Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
Ever since Handel wrote it for George II in 1727, Zadok the Priest has been sung at the coronation of every British monarch. Drawing on the story of the anointing of Solomon in the First Book of Kings, the text itself, in some form or other, has been used in every English, then every British, coronation since that of King Edgar in Bath Abbey in 973.
‘Long live the king!’ and ‘May the king live for ever!’ sings the choir as the monarch is anointed, placing the new king or queen in a line that stretches back to Solomon, as God’s blessing and the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit are prayed for.
It’s an interesting historical precedent to cite. If we read the account of Solomon’s coronation in the First Book of Kings, it’s a rather hurried affair. King David had grown old and feeble and was confined to bed. His power was waning and the country floundering with no one to lead it. And his son Adonijah spots his opportunity, stages a coup and proclaims himself king. Hearing of it, David is finally roused to action, and sends his favoured son, Solomon, off to the royal shrine at Gihon, where he’s anointed by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet.
But still the rivalry persists. Adonijah continues to scheme against the Lord’s anointed. And eventually Solomon tires of it and consolidates his power by despatching one of his retinue to murder his half-brother.
Long live the king! May the king live for ever! And in the bible, as in so much of human history, that promise is often wrested through bloody rivalries, sexual exploitation, and low cunning.
This history, and what it tells us about the ways in which human power is always compromised by sin, is important background to the feast we celebrate today. For today, at the culmination of the Christian year, we acclaim Christ as King, robed in splendour and majesty, claiming the nations of the earth for his own.
And we are given two very different pictures of what this kingship looks like. Daniel and Revelation show him coming with the clouds of heaven. A bit later on in the reading from Revelation the imagery of kingship and power piles up: there are swords and crowns and golden robes and lampstands and trumpets. The Son of Man holds seven stars in his hand – a challenge both to the astrological cults who taught that humanity’s destiny lay in the stars, and to the idolatrous claims of the Roman Emperor, who had borrowed the imagery of Jupiter holding the seven stars to proclaim his own divinity.
Here we have a picture of Jesus Christ as the fulfilment of all God had promised through the Old Testament, and as the cosmic ruler of the whole of creation returning from his heavenly throne to reign over the earth and to vindicate his righteous people.
It’s imagery designed to subvert all earthly pretenders to ultimate authority. It’s imagery which served to encourage the persecuted church for which John wrote to persevere in faith, trusting in the one who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
But we’re also given a very different picture of Christ the King. Here, in the reading from St John’s Gospel, he stands bound before Pilate, with a busted lip from where one of the temple police had hit him. He is unarmed, defenceless, subject entirely to the earthly power of the high priest and Pilate.
‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ enquires Pilate. There is nothing in his appearance to indicate royal status; in this picture there are no helpful props to tell us who Jesus is. Power is present in this scene, but it appears to belong only to one side: to Pilate.
And Jesus doesn’t answer him directly. To claim the title ‘King of the Jews’ would be treason to the Romans and blasphemous to the Jews. Besides, as Jesus says, ‘my kingdom is not from this world.’ We will have to look beyond the grubby, compromised, violent and coercive exercise of power to learn what sort of king Jesus is.
‘So you are a king?’ asks Pilate. And Jesus responds ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’
And Pilate, judging the Judge who stands bound before him, unable to recognise Truth speaking directly to him, hands Jesus over to a parody of a coronation. As the soldiers dress Jesus in a purple robe, and crown him with thorns, they taunt him with their homage. The drama escalates, and Pilate, finding the truth to be costly and inconvenient, has Jesus crucified, the indictment hammered above his head mocking him in Hebrew, Latin and Greek: the king of the Jews.
Here is your king: coming in glory with the clouds. Here is your king: enthroned on his cross. The dissonance is meant to make us question what we understand by kingship and power and authority and divinity. Yet they are not entirely separate, these two pictures. For the one who comes with the clouds, the ruler of the kings of the earth, is also the one who was pierced. Charles Wesley, picking up on this image from Revelation, has us sing in his great Advent hymn, ‘those dear tokens of his passion still his dazzling body bears.’ The cosmic ruler of all creation is the one who was nailed to the cross. And the one who is nailed to the cross is the cosmic ruler of all creation: Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, ascended and glorified.
This feast day is meant to make us question our loyalties and our assumptions. It shows how all the biblical caution about kingship, all its realism about earthly power and its corruptions and compromises leads to this place, to the judgement of the Son of God. This is the point at which it looks like earthly power has won: love and truth incarnate cannot withstand the will to power. But the one they judge is the one to whom glory and dominion belong for ever and ever. And on the third day love and truth are vindicated as Jesus rises victorious from the dead. And then the judge judged unjustly will come ‘with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.’
St John the Divine wrote this to comfort and encourage the persecuted Christians of the first century Roman Empire. That I find it strange and unsettling makes me wonder whether I am on the right side. Every eye will see him, and he will see every person, right into our hearts. Every eye will behold him, and in that beholding have to face up to the actions and attitudes that pierced the Son of God – to the compromises and selfishness and prejudice and greed and cowardice and fear that we know deny Christ even while we sing his glory.
Those pierced hands tell us of our complicity in the sin of the world. But they also tell another story: of God’s love and his unwillingness to leave us in our sin. The one who comes with the clouds to be our judge is also the one who comes to be our advocate and defender, the one who in taking on flesh came to be on our side.
This is what true authority, God’s authority, looks like. The one to whom all glory and dominion belong empties himself of power and takes on the poverty of a servant. The truth incarnate, the Word made flesh, endures contempt and insults. The Judge of all takes the side of the guilty, that we might be forgiven, and the King of Kings uses his royal power to stand with and for the suffering, persecuted, lost and forgotten ones.
This is how Christ our King asks us to live, too, that our lives might proclaim his kingdom. It’s hard: few of us would willingly choose poverty, contempt and insults. That’s why, when Pilate presents Jesus before the crowd saying ‘here is your king’, they reply ‘we have no king but Caesar!’.
This feast proclaims otherwise. Christ is our King. On the cross and coming with the clouds, bearing the tokens of his passion, he calls us to proclaim not just with our praise but also with our lives ‘long live this king.’ For this is the king who lives for ever.