Not a Force but a Face

Not a Force but a Face

Colossians 1:11-20

11May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully 12giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. 13He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Let us pray. Oh Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

It is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday in the Christian year. I suspect it is not a holiday that many of us have deep feelings about, except perhaps about its sanguine hymns. On this day, the trailhead of Advent is in view, but we can’t start that Christmas quest without remembering again who made the trail to begin with. And, so this week I have welcomed the invitation to think of kings in general, and Jesus in particular as King.

Two weeks ago, I attended my cousin’s wedding in Las Vegas. I did not officiate, but you can imagine who did, given a liturgical set-up like that. That’s right, Elvis. As we approached the Neon Chapel, one Elvis was leaving the building as another Elvis arrived, though ours was a more late-stage hard-knocks version. And of course we knew he was not actually the King. And we knew that the Elvis he was impersonating through his lambchops and spasmodic hip thrusts was also not a King in any real sense though I enjoy his music. But as I sat there, I thought, what an interesting job to call yourself the King. And then, theological nerd that I am, I wondered who are the other would-be sovereigns out there, who else is laying claim to our time and attention, just without the sequins? It strikes me that on Christ the King Sunday, we need to practice saying “no” to a bunch of other lesser Kings.

One of my favorite scenes in any movie comes from Monty Python’s Holy Grail. King Arthur begins shouting at some peasants who are slopping around in mud, not obeying him. A man says, “We are part of an autonomous collective, an anarco-syndicalist commune!” Arthur shouts, “BE QUIET!  I *order* you to be quiet!” The woman says, “Order”, eh, ‘oo does ‘e think ‘e is?” Arthur says, “I am your king!” The woman says, “Well I didn’t vote for you!” Arthur says, “You don’t vote for kings!” She replies, “Well ‘ow’d you become king then?” Arthur gazes at the sky as holy music plays, “The Lady of the Lake– her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur.  THAT is why I am your king!” The man says, laughingly, “Listen: Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government!  Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some… farcical aquatic ceremony!” That is one way to say no.

Who else is vying to be king? For starters, the coronation of King Charles III will take place on May 6 of next year and I learned this week that there are apparently 43 countries with a monarch as head of state in our world.

And there is our country, formed by rebelling against Kings. And yet, political pundits talk often about kingmakers, and elected leaders flanked by flags speak in apocalyptic terms about what is at stake if they lose, and some Christians have adopted a belief that they should be prepared to fight, physically, to preserve a worldly political agenda that they believe is the agenda for any true believer, an argument that played into the violence of January 6th.[1] That worldview sounds very different than Jesus reconciling all things and making peace through the cross. 

Even so, I bet it is easier to say no to that kind of king than to the dozens of sneakier monarchs who dominate our days:

Like the phone and the imperial internet, with power such that to log off or unplug or simply run out of batteries can feel like a quiet rebellion.

Like the hierarchies of our workplace and school, with power such a small group of people have enormous sway how we feel about our lives.

Like the harsh and fickle autocrat of the economy, with power such that a bank account attempts to tell us our worth in dollars and cents.

Like the rude princess of beauty culture, with power such that the scale and mirror, and minions of Instagram influencers, try to tell us what it takes to be loved.

Like the ultimate Ice Queen of Time herself, her cold calculating clock and calendar, her armies of wrinkles and illnesses, with power such that the steady tick of mortality might dominate our most important decisions. And those are just a few.

Some people are strangely controlled by coffee or wine. Others by their immigration status. Others are ordered around by this itty bitty cruddy committee in their brain that can douse them with anxiety or cloak them with sadness without the kindness of a warning.

And then, just as winter is coming, just when we might think Black Friday sales and post-Thanksgiving scales and pushers of political blackmail have seized the throne, here comes this passage. Tucked into a letter from thousands of years ago. Might as well have been a new passport in the mail. This passage invites us to declare our citizenship in a different kind of kingdom. One defined by great power that comes through vulnerability. One defined by service even to the point of death on the cross. One where the last is first. And the foreigner is a guest of honor. And everyone has a home. One where sorrow may endure for the night but joy comes in the morning. One where shocking abundance arrives not through force of will but sometimes through utter surrender. One where the church is not a building, even the beautiful one we are dedicating today, but people, people who are sent to be salt and yeast and light in the world. That is the Kingdom, or commonwealth, of Christ.

Sometimes when there is a coup going on in my heart, and all the lesser kings are butting in, I stop myself and ask, “Who are you serving right now? Who is this for?” If the answer is anything but the prince of peace, the image of the invisible God, the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, as Paul wrote to the Colossians, I stop to check my papers. I then attempt to live once again as a citizen of a true grace land. And as I do that, I feel myself staging a soft rebellion against all those would-be kings.

Whenever you are dealing with forces that seems inescapable in your life, none of which has any eternal credibility, you might practice some healthy dethroning. Anxiety brain, dethroned. Societal forces that cause you to rage, dethroned. The need to be perfect or right or pleasing all the time, dethroned. The power of debt over the wild imagination of a church, dethroned. Even cancer, dethroned. They have no jurisdictional authority over your heart.

This week that has been helped by reading the words of Michael Gerson who passed away on Thursday. He was a speech writer for some of the most powerful people in the world and he struggled with depression throughout his life. So he was familiar with power of many kinds. But the kind of power he experienced one day in the Bishop’s Garden at the National Cathedral changed him – he saw the statue of the prodigal son melting into his father’s arms – read the inscription how he fell on his neck, and kissed him and wrote in his journal, “I felt tears and calm, like something important had happened to me and in me… My goals are pretty clear. I want to stop thinking about myself all the time. I want to be a mature disciple of Jesus, not a casual believer. I want to be God’s man.”

Reflecting on that powerful day, he said, “I have failed at these goals in a disturbing variety of ways. And I have more doubts than I did on that day. These kind of experiences may result from inspiration… or indigestion. Your brain may be playing tricks. Or you may be feeling the beating heart of the universe. Faith, thankfully, does not preclude doubt. It consists of staking your life on the rumor of grace.”

Then he said, “This experience of pulling back the curtain of materiality, and briefly seeing the landscape of a broader world, comes in many forms. It can be religious and non-religious, Christian and non-Christian. We sometimes search for a hidden door when the city has a hundred open gates. But there is this difference for a Christian believer: At the end of all our striving and longing we find, not a force, but a face. All language about God is metaphorical. But the metaphor became flesh and dwelt among us.”

That line, wow, it seized me. Not a force, but a face. How amazing. The authority in our lives made his throne on a grassy hillside and a timeless baptismal river and a dinner table of former enemies and a cross erected by a timestamped empire and an empty tomb that opened to eternity. The authority in our lives is a love story that makes all those other fearful stories we tell ourselves seem rather puny. With that in mind, we can step into Advent. We can get out our creche scenes and those brave purple candles. And rolling around in the box with the last year’s pine needles, I am sure we’ll discover those three kings who journeyed that way long ago and dethroned themselves at the sight of that face.

GK Chesterton wrote this lovely poem about those kings, which seems like the perfect cosmic wording for where we are about to go.

To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.