Texts: Daniel 7:2-14; Revelation 1:4-8; John 18:33-37
As Daniel watches, the great beast upon which this horn sits is unceremoniously killed and burned up, all while the little horn natters on about its own importance. The implication is clear: no matter how powerful or important King Antiochus Epiphanes thinks he is, he is nothing compared to God, the true king of the universe—nothing but a stunted horn, too distracted by his own arrogance to notice the flames of judgment already consuming him.
There is another story about Antiochus Epiphanes. During his reign, he invaded Egypt—twice. During his second invasion, the Egyptian king sent to Rome for help. Instead of an army, Rome sent a single emissary, a man named Gaius Popillius Laenas. Laenas met Antiochus outside of Alexandria and handed him a decree from the Roman Senate ordering him to cease his invasion, pack up his army and leave immediately. Incensed, Antiochus told Laenas that he would need to consult with his advisors. In response, Laenas picked up a stick and drew a circle in the dust around Antiochus’ feet and calmly informed him that he would give an answer before he left the circle. Then King Antiochus IV, god-made-manifest, bearer of victory, meekly agreed to Rome’s terms and returned home with his army.
And yet, the Christ we celebrate today is anything but that. As Pilate questions Jesus in his headquarters, he wants to know one thing and one thing only: “Are you the king of the Jews?” It is a simple question with a simple, yes-or-no answer. Daniel’s reply—our reply—to Pilate’s question is an emphatic “Yes!” but Jesus’ response is not so simple. Instead of claiming to be a king, Jesus basically tells Pilate that “king” is a poor label: “King is your word, not mine,” he says. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail; and when your only concept of power is a crown, you are always looking for a head to wear it.
Our use of words like kingdom, reign, dominion, almighty, and even power when applied to God are metaphors which are, at best, narrowly applicable, and at worst can be dangerously misleading. This is what Jesus means when he says to Pilate “my kingdom is not from this world.” He isn’t saying that his soldiers are somewhere else, or even that his jurisdiction doesn’t overlap with Rome’s. What he is saying is that “kingdom” is the wrong word. If Jesus were a king, if God did want to establish a kingdom, then his followers would rise up and fight—and they would win; but he isn’t a king, and God doesn’t want a kingdom. Remember what he has been teaching his disciples: whoever would be first must be last; the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve; true disciples take up their crosses and follow. Jesus’ “kingdom” is not like any kind of kingdom in this world; but it is most definitely something that happens in this world.
As Jesus followers, our call is not to take up arms and fight against ruthless kings like Antiochus or Pilate, nor is it to bless or condone the “good kings” who bring peace or prosperity like Caesar did. Both of those things are a fundamental misunderstanding of what Jesus is about. For this he was born, and for this he came into the world: to testify to this truth. It is a truth that Pilate doesn’t understand, because he can only conceive of power or authority in earthly, kingly terms. It may not even be a truth we fully understand, but it is the truth to which we are called.
The truth to which Jesus testifies is that power is not the ability to control another, but the ability to give of oneself. Jesus’ true glory is not revealed in his enthronement in the clouds, but in his enthronement on the cross. Any exercise of worldly power that is not grounded in the self-sacrificial love of the cross is illegitimate and ultimately doomed. Let the kings and presidents issue their decrees, because it is in our day-to-day lives that God’s kindom is ultimately revealed.
We don’t always want this kind of power. We would prefer to have strongmen leading us, authoritarians who will protect us, who will conquer and kill to make us safe. We want a God-king who comes riding on the clouds; but in his absence, we’ll settle for Barabbas. What Jesus offers us instead is the power and majesty of a Lamb, slaughtered and yet living: a quiet and meek but inexorable power to change the world not through violence or coercion, but through love and relationship—through mutual abiding with one another and with God.
It’s not a question of if or even when God’s kindom will be victorious; God’s victory is already assured. The only question is how we will get there from here. It will not happen at the tip of a spear or the muzzle of a gun; it won’t be legislated by an executive order or an act of congress; it will occur neither by the righteous decree of a good king nor in the glorious revolution against a bad king. God’s kindom is alive in us when we bear faithful, patient, confident witness to Christ, the firstborn of the dead, in all that we say and do: everything from how we treat our neighbors and our enemies to where we spend our money to how we vote.
The truth to which Jesus calls us is that it doesn’t matter who is king—whether Antiochus Epiphanes or Caesar Augustus or Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump—the kindom of God is at hand. God’s vision for the healing of creation is assured not because of who is king, but because Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, the one who loves us and frees us from our sins. To him be glory and dominion forever. Amen.