This Sermon was delivered at St Mary the Virgin’s, Diss at Evensong on the 25th November 2018. Readings: John 6:1-15, 1 Chronicles 29:1-13.
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If we believe that all of Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, as Paul writes in 2 Timothy, then perhaps we should not have favourite passages of scripture. Perhaps we should hold all of scripture as equally precious and wonderful to hear sermons preached on.
That’s a laudable sentiment for the Curate to have, to dream of taking extensive lists of genealogies listing that this person was the son of that person and he himself had a son, whose own son was the father of so and so; or, to take the collections of aphorisms from proverbs and string them into a wise and eloquent sermon; to take those parts of scripture which people are less likely to be familiar with, or perhaps are even – dare I say it? – bored by, and use them to challenge, invigorate and edify you with.
Once, while I was at the London School of Theology I was on placement at a Baptist church and I was invited to lead a bible study on a passage of my choice. So I shared with them one of my favourite biblical stories and the entire church refused to believe that it was even in the Bible!
I wonder if any of you recognise it?
There was a time when there was a group of prophets together in a rural part of Israel. One of the prophets turned to his friend and said to him, “Strike me with your sword in the name of the Lord”. His friend looked at him aghast and said “No way”. So the first prophet responded, “Walk away, and you’ll be killed by a Lion for disobeying God”. He walked away, and there appeared a Lion who attacked and killed him. The Prophet turned to another friend and said, “Strike me with your sword”. Now he’d seen what happened with the lion, so he took his sword and struck the prophet; injuring him.
Recognise it? Anyone? No one in the Bible study I was at believed me, and nor did any of my classmates when I told them about it the following day.
It’s from 1 Kings 20, and as a result of his injury the prophet was able to speak to the king when he passed on the road and give him a Word from the Lord.
This may be a peculiar story, but it’s from an obscure part of scripture. Which makes it the complete opposite of our reading from John 6, with the feeding of the 5000. In fact, this story of the miraculous lunch on the green grass by the sea of Galilee appears in all the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I actually gave an assembly at the local school this week where I talked to them about this story, but from Matthew’s version. You’ve probably heard many sermons on this story over the years. It might not be your favourite bible story, but I’m willing to bet that you know it pretty well.
However, the truth is that it’s not just congregations which are sometimes unfamiliar with certain passages. While training for ministry at Cranmer Hall in Durham I had several occasions where I had to take the Newcastle or Edinburgh train from London. I personally preferred to sit in the quiet carriage, and apparently, it’s quite common for clergy to do the same. I ended up having conversations with quite a few clergy I knew who I would bump into in the quiet carriage. I remember once I was talking with a priest who had been in ministry for almost twice as long as I’ve been alive, who had a diocesan position somewhere in a northern diocese.
We got to talking about Jesus and actually about John 6. We talked about how dense and rich a chapter it is; we’ve got the story of the feeding the 5000 we’ve heard tonight. Then Jesus walks on Water, he talks about bread from heaven, comparing himself with Moses – a very important passage for reflecting on the Eucharist – and the chapter ends with the disciples saying “Lord, where else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, we believe that you are the Holy God”. And, as if the chapter couldn’t be any more dramatic, it closes with Jesus’ warning that one of them would betray him.
Having been talking about how awesome Jesus is I made a passing comment about how Jesus totally subverts the crowd’s ideas of what it means to be king.
This priest looked at me funny, unsure of what I was referring to in chapter 6. I had to bring it up on my phone and show them. They were amazed, they’d read John 6 countless times but the final verse of our reading tonight had never made much of an impression on them.
Verse 15 reads: When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
There’s nothing wrong with, and indeed there’s a lot to be commended for having favourite bible stories, but we have to be careful not to allow them to blind us to fascinating details which might challenge us.
And tonight, as we celebrate Christ the King – this verse challenges us.
Jesus realised that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king.
Then he… withdrew… again to the mountain by himself.
Jesus has been walking around everywhere performing signs and wonders, healing the sick, casting demons out of people and preaching and teaching the Good News of the kingdom of heaven, promising eternal life. He’s not just walked around saying things but has argued those things with the scribes and Pharisee to the point that they hated what he said – claiming that God was his Father seemed like pure blasphemy – so much so that they were plotting to kill him.
People knew who he was. They came from all around to hear him speak, they followed him and brought their sick to him. In our reading, we hear that he was surrounded by 5000 people. None of this fits the profile of someone who wants to keep their head down, mind their own business and live a quiet life, does it?
Jesus wanted attention, more than that he wants our attention now as he did theirs then. So why would he withdraw, and by “withdraw” I mean run away from being made king?
Later in John’s gospel, we hear Jesus’ conversation with Pilate, who asks him: Are you the king of the Jews? What have you done?
‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’
Pilate’s confusion is our human confusion. A king should not be arrested and on trial to be executed. He should majestic, confident and dignified, maybe even the leader of an army. Yet Jesus says that his kingdom is not from this world.
It is here that we come to the crux of the issue. Jesus’ kingship is not modelled on our human ideas of what a king should be or is for. It’s a very human desire to want a single person as ‘our leader’, our monarch, our president, our prime minister; our focal point who is both, hopefully, wiser and more capable than we are and who will guide us.
This was the desire of Israel in 1 Samuel Chapter 8. Because Samuel’s sons weren’t leadership material Israel was determined that they would have a human king like the surrounding countries. God told Samuel that this request was not a rejection of Samuel, but a rejection of God himself as their King.
In Jesus’ death upon the cross, and the victory of the empty tomb over sin, darkness and death, Jesus is God becoming what he already is; King of all creation, Lord of all who hears his voice, believing and trusting in him.
This is why Jesus runs from the mob wanting to make him king by force.
Because in reality, they can’t give him anything that isn’t already rightfully his. It’s the same as when the devil tempts him in the desert with the promise of authority over all the nations if he would but bow down to him first – he tempts Jesus to seek from the devil what is already promised to him by his heavenly Father.
We cannot make God king, he already was and is and forever will be king.
In Christ, though, God our King steps down into our lives to invite us into his kingdom and to invite us to share in his own life. Just as we are baptised into his death, we shall be united with him in his resurrection; glorifying God and enjoying him forever.
David gives us a glimpse of the nature of our Godly King in our old testament reading, saying:
“Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of our ancestor Israel, for ever and ever. Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Riches and honour come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might; and it is in your hand to make great and to give strength to all. And now, our God, we give thanks to you and praise your glorious name.”
Jesus is exalted as the name which is above all names but only having humbled himself even to death, death upon the cross. (Philippians 2) For we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone (Hebrews 2:9).
As king it is from him that all riches and good things come from. He has power and authority over both the orbits of the planets and within our day to day moral decisions. He is the king who will judge us, but who also will defend and strengthen us.
You see, sometimes it is in those verses which we might be tempted to skip over that we find ourselves challenged to reflect on our attitude to God. Jesus may have caught our attention with the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, but he immediately follows this by refusing to allow us to decide that we think he should be king.
We shall not crown Jesus king ourselves, but we can ask ourselves if we truly believe that he is our king. And believing so, let us therefore approach his royal throne of grace with boldness so that we might receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need.