimes known in the Church’s calendar as the ‘kingdom season’, and for three weeks we have had successive readings from St Matthew’s gospel on the subject of the kingdom of God, or kingdom of heaven. On All Saints’ Day we heard Jesus telling the disciples, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ Next we heard the parable of the bridesmaids at the wedding feast: ten wise, and ten foolish, who did not have sufficient oil in their lamps to meet the bridegroom after he was delayed. It’s a warning to be fit and ready to meet the Lord when he comes. The parable ended with the instruction “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Last week gave us the parable of the talents, with its lesson that we are to use our gifts and abilities in the service of God’s kingdom, and not to be selfish or afraid in keeping them to ourselves. God’s kingdom grows and thrives as we, his subjects or disciples, use those gifts and abilities fruitfully for the common good.

Today, on this Sunday next before Advent, we keep ‘Christ the King’. It is intended as a summation of all that we have celebrated during this past Christian year, now that we are on the brink of another.

How do you think of Jesus Christ as ‘the King’? How do we respond to this title? Today’s readings speak about it in quite different ways. The passage from Ezekiel says something about the qualities of the King, seen in terms of a shepherd. The image of the shepherd was a powerful one, once David — the shepherd boy — became king. Through that image we see that the king’s strength lies in his deep care for each of his subjects. ‘I will seek out my sheep, and rescue them; I will bring them into their own land and feed them...I will seek the lost, bind up the injured, strengthen the weak.’ But even so, this shepherd will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep; because the flock have been badly shepherded, resulting in the strong and greedy taking what they want; those sheep he will destroy.

The passage from the letter to the Ephesians, the second reading we are using today, has a strong resonance of kingship, especially in the last three verses. Talking about Jesus, St Paul says, “God raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” So Jesus has been given a position of supreme authority in the universe, and commissioned to rule over all things for the Church, which is his body.

Now the Ephesian Christians must have found that hard to believe. They lived in a deeply pagan city, dominated by the mighty Temple of Artemis, one of the seven ‘wonders’ of the ancient world. The worship of Artemis was closely linked to magic and occult arts, and so they knew what Paul had in mind when he wrote of ‘rule and authority, and power and dominion, and every name that can be named.’ Magic was all about using the power of names to gain influence, and the Ephesians knew that magic worked. Could they really believe that Jesus had been raised to supreme authority as head over all these ‘powers’ and ‘names’, and that he was ruling them for his body, the Church?

Today we look out on a world dominated by many powers — not just occult, though there is plenty of that still, but political, military, religious, terrorist, financial, economic and social powers. Many of these powers hardly seem to be dominated by Christ; in fact, many Christians are dominated by the powers; even persecuted in some cases. So how can we say that Christ rules over these powers?

I was very struck by an essay in The Times last weekend, written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a human rights activist and author. She was raised a Muslim in Kenya, and came under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. Eventually repelled by some of the extreme doctrines of that organisation, including the instruction to hate and curse those who rejected Islam, especially Jews, she became an atheist. She saw atheism as what she called the ‘simple, zero-cost escape from an unbearable life of self-denial and harassment of other people.’ She turned to the teachings of Bertrand Russell, who claimed that religion was rooted in fear - ‘fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death.’ But after a while she found that even as an atheist the fear in her life remained. Slowly but surely, she came to see that the ‘God is dead’ response was insufficient to fight off the formidable forces of the modern world, and began to embrace the legacy of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Ayaan saw the benefit to civilisation in the Jewish and Christian practices of debating science and reason, and the building of institutions designed to order and protect life; to guarantee freedom to as many people as possible, and compassion for the sinner and humility for the believer.

But she also found that life without any spiritual solace to be unendurable, in fact nearly self-destructive. And she came to see that atheism failed to answer a simple question — ‘what is the meaning and purpose of life?’ Whilst going through these dark days of intense questioning, her therapist asked her, “If you had the power to make your own God, what would you do?” Her answer came in the person of Jesus Christ, and Christianity at its best. She says that the more she explored the story, the more she liked it, and that “There are standards that I have to live by that are quite high, and that’s daunting. But these are standards that I’d rather aspire to, even if I fail.”

Now I quote all that at some length, because although Ayaan is still on her spiritual journey — ‘discovering a little more at church each Sunday’ — as she says, her story seems to give a wonderful example of what we might mean by ‘Christ the King.’ She rejected the strict version of Islam that she found to be so repressive, especially for women, and the hope-less nature of atheism. She began to see, in Jewish and Christian tradition, an elaborate set of ideas and institutions designed to safeguard human life, freedom and dignity. You might say that she discovered goodness.

My prayer is that as Ayaan progresses on her spiritual journey, she will marvel more at the person of Jesus, and come to acknowledge him as truly the Son of God. For us, accepting Christ as King will mean looking afresh at what we mean by kingship and leadership, about what we think of the place of religion in the world, and how the person of Jesus challenges what the world thinks about power, privilege, status and control. And accepting and proclaiming Christ as King will encourage us to bring God’s love more fully to people who live in spiritual darkness, material poverty and in unfulfilling lives.

As faithful subjects of Christ the King, we all need God’s help as bestowed on us in the Holy Spirit, but also the encouragement of the Church, its ministry and its worship. Today it is through the Church, and through ordinary lives like ours, that Jesus’ kingdom is established. May we live as those who believe that his kingdom has come and is growing through the witness of the Church, and that in God’s good time it will come to its fullness.


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