A sermon preached at Choral Evensong on Sunday 30 April. As we prepare for the Coronation, Canon Chris Palmer reflects on God’s kingdom, and it’s place in our allegiance and lives. The biblical reading referred to are:
By Canon Chris Palmer
If the Christian message is about anything it is about the reign of God. That God is king of the universe, and that he holds all authority and power. This was what Jesus proclaimed. All the Gospels tell us that he came announcing the ‘kingdom of God’ – that phrase comes again and again in the Gospels. It looks as if God is being usurped, other forces for evil, wreaking destruction, tyranny, and disease are striding the world; but recognise that truly God is king.
And Jesus didn’t just announce it. He lived it. He restored the sick to health, raised up the dead, forgave sinners. This was the reign of God in action. And so much in action, so made tangible in the person of Jesus Christ, that his own death is turned to life; the literal embodiment of God’s reign. And the church came to recognise that the kingdom of God is not simply what Jesus announced; he is the king: one with God. As the book of Revelation has it, ‘The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever’.
So to be an Easter people is to trust that God’s kingship is made real in Jesus, and this kingdom commands our adherence, our devotion, our hope.
The belief that God is king didn’t start with Jesus of course. Jesus stood in the tradition of ancient Israel, which proclaimed the rule of the LORD, Israel’s God, against all competing claims. Those competing claims were made by other nations, who had their own gods and their own political agendas. The psalm we had tonight is some kind of coronation psalm for God. The competition is the storm, of more likely the storm God Baal. But the storm is no match for God. The voice of God is greater than the storm – seven times we hear ‘the voice of the Lord’. ‘The voice of the Lord is mighty in operation; the voice of the Lord is a glorious voice. And if we are tempted to think that God is soothing and taming this storm, think again. God pummels this storm into submission: thundering against the thunder; splitting the lightning. And perhaps, some scholars suggest, all this was the basis of some annual proclamation of God as king, in the Temple in Jerusalem: ‘in his Temple doth every man speak of his honour’; or perhaps better in a modern translation, ‘in his Temple all cry, ‘glory’. It all finishes, ‘The Lord sitteth above the water flood’ – he’s on his throne. ‘And the Lord remaineth a king for ever.’
The problem was, of course, that if you recruit the LORD as your mascot and build God a Temple as the only place on earth where God can properly be worshipped, then, when 600 years before Jesus, your nation is overrun, your Temple destroyed, and your people exiled – it looks very much as if God is not much of a king after all. We too are tempted to believe that God is in control to the extent that our lives are going well. And our detractors, they are quick to point out that our God seems fairly pathetic when our world is falling apart.
But that moment of Israel’s defeat, of exile, of destruction became a moment of huge theological insight for Israel. Because they recognised that far from their tribal God, the LORD is the one God of all creation, he is king of all the nations; he’s king of their defeat as well as their victory, and he is with them in exile, even when the Temple is destroyed. And so what started off as a cause for lament and wailing, becomes a season of hope. The exiles find their relationship with God renewed, their worship reimagined, a new outlet for their culture and their creativity. And when they have a chance, they go home and rebuild. We got a moment of that in our reading. Of course, the sadness is still there, but it lives alongside hope. ‘Many old people who has seen the first house on its foundations’ – it was about 70 years since it got destroyed –‘ wept with a loud voice… though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of… weeping’.
Hold on to that for a moment. That weeping and joy are heard alongside each other. It feels incredibly true. We are called to be people of a hope but not to ignore or eliminate the lament of the world. We can embrace pain, and yet still insists on hope. In fact, it’s hardly hope at all if it isn’t a tenacious faith in God the face of suffering. Resurrection is only possible if there’s been a death. Without pain there is only trivial, unexamined presumption that all will be well. Hope is audacious clinging to God even when the world is falling apart; hope is what sends martyrs to the stake, inspires people to forgive their persecutors, and sustains the faithful on their deathbed.
It can’t escape our notice, as I read this, that we’re engaged in our own rebuilding project, out there in the Cloister. Putting back a bit of what was destroyed in the 17th century. Of course there’s no one living who remembers that first building. And I’m loath to compare our cloister with the Temple, the dwelling place of God on earth. Though that destruction also had political significance. The mediaeval cloister was taken down during the commonwealth, a sign that the old order of King and Church of England were no more. And the whole area was given over to secular trade. I rather like the fact that whilst the Cloister area was given back to the Dean and Chapter when Charles II was crowned, we’re rebuilding it as Charles III is crowned. And there is other hope in our rebuilding. It is the embodiment of our confidence that the worship and invitation and joy of the Gospel proclaimed in this place has a future. The kingdom of God is being and will continue to be lived out here in ways that will outlast us.
But, our second reading reminds us that there is another Temple, this one not made with hands, and eschewing those national and tribal rivalries that stalked the first Temple’s life. Paul tells us that here, Jews and Gentiles live together, no longer rival nations, but reconciled in God’s family, and built together into a living temple, the place where God dwells.
Our buildings, and our building work, is only of any significance if this more important building, the living Temple of God’s people is here inviting people to encounter God in our living. Our buildings are useful, but we are essential. Without us there is no welcome, there is no worship, there is no proclamation, there is no faith, there is no forgiveness, there is no sound of weeping, no sound of joy. We are the people, who have the audacity to pledge their allegiance to the kingdom of God, to desire that the reign of God and of Christ is revealed in our world, and to celebrate the victory of God. We matter, you matter. We who make this place sing. We are the dwelling place for God. What a privilege! What a responsibility! What a reason to shout ‘Glory’!