THE KINGDOM, THOUGH OFTEN HIDDEN,
IS A NEVER-ENDING PRESENCE
Isaiah 2: 1-5
Revelation 1: 4-8
NOVEMBER 28, 2004
The First Sunday in Advent
a sermon preached
the Rev. Maxwell Vines
First Baptist Church of Oakland
Telegraph Avenue at 22nd Street, Oakland, California
Today is the First Sunday in Advent, the beginning of the Christian year. Last Sunday was the Festival of Christ the King, the day on which the church has historically celebrated the kingship of Christ as the means of combatting the destructive powers of this age. Advent and Kingdomtide are closely related like the two sides of a coin, and today I really want to preach a Kingdomtide sermon as the hidden meaning wrapped up inside the Advent message.
Some among us have surely visited Coventry Cathedral in England and many who haven’t will know something of it. I visited Coventry in mid-winter and as I looked out on the area which had been bombed almost into oblivion by German warplanes during World War II it was a bleak, strange day which I will not forget. After the war, the space where the old cathedral had stood was left bare; only a blackened, burned out frame remains, stark ruins etched against the sky; the plaques with the words of forgiveness and reconciliation are there and beside the ruins, rising in splendor is the modernistic, controversial, beautiful new cathedral. As you enter, you see raised on the wall behind the altar, the enormous tapestry of the glorified Christ, a sort of Christ Pantocrator, all-powerful, shimmering in glory, from floor to ceiling. Between the feet of the risen, sovereign, glorified Christ is the small figure of a human being. All around are the old signs of destruction, but elevated in the chancel is this massive symbol of the sovereignty of Christ, proclaiming the final defeat of the destructive forces of the age. This is the not-so-hidden message of Advent. We sing that Christ is the world’s true light -
In Christ all races meet, their ancient feuds forgetting,
the whole round world complete from sunrise to its setting.
When Christ is throned as Lord all shall forsake their fear,
to ploughshares beat the sword, to pruning hook the spear.
We need to say a couple of things about how words change, how ideas evolve, so that we shall not lose the meaning. In the ancient world, God is the King who rules the world. Any earthly king or queen holds his or her power as a representative of God. The king, in ancient thinking, was almost superhuman, a divine appointee; in Israel especially, the king was sacrosanct and held inviolate. The king, as God’s representative, was the servant of the people, often referred to as their shepherd. Jesus is understood as prophet-priest-king/shepherd, gathering the community of God’s people, and this is the beginning of our doctrine of the church.
As we enter the period of Advent we usually become suddenly lost among memories and images filled with the guileless and helpless infancy of the babe of Bethlehem, memories and images which can convey the opposite of that vision of Jesus already referred to. And Advent is too soon for talk of the baby: that is the Word which belongs to Christmas. Meanwhile we are occupied with visions of the One who comes, and is to come, as the Prince of Peace. This is one of the most difficult years of all in which to proclaim the Christmas message. Our world is brimming with cruelty and hate. The message of compassion and love is desperately needed. Our world is burdened with violence and suffering. We want a message of reconciliation and healing. Our world is torn with displacement and hunger and misery. At such a time the message of justice and peace is most needed.
With ancient kings so regarded as powerful figures through whom God, or the gods, ruled the people, we can understand conflict erupting over the question of allegiance to Caesar. By contrast, kingship today, in the few instances where it exists, is not so strong a profile. For the average adult in the United States the language of royalty is antiquarian at best and, at worst, associated with pretension and unwarranted privilege.
In The Book of the Revelation, John addresses the churches of Asia Minor in a time of persecution which it was hoped could be cut short by the return of Jesus. Wesley Baker in his book, Hope in This World, calls it “a document dedicated to the picking up of the sagging Christian spirit in a dreary time, a definite word of assurance and hope to a community seemingly overwhelmed by impossible odds.” John names seven churches and has a message for each from the risen Christ. There were more churches than these in the Roman province of Asia. We know of others from the New Testament literature, in Troas (Act 20: 5-12), Colossae (Colossians 1: 2), and Hierapolis, (Colossians 4: 13). There were likely churches at Magnesia and Tralles also. These were well established by the time Ignatius wrote to them twenty years later. Seven stood for completeness in current symbolism, and John chooses seven churches, to indicate his message is for the church at large. God is the One who is and was and is coming. He calls Jesus the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of earthly kings. As G. B. Caird has pointed out, he sets the church’s coming ordeal against the background of God’s eternity, but also brings God down into the arena of history.
Today, the First Sunday in Advent, is the day when the community of faith announces, and waits for, the coming of the king. Yet there is ambiguity in the way churches observe Advent. The Advent message says: The King is coming! Kingdomtide says: But he is really already in charge. He stands at the center of life, as king, sovereign, ruler, yet hidden to the eyes of many. He permeates all of life with his cosmic presence; yet we continue to say that he is coming. We have this overlap, this interplay between the greater realm of the spirit and the historical incidents of life. During Advent we continue to celebrate expectantly the coming of the one who is already present and powerful in the whole fabric of life. We need to be careful that we are not introducing a sense of unreality into our advent observance. Advent also carries the overtones of the second advent, difficult as it may be to comprehend the announcement of the return of Jesus.
This One who is coming will outlast all evil and injustice in our fractured and violent world. When evil has done its worst, its power will finally be broken in the very moment of its triumph as it seeks to destroy God’s chosen one. He will then emerge as the anointed Lord of history and of the entire cosmos, to rule with justice and with righteousness. This is the mystery and the promise bound up in the birth at Bethlehem.
In his novel, The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene develops a story which tells of the persecution and elimination of all the priests in one of the southern states of Mexico. The story centers round the very last priest, who is constantly on the run as the authorities relentlessly hunt him down. He is described as too human for heroism and too humble for martyrdom, a worldly little man known for an obvious reason as the “whisky priest”. Yet, despite his failing, he continues to carry out his vocation with compassion and faithfulness, and perseverance, and for ever so long eludes those who chase him. Finally, he is captured and faces his own Calvary. This last priest of God is executed. The authorities are pleased with their victory. They have destroyed the leadership of the institution they have resented. Surely that is the finish! Earlier in the story a cottage by the river is the place where visitors came off the dock and the place where the whisky priest had found hospitality and acceptance. The closing paragraph of the book takes us back to this same cottage by the river. In the dark of night there is a soft knock on the door and when the little boy answers it a stranger is standing there. He looks at the child and says: “I have only just landed. I came up the river tonight. I thought perhaps . .” He lowers his voice and whispers: “I am a priest.” The world’s evil has done its worst, ruthlessly eliminating God’s representatives. Everyone thinks the end of justice and righteousness has come, but at the last, the presence and the reign of Christ cannot be prevented.
The kingship of Christ in the life of the world continues . . He is the One who was to come; he came. The world did its worst to eliminate him but it didn’t work and we know why. . now he continues to come and will be known in an ever expanding presence. How long can violence last? Until the violent have exhausted their hate or have been made irrelevant. How long can despair hold sway? Only until hope is born out of desperation. How long can conflict divide families and nations? Only until good sense chooses to pursue reconciliation. How long can people suffer poverty and deprivation? Only until those who belong to the reign of God learn of them and reach out with compassion. How long can grief continue? A long time, but not forever. We wait in hope for the healing of which he is the promise to the world and to us all.