Psalm 29; Psalm 145:1-13; Luke 17:20-21
We sneer at kings.
And we really can’t help it, it’s in our cultural, historical, political, national d.n.a.!
We look back to Genesis—
no, sorry, we look back to our genesis as a country
(seems people get that mixed up!)—
we look back to the founding story of King George III
against George Washington the one and only—
although—the one and only—I did enter, just for fun,
the name George Washington in the online white pages.
Turns out there are hundreds of George Washingtons in this country!
But that’s part of the point, isn’t it?
We sneer at institutionalized exclusivity …
or, at least, we like to think we do.
And we were established in defiance of monarchy.
Our identity as a country and as a people
is all wrapped up in an alternative to monarchy,
and one we believe to have proven itself a better system—
more just, more inclusive, more effective, more efficient.
Also a lot younger, and being tested these days like we haven’t been before,
and, let’s be honest, failing a lot of those tests.
We can say that, can’t we?—here—
as the people of God who are also the people of this country.
We need to be saying that. Someone needs to be saying that.
Because if we can’t figure out how to limit the money in the system,
if we can’t figure out how to live within our means,
if we can’t figure out how to work together for a common good,
if we can’t figure out how to look beyond the polls
and the desires of the present moment,
if we can’t figure out how to stop listening to what someone thinks sounds good
and start listening to what is true and right,
if we can’t figure out that there are civil rights
that don’t have anything to do with religious beliefs,
and if we can’t figure out that some of our principles
matter more than the convenience of ignoring them,
not only may we not be around long enough
to vindicate our belief in our better system,
we may not deserve to be.
Over in England, there were kings of England before they were ever called that.
The first king called king of England was Henry II in 1154,
but there were kings in England back in the late eight century.
They’re celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee this year—
sixty years of Queen Elizabeth II.
And you may have thought, like I did,
“I thought a diamond jubilee was a 75th anniversary.”
And you’d be right, according to tradition.
But you see, Queen Victoria of England,
daughter of the fourth son of that King George III—
the one against George Washington, the one of hundreds—
Queen Victoria went into such deep mourning at the death of her husband in 1861,
that she pretty much retired from public view.
And there were rumblings. There was dismay.
And in 1897, Joseph Chamberlain, Colonial Secretary,
influential politician, described by none other than Winston Churchill
as the man “who made the weather”—
the man who not only knew which way the wind was blowing
but blew it that way, Joseph Chamberlain
decided Queen Victoria needed a p.r. boost.
And so in a political marketing move (which everyone knows trumps tradition),
it was decided that when it comes to Kings and Queens,
60 years deserved diamonds (and not because they felt like 75!).
And since Queen Victoria’s celebration, wouldn’t you know,
diamonds have become the way for everyone to celebrate a 60th anniversary.
Meanwhile, on this side of the pond,
we’re coming up on a presidential election thinking
that we are all, at some point or another,
in the rhythms and cycles of our politics,
we are all, at some point, glad for term limits.
So that all we have to worry about is a linen or silk anniversary after four years,
or a bronze anniversary after eight.
We sneer at kings.
So when Scripture comes along and refers to God as King,
can we turn all that off?
That lack of respect—of admiration—appreciation?
Everything about us that rejects monarchy and recoils from monarchy?
Some anglophiles present perhaps excepted!
“Oh, well, that’s God,” we say.
But what does that mean?
That God is the king kings should be?
The ideal king?
The king beyond politics?
But is any king, by definition, beyond politics?
Would we want a king beyond politics?
O worship the King.
We sneer at kings.
And yet the appeal does remain—
our need to look up—
to respect and to admire—
to dream … “If I had been born Prince John … oh ho!”
We might have thrown off the monarchy historically.
We might reject monarchy politically and philosophically,
but we can’t seem to throw off that apparently very human—need? inclination?
So we identify the King of Rock and Roll.
We identify the King of Swing.
We identify the Queen of Soul.
We try and identify the artist formerly known as Prince,
who is now, I believe, known as Prince again.
We have our rock, sports, and entertainment royalty.
And we talk about them in those terms.
And maybe we say, “Hey, it’s skill or gift-based.”
Though it’s honestly as often a matter of looks and luck.
More democratic? Yes.
But notice—not having anything to do with values.
There are stars in entertainment and sports
who have expressed ambivalent feelings about being named role models.
I get that.
We elevate the not significant to the pinnacles of societal respect—
as those whom our children should admire—
to whom they should aspire!
Right? That’s what it means to get paid the most.
To get talked about the most.
We elevate the not significant and then expect significance—
from someone who’s fast—who has good hand to eye coordination—
or who’s skinny and good looking.
We admire those who look as good as we think they might be.
We admire figureheads … and figurebodies.
We don’t sneer at institutionalized exclusivity.
We just like to think we do.
And how much of that bleeds over into our concept of God?
“But God’s different, remember?”
Yeah, but what does that mean?
O worship the King.
Surely God is more than a figurehead we can trot out and cheer for—
a figurehead that stands for values and a way of being
so that our own values and ways of being won’t have to represent themselves—
because they can’t.
Is God more than a figurehead representing what we want to claim,
but what we want to claim that our living won’t itself sustain?
O worship the king—
who is unlike us—
who is what we wish we were … or say we wish we were—
or maybe even wish we wish we were!
O worship the king.
It’s an image of God that goes hand in hand with problems.
Course that’s true of any image of God, right?
Every image comes to us hand in hand with limitations/restrictions.
That old commandment makes sense:
Thou shalt not make any graven image (Exodus 20:4).
Nothing would suffice.
Nothing would come close.
And each image of God conceals and veils
as much as it reveals.
Every image of God should greet us with self-esteem issues.
“Hi, I’m king and I’m just not good enough!”
Yet king is a common image for God throughout the Old Testament,
assumed by Jesus in the New Testament.
O worship the king
Surely God is as much not king as king.
A king is male. God is not.
A king is located in a particular place;
a king is a national reality—
identified with one country, one people. God is not—
So king of kings?
A king is part of a hierarchy. Hmmm.
And king of kings puts God at the top of that hierarchy—
highly exalted, with the name above every other name
at which every knee shall bend
in heaven and on earth.
Because of self-sacrificial love, right?
God rules, but not by decree.
God will overcome, but not by might.
God is sovereign majesty, but not like the gentiles.
“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; ….
But not so with you; rather the greatest among you
must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.
For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves?
Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves”
God is enthroned, but not on high—
rather in hearts.
Crowned, but with thorns,
and is king not by tradition or rule of law,
but by individual choice and commitment.
God is powerful beyond imagining,
but does not impose that power.
God issues commandments, yes, but desires
people to choose obedience.
God is distant and removed, other—transcendent,
but as close as the least of these—the least of these among us.
God is identified, most fully, not with a scepter as symbol,
but a cross, a willingness to suffer on behalf of all.
So what do we take from this? O worship the king—
if not the hierarchy?
If not the rule?
If not the authority and the power?
If not the royal imagery?
If not the dream of an ideal we can’t attain?
Do I advocate doing away with the image entirely?
That’s not the question.
The question is, are we willing to work for the image?
If not—if we just like a nice image,
easy to work into a hymn or a chorus:
“King of kings and Lord of lords. Glory! Alleluia!”
If we like it because it fits popular theology—
because it appeals to us at some emotional level—
because it’s soothing to how we feel we should feel about God—
wished we wished we were!
If it’s not something we think too much about—
something we accept at face value,
then yes, away with it!
It does more harm than good.
But if we’re willing to work at it—with it—through it—
not take it at face value—
think about it in terms of both what it veils and what it reveals,
then it can bless us.
Then it can be a valuable part of our imaging and naming God—
our interpreting, understanding, and speaking of God.
Images of God can have integrity,
but that doesn’t happen automatically or inevitably.
We name God king
to capture the exalted part—
an appropriate respect and reverence.
But we always have to remember
that the exaltation comes from humility—
the honor comes from the commitment.
Jesus goes up into the heavens
only after going down into the earth.
O worship the emptied one—
least of these—
the servant king.
Worship the priorities so foreign to us all—
the affirmations that make no sense—
the truth beyond our dreaming.
And so we can take from this,
o worship the king,
the truth that God is king—
as long as we would never recognize God as king,
yet thus true King of kings and Lord of lords.
Our images of God are images that have worked
through their self-esteem issues:
“Hi, I’m king, and I’m a good image of God—
not the full picture, but I don’t need to be that.”
So, our commitment—our responsibility—
is to think—
not to accept images of God (any of them) at face value
or at the solely emotional level—
to look beyond the assumptions and expectations of the world
and to ever look for the great inversions—the tremendous surprises—
the profound wonders—the deep joys
that indicate the truth and grace of God at work—
to always think of any name of God
in terms of a graven image
that gets in the way as much as showing the way.
We will work for our images of God.
We will wrestle blessings out of them—
because any other kind is cheap.
We will not only accept but also expect more—
more depth, more nuance, more mystery, more complexity.
And how counter-cultural is that?
And our commitment—our responsibility—
is to live—not just to think—to live—
and to live the royal life as God has modeled it for us.
Looking down and around as much as looking up—
valuing relationships over power—
realizing that if we work so hard to climb the ladder of success
in order to find God and the fulfillment of life we expect in God,
we will only discover, I promise you,
God at the bottom of the ladder looking up at us
in at least as much surprise as we will be looking down at God.
That’s not to say to not try hard—to fail.
That is to say not to locate expectations of God in success—
in money—in society,
but live always respecting, loving and working for the least of these—
having a perspective and priorities that transcend national and political ones—
embracing the potential suffering that comes from loving—
ever in hope of what love can accomplish—
even the redeeming of all creation.
Oh, and to celebrate each year—
each day of such love lived out
as if it were worth its weight in diamonds!