Fifty years ago John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Over the past few days we have seen those horrific images repeated over and over again. And we watch the horror with a strange fascination, rather like 12 years ago on September 11th, as we watched again and again the horrific images of the falling twin towers, as they were repeated over and over again.
Evil has always been a source of fascination. We can hardly bear to look, but find it hard to look away. Writers over the centuries have been drawn to it constantly. In Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio we have a riotous and fantastic description of hell and purgatory. By comparison, his depiction of heaven – Paradiso – is rather dull.
When I read Milton’s Paradise Lost, I was struck, as many people are, by how the 17th century Puritan loved describing the devils – ever detail, so vivid and imaginative. By comparison, the inhabitants of heaven – the goodies, are rather bland and two-dimensional.
Perhaps this literary reality tells us something very uncomfortable: that part of us is attracted to what we know is wrong, or even evil. The New Testament is quite clear about this, and it uses the imagery of kingdom and kingship to describe two distinct kingdoms. Left to our own devices, we are drawn to the kingdom of darkness and evil, but in Jesus Christ God has rescued us from this kingdom, and brought us into the kingdom of light, of which he is the king. The Letter to the Colossians, which we have just read, puts it like this: “Give thanks to the Father, who has established you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness, and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved son.”
Over this past year, Sunday by Sunday, we have been celebrating just how it was that God rescued us – the birth of Jesus, his life and ministry, his death and resurrection and ascension. Next week, Advent Sunday, the whole story starts again. But today, on this Sunday called Christ the King, we come to the climax of the story, as it were. Today we give thanks to God for rescuing us, for saving us, for redeeming us, for transferring us into the Kingdom of Light, and for giving us Jesus as our King and our Lord.
So what is this kingdom of darkness from which we have been rescued? One of the most powerful movies I have seen is called Apocalypse Now. It is about a US Colonel played by Marlon Brando, who enters into the heart of the apocalyptic darkness of the Vietnamese War. In doing so he confronts the heart of himself and discovers darkness. He is terrified by what he finds deep within himself. The story is based on the famous book The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.
Perhaps we are drawn to images of darkness and evil, such as 9/11 and Kennedy’s assassination, because we prefer to see evil “out there,” preferably embodied by Islamic militants, or by Soviet or Mafia conspiracies. It is so much harder and more painful to look within ourselves. But that is where the New Testament forces us to look – at the heart of darkness within. And this New Testament conviction is mirrored by these famous words of the Russian novelist and dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
“If only it were all so simple. If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the hearts of every human being.” (Gulag Archipelago)
The kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light collide decisively and violently at the Cross. “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.”
A king? A king? “If you’re the King of the Jews” save yourself?”
But already, on the cross, unseen by those who mocked him, the work of rescue had begun. Just as Colossians put it, “he has rescued us from the power of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.” The work began with the criminals who were hanging on either side of him. One of those criminals heard those gracious words of forgiveness, and looking on the face of Jesus, he sees a king and he utters these words: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He was transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
We too have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. At our baptism, we received the forgiveness of sins, like that criminal on the cross, and we too were transferred decisively into that kingdom, and Jesus Christ is our king. And that is a cause for great rejoicing – and why today, the Feast of Christ the King, is such a joyful culmination of the church year.
And yet, although we have been rescued, forgiven and transferred decisively by Christ into his kingdom of light, we are not immune from being attracted by the other kingdom. And we sometimes act as if we have a foot in each camp!
But the Letter to the Ephesians will have none of it – but urges us, “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light!” (Eph 5:8)
“Live as children of light!” How do we do that? I believe that it’s vitally important in our Christian life, to periodically sit down and take stock of our lives. Ask ourselves, in God’s presence, “Am I living a life that reflects my identity as a child of light?”
Advent, like Lent, is a great time to do that: these next few weeks leading up to Christmas. Find a time, and make a searching and honest inventory of your life. Where, precisely, are you most attracted to that other kingdom of darkness? If Solzhenitsyn is right, and that the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, where is that line within me? And how do I need to amend my life – in practical terms.
And then bring those areas of your life which need amending to the Lord – and ask him to forgive you, and restore you. Many people find that sacramental confession in the presence of a priest can be a huge help in putting your life right. God so longs for us to choose the light, and delights when we return to him. When we fall, God is quick to forgive us, restore us, and welcome us home into the kingdom of light.
So let us give thanks to God who has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved son, where he lives and reigns for ever and ever.
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