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The Last Word

The Last Word
Published by Josh Hosler on Sun, Nov 21, 2021 1:52 PM
Sermon

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King, November 21, 2021
2 Samuel 23:1-7; Psalm 132:1-13 (14-19); Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

The sun is just coming up, but there’s thunder in the air, and Jesus stands defiantly before Pontius Pilate. Is he a king? Pilate wonders. If so, he doesn’t look or act much like one.

“Are you a king?” Pilate asks.

“In your words, maybe,” says Jesus. “But you could refer to me instead as a truth-teller. Wherever you encounter truth, that’s where I am. Whenever you speak truth, you are speaking with my voice.”

What on earth kind of king is this?

He’s a king like David.

I doubt that Pontius Pilate knew much about Jewish history. But if he knew anything at all, he may have heard of David. You know, David? The insignificant shepherd boy from Bethlehem? When the prophet Samuel came looking to anoint a new king, Jesse considered all of David’s older brothers as candidates, but surely not him. David: the one who played his harp to calm King Saul’s madness, you know? The boy with the sling and the stone and the armor that didn’t fit him. Yeah, that guy—the kid hero.

As far as I’ve been able to discover, David is the earliest figure in world history for whom we have a full biography from childhood to death. He lived one thousand years before Jesus. He was the second king of Israel, after Saul. David’s son Solomon reigned after him, but then the kingdom split, and never again were the twelve tribes of Israel united in one kingdom. It was a short, sweet spot of glory in Jewish history.

In our Thursday Bible study, we just read from the birth of Samuel that inspired Hannah’s song all the way through the death of David at a ripe old age. We started reading these 57 chapters of the Bible in July and finished a couple weeks ago. Along the way we were alternately amused and horrified. All the best and worst of human nature can be found in the life of David and in those whose lives he touched.

Some of the biography of David is legendary, to be sure, composed at a much later date. Scholars notice in his tale things that didn’t exist then, like coined money, or the assumption that iron weapons were common.[1] But David’s story is not wholly fictional, either. Indeed there was a short-lived united monarchy in Israel, and while its influence on the world stage appeared at the time to be negligible, look at these writings we still have! They still tell the Jewish people—and the world—how God works in history, through people as ordinary as a shepherd boy anointed as king. And they demonstrate the long timeline over which God works out the divine purposes.

The ancient Jews asserted that the voice of God—haq’qol Adonai—speaks truth. According to his story, David believed this. He believed it so much that it helped establish and clarify his warrior’s code. In his world, of course, it was to be expected that you kill people in battle. But unlike other warrior-monarchs of his day, David answered to a higher authority than his own convenience or even his own legacy. Even when people plotted against him to endanger his life, that alone wasn’t reason enough to kill them. It was a stark contrast to King Saul’s constant waffling between faith and fear.

Samuel anointed David as king secretly many years before David actually took the throne. One reason for this is that, no matter how much trouble he had with Saul’s poor leadership or Saul’s tendency to try to pin him against walls with spears, David refused to take the throne in a military coup. It was not appropriate for David to work against God’s agenda, no matter how many times his soldiers said things like, “Look! There’s Saul relieving himself in a cave, and he doesn’t know we’re here! You could draw your sword, sneak up behind him, and …”

“No,” David replied. “God put Saul on the throne and God will keep Saul on the throne for the amount of time that God chooses. I will not try to rush God’s plans.” In the end, David wasn’t even present at the battle where Saul was killed. He didn’t need to be the central player in his own rise to power.

Throughout his life, David maintained a high tolerance for uncertain situations. He was clear that he was God’s anointed and didn’t need to prove it. Two of his own children, on separate occasions, plotted to kill their father and seize his throne. Although their attempted coups were foiled, David maintained compassion for his sons, seeing them more as lost sheep than as his enemies. David’s heart was huge, and his faith was strong. He refused to abuse his power.

Well, except that one time. There was the matter of Bathsheba.

This past summer I preached two sermons about David as anti-hero, so I won’t rehash the Bathsheba incident except to say that this was clearly David’s low point. When David arranged for the death of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah and took her for himself, he shattered his own code of ethics. He also came to see himself as a sinner in need of saving.

David’s big failure is a crucial part of the story of his faith. And so we have for ourselves a model: a human being who failed to live up to his own strong ethics—a human being who had to embrace vulnerability and then trust in God to redeem his life.

For Christians, today is the last Sunday of the year. It all culminates here, with David’s last words singing that no matter who God sets on the throne, God is the actual king, speaking through the monarch, sharing divine power with a mere human being.

One millennium later, Jesus stands on trial before the Roman Empire, a ruling system far too powerful for this small tribe of Jews to contend with. Jesus knows his psalms. He knows the words of the ancient prophets. Jesus knows that for centuries, a descendant of David has been expected to return to the throne, unify Israel, and recover the Jews’ mission to show the world who God really is. Pontius Pilate asks whether Jesus is this king he keeps hearing about—this descendant of David.

But in his characteristic, maddening way, Jesus answers a question with a question: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” It’s like, “Oh, have you been waiting for the Messiah too, or are you playing catchup?”

It’s a cheeky response for an unarmed man on trial, and Pilate sounds amused. “What, you think I’m a Jew? Ha! You’re here because your own people wanted you arrested and dealt with. What did you do wrong?”

Jesus keeps evading direct answers. He seems to turn philosophical, with a tinge of sadness: “If I have a kingdom, it doesn’t come from here. You’d think a king in the mold of David would take the throne with the backing of a huge crowd of followers. Well, you can see that isn’t happening. But if you must be bound by words like ‘king’ and ‘kingdom,’ then consider what kind of king I may actually be.”

The kingship of Jesus doesn’t come naturally to our understanding. There is no army of loyal soldiers, no motley insurrection of true believers, not even a lousy splinter group. Even Peter is chickening out right at this moment. (Or roostering out? Either way.)

Everyone has fled except for a very few loyal women, but they will fly under the radar of all these men. Nobody is going to defend this supposed king. He’s going to be executed by the empire.

What on earth kind of king is this? Is he a failed king, a pretender, a flash in the pan?

No. He’s a king like David.

Jesus isn’t a king like David commanding an army. He isn’t a king like David living in a royal palace. No, Jesus is a king like David because he trusts God to the end—through the end—beyond the end. Jesus becomes the end, the goal, the purpose, the fulfillment of God’s plans.

Only through vulnerability unto death does Christ become the rejected cornerstone of God’s Kingdom in this world. He conquers death by enduring it. And so Jesus is our model, too, because eventually we will all do the same.

Those who truly live are those who love in big and small ways, always growing in our ability to live with uncertainty, in vulnerability. In this way, we are always preparing to die and be born again.

Citizens of Christ’s kingdom are those who bear with one another patiently, not retaliating in frustration, but seeking reconciliation. We don’t do this by avoiding trouble. But neither do we do this by showing up as armed warriors, expecting to be exonerated for our violence and praised for our heroism.

No. Citizens of Christ’s kingdom show up where the trouble is, but we do so as unarmed challengers, placing our compassion between unjust systems and those who need defending from them. We speak out for justice, because justice is what love looks like in public. We can act with confidence because we are clear that we are God’s anointed and don’t need to prove it.

Having finished the life of David in our Thursday Bible study, we have now moved on to the Revelation to John. On Thursday we read this very passage from chapter 1, where we hear that the king will come again. “He is coming with the clouds,” John sings to us in mystical ecstasy. “Every eye will see him—even those who pierced him.” The king isn’t just coming back for his friends or his favorites. He isn’t just coming back for people who are good or who don’t rock boats. The king is coming back, period. He was the Alpha at creation, and he is the Omega for a new creation. Christ speaks his last words from the cross, but even beyond that, Christ has and is the Last Word. The voice of God—haq’qol Adonai—is still speaking truth.

As for us, we are not our own higher purpose. We are each a small part of a grand tapestry. Yet we are not insignificant, either. Every single one of us is God’s anointed, a priest in God’s service, given the sweet gift of life and made to give life and love to everyone else. Your purpose is infinite, and so is mine. You mean everything because Christ is all in all.

You’ve heard the Last Word today from Christ. But the story isn’t over, because your story isn’t over. Next week we will ask God to help us “cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” A miracle is coming … a transformative miracle that will begin our story again. Amen.

[1] Donald B. Redford, Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), 305.