Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Words matter. We know this to be true everywhere from great works of literature to advertising slogans to personal conversations. Words can tell a story. They can inspire and encourage us. They can frustrate or infuriate us. Even with the best of intentions, when we’re not careful with our choice of words, we can inadvertently cause confusion or even pain. Words matter.
Words in worship matter too. Debra and Ron Rienstra, in their book Worship Words, call us “to renewed appreciation of words in worship: how they bless us and how we can use them well, to the glory of God and for the building up of God’s people.” It is their conviction that, “whether words are scripted or extemporaneous, old or new, formal or colloquial, taken from a service book or composed for the occasion, [worship words] can be done well or done badly. They can serve to heal, feed, and challenge the people of God, or they can bore, confuse, or mislead them.” (Worship Words, p. 19)
I spend quite a bit of time each week trying to select our worship words carefully, for just this reason. As I visited other congregations on my sabbatical this summer, I enjoyed observing how other communities are selecting their own words for worship. And as some of you know, I’ve been reading through a couple of Jewish prayer books in recent months, and sharing with you some beautiful words from those worship resources as well.
From all of these visits and all of this reading, there was one phrase that kept catching my eye as I thought ahead about this sermon for Christ the King Sunday. That phrase in Hebrew is melech ha’olam, “king of the universe.” As in: baruch atah Adonai eloheynu, melech ha’olam…“Blessed are you, O Lord our God, king of the universe…”
It’s how many Jewish prayers begin, so it’s a phrase that comes up regularly in celebrations ranging from weekly Sabbaths to annual high holy days. It may well have been part of the Passover blessings Jesus said over the bread and the wine before sharing them with his disciples at the Last Supper, a meal we remember and reenact every time we celebrate communion together.
Baruch atah Adonai, eloheynu, melech ha’olam… “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, king of the universe.” A standard Jewish form of address to God.
I imagine many of us have favorite ways to address God. As a child, especially at church camp and in my grandparents’ churches, I heard a lot of prayers directed to “our heavenly Father.” Pastor Justin often uses a form of this address in his prayers, modeling his language on Jesus’ use of Abba, a term of endearment for ‘father’ or ‘dad’, when he prays “Papa God.” When I worshipped in Episcopal congregations, I recall many prayers beginning with words like “Almighty God” and “Holy God.” These days I find myself often opening prayers with other descriptive terms. I’ll use phrases like “Gracious God,” or “Loving God.”
Each of these forms of address is a perfectly appropriate way to talk to God, of course. All are theologically sound. All have good biblical precedent. But I find it interesting that I don’t often hear Christians using in our prayers that standard Jewish form of address, “king of the universe.”
I wonder why that is?
Certainly the tradition of referring to God as king has a long history in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. The psalm we used as our call to worship this morning, for instance, was used in celebrations of God’s kingship in ancient Israel. “Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors! That the King of glory may come in.” Those words were said as the ark of God was carried in a grand procession and ultimately entered the sanctuary. Those are the doors and gates in question there. Those verses from Psalm 24 are talking about opening up doors of the sanctuary, so they could carry in this visible sign of the presence of God, the king of glory.
We also heard words about God’s kingship in our first Scripture reading today, from Psalm 97. “The Lord is king! Let the earth rejoice; let the coastlands be glad!... You, O Lord, are most high over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods.”
So important was God’s kingship in ancient Israel that the prophet Samuel really resisted the people’s desire for a human king. While it was understandable that they wanted to be like the other nations around them, Samuel knew that human kings would bring with them many dangers, including a growing appetite for power and wealth, and a tendency to take advantage of other people to remain on top. Sure enough, with the rise of the monarchy in Israel came plenty of corruption among its rulers over the years. Of course every other nation in human history has had its issues with power corrupting too! The kingship of God, however, is a far purer form of rule.
As the Christian church took shape in New Testament times, early Christians took pains to point out that Jesus Christ, being God, also ruled as King. So for instance in the book of Revelation we find Christ seated on a heavenly throne, with a great multitude from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages falling on their faces before his throne in worship. (Revelation 7:9-12) Our reading from Ephesians this morning employs similar imagery in speaking of Christ being “raised from the dead and seated… at [God’s] right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come… all things [are] under his feet.” (Ephesians 1:20-22)
The Sovereignty (or rule) of God is one of the primary teachings of the Reformed Christian tradition too, of which the Presbyterian Church is a part. God’s in charge; God rules; all else is secondary and subject to divine authority and control. This is one of our core beliefs.
But perhaps all this biblical and church historical background only begs the question - why don’t talk we very much these days about God as king? Why don’t we generally pray to God, as our Jewish friends do, as king of the universe?
I wonder if it’s at all connected with our own love of control? The fact that we like to be in charge ourselves? We like to believe we are the rulers and commanders of our lives, the captains of our respective ships. Give us a nice friendly manageable God any day; give us Jesus as our friend and brother, but let’s not get overly excited about God as king. After all, if God is our king, that means we are merely God’s subjects, right?
To be fair, there is nothing about the doctrine of God’s sovereignty or kingship that prevents us from playing an important role in what God’s doing in the world. The key is remembering whose decisions, whose authority is primary, and whose is secondary.
There’s a song in the musical “The Book of Mormon” where mission assignments are being doled out to all of the nineteen-year-old guys, and the young man who’s considered to be the best and brightest among his peers has just been assigned a partner who’s … significantly less impressive, shall we say. So the world’s best young Mormon, if you will, launches into a song about all the incredible mission work he’s going to do. He’s been preparing his whole lifetime for this. He just knows it’s going to be amazing, but he needs to explain to his partner how it’s actually going to work:
“You and me, but mostly me, are gonna change the world forever…
“Cause I can do most anything,” he continues, and his goofy partner chimes in with a grin: “and I can stand next to you and watch!”
“Every hero needs a sidekick, every captain needs a mate, every dinner needs a side dish on a slightly smaller plate…”
The whole song is pretty funny. But you can get the gist of it from that one line, “You and me, but mostly me…”
If you can hang in there with me while I play with that image a bit – this “you and me, but mostly me” idea? - I think in some ways this is the message we can end up conveying to God. You and me, God, but mostly me… I mean, sure, God, you’re in the mix… and I can talk a good story about your kingship, sovereignty, the whole nine yards, but really I’m going to make all the important decisions here. We give lip service to God’s rule in our lives, but do we mean it? For again, being serious about God as our king means obeying orders, living as God’s servants and subjects, and trusting that God has things under control.
And actually when it comes to God, the “you and me, but mostly me” dynamic works in the opposite direction of the way we might find it most comfortable, doesn’t it? The Lord God, king of the universe, who is totally in charge of everything and everyone, can invite us to participate in God’s amazing work in the world, but always with an understanding that we are not the most powerful or effective partner in that relationship. “You and me,” sure, but “mostly me,” says God. Really I’m the one in charge here.
However obvious it should be that God is God – is king of the universe - and we are not, it’s still a humbling reminder whenever it knocks our egos back into place, isn’t it?
But it can also be tremendously freeing.
As William Willimon reminds us, it’s so important as Christians that we regularly ask ourselves: “Who’s in charge here?” All kinds of answers will be suggested to us. For instance, that the wealthy and powerful are in charge. That those who possess vast arsenals of weapons are in charge. That those of a certain political party, or those holding certain governmental positions are in charge.
The Kingship of God also speaks powerfully to us in times when someone or something seems to have us under its control against our will. Christians are not immune to the problems of life; we live in the same world as everyone else. We will inevitably witness tragic situations. We will undoubtedly face dangers that make us wonder if God really is in control.
So it’s a brave thing we proclaim here today. Just as the generals and presidents, the bankers and corporate giants, are not the kings of our universe, so also the terrorists and the drug lords are not king. And cancer and depression and addiction and other agonizing diseases are not in charge. And poverty and racism and violence simply do not have the final say. As Patrick Miller puts it, “The kingship [of God] sets us free from the fear of all lesser lords, [not only those] whom we may serve obediently, and even willingly, [but also those] who may cause trouble and suffering; none of them ultimately rule over us.” (Patrick D. Miller, Interpreting the Psalms, p. 93)
So let’s choose our worship words carefully today. Who’s in charge here? It is Christ our King. It is the Lord our God, melech ha’olam, King of the Universe. Amen.