Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Reign of Christ the King

Matthew's Kingdom Symphony:
A Sermon at Apostles' Anglican Church
20 November 2011

Let us pray.

Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth:
Set up your kingdom in our midst.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God:
Have mercy on us sinners.
Holy Spirit, breath of the living God:
Renew us and all the world. Amen.
-- N. T. Wright, Trinity Prayer

If you listen carefully to an orchestral work – perhaps a symphony or a concerto – you will notice in it a recurring musical theme, a leitmotif. It may be only a few notes or a few measures, but it is the essence of the piece, the core around which the complex composition develops, the core which provides unity and coherence, and indeed beauty, to the piece.

The theme may be announced emphatically by the full orchestra right at the opening of the piece, or it may be introduced more subtly and gradually by a soloist. It never stays in one place; it is passed around from section to section, from instrument to instrument, changing form and timbre as it goes, but always recognizable to a trained and listening ear. The theme will be expressed in many forms throughout the composition: sometimes major, sometimes minor, sometimes lowered a fifth or raised an octave, sometimes inverted so that we hear not the theme itself, but, in a musical sense, the negation – the opposite – of the theme. Sometimes it disappears altogether for a while. Then just when the listener begins to worry that the piece has taken a wrong turn, that it has lost its way, there it is again, over in the flutes trilled and high, echoed darkly by the oboes and bassoons, picked up hauntingly by the strings – those few notes, those few measures – the musical theme. And the listener who truly has ears to hear will then recognize that the theme has been there all along in bits and pieces scattered throughout the orchestra, but is now summed up in one grand moment, in one grand movement. In the hands of a masterful composer and a skillful conductor, the listener need never fear; the theme will emerge and all listening ears will hear.

This church year – from the first Sunday of Advent 2010 until today – the church has listened together to Matthew’s great symphonic presentation of the Gospel. Today, that concert ends; the final chords resound through the great hall and fall silent as the score is changed. The Gospel according to Saint Mark is next on the triennial concert rotation offered to the church in the lectionary. But one more time, before we close Matthew’s music and file his score away, let’s listen for the great theme that runs from first to last throughout his gospel. Not coincidentally, it is also the liturgical theme of the great feast day the church celebrates on this last Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Open the score to the first measure: Matthew 1:1. These first few notes announce the theme with brassy boldness and clarity.

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham (Mt 1:1, NKJV).

To Jewish ears Matthew’s announcement of the theme is nothing less than thunderous: this is the story of Yeshua ha Meschiach – Jesus the Messiah, the anointed one, the one upon whom the kingdom of his father David rests, the one in whom the covenant of his father Abraham is fulfilled. And the entire orchestra picks up the theme – forty-two generations of players: fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to the captivity, and fourteen generations from the captivity to Jesus. Do you hear it? Fourteen generations from covenant to kingdom, fourteen generations from kingdom come to kingdom lost, and fourteen generations from kingdom lost to kingdom restored and covenant fulfilled in and through Jesus the Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham. This is it; this is where the story of Israel was headed all along. This is the story of how God is restoring and redeeming Israel, and through Israel restoring and redeeming the cosmos. And it starts here, in the book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ. These few notes announce Matthew’s theme: the true and everlasting king of Israel has arrived and God’s kingdom has begun, on earth as in heaven. This is a kingdom symphony, from first note to last.

Some unfamiliar instruments with exotic, slightly mysterious tones, pick up this theme next. These instruments are played by magi from the East:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him” (Mt 1:1-2, NKJV).

The King of Israel – the King of the world – is born. The heavens herald his birth. All men – from East to West, from North to South, Jew and gentile alike – are called to worship him. The magi come on holy pilgrimage bearing royal gifts, tribute from their kingdom to His. They bend their knees and fall on their faces in worship before the infant king.

But not Herod, for here the theme turns dark and minor and discordant.

Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men (Mt 2:16, NKJV).

Herod hears Matthew’s theme, and hears it all too clearly. God is on the move. God is raising up the true king of Israel. God is at last restoring the kingdom and fulfilling the covenant. But Herod has his own tune to play, a tune in which he is the featured soloist. He tries, in vain, to drown out all other music – in blood and the sound of weeping. So for a time, Matthew’s theme disappears, hummed quietly in far off Egypt and whistled every now and again in Nazareth. A whole movement goes by – thirty years – in which the theme seems to be absent. And just when we are wondering if Matthew’s composition has lost its way, a great instrumental voice appears out of nowhere and proclaims the theme in fortissimo:

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 3:1-2, NKJV)!

Not only is the kingdom of heaven here – now – but the King is coming, one mightier than this herald, one who will baptize in Spirit and fire (cf Mt 3:11).

And from Galilee comes the King himself, the same Jesus Christ, Son of David, Son of Abraham about whom we heard in the opening notes of this Kingdom symphony. And now the music is all regal-sounding brass, I think – French horns and trombones – because the King comes to be anointed.

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:13, 16-17, NKJV).

There are so many sub-themes in this event – Exodus and end of exile are clear – but they cannot drown out the primary theme: the King has returned and has been anointed by God as His Messiah. Yes, the Kingdom of heaven is at hand in the person and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth: Son of David, Son of Abraham, Son of God. From this time forth, wherever He goes the Kingdom is present. Whatever He does, the Kingdom is made manifest.

Of course, as we might expect, there is conflict in the score – discord and noise – as rival kings are challenged, as enemies, spiritual and human, plot and attack. It starts immediately in the wilderness with Satan himself, the Prince of the power of the air (cf Eph 2.2). In dark, velvet tones – violas, perhaps – the tempter plays his tune of seduction. The last measure is the most telling.

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “’All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him (Mt 4:4-11, ESV).

Satan offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in one moment. Perhaps Satan and Jesus know something about this composition that Matthew has yet to reveal to the listeners: that Jesus’ road from anointing to rule will be long and hard and painful, that it may not look like anyone expects, and that there will be casualties on the way. But Jesus has his own way of ascending the throne and his own kingdom agenda, and it starts with a rejection of this particular temptation to power. Satan’s music is silenced – at least for the time being. It is time for the King to begin his performance.

His won’t be a solo – thought he is, of course, the principal performer – but rather an ensemble: Simon, Andrew, James, John and many others – a flash mob orchestra traveling from venue to venue making surprising music in unexpected places. And what music!

And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him (Mt 4:23-25a, ESV).

These great Kingdom acts of Jesus – healings and exorcisms – demand great Kingdom words of explanation. What does it all mean? In response, Jesus describes life in the Kingdom; he answers the question, What does it look like when God’s anointed – when God himself – becomes King? This movement is played on a mountain, with Jesus surrounded by eager listeners.

In the Kingdom of God the poor are given a place, the crying are comforted, the meek get their rightful share, the hungry and thirsty have enough and more than enough, the merciful have mercy shown to them, the pure in heart see God, the peacemakers are adopted as God’s children, and all those persecuted in this world get joy and gladness instead. There is blessing enough to go around in the Kingdom of God. This is the kingdom in a major key, lively enough to make the most miserable tap his feet with hope and excitement. This is a movement of Jubilee.

The Kingdom of God is a place where the heart matters: no lust there, no anger there, no hypocrisy there, no revenge there, no greed there, no idolatry there. But love and forgiveness are there. Yes: these are the hallmarks, the foundations of the Kingdom, and must fill the human heart to overflowing. And prayer is there. Jesus wants everyone to play this prayer tune in unison – because it is the great Kingdom prayer – so, he teaches the orchestra himself. And though we will pray it later this day, can we also do so together right now?

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy Name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those
who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.

Thy kingdom come. Where? On earth as in heaven. There is Matthew’s theme again, crystal clear: The Kingdom of God is here and now and very much for this place and time – and all in the person of Jesus, Son of David, Son of Abraham, Son of God.

For at least one year and perhaps as long as three, Jesus plays the music of the kingdom: in signs and wonders and acts of power, in discourses and parables – many of which begin “The kingdom of heaven is like…” – in healings and resurrections, and sometimes, in fact increasingly, in conflict with those who do not like the new sound, who perceive it as disturbing and even dangerous noise. In the concert hall, on the stage, in the music itself, the tension builds between Jesus and his ensemble and his rivals – those who do not want the Kingdom of God if this is what it looks like, those who do not want the Kingdom of God if Jesus is its king. The music turns dark and heavy and sinister as everyone senses the climax of the piece approaching.

It all comes to a head about a week before Passover. All music stops for just a moment. Jesus steps into the spotlight alone and – what’s that he’s doing? He’s riding into Jerusalem – the kingdom city – on a donkey. It is perhaps his most provocative kingdom act and its meaning is clear from the prophets:

“Tell the daughter of Zion,
‘Behold, your King is coming to you,
Lowly, and sitting on a donkey,
A colt, the foal of a donkey’”(Mt 21:5, NKJV).

And all the musicians and even the audience members get the theme at last and all erupt in joyous song:

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’
Hosanna in the highest” (Mt 21:9b).

Later in the same week, as hostile forces close in, as a trusted friend betrays him, Jesus calls together his chamber group – those who have been with him closest and longest – for a small and intimate interlude. The music is classical – Passover songs and psalms – and the tone is…well, it’s hard to say. It varies from celebratory to puzzled to subdued and even to bittersweet. Jesus feeds his followers; he gives them – and us – the Kingdom meal, a taste in the present moment of the heavenly wedding banquet: bread, wine, words – and something about body and blood. It is clearly a Kingdom meal, but of a confounding sort. “I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom,” Jesus says, and leaves everyone a bit baffled.

The group plays the final note of this Seder meal, a psalm, and then walks a short way to a garden for prayer and maybe a bit of rest. And it is here that we lose the theme of Matthew’s symphony; rather it is here that the theme is inverted and played retrograde: upside down and backwards – distorted and jumbled and unrecognizable. For here the kingdom of hell – Remember the prince of the powers of the air? – and the kingdoms of the earth – Remember Herod and his sons? – conspire against God and against his anointed, conspire against the Kingdom of God.

Why are the nations in an uproar?
Why do the peoples mutter empty threats?
Why do the kings of the earth rise up in revolt,
And the prices plot together,
Against the LORD and against his Anointed (Ps 2:1-2, BCP 1979)?

And Jesus – Son of David, Son of Abraham, Son of God – is arrested and tried and beaten and crucified, on the day the theme was lost, on the day the music died. All is silent. But look at the cross. Look at the sign above Jesus’ bowed head, a sign in three languages so that all the world might know:


The theme played silently and inverted and retrograde: this is what the world and hell think of God and His Anointed King.

But three day later, early in the morning on the first day of the week, as a group of women goes to the tomb where Jesus is laid, there is a terrible and wondrous commotion: all cymbals and tympani and percussion, like an earthquake – exactly like an earthquake:

And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it. His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men. But the angel answered and said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen, as He said” (Mt 28:2-6a).

And the entire cosmic orchestra resurrects the Kingdom theme of Matthew’s symphony: Alleluia! Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen, indeed. Alleluia!

Forty days later Jesus gathers his closest disciples on a mountain in Galilee.

And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Mt 28:18-20, NKJV).

And here it is, in the final chords of Matthew’s great symphony: the Kingdom of God has come, all authority – in heaven and on earth – lies with Jesus, and we who have up until now been content to listen to the music, are given instruments and our own parts to play in the continuing composition of the Kingdom of God.

Our King has not gone far away and abandoned us to our own resources as some say. Rather he has ascended to the right hand of the Father – to His rightful position of power and glory – and has begun his reign, a reign ministered in part through you and me and all of us together, a reign empowered by the Holy Spirit through whom Jesus is eternally present with us. And, he has left us His Kingdom prayer to guide us and His Kingdom meal to sustain us.

Learn my Kingdom song, Jesus says, for soon I will reconvene the entire orchestra for the concert of the ages. You can’t just listen anymore. There are no seats in the audience. You must learn the song or leave the hall. And the Kingdom song is not composed of melody and rhythm, but of love and forgiveness and mercy. Those who have learned it will be invited to play in the orchestra of the communion of the saints:

Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’
“Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me’ (Mt 25:34-40, NKJV).

This is what the Kingdom looks like. This is what the music of the Kingdom sounds like. It is being played even now in every act of truth and beauty and compassion and forgiveness done in the name of the King and under his banner of love. Can you hear it? Will you play it?

Today the church celebrates the feast of the Reign of Christ the King. There is no better way to celebrate than to take up your instrument and join in the great Kingdom symphony, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.