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Stir us up, Lord

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The Sunday before the first Sunday in Advent is known as either Christ the King, the Reign of Christ, or the very prosaic Sunday next before Advent. When I was growing up it was also known as ‘Stir-up Sunday’, because in the Anglican tradition the collect appointed for the Sunday next before Advent is the rather wonderful:

Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by you be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Common Worship)

Christ the King. What sort of ideas does that provoke in your mind? We’ve had a royal sort of week, with the announcement of the engagement of young William Wales. An event like that tends to make us think about things royal. When we think of kings we think about power, wealth, prestige, status and adoration. The Queen tends to play down such things these days, but that is what the institution is all about. Monarchies are systems in which power trickles down from the top - the Queen gives power to the parliament, which gives power to official organs of government, which empowers officials, who do things to people. Republics are supposed to be different, power coming from the people and being delegated to office bearers, but in reality they differ little from monarchies. I have mused that the idea of Christ the King is attractive to the institutional church because then the ‘trickle down’ idea of power can be made explicit. Christ is the King, power flows to bishops, and from them to priests and deacons, finally being permitted to the laity under certain circumstances provided they have a licence. How different this is to the sort of king Jesus actually is, which also says a lot about the sort of kingdom the Kingdom of God actually is.

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:33-43 NRSV)

Jesus is the sort of king who allows himself to be stripped naked, demeaned, tortured, misunderstood, abused, and finally killed, in order to live out the Father’s command to love and to give without counting the cost. Even in his last moments Jesus is loving, serving and redeeming. Jesus’ rule is prophesied in Isaiah:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or life up his voice, or make it heard in the street; the bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he had established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. (Isaiah 42:1-4 NRSV)

This sort of kingship is so different to the way things are in the world and in the church. In the world and the church it is the powerful who are protected, who are given status and whose position is bolstered by the rules. It is the powerless who frequently bear the brunt of their grasping for power, and their misunderstandings of Jesus’ call to live as servants. The world hears so little of Jesus voice that it might be forgiven for getting it wrong. There is no excuse for the church’s failure. The clear voice of Jesus is read day by day - we just ignore it, because it is inconvenient, costly, and makes us different. We want to fit in.

However, our travels with Luke have shown us what true service is really about, what being children of the Kingdom is all about. It is about choosing to love Jesus, put Jesus above everything, and serve everyone who needs, without counting the cost, without losing our love for the one we’re serving - even when we don’t like them - and about rejecting the invitations to status, security and privilege.

It is about being called to be a servant in the same way as Jesus is a king. Jesus is absolutely uncompromising about this:

So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10:42-45)

Simply saying we’re a servant is not enough. The Pope does that. One of his titles is ‘servant of the servants of God’. The problem is that the Pope does not live the life of a servant. He lives the life of a king, or at least a prince. So do the vast majority of our church leaders. I suspect this is why people feel such a connection with a man like the Dalai Lama. Here is a man who seems to live as simply as his creed urges. Why don’t our leaders? Why don’t we? Why don’t we take seriously Jesus’ absolutely clear words? Why do we rationalise them, and interpret them spiritually? They seem fairly clear to me. Do they seem clear to you?

Part of it has to do with our wills. And that is where Stir Up Sunday comes in. If we actually pray that collect, asking for God to stir up our wills so that we bring forth good works, we will be rewarded. They won’t be the sort of rewards the world offers - status, stuff and fleeting pleasures - but we will be rewarded with life in the kingdom. One of the challenges we face is how to live out our citizenship of the Kingdom of Heaven in parallel with our citizenship of the world in which we find ourselves. Jesus is clear about that. We need to make our choice to follow God, which means that we listen to God’s word first, above and beyond the powerful, the rich and the important. It means standing up for right, even when it isn’t popular. It means standing with the downtrodden, even when we don’t feel like it, or when we don’t like them. It means being willing to give all we have - literally, all we have - to make sure the poor have enough. Citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven means servanthood.

Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by you be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Common Worship)

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