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King of Glory
King of Love
A post Easter Sermon
by the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, April 6, 1997


Psalm 24 A King of glory
John 18:33-38 A King of truth
Arcana Coelestia #548 A kingdom of love

Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory. (Psalm 24:9, 10)

I have a little story to tell about the title of this sermon: "King of Glory, King of Love." I put that title up on the sign board on the front of the church this past Thursday--which was the first day I was in after the snow storm. As I drove home that day, I turned on the radio. To my surprise, there was a program on about church music. Specifically, it was about traditional vs. modernized versions of hymns and other church music.

As the radio host explained, church music has not by any means been immune from the movement in our culture to make the English language inclusive of both men and women, and to "clean it up" in other ways. Those who are not very excited about this trend call it the "political correctness" movement. Many of the hymns in the newer hymnals of various denominations have had their words changed so as not to offend the new sensibilities about gender, race, physical or mental handicaps, and so on.

Now all of this was merely interesting information until the host mentioned that one of the words that had been expurgated from some of these hymnals was "king." A king is a male, and we do not want to imply that God is only male and not female also, do we? The problem is, I had just put up for all the world to see (well . . . at least for all of Bridgewater to see) a sermon title that used the word "king" not once, but twice! I had a moment of remorse as I considered what our good friends at the Unitarian church down the street might think if they noticed my sermon title. But the dirty deed was done!

The fact is, we don't talk about kings much at all anymore. There are a few countries left in the world who still call their real leaders "kings"; but these are mostly small, third-world countries. Several modern European countries still have kings and queens, but they have long since lost most of their power to democratically elected parliaments and prime ministers who actually govern the country. We have practically no experience of the reality of kings who govern nations. Even Europeans who live in countries that still have royalty do not have the experience of kings who exercise absolute power over their kingdoms. Most of the time we can safely ignore the royalty that is left in our world--left as a vestige of the past, when kings held sway throughout most of the civilized world.

This was exactly the situation throughout the several millennia during which the Bible was written. For people of Bible times the government of nations was synonymous with kings and kingdoms. Kings with absolute power were a daily reality throughout much of Biblical history. For the Israelites, the experience of having a king started with the anointing of Saul fairly early in the history of their nation. It continued more or less unbroken right up through New Testament times.

However, during much of their later history they were ruled, not by their own kings, but by foreign powers. Several empires occupied Israel over the centuries, including Babylon, Persia, and, in Gospel times, Rome.

Yes, the Israelites knew both the positive and the negative side of kingship. They had experienced the pride of having a king like David, who conquered their enemies and ushered in a time of peace and prosperity for Israel. They had also known the shame and exploitation of having a foreign power occupy their land and treat them in arbitrary, abusive, and often deadly ways. For the Israelites, kingship--both its good face and its bad face--was a matter of long personal and cultural experience.

As 20th century Westerners, we can't possibly have that personal and cultural experience. We are too used to voting for our leaders, and voting them out when we believe they are no longer leading us in the direction we wish to go. It is unlikely that we will ever have the gut-level feeling of what it is to be under a king--either a king of our own people or one from a foreign nation. We can only learn from history some of the things that happened when kings ruled. We can only try to imagine what it might have been like.

What we learn from the Bible and from history--and what we imagine based on that learning--can help us to gain some sense of the force of our Bible readings for today. Try to imagine some of that force of royalty and kingship as I re-read part of Psalm 24.

Lift up your heads, O gates!
And be lifted up, O ancient doors!
That the King of glory may come in.
Who is the King of glory?
The Lord, strong and mighty,
The Lord, mighty in battle.

Lift up your heads, O gates!
And be lifted up O ancient doors,
That the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The Lord of hosts; he is the King of glory.

Kings were very powerful in the experience of the Israelites. But this King of glory was not just any old king. No! To use the Biblical phrase, this was "the King of kings, and Lord of lords" (Rev. 17:14; 19:16). An earthly king held sway over some part of the populated world. But this was the king of the universe--the one who made the laws that governed both earthly rulers and their subjects. The one who caused day and night, summer and winter, life and death. This king held all of our lives in the palm of his hand, moment by moment, bending both empires and sparrows to his will.

We can see Swedenborg's point when he says that it is a good idea to find out just what kind of a king this is. To use our own cultural metaphors, we will be living under the government of the United States for the few decades of our earthly lives. But after we die, who will we look to instead of the President and Congress? Who will govern our lives for all eternity? What kind of government will it be? Will we like it? Will it be like having one of our own beloved people ruling over us? Or will we be ruled with an iron scepter by a power foreign to our way of thinking and feeling?

This may seem like more of a theoretical question than a real-life issue. After all, right now we are dealing with life in this world, not life in the next. Yet even here, the most important parts of our lives are not governed by the President and Congress. Our national, state, and local governments make laws about what we can buy and sell; about how we can and can't behave in various situations; about how we can treat other people.

But earthly governments cannot make any laws about how we will think and feel about these things. They cannot govern our motives nor our beliefs--as much as they may try. And though civil limits on our behavior certainly can and do affect our lives, our experience here on earth is far more determined by our beliefs and attitudes than it is by any external constraints that may be put upon us.

Let's take personal bankruptcy as an example. For one person, going bankrupt is an occasion for suicide. For another person, it is a setback to be weathered through--difficult, yes, but nothing that breaks that person's spirit. What is the difference between these two people? The bankruptcy is the same. In other words, the material event--the part of life that is subject to earthly governments--is the same. But these two people have different inner, or spiritual, governments. For one, money is central--a ruling factor. For another, money is subordinate--certainly not the most important thing in life. The core experiences of our lives are determined by inner forces, not by external constraints such as kings and Congresses.

Though we do not have the experience of living under a king or queen, we do have the experience of living under some form of spiritual government that has great power over our lives. If we stop to think about it, we will realize that the way we experience life is largely determined by what we have chosen as our inner, spiritual "king" or "queen." If we are grumpy and resentful about life--whatever our outward circumstances might be--that is because of the attitude we have taken toward life. If we are mostly happy and content with our life--even if our outward circumstances may be humble or difficult--that is also because of the attitude we have taken toward life. The spiritual ruler we have chosen for ourselves may not always determine the course of our material life, but it certainly determines whether our experience of life will be a good or a bad one.

Now we can begin to appreciate some of the deeper significance of a king, or ruler, in our lives. This was the significance that Jesus was pointing toward in our reading from John. Pilate challenged Jesus. He asked, "Are you a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth."

Run that by me again? A king? Truth? What do these two have to do with each other? Pilate was certainly perplexed by this. "What is truth?" he replied. We can almost hear the skepticism--even cynicism--in his voice. A king, obviously, is someone who tells others what to do--someone who rules their lives.

Ah hah! Isn't that exactly what truth does? Whatever we adopt as true, that tells us what to do with our lives. If we accept as true the idea that we must look out for ourselves first because nobody else will, that distorted "truth" will rule our lives and everything we do. If we accept as true the idea that we must care for others, that truth will rule our lives and everything we do. And the difference in our lives could not be more profound.

Jesus was not content with a mere earthly kingdom. No, he knew that earthly kingdoms and governments come and go. In a thousand years, most kings are entirely forgotten. For others, the vast empire that they built and gloried in has been reduced to a chapter in a history book. Our Lord was not going to settle for something as transitory as material power. Not when there was a much deeper and more profound type of power that was needed so greatly both here on earth and in the spiritual world.

That power is not only the power of truth, but the power of love. Truth--our attitudes and beliefs--guides our actions. But love drives us. What we love above all else will determine what our life is like, not only here on earth, but to all eternity. The greatest law of the universe is the one Jesus gives us in the Gospels. It is the same one that Swedenborg reports is the basis of all the laws that govern the universe. It is the law that we should love the Lord above everything else, and love other people as much as we love ourselves. That is our King of glory, personified in the Lord Jesus Christ. Will we open the gates of our spirit and let the King of glory rule in our hearts?

Lift up your heads, O gates!
And be lifted up O ancient doors,
That the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.

Music:  Shout to the Lord

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