This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 11/8/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Psalm 110 and Mark 12:35-37. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
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I’m feeling relieved today. It’s been a long week of election uncertainty. A lot of tension in our house on Tuesday, not knowing which way things might go. I imagine that a lot of you have felt the same.
It’s been a lot to bear. We’ve been living under a growing atmosphere of chaos and uncertainty for the last months, years, decades. Our country has descended into what feels like a spiritual cold war, a clash between several different visions of what the United States of America should be. Tensions have risen so high that it hasn’t seemed that far fetched to imagine a hot war, real organized violence in our streets.
We as a country passed an important test this week. Despite immense pressures and temptations, we managed to hold free and fair elections, without the acts of violence and intimidation that many had feared. We owe a great debt of gratitude to the people who worked the polls and monitored the process to ensure that every vote was counted.
In the face of what felt like overwhelming darkness, we have been granted a reprieve.
I’ve been seeing a lot of celebration on my Facebook feed. And that’s natural. It feels like we just dodged a bullet, and it’s OK to rejoice in that.
But our scripture this morning comes as a reminder that Jesus does not join us in our partisan celebration. The kingdom of God does not come through force. It does not come through elections. It does not come through political parties and ideologies. In Jesus, we encounter the power of God in weakness. His triumph is born in the midst of despair. His resurrection is one that comes after – not before – death and burial.
One of the titles of the Messiah that the Jewish people were waiting on was “son of David.” We learn from the gospels of Matthew and Luke that Jesus is a descendent of King David through his father Joseph. He belongs to the Davidic line through adoption, through Joseph’s faithfulness to the word of God through the angel who spoke to him.
Joseph was a righteous man, who stood by Mary, the mother of Jesus, even though he knew that the child she carried had not come from him. Joseph believed the most absurd thing, that Mary’s child had come not from another man, but from God. Like his ancestor Abraham, Joseph trusted God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.
Jesus was a descendent of David by adoption, to fulfill the prophecy about the Messiah. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the City of David, to fulfill what was said by the prophet Micah: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
Jesus was this long-awaited king of Israel that Micah foretold, the one who would restore Israel and bring about the fullness of the kingdom of God.
Matthew and Luke both embrace Jesus’ identity as the son of David without any further questions. But Mark’s gospel account provides us with another angle on the question. According to Mark, during Jesus’ teaching in the Temple, he actively rejected the title “son of David.” Jesus justifies this by an appeal to the words of Psalm 110, traditionally understood to be written by King David himself, which begins with, “The Lord says to my lord.”
Jesus tells the crowds, “How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? … David himself calls the Messiah his lord in the psalms. If he calls the Messiah lord, how can the Messiah be his son?”
If you’re just doing a casual read through Mark, and don’t have a lot of background, this seems like a really weird passage. Why is Jesus making such a big deal about whether he’s David’s son or not? Matthew and Luke say he is, and the prophecy about the Messiah says he should be. So why, in Mark’s version of the story, is Jesus going out of his way to question the Messiah’s lineage?
Theologian and commentator Ched Myers really opened this passage up for me. In his ground-breaking commentary on Mark, Binding the Strong Man, he observes that Jesus’ rejection of the title “son of David” was not about genealogy; it was about ideology. Jesus was, in fact, the son of David through adoption by his earthly father Joseph. Jesus was born in Bethlehem according to the word of the prophets. Jesus had all the credentials of the messiah that the people of Israel were expecting.
But in the substance of his message and mission, Jesus was nothing like the messianic son of David that the Israelites hoped for. The scribes and religious leaders assumed that the coming anointed one of God would be a military leader, a “man of blood,” a victorious warlord like King David. The Messiah would be a man of arms. He would lead a triumphant rebellion against the hated Roman occupation and establish God’s kingdom on earth through force. He would build an empire to last a thousand years.
Based on what we know now about Jesus and the way of the cross, it might seem silly that practically everyone thought the Messiah was going to be a warlord. But it’s really not strange at all that the scribes expected this. It would have been in keeping with a certain pattern we can observe in scripture: God anointed Joshua to do the violent work of clearing a homeland for the Hebrews. God appointed judges – petty warlords, guided by the Holy Spirit – to guide the people of Israel. And finally, God anointed kings – first Saul, then David and Solomon and so on.
The kingship was not something that God wanted. God’s desire was to rule his people directly, but people were too afraid of what it would mean to live face to face with God. So God appointed mediators – first Moses, and later other leaders, to mediate between God and his people. This wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was a baby step towards where God wanted to take Israel – and eventually, the whole of humanity.
The kingdom of God is not a new human empire, no matter how admirable and aligned with our politics. The kingdom of God is the presence of the Holy Spirit dwelling in his people. It is a creation restored and transformed. It is Jesus Christ, come to teach his people himself.
The scribes didn’t get this. Neither did the zealots, or the Saduccees, or any other group that had any real following. Not even Jesus’ disciples understood at first. Everybody thought that the pinnacle of God’s plan would be to establish a really, really good version of David. A wonder-king, a messiah-king – a warlord who would govern justly. A strongman who would beat all our enemies into powder and give us peace and freedom, finally.
That’s what they wanted from Jesus, and that is why Jesus was so utterly offensive to them. Because he was not the son of David. He was not the inheritor of the violent, domination-based kingdom system that God allowed to be established as a concession to our hardness of heart.
Jesus offered the world something entirely different: a way of self-emptying love. King Jesus is not seated on a throne; he hangs from a cross. Our messiah doesn’t wear a crown of gold, but rather a twist of thorns. He does not receive the praises and adulation of worldly victory, but the jeers and beatings of the mob. He comes to us bearing, not the sword of Caesar, but the staff of a humble shepherd, tending the flock.
“How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared: ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.”’”
The way of Jesus is not the way of David. It is not the way of Caesar. It is a gentle, humble way, that waits for God himself to make all things subject to himself. It is a path of peace, that trusts in God to be the ruler. It is a way of love, that lays aside all vengeance, all ideology, all hope of success, to make itself available for the healing of the nations.
I am reminded of the famous last words of the early Quaker prophet James Nayler, who, as he lay dying from a severe beating that he received while attempting to return to his home in the north of England, said:
“There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty…
If it be betrayed it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God. Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned, and takes its kingdom with entreaty and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind. In God alone it can rejoice, though none else regard it or can own its life. It’s conceived in sorrow and brought forth without any to pity it, nor doth it murmur at grief and oppression; it never rejoiceth but through sufferings, for with the world’s joy it is murdered.
I found it alone, being forsaken; I have fellowship therein with them who lived in dens and desolate places in the earth, who through death obtained this resurrection and eternal holy life.”
James Nayler was not a son of David. We as followers of Jesus cannot be sons of David. We must be sons and daughters of that Spirit that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. We are called to dwell in a life and joy that is suffocated by the false celebrations of this world. We are invited to live with no lord but Jesus; no earthly empire of red states, blue states, and electoral colleges – only the kingdom of God.
As followers of Jesus, we can never be sons and daughters of Biden or Trump, or Obama, or Bernie, or any other political leader on whom we might be tempted to project messianic expectations. We are not children of this world. We are born again into the life of Christ’s kingdom. We are children of the light, and called to walk in the light as Jesus walks in the light.
We are the light of the world, regardless of who is in power. We are given the spirit of the prophets, to speak the word of God to our elected princes. We are given the joy and burden of the cross, to carry it through the streets of our own Jerusalem. We are to serve not Pilate, not Caesar, not Herod, not David – but the one true God and father of us all.
So go ahead and celebrate the election results, if that’s what you have in your heart. And keep working for justice in our nation. But don’t forget whose children we are, and whose kingdom we dwell in.
Our allegiance is not to the rulers and parties and causes of this age. We are the sons and daughters of God. We are brothers and sisters by adoption to our precious, crucified savior, Jesus. Our calling and mission is to do the works that Jesus did, as he empowers us by the Holy Spirit: Heal the sick, raise the dead, liberate the captive, and speak good news to the poor.
Now is the time, regardless of who is president.