Title: The darkness, the light, and the water between
Text: 1 Sam 8
Author: Rev. Ron Adams
Place: East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church (Lancaster, PA)
“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers….” (1 Sam. 8, NRSV).
These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you. He will manufacture reasons to go to war, and with a bold face proclaim the rightness of the cause. He will tempt the children of your poor with promises of a better life, if only they join the military. He will teach those children how to kill. He will place them in situations in which killing is the only way for them to survive. He will insist that they do things that revolt them, that their consciences resist, for the sake of some reason only the king knows. And when they break, when they go too far, the king will imprison them in order to protect the king’s good name. And he will bury the dead, he will wipe them away, he will place their bodies and their memories in some secret and shameful place, so that no one will ever know what happened. He will make 66,000 civilians just disappear, 66,000 dead and as if they never existed, Iraqis disappeared by one wave of his mighty hand.
Oh, and one more thing. The king will arrest, torture, abuse, mock and, finally, crucify anyone who challenges his authority.
But the people refuse to listen; they say, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” (1 Sam. 8).
Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
Today is Christ the King Sunday, also known as Reign of Christ Sunday, the last Sunday in the liturgical year. The year begins with the coming of the Christ into the world, and ends with this affirmation that Christ is our Lord, and that our allegiance belongs first and only to Christ and to his reign.
Our scriptures for this morning present us with two starkly different pictures of Christ the Lord. Two starkly different pictures which we must learn to hold together, at one and the same time. There is Luke’s picture of Jesus Christ the victim of a human king, the suffering and crucified one, the one who dies for us. And there is Paul’s picture of the Cosmic Christ, high and lifted up, firstborn of all creation, the one who reigns over heaven and earth, the one who has reconciled all things to God through the blood of his cross.
Two pictures. The darkness and the light. The world as it is under the rule of human kings. The world as it is under the reign of Christ.In the darkness, all is broken. All is damaged. All is subject to the power of sin, and to the whims of kings.
In the light, all is reconciled. All is healed. All is subject to forgiveness and grace, and to the merciful rule of God.
The distinction could not be made more plain. Two pictures. One of the son of God being killed by a human king. The other of that same son of God reigning over all things, including that very same king who had him killed. Two pictures. One of the place from which we’ve been rescued. The other of the place to which God has delivered us.
The lectionary invites us to hold these pictures together, seeing what sparks are cast by their convergence, what heat is generated by their friction. In one hand, the consequences of human sin, our sin, including the sin of placing our trust in human kings. In the other hand, the consequence of God’s mercy and grace, which is nothing less than the redeeming of all creation. And, somewhere between the two, there is us, with both pictures in our hands and trying to figure out which one represents reality, which one represents the truth, which one is ultimately trustworthy.
And if the choice were always so clear, always so sharply defined, we’d have little trouble accepting the transition from one reign to the other, the transition from darkness into light.
And, perhaps, that choice is always just that plain, just that sharply defined. But somehow we can’t see the lines, we can’t discern the divergence in the path before us, we can’t see the forest for the trees. Our circumstances blur our vision, so much so that even against our own best interests we join the call for a king, we join the call to be just like all the other nations, and we hope against all hope that this next king will be the one that finally saves the day. And our allegiance to Christ becomes little more than a weekend indulgence, or a rainy day fund, our ace in the hole in the event that our latest human king cannot bring about the end of all bad things. Someplace to run for cover when the hard hand of the king is revealed, whether in the warnings against the latest threat to our well-being, or in the sweeping away of whatever is inconvenient to his continued reign. A place to go and seek forgiveness when our own complicity gets the better of us, when the blood of 66,000 is more than we can easily wash away.
Father, forgive us, for we do not know what we are doing. Though we ought to know better.
This morning, we celebrated the baptisms of two members of our community. We heard testimonies of God’s faithfulness. We heard promises being made. We heard allegiances being established. We witnessed the Spirit of God moving among us. We remembered our own baptisms.
In baptism, we die and are raised from the dead. In baptism, we die with Christ and are raised with him. In baptism, we move from the place of death, the place of darkness, and we move into the place of life, the place of light. In baptism, we are washed clean of all that contaminates us, all that kills us, all that taints us with the power of death. In baptism, we come clean. In baptism, our eyes are opened as if for the first time, and we see clearly the choices before us, we see with new creation eyes, and all the outlines are sharp and the path before us seems straight and so we know which way is up. In baptism, we experience what Paul describes in Colossians: being rescued from the power of darkness, and transferred into the kingdom of God’s beloved son.
If any of that is true, if baptism really does mark our movement from darkness to light, if it really does embody our spiritual death and rebirth, then it’s something worth remembering. If baptism is the key to seeing rightly, if it is the key to telling the difference between the way of death and the way of life, if it is the key to discerning where our allegiance lies, then it is something we cannot afford to celebrate once and then be done with it. It is, instead, something we must remember daily, in order to keep our vision clear and so keep walking toward the light.
For a people who place so much pride in our baptismal practice, we Mennonites are awfully quick to put it behind us, an important milestone but just that, a milestone receding steadily into the past, a marker of someplace we once were. And if what we are up to here is nothing more than an association of folks with similar interests and worldviews, with an affinity for good singing and good food, and a need to have our worth proven by the quality of our community, maybe it would be enough to see baptism as just a step along the way, something all good Mennonites must do in order to sit at the table and participate in the storytelling.
But if what we are up to here is a new creation, a giving over of ourselves entirely to the God revealed to us in Christ, a pledging of our allegiance to the crucified One now high and lifted up, then, it seems to me, we can’t afford to let baptism be something that once happened to us. If the cleansing that we experienced in that water, and the anointing we received by the Spirit, makes it possible for us to see more clearly, to choose more rightly, to follow more faithfully, then with God’s help we need to remember our baptisms always and every day. If we have any hope at all of knowing what we are doing, then we must remember our baptisms.
Father, cleanse us, so we can learn what it is we are doing.
Sisters and brothers, on this Reign of Christ Sunday, we are confronted with the darkness that still surrounds us. A darkness revealed in the ruthless pursuits of kings and would-be emperors. A darkness revealed in the deaths of innocent civilians. A darkness revealed in the willful destruction of young women and men sent out in our name to protect and defend the rich and the powerful. A darkness revealed in the ease with which we turn away from suffering, whether of Iraqi civilians or our own soldiers, willfully pretending that there is nothing to be said against it. A darkness revealed in our own hearts and minds as we continue to delude ourselves into thinking that a little bit of idolatry is not such a bad thing and is easily forgiven. A darkness revealed on the hill called The Skull, where a dying savior uses his dying breath to save a dying sinner.
And, on this Reign of Christ Sunday, we are confronted with an unimaginable light. A light that is revealed in the firstborn of all creation, and the firstborn from the dead. A light revealed in the one in whom all things were created, in heaven and on earth and under the earth. A light revealed in the one who holds all things together. A light revealed in the one who is called the head of the church, the One in whom the fullness of God dwells. A light revealed in the one through whom all things are reconciled to God, through the blood of his cross. A light revealed in Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord, our Savior, in whom we place our trust and our very lives.
And, on this Reign of Christ Sunday, we are reminded that between the darkness and the light there lies a body of water. A body of water we must enter in order to make the journey from the darkness into the light. Water that cleanses us, that heals us, that makes us fit to be transferred from one side to the other, from darkness to light, from death to life. Water that clears our vision, removing the scales of death from our eyes, making it possible for us to see the truth for the first time. Water we do well to remember as we move from the place of resurrection, and begin the journey through the darkness and toward the light.
On this Christ the King Sunday, let’s reckon once again with the temptation to place our trust in human kings, human governments, human empires.
Let’s reckon again with the evil that inevitably comes when human kings presume to make the world in their own image.
Let’s reckon again with the cross, a picture of the evil human kings can do, but also a picture of the lengths to which God goes to undo that evil.
Let’s reckon again with the image of Christ raised up above the heavens, gathering all creation into himself, reconciling everything to God.
Let’s reckon again with our baptisms, with the power of that water to cleanse us and make us whole, and the power of that water to sustain us all along the way.
Let’s reckon with the gospel call to give ourselves over wholly to Christ, our true King, whose reign is forever and ever. And may God our Father and our Mother help us know what we are doing, and help us to do it well.