Dictators and Christ the King: Isaiah 6.1–8

Delivered at Ames UCC on November 20, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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2016-11-20-x-the-kingREIGN OF CHRIST
The stole I’m wearing today depicts the logo of the United Church of Christ. It is the Christus victor, Christ victorious. We have a cross, crowned, standing on and over the world. The world is segmented in reference to Jesus’ instruction to be witnesses to love in “Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1.8). It is a regal and universal symbol. I’m wearing it today to mark Reign of Christ or Christ the King Sunday.

For churches like ours that use a traditional calendar of seasons and holidays, today is the bridge between Ordinary Time and Advent, the beginning of our Christian year. So today is like our new year’s eve. And we mark New Year’s Eve with a reminder of whom we are most loyal to, the Christ, and whose world we live in, God’s.

Which is easy to forget in daily life. In daily life we are residents of Story County, Iowa and the United States of America. Here in Ames our mayor is Ann Campbell, our representative to the Iowa house is Lisa Heddens, our governor is Terry Branstad. At the national level our senators are Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley, our U.S. representative is Steve King.

Unlike the rulers of our scripture and of history, none of them are religious figures and they are not anointed by God. They do not inherit their positions and do not bequeath them to their offspring. They are our neighbors. From Campbell to King, they are regular humans with regular homes and regular families who probably all like to eat at The Café on Stange, too.

2016-11-20-regular-humansNow, Mayor Campbell and Rep. Heddens are a lot easier to get to than the others. Until this summer, Heddens was upstairs in our own building running People Place. Now she’s around the corner at NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. I’ve run into our mayor here for memorial services and around town at events for area nonprofits.

The rest, well, the rest have a whole lot of staff members and geography between us and them. The more power we give to regular people, it seems, the less access they give regular people. We, the very people they courted to get the jobs, the very people who could take those jobs away.

We may not have royalty but after a certain point, we have leaders who function at a scale that can put them at what can feel like a princely distance.

Isaiah of Jerusalem, the man anointed by angels and coal in our story today, was in a similar position. During his time, in the 8th century BCE, Jerusalem was under threat of conquer by the Assyrians. Isaiah was, personally, a wealthy Jerusalemite. But that didn’t mean he had easy access to the king in a time of crisis.

And looming war wasn’t Isaiah’s only concern. Jerusalem was his home, but it was also God’s. By the understanding of Isaiah’s day, Jerusalem was where God lived, literally, in the temple. So Isaiah was dealing with pending war and the loss of God.

Here he is, speaking with angels and being branded as a prophet then having to try to explain to his people why God would allow invaders to kill them and foreigners to close the opening between heaven and earth. This was a man in whose vision God was on a throne yet still had no answers for what was, in the end, the occupation of Jerusalem by two different foreign powers.

Calling this Christ the King Sunday came in response to an occupation, of sorts.

The big holidays like Christmas and the Baptism of Christ and Easter and Pentecost are all scripturally based, all in reference to the stories we have in the Bible. But Reign of Christ Sunday started in 1925. In 1925 Pope Pius XI established this feast day for the Roman Catholic church. Why 1,925 years after the establishment of all of the other holidays, would he feel compelled to remind people of their true leader? What was happening in Italy in the first quarter of the 20th century?

It was the rise of fascism.

In 1921 Benito Mussolini was elected to the Italian parliament and then became their Prime Minister. Within four years Mussolini abandoned the practice of democracy and on Christmas Eve 1925 he changed his title to “head of government” and then “supreme leader.”

As one man sought to ascribe all terrestrial power to himself, another man created a reminder of God’s universal power.

You may be hearing one, but I am not actually trying to make a connection to our current political situation. This truly does happen to be the focus of worship today. It’s been on the calendar all along.

Protestant churches like ours, which are not in any way beholden to the Roman church, adopted this day because we recognize that it meets a need regardless of the governance at hand. We need to return our attention to God, to remember that the nations of man are petty and passing but that of God is great and eternal.

We may receive that good news in two ways: the easy or the faithful. The easy response is to shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, I guess life is all in God’s hands and God’s plans.” We can watch the unfolding of human history as a product of God’s will and direct intervention. We can speak back to Isaiah, tell him, “God must have wanted the temple to fall.”

When I picture this theology, I imagine a people looking off into the distance, placid and resigned, as buildings crumble and children run crying through the street like that famous young Vietnamese girl made naked and burned by napalm.

2016-11-20-no-resignationI do not think that is a faithful response. A human response, yes, but not a faithful one. For followers of the one who healed foreign women and ate with outcasts, resignation is a form of false witness to God.

Here’s how we know.

All this fall, our lectionary, or reading schedule, has presented us with prophets: Moses, Jeremiah, Nathan, Elijah, Jonah, and now Isaiah. Even the most resistant, namely Moses and Jonah, eventually responded to God with a yes.

Yes, I will take my people away from slavery. Yes, I will tell the king to make faith his project not a temple. Yes, I will put my daily bread in your hand—or that of your raven. Yes, I will go to the worst city in the world. Yes, I will warn the people of how they have fallen short again.

Week after week we have been presented with a crisis during which God has invited someone to act. God is flexible and accommodating in that process, and figures out what each of them need in order to listen and to respond.

The prophets are not superhuman. They are regular people, too. They are a reminder that God is still speaking and God is still saying, to all of us, “HEY, COME WITH ME. HEY, WE NEED EACH OTHER.”

Few of us will receive angels and be branded by coal, but God is inviting us into prophetic work here today through this Communion table.

In the act of walking to the table and receiving the meal from another, we cease to be passive actors in our lives and become prophets for God. Here we say yes and hold hands with that suffering child of war.

And in that act of saying yes to a meal first laid out in hope and sorrow, we say no to any governance that presumes to make itself out as something more than regular humans who are beholden to the other regular humans who have allowed them a governing role. So do not be resigned to any system that tells us it is too big for us to even approach.

Pope Pius had good reason, and a real and pressing danger, for instituting this holy day. But in any century, the story of Jesus is a refutation of any power that holds itself apart in finery and entourages.

201-11-20-lead-us-againOur king, our supreme leader, is the baby of the manger, the preacher on the mount, the criminal on the cross, the eternal emanation of holiness that cannot be captured or killed.

And our king will find us, just as God always has, and speak to our hearts, and remind us of our power and responsibility to call out any ruler who abuses the covenant of love, to do the hard work of bearing witness to love, and to lead each other out of slavery once again.


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