Saturday, 14 November 2015

Global Terror and Christ the King

How do we respond to terror?  I don’t mean the strategies governments resort to in the so-called ‘war on terror’.  I doubt if the many-headed hydra of terrorism will be defeated in our time: the best we can hope for is that it can to some extent be contained.  What I mean is the effect it has on us, all of us probably, in generating anything from a low-level unease when stepping on to the London Underground to a much keener sense of fear when some outrage yet again destroys innocent lives and reminds us that we are living on eggshells. I guess we are leaning to live with fear, and to be prudent in the face of it.

There is nothing new in this.  Bloodshed, violence, terror are as old as the race.  Those who wrote the Book of Daniel from which we read in the Old Testament lesson knew this for themselves.  The era was the mid 2nd century BC, when the Jewish community had come under the rule of the Seleucid kings.  Antiochus Epiphanes’ programme was to impose all things Greek on this beleaguered Semitic community.  The terror was relentless in its operation and ruthless in its scope.  Jewish religion was proscribed under pain of death: practices such as circumcision, possessing the Torah, observing the Sabbath and the festivals, taking part in temple worship.  The crowning insult was the offering of swine’s flesh on the altar of the temple, what the writings called ‘the abomination of desolation’. Those who would not conform suffered terribly: they were tortured without mercy and then slain.  Their stories are told in the Books of the Maccabees. It isn’t too much to say that this was the first Jewish holocaust. It was not to be the last. 

How does a community live with its fear?  The Book of Daniel responds in two ways.  The first is by telling stories of heroic survival to inspire faith and perseverance.  Daniel and his three friends, depicted as exiles in Babylon, undergo all manner of ordeals because they refuse to obey the royal command to worship the tyrant’s golden image, and indeed the tyrant himself.  Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are thrown into the burning fiery furnace for their loyalty to God (an eloquent image of the fires of persecution), yet they sing a Benedicite from the very heart of the cauldron and emerge unscathed as a testimony to how the God of Israel protects his own.  Daniel too is hurled into the den of lions; he too is unharmed.  The message is: the worst that others can do to you is as nothing if you remain faithful to God and to his covenant.  To do this, says Daniel, is what it means to be wise. 

But of course for most of the faithful living in times that must have seemed like the end of the world, there was to be no deliverance.  So the second part of the Book of Daniel draws out of those tales of deliverance their fundamental truth. It does this by using the colourful, dramatic imagery of what is called apocalyptic writing.  The threats to the community are presented as terrifying monsters, catastrophic floods, global conflagrations.  Amid ordeals such as these, where was God?  What was he doing to protect his people?  Why was he so absent from their suffering?  And the answer apocalyptic gives is to say that despite appearances, God is indeed king.  In our Old Testament reading, the Ancient of Days ‘has dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him.’  And ‘his dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship shall never be destroyed.’  The persecuted author, perhaps on the threshold of death, can say that God is the Lord of history.  Only it is not yet time for him to intervene to rescue the faithful and claim his true sovereignty.  But that day of the Lord is coming.  When it does, the righteous sufferers will be vindicated.  Evil will be banished. Chaos will be returned to cosmos, just as it was at the creation.  The universe will regain its right order.

When we turn to today’s gospel from St John, we seem to be in an entirely different world.  We are in the presence of Christ before Pilate in the praetorium, one of the great scenes not only in the Bible but in all literature.  Their encounter turns on the meaning of kingship.  Jesus has been arraigned as ‘king of the Jews’.  Are you a king, asks Pilate?  You say so, says Jesus.  But he goes on to explain carefully what this means and what it doesn’t mean.  ‘My kingdom is not from this world; if it were, my servants would be fighting that I might not be delivered up to the Jews’.  So this kingdom is not founded on human power, imperial hegemony and the force of arms.   Rather, it is a kingdom of truth.  Jesus has come into the world to bear witness to the truth.  His subjects know the truth because they listen to his voice. There is a power that brings people into this kingdom.  But not the coercive power Pilate understands, rather the power of self-giving love.

Now for the Fourth Gospel, it is not a case of saying that whereas Daniel’s Ancient of Days has a worldwide glory and dominion, Christ’s kingship is hidden, inward, known only to those who follow him.  On the contrary, St John’s Gospel tells a story that leads to a climax that is visible, public and cosmic in scope.  That climax is what he calls Jesus’ ‘hour’ of glory where he is acknowledged as the world’s true king.  Where is his throne, his place of transfiguration?  The answer is: Golgotha.  The cross is where he reigns, where he takes the dominion and glory of the Ancient of Days, where he is lifted up and draws all people to himself so that peoples, nations and languages may serve him.  Here his dominion is everlasting, his kingship never to be destroyed.  The cross is where he acclaims in triumph that greatest of the eight passion words: tetlestai, ‘it is accomplished!’   

How can I transfer the extravagant apocalyptic language of Daniel to the gentle Good Shepherd of St John?  Because for John, the true glory of Jesus is that he lays down his life for the sheep.  John tells us, as Jesus begins his journey to the cross, that ‘having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end’.  It’s this ‘love to the end’ that proclaims Jesus’ glory which the Christmas gospel will tell us we have beheld in the face of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.  And because love is his meaning, we find the hope and strength we need to go on living with our fear; for we know that the cross is not only the sign of the love that sustains us through the ordeals we face, but is the demonstration that God knows from within the pain and suffering of his children.  He too is their victim, for he too has given his life and known the cost of bearing witness to the truth. 

Christ the king calls us his subjects and invites our allegiance and our love.  It isn’t much of a kingdom: nobodies, peasants, fishermen, prostitutes, tax-gatherers.  Yet the common people heard him gladly, and were the first to recognise what shone out of this man.  This king does not promise that if we go with him, his way will be glorious, or lead to wealth or success or even personal fulfilment, only afflictions and trials. Yet he also promises that we can discover a new way of living that is not driven by an oppressive sense of dread.  And this is the answer to our fear: not a palliative religion that denies fear’s reality, but a faith that takes away its power over us, and gives us the courage to live by hope and by the truth that sets us free.  Christianity is to acknowledge that Jesus is the king who has overcome the world.  It is to live as subjects of this kingdom ‘not from here’, whose law is the perfect love that casts out fear.    

Michael Sadgrove
Durham Cathedral on the Feast of Christ the King, 26 November 2006
Daniel 7.20-27, John 18.33-37

 

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