December 12, 2012

Advent and the Reality of the Kingdom

I'm preaching a series of four sermons on Luke 1-2 this Advent that focus on four promises that are kept in the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. This past Sunday's sermon was on "The Promise of a King". 
And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end (Luke 1:31-33).
The Old Testament is full of promises that God would one day send a special king. From the blessing of Jacob in Genesis 49 that, "The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet," (10) to the word of the Lord to David in 2 Samuel 7, "I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom...I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever" (12-13). Also well-known is Isaiah 9:7, "His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore." 

When we come to Luke's account of the birth of Jesus, we tend to focus on the nature of Jesus' virginal conception. That is certainly there, and there are several good reasons that we should take it be historically accurate. But in the text itself, the nature of Jesus' conception functions secondarily in relation to the angel's message that Mary's baby will reign over the house of Jacob and sit on David's throne. That is, when we ask the question: what is the major thing Luke wants us to hear in the angel's message to Mary? The answer is that all the promises of God to raise up a king to rule in wisdom and righteousness over Israel and the nations are kept and answered with a resounding "Yes!" in birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

We commonly refer to Jesus as "Lord" and "King", and we often speak in terms of his kingdom. However, I wonder how much we spiritualize the reign of Christ in such a way that we make it out to be rather less real, less relevant to the real issues in life. I fear that far too often we look to the governing authorities, the kings of this world, to deal with the real, external, and visible problems (like poverty and the economy) and turn to Jesus for sentimental comfort with internal and invisible matters. We want King Jesus to be lord of our lives, but we don't expect him to say much (or anything) about how the powers actually run the world.

But when I read Luke I am struck by the reality of the kingdom. After Mary goes to stay with Elizabeth, she celebrates that God has kept his promise by overturning the power structures of the world: "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly" (1:52). This theme continues into Acts (Luke's second volume) where we read of Jesus' ascent to the throne of heaven, an image of his kingly authority if ever there was one. The opponents of the first Christians certainly perceived that early Christian proclamation posed a threat to the power of the Roman Empire. In Acts 17:7, the believers in Thessalonica are accused of "acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus." And at the end of Acts Paul is in Rome, the capital city, waiting to declare the gospel of King Jesus to Caesar himself. If there is anything Luke wants us to understand, it is that the kingdom of God in the reign of Jesus Christ is as real, indeed more real, than any governing authority in the present age.

One thing that makes it difficult for us to remember the reality of Jesus' reign is that it is not marked by the typical things we associate with rule and authority. The kingdom of Jesus is not characterized by any palace nor capitol building. The advance of this kingdom is not made visible by missiles and tanks. Nor is it marked by national boundary. Instead, it is marked by the increasing obedience of the people in whom the Spirit of God dwells. And it is all the more real for it. 

Advent calls upon us to catch a fresh vision of the reign of Christ over all the nations. Christ is not merely responsible for reigning over "spiritual" matters while the governing authorities handle the real business of running the world. He claims lordship over every affair, and every authority is responsible to reign and govern  as stewards of the world that Christ claims his own. The responsibility of the people of God is to be constantly, if not frustratingly, reminding the world that the resurrected Jesus is King of the world. The task is not easy. It will be rejected as exclusivistic and derided as impractical. But it is our task, nevertheless, to disciple the nations by teaching them to obey King Jesus. Advent insists that nothing less will do. 

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