These four Sundays in November are a funny little wedge in the church’s calendar, at the end of the church year. As you know, the church year begins on the first Sunday in Advent, and we’ll be there in four weeks’ time. The new prayer book gives the theme for these four weeks before Advent as “a time of celebration and reflection on the reign of Christ in earth and in heaven”. Christ rules OK! So there is an overall theme about the Kingdom of God, and we explore this in terms of the special events of this season: celebrating all the saints, remembering all those who died in the love of Christ, those who died as a result of war, and so on. And we also have the bible readings set for these four weeks – what do they tell us about Christ as King of Heaven and Earth?
Well, the first message is: it’s not what you might think!
When you think of royalty and kingdom in relation to this country, you tend to think of tradition, pomp and ceremony, wealth and privilege.
Christ as King is not like that. In fact, the Kingdom of God is revolutionary. Jesus turns all our expectations upside down.
If you have watched or heard any talk shows over the last week or so on radio and television, you will have encountered Russell Brand promoting his new book Revolution. He is saying that the consumerism and materialism that drive our world and the politics and economics that control it are just not good enough. He is really quite angry about it. He wants to dismantle the way we do politics and economics, and calls on people not to vote, not to engage with the way we do politics now. And if you look at the consumer reviews of his book on Amazon, he has a lot of support, mainly from young people. Brand is calling for a revolution, and his book is surprisingly spiritual, in that he has a whole chapter on the Lord’s Prayer, and refers to Buddhist principles.
Brand wants to change the world. He looks at the way we do things and he doesn’t like it. He says there must be a better way. He’s a bit like the prophet Micah, in the Old Testament reading, who looks at the things going on in his world, and he says this is just not right! He complains about the judges who take bribes. He complains about the prophets who take money to give a favourable prophecy. But real prophecy is about looking at the world through God’s eyes and standing up to point out the corruption and injustice and call people back to God’s way.
Maybe Russell Brand is a bit of a prophet for our time. Maybe we need to listen to him. The trouble is, he comes over as somewhat arrogant. Even the way he looks – as a sort of cross between Jesus and Che Guevara – is making a kind of a claim. His way of life so far doesn’t exactly commend him, but I think what undermines his message for me is his shallowness and superficiality.
In the Gospel, Jesus says there is a disconnect between what the Pharisees teach and what they do. They teach the right things, but the way they live the law of Moses disempowers other people, particularly the poor, who cannot afford to follow all the rules. They put themselves on a higher plane because they follow the last letter of the law in their pursuit of holiness, and entirely miss the point.
And for Jesus, the point is that the greatest religious leader, the greatest politician, the greatest celebrity will not be the person who lays claim to recognition or honour. The greatest is the person who serves.
The Kingdom of God is where Christ rules. The Kingdom of God is where we live with Christ in charge, where we live in this world in God’s way. And that takes a kind of humility, humility before God, humility before our neighbour.
I came across a story this week which showed that kind of humility.
In 1989, Mother Teresa of Calcutta was very ill with a fever. There was a fever doctor in America, and he was asked to come and treat her. Mother Teresa made it clear to Dr Lombardi, that he musn’t embarrass her Indian doctors, so he worked closely with them. Lombardi spent days exploring all the possible causes of the fever, but they weren’t getting anywhere. The Pope’s cardiologist flew in. Eventually, Lombardi did the tests and felt that it was a bacterial infection caused by her pacemaker, and he explained this to the Indian doctors. The Cardiologist shouted and banged the table and said that couldn’t possibly be the cause.
The Indian doctors went away to confer. In the end, they came back and said they were following Lombardi’s advice. The Cardiologist went off in high dudgeon, straight back to Rome. The Indian doctors asked Lombardi to remove the pacemaker – which was out of Lombardi’s experience. That was not his branch of medicine. But he did it. At one point, when he was having difficulty, he found himself praying to Mother Teresa to help him remove the pacemaker from Mother Teresa! Once the pacemaker was removed, Mother Teresa began to recover and she lived another 8 years.
There is humility in facing truth, in looking at the facts and understanding them, rather than in making decisions based on what you want to happen.
And I watched a film on the TV the other night which showed the opposite, a war thriller about the second war in Iraq, which happened because everyone believed there were Weapons of Mass Destruction. The film was about how lies had been generated about the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction, because that’s what the politicians had wanted to hear. And the hero in the film was trying to find out the truth.
Lies are used to promote an evil world.
The Kingdom of God is Revolution, because it means putting everything in our world under Christ, because it means hearing Christ’s truth even when it’s inconvenient, because it means paying attention to the poor and humble.
Russell Brand is calling for revolution, and he knows it requires a change in our meaning, purpose, values and sense of worth. But we have the Revolution already, if only we would grasp it!