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Who’s the Boss?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 7/11/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was Psalm 24.

I recently watched an old video recording of a debate between John Lennox – a Christian apologist – and Christopher Hitchens – an anti-theist who argued vociferously against any belief in God. 

Over the course of the two-hour-long debate, the two men made a lot of arguments for and against God. Some of them were profound, others less compelling. One of the themes that kept coming up in the debate, from Hitchens, the anti-theist, was the idea of how horrifying it would be for there to be a divine ruler in charge of the whole cosmos.

For Hitchens, real freedom was about the ability of humans to go about our business without any heavenly Father watching us, evaluating us, or guiding us. Hitchens not only did not believe in God, but he felt that if God did exist, it would be a catastrophe. Because in his mind, we would just be slaves to an all-powerful divine being. For Hitchens, the only outcome of a world with God would be one where human beings grovel and God dominates us.

I think this idea of God says a lot more about Hitchens than it does about God.

I would argue that Christopher Hitchens, and other evangelical atheists, fall into the same trap that they accuse their theistic opponents of. For them, religion is wish-fulfillment – making a god in our own image. Yet Hitchens fell into exactly the same god-manufacturing trap that he accused us of. Hitchen’s imaginary, tyrant God is exactly the kind of deity you would expect if you put a fallen human in charge of the universe.

In our scripture reading this morning, in Psalm 24, we are told of the God who created the earth and the seas. The God who blesses his people and vindicates the righteous. This is the God who establishes justice in the land. This is the king of glory: the God whose arrival means peace – the end of conflict and the coming of righteous order. 

As limited and short-sighted human beings, we have a strong drive to be in charge. We want to ensure our own safety. We want to control our environment, and the people around us. All of humanity can relate to Simba from the Lion King, who says: “Oh, I just can’t wait to be king!”

But the good news of the kingdom of God is that we have a king, and he is not us. Our king is not a boss, or the president, or a billionaire, or a member of our family. The good news is that there is a king before whom every knee will bow, and his authority supersedes the authority of all the rulers of this age. There is a king of glory – there is a master and commander and creator of this universe – and he is not us.

Our theme this morning is peace. On Friday, our church newsletter included an excerpt from the famous letter that Quakers sent to the English King Charles II in 1660. This document, the origin of what we now call the Peace Testimony, declared that Charles had nothing to fear from Quakers, because Quakers had renounced warfare altogether as incompatible with the Spirit and teaching of Christ.

King Charles had reason to believe that the Quakers might be trouble, that Quakers might be involved in plots to overthrow the monarchy. So George Fox and other leading Quakers made it very clear that they had no interest in seizing control of English society. They wrote:

And as for the kingdoms of this world, we cannot covet them, much less can we fight for them, but we do earnestly desire and wait, that by the word of God’s power and its effectual operation in the hearts of men the kingdoms of this world may become the kingdoms of the Lord and of his Christ, that he might rule and reign in men by his spirit and truth, that thereby all people, out of all different judgments and professions might be brought into love and unity with God and one with another, and that they might all come to witness the prophet’s words, who said, ‘Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more’. (Is 2:4; Mic 4:3)

What is it that draws us into love and unity with God and one with another? What is it that creates a social reality where nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more? Who is this king of glory that can bring peace to the city and to the nations?

The authors of the Bible understood that peace comes through authority. It comes through a kingdom. It comes from a society in which we do not each have our own way, but submit ourselves to one another, and to the sovereign.

Ever since the Fall, people have insisted on having human kings to unite and rule us. This was the best that we could do. The quintessential human peace is the Pax Romana, the Roman peace that came after conquest. The Roman idea of peace is one of order and quiescence imposed by overwhelming force.

This is the best that we can manage on our own. A peace built on the violence and domination of human sovereignty. In such a peace, war and fighting ceases, because there are men with weapons who are stronger than us, and who will punish us if we do not keep order.

But in the Book of Exodus, as God leads Moses and the Israelites through the wilderness, we learn that God has an entirely different form of kingship, a whole new kind of peace that he wants us to teach us:

Following the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. Waiting for God to speak to the people from the Tent of Meeting. Listening to the prophets of God speaking the word of God to us. Obeying the voice of God, spoken to the people directly. Moving when he moves, living as he directs us. This is the kingdom of God. This kingdom establishes peace, based not on the violence of men, but in the power and presence of God.

The kingdoms of this world can bring us a cease-fire, a cessation of hostilities. And that’s a good thing. I am grateful to live in a society of laws where I don’t expect to be robbed or murdered with impunity at any given moment.

But this vision of society, this Pax Americana, falls far short of what the Creator offers us in Jesus Christ. The world offers us protection, but Jesus offers us shalom – the peace of God that restores and redeems the world from division, hatred, and warfare. This is the sword that heals.

This is the kingdom that the early Quakers referred to when – alluding to the vision of John’s Apocalypse – they envisioned a day when “the word of God’s power and its effectual operation in the hearts of men the kingdoms of this world may become the kingdoms of the Lord and of his Christ, that he might rule and reign in men by his spirit and truth.”

This is the path that leads to peace. Being brought together under the kingship of Jesus. Becoming subjects of the kingdom of heaven, gathered together in the Holy Spirit. Becoming children of the Father, led by the pillar of cloud and fire, moving as he moves.

Lift up your heads, O gates! Who is this king of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the king of glory.

He is our peace. A peace built not on violence or conquest, but upon the crucified, self-giving love of Jesus. Listen to him.