Today is the culmination of the church year. Before we rush from Black Friday to Advent and Christmas, let’s stop a moment. Today we celebrate Christ the King. Not only as Prophet, not only as High Priest, but Christ the King. Prophet, okay. High Priest, okay. But King? As we just heard in John’s Gospel, Pilate asks, “So you are the king of the Jews?” And again, “You are a king, then?” Pilate inquires.
Pilate was baffled. Like Pilate, we sometimes wonder exactly what is this Kingdom of which Jesus is King? When the Roman Governor asked if he was a king, Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Even today many Christians are baffled by the idea of the Kingdom of Heaven. Where is it? How do we get there? Will they let us in? Is there a quota? A wall?
Jesus told us plainly that citizenship in his kingdom is a matter of faith. Here on this earthly plane we are pilgrims. We are Immigrants. Faith is our passport. Faith is our permanent Visa for the kingdom of heaven. All our church ritual, all our traditional rites are in support of building and growing our faith —and our trust in God and his Kingdom. We run the risk, though, of becoming so comfortable, so familiar with practicing religion that we put God and his Kingdom in a box.
Here’s an example. Let’s go back to Capernaum, that little fishing village up at the north end of Lake Galilee. Jesus is a local Jewish boy lately from Capernaum. How can he be a King? Everybody in town knows Jesus and his mother, Mary. Wasn’t he a local carpenter? Isn’t he James and Simon’s brother? Aren’t his sisters right here in town? How can this local kid be a king? They had Jesus figured. They KNEW what he was. What he could and couldn’t do. They had him boxed.
All over Judea, the blind recovered their sight, the lame walked, lepers were made clean, the deaf heard, the dead were raised to life. But the people of Capernaum knew Jesus couldn’t really have done this. They had him boxed. Jesus was astonished at their lack of faith. Jesus himself attributed the healings to faith. Jesus didn’t say “I have healed you.” Again, and again, Jesus told people, it is your faith that has healed you. The people he healed, their families, their friends, they had faith that the power to heal was somehow resident in Jesus. They wanted healing, and they believed that God, through Jesus, could and would heal them. They brought their faith to Jesus. They took the enormous risk of belief. If we have faith God can do great miracles, that means God is very, very big and very, very powerful. It also means we are very, very small and not powerful, not in charge. Very scary and uncomfortable. So, what do we really feel about these miracles? Do we look for a comfortable explanation? Was Jesus a super-powerful faith healer? Some are convinced there had to be natural, physical causes for the miracles. Or a sociological, or psychological cause, or even an honest error in perception. Some describe the feeding of the four and five thousand as social miracles. Those tough, field-smart Israeli peasants must have packed extra bread and dried fish, and moved by the words of Jesus, shared their food. Maybe willingness to share food with strangers is generous, wonderful even, but not miraculous. The gentile woman from Tyre who begged Jesus for the scraps that fell from the table? The deaf and dumb man whom Jesus healed with a touch and a word. The woman who, unseen by Jesus, touched the hem of his garment and was instantly healed. The blind man whose sight was restored. All the miracles of healing for those who asked or wanted to be healed. Were these just a “placebo effect?” Were the illnesses and blindness just hysterical, psychosomatic and Jesus maybe a “fast-acting shrink?” When we think this, we trivialize the power of God’s ability to merge the surface material and the spiritual real. Oh, how we put God in a box! I don’t need to remind you that the Kingdom of God is really big. God is so big we can’t calculate the height, depth, width or length of God. God is beyond human comprehension, never mind human measurement. This morning’s readings from Daniel can only hint at the incomprehensible majesty of God’s kingdom. “His throne was flames of fire and its wheels were blazing fire; a river of fire flowed from his presence.” Revelation exhorts us to “Look, he is coming with the clouds… ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is, who was, and who is to come, the sovereign Lord of all.”
Still, many otherwise very smart people are determined to whittle God down to human size. Put God in a manageable box. There’s nothing new in this. And, there is nothing new in the price it exacts. A small God can make us feel big —but only for a little while. I think much of the anxiety, anger and outright craziness we see affecting our country —and much of the Western world— comes from our ever-increasing efforts to stuff God into an ever-smaller box. The news plays out the consequences of trying to put God into a small box. God warns us over and over in both Old Testament and New Testament. God is Holy, Incomprehensible, Loving and Real. Do not explain God in human terms. Do not try and reduce God or contain God in a space in which we allow him to exist. Do not try to make God over in your image. Our role as a human being is to allow God to transform, change us into his image.
People have been trying to put God in a box as far back as we’ve recorded. Even a literal box. Our Psalm 132 reminded us King David tried to put God in a box. He decided to build God a house. God’s answer through the prophet Nathan, ’Are you to build me a house to dwell in? Down to this day I have never dwelt in a house. Since I brought Israel up from Egypt; I lived in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I journeyed with Israel, did I ever ask any of the judges whom I appointed shepherds of my people Israel why they had not built me a cedar house? David’s son Solomon decided to build God a house. Solomon’s Temple as it is called, was just that. Solomon’s Temple. God did not ask Solomon to build it. But, God accommodated Solomon and let him build it. It’s humbling to realize that the wisest human being of all time made the same mistake as his father David. Solomon wanted to put God in a box. God let him build the temple. God also let Solomon acquire 1000 wives and concubines. God also let Solomon rebuild pagan high places so his women, and all Israel, could worship fake Gods. But, the result of Solomon’s actions, putting God safely in a box and in doing things his own way, in the end led to civil war, the breakup of Israel and Judah, and the destruction and captivity that followed Solomon’s death.
God doesn’t live in a box or a house. Our human tendency, like David, and even like wise Solomon, is to think in human terms, not God’s terms. When we put God in a box, we diminish our faith. We push faith away. We deny faith —we even hide from it. For some who run away from the riskiness of faith, church becomes empty rituals. Others can lose themselves in good works. Good works are very important, charitable works are one of the fruits of our faith. There is a potential trap in “good works.” Doing good works makes it easy to let the good works substitute for faith. It’s safe. We don’t need a powerful God to do good works. We can do this ourselves. We can trust in us to do these things. Faith in a powerful God is unnecessary.
Were the miracles real? Did events unfold in Judea as the Bible describes? Did Jesus really work miracles for people who believed he could do this? If God can’t even really multiply bread and fish, If God couldn’t even drive out a demon, if God couldn’t actually open ears and loosen tongues, how could God have created the universe! Walking on water? It’s no metaphor. God who created the elements in the stars and who established the unchanging rules which govern all matter and energy, seen and unseen, who created light from darkness and life out of entropy, our God can and does overpower the material by the spiritual. Faith drove out the demon. Faith gave the hearing and speech. Jesus walked on water. Peter walked on water, and only when Peter took his eyes off Jesus and looked down did he begin to sink. This is good advice for Christians. Keep your eyes on Jesus! Jesus is everywhere, unboxed and unlimited by time and space, unbounded by physical vision or human touch. Jesus wants us to pay attention to him because he wants us to become like him, become his brothers and sisters. Full citizens of his Kingdom. The Lord is not finished with us. We are still evolving as a species. We humans are still being transformed from our animal roots to becoming children of God. Engaging our faith will change us and transform us into citizens of God’s Kingdom!
When we try to put God in a box, reduce God to what we think is reasonable, we trivialize God. With God in the box we just “go through the motions” of religion. Friends, we know God is not in a box. God is on his throne in charge of his kingdom, and He wants to do great things for us. He wants something from us and for us. God will multiply whatever we bring him. So, bring God your best, bring him your faith, suspend your skepticism! Jesus used farming and fishing parables for the farmers and fisher-folk of Judea. Jesus wanted them to understand that Faith is not just “more of the same.” Faith multiplies. Faith is exponentially powerful. Faith lifts us out of the everyday box of our lives and breaks open our limitations. The parables and lessons Jesus teaches about his kingdom are familiar to us. Maybe too familiar. Let’s hear a few again with a fresh ear, listen and really hear Jesus teaching on the multiplication power of faith.
‘The kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed... smaller than any other seed, but when it has grown ... it becomes a tree, big enough for the birds to come and roost among its branches.’
‘Your faith is too small. Truly I tell you: if you have faith no bigger than a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there!” and it will move; nothing will be impossible for you.’
‘The kingdom of Heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and mixed with three measures of flour till it was all leavened.’ A merchant looking out for fine pearls found one of very special value; so he went and sold everything he had and bought it.'
To him who has, more will be given. To him who has not, even the little he has will be taken away.
The seed sown on good soil is the person who hears the word and understands it; he ... yields a hundredfold, or sixtyfold, or thirtyfold.’
Our human tendency is to avoid the risk, the challenge of faith in a powerful God. The people of Capernaum show what happens when we put God in a box. Our human tendency is to make man the measure of all things. We know what we can and can’t do. We want a God and King like us. An unthreatening God who doesn’t make unreasonable demands on us. A God who accepts us just the way we are. We’re happy with the “loving us” part. We’re not so happy with the “changing us” part.
As we wrap up, recall how the ritually faithful of Capernaum were certain Jesus’ could not work miracles for them. Their faith was that miracles would NOT happen. Their faith was proved right. The people of Capernaum show what happens when we put God in a box. God left town!
So, let God out of the box. Trust your faith. Believe in the absolute power of faithful prayer. Jesus' Kingdom is at hand.
May God add his Blessing to our reflections.