Sunday, December 31, 2023

King of All the Years

So we've come to the day that marks the close of another year. The old year – well, I can't decide if it went slowly or quickly – but it's run its allotted measure of three hundred and sixty-five days down to the wire now. Fourteen hours from now, at the stroke of midnight, the old year is relegated to the history books, and a new year is unfolded, its pages seemingly blank before us, ready for us to write on it our solemn determinations and drives. And this time of transition is often a poignant one, as we think back over the year, not just isolated days or weeks, but as a whole – “to look back on the way that is past, and forward on that which remains.”1 In the face of the prospect of an unsullied canvas for the coming year, it's not uncommon for this to be a day we take for self-reflection – the proverbial 'good, hard look in the mirror.'

The Bible, of course, affords a fair amount of fodder for such a scrutiny. We know it does at an individual level. “Woe to those who call evil 'good' and good 'evil'! … Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and shrewd in their own sight! Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine!” (Isaiah 5:20-22). “They swear falsely..., they have made their faces harder than rock, they refuse to repent” (Jeremiah 5:2-3). “A merchant in whose hands are false balances – he loves to oppress” (Hosea 12:7). “Like a cage full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; therefore they have become great and rich, they have grown fat and sleek” (Jeremiah 5:27). “Their works are works of iniquity..., their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity..., the way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths” (Isaiah 59:6-8). “When pride comes, then comes disgrace” (Proverbs 11:2). So “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear; for... your lips have spoken lies, your tongue mutters wickedness” (Isaiah 59:2-3).

But the Bible also holds up a mirror at a societal level. “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages” (Jeremiah 22:13). “Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves” (Isaiah 1:23), “truth has stumbled in the public squares” (Isaiah 59:14), “woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees and the writers who keep writing oppression..., to rob the poor of my people of their right” (Isaiah 10:1-2). It denounces those who “take interest and profit..., dishonest gain” (Ezekiel 22:13). “Wicked rulers... frame injustice by statute” (Psalm 94:20), and “if a ruler listens to falsehood, all his officials will be wicked” (Proverbs 29:12).

If that's the mirror held up, not to put too fine a point on it, but you probably wouldn't have to go too far to find decent illustrations in the last decade of government charging interest on loans, of failure to give promised benefits to those who serve, of laws passed and verdicts rendered with no substantial connection to justice, of politicians who can fairly be called 'rebels' and 'companions of thieves,' of powerbrokers building themselves a good reputation by hidden or even open unrighteousness, of rulers so craving falsehoods that they surround themselves with corruption, of true ideas being excluded from the public square, and so on, and so on.

I'm not going to belabor those thoughts or cite examples; I'm not in the pulpit to be a pundit. But I will note that a poll earlier this month found that majorities of the American public would prefer that the front-runners of our major political parties not be running, and that two-thirds of Americans have a pessimistic outlook on the state of our political life.2 Most of us, when we reflect on our national health, don't like what the mirror shows back.

Certainly we imagine that to be a stark contrast to the early days of our nation, when one state senate president, painting in the rosiest colors to urge Americans to “prize our political condition,” celebrated that “no man can be deprived of his life, liberty or property but by the operation of laws freely, fairly, and by common consent previously enacted,” and that “religious freedom, banished from almost every corner of the globe, has fixed her standard among us, and kindly invites the distressed from all quarters to repair hither.”3

And yet two years earlier, one American newspaper backed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison accused the government of introducing a “many-headed monster of power... and instrument of oppression” aiming to “pervert the judgment of the people of America” into accepting “those fiats of Congress which attempt to declare right to be wrong or black to be white.”4 On the other hand, their opponents warned that if the other side had its way, there'd follow “tragic scenes of devastation, bloodshed, and horror,”5 attributing to their political adversaries “a mental depravity that rejoices in human misery.”6 Meanwhile, American ears weren't sheltered from the ears of preachers denouncing how “thousands of... our equals by nature are dragged from their native lands, loaded with irons, crowded into floating prisons..., exposed to sale, and bought, and made to submit to severest toil, and tortured at the pleasure of their cruel masters” – all endorsed by American law.7

Those decidedly uncheery judgments all, by the way, were penned during the Washington Administration; and barely were we into the Adams Administration than we read orators decrying “those lying newspapers, lying pamphlets, lying letters, and lying conversations with which the country has been filled..., vipers in our bosom, vultures preying on our bowels.”8 Perhaps aiming the mirror backward through time is little comfort after all.

Nor, if we go further back still, do things on the earthly scene get much better. Take, for instance, a king by the name of Herod. Half-Edomite and half-Arab, yet descended from converts to Judaism, he began his political career with a bold tough-on-crime move, executing bandits without trial, and then implying he'd massacre the whole Jewish court if they tried to try him. He was known to execute not just criminals but their families. He eventually turned his bloodlust toward his own family, driven by raging jealousies and maddening headaches to decree death to brothers-in-law, wives, and sons by the handful. He ruled a surveillance state, sending secret police to ferret out his critics; he demanded absolute loyalty; he had no qualms about torture. He bracketed his convictions, funding God's temple and idol temples from the same purse, all while presenting himself as a champion of Jewish rights. He aspired to be seen as a new Solomon, as a Psalm 72 kind of king.9

But, as we read in the Gospel, so terrified was he of news that a child had just been “born king of the Jews,” rather than having the role appointed by Rome like Herod did, that he sent soldiers traipsing the four miles from his fortress to Bethlehem, with orders to deliver a death penalty to all the infant boys in the village. Joseph and Mary had escaped already with Jesus, but perhaps up to twenty little ones left behind became the first martyrs for Christ (Matthew 2:16). This past week, many different groups of Christians all marked a feast day honoring these 'holy innocents.' Around that same time, Herod – by then old, sick, and greedy – had peaceful protesters burned alive. And finally, knowing how unpopular he was, he had his soldiers round up the most popular Jewish leaders, ordering them to be killed when Herod died, all just so that people wouldn't throw parties when they heard Herod had kicked the bucket. One Jewish writer looked back on Herod and said: “He was a man who was cruel to all alike, and one who easily gave in to anger and was contemptuous of justice.”10

Nothing could be farther from the psalm we read this morning, which gives deep testimony for a people's longing for leadership that looks nothing like Herod, that inspires more than the politics we still see all around us. They're looking for a leader who will “judge your people with righteousness” (Psalm 72:2), who will make decisions based on God's own truth, setting God's people at liberty to pursue their Father's business in the public square. That's the opposite of unequal measures, foolish counsel, framing injustice by statute. They're looking for a leader who will “defend the cause of the poor of the people” (Psalm 72:4) and “judge [God's] poor with justice” (Psalm 72:2), one whose leadership will rule out exploitation, wage theft, other social injustices. They're looking for a leader who will “give deliverance to the children” (Psalm 72:4), one whose reign cherishes the tenderness of young life, refusing to let it be aborted or abused, mutilated or miseducated. They're looking for a leader who will “crush the oppressor” (Psalm 72:4), whose power maintains security against evil, not turning a blind eye to crime. They're looking for a leader whose reign elevates human dignity and the enjoyment of life, one who leads “like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth” (Psalm 72:6) – a life-promoting, life-refreshing presence. Under him, “the mountains bear prosperity for the people” (Psalm 72:3), chasing away poverty and moral degradation and all else that threatens human health.

Over the recent Advent season, we had the opportunity to reflect on Jesus as the promised Son of David who's come to inherit the Throne of David. And from the very beginnings, Christians have read this psalm as being about him, about Jesus Christ.11 We recognize that, while all leaders ought to live up to those standards, yet the only safe bet in that is King Jesus; although we don't yet experience his governance on earth directly, yet this is the way he rules his people. What's more, this psalm sketches us a beautiful picture of the rule of Jesus. “For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper” (Psalm 72:12). He's responsive to the prayers of the helpless, those who cast themselves entirely on his grace. “He has pity on the weak and needy, and saves the lives of the needy” (Psalm 72:13). He's full of compassion and salvation for those who admit their need of him; his mercy is given to the measure of our hunger and thirst for it. “From oppression and violence he redeems their life, and precious is their blood in his sight” (Psalm 72:14). Jesus is a Savior who redeems us from sin's oppression and who prizes our lifeblood, who cares for us individually, who knows each one by name, who desires to engage each citizen of his kingdom person-to-person. Now that's a king!

Jesus is the kind of king we've needed! Jesus is the king we cannot, should not, bear to be without! In another psalm, the psalmist prayed to God: “Prolong the life of the king; may his years endure to all generations! May he be enthroned forever before God; appoint steadfast love and faithfulness to watch over him” (Psalm 61:6-7). And here in this psalm, we have that answered: this kind of king will reign “while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations” (Psalm 72:5). That's a bold statement – an absolute absurdity if we tried to apply it to anybody who isn't Jesus. I mean, think about it: how many empires, dynasties, rulers of the past have the sun and moon watched come and go? Every one! How many of those rulers can say their reign only partly overlapped with the rule of sun and moon in the sky? Not any! When the first human first looked up to heaven, there the sun was already burning bright, there the moon was already orbiting the earth. But the moon has never watched a night when this king wasn't king, and the sun has never once outshined his throne.

His is the kingdom of which it's written: “It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever” (Daniel 2:44). For Christ “will reign... forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:33). “To him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his is an everlasting dominion which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:14), “and all dominions shall serve and obey him” (Daniel 7:27).

Jesus is the king of history. Jesus was king when Rome fell, he was king on the eve of the Arab conquests, he was king before the birth of Charlemagne, he was king before tribes became the nations we know, he was king before Europe met a New World, he was king while the ink on the US Constitution was drying. Jesus was king during the Black Death and the slave trade and the Great Depression and the Holocaust; he was king during the Industrial Revolution and the Wright Brothers' flight and the splitting of the atom, king when Dr. King dreamed his dream, when Apollo 11 went up and the Berlin Wall came down, when the Internet made its first connection. He's king over more than microscope or telescope sees, more than any channel or station or paper can report.

All of history is Christ's domain. All of history passes beneath his scepter. All of history gathers at his bar of judgment. What we call a thousand years ago, the medieval past, to Jesus it might as well have been yesterday (Psalm 90:4). To him, the difference between our national founding and this moment might as well be hours whizzing by, hardly the massive gulf it seems to us. To judge Jesus by the standards of the latest fad would be ridiculous; he came before and outlasts any political arrangement, any movement, any development. And yet, through all this history, he's responsive to the prayers of the helpless, compassionate to those in need, caring individually for the flesh and blood behind every name that was never written down.

We've come to the end of another year – a year we date in reference to Jesus' reign: the Year of Our Lord 2023. In the past year, COVID-19 officially ceased to be a pandemic, which has hopefully relieved and cheered you. Yet the world weathered deadly cyclones and earthquakes and wildfires – perhaps that frightened or alarmed you. Beside a banking crisis, shootings, and bombings, we saw the Russian war in Ukraine continue unabated, and new atrocities inflicted first in Israel by Hamas and then in the Gaza Strip by Israel. We've witnessed sobering atrocities in Nigeria and other places around the world, and maybe that's distressed you and weighed on you. But as we look over this past year, whatever it brought to us, one thing we can confidently say is that Jesus was King there. Not all the war and weather makes a difference in that; it only shows how much earth yet needs to be conformed to his kingdom, how much nature and nation yet rage against the LORD's Anointed (Psalm 2:1-2). This year, for the first time ever, the human population topped eight billion of us on earth at once – and yet each one is known by name to King Jesus, is treasured and cherished and prized and heard by King Jesus.

Tomorrow starts, as we said, a fresh year – God help us. The good news, the prophets mention, is that if any “turns from his sin and does what is just and right, if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has taken by robbery, and walks in the statutes of life, not doing injustice, he shall surely live … None of the sins he has committed shall be remembered against him” (Ezekiel 33:14-16). “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean … Cease to do evil, learn to do good” (Isaiah 1:16-17). “Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love! Break up your fallow ground, for it is the time to seek the LORD, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you” (Hosea 10:12). That'd be a fine New Year's resolution, if ever I heard one.

Whatever we choose, I don't know what the next year will be like – for me, for you, for our country, for our world – for I'm “neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet” (Amos 7:14). But I do know that, in 2024 and beyond, the sun will never shine on a day when Jesus will not be king. The moon will never look on Jesus' faithfulness faltering. For sooner would humanity go extinct, sooner would the moon crumble to dust, sooner would the sun go supernova, sooner would the universe freeze in silent death, than would God annul his covenant by which Jesus is King eternally. King Jesus is here to stay, and if the collapse of the cosmos can't interrupt his reign, then neither can all the petty machinations of lesser lords. It'd be easier for a flea to conquer the Milky Way than for anything Herod or his johnny-come-lately apes do to unravel the kingdom of Christ.

Because Jesus is King of All the Years. “He changes times and seasons, he removes kings and sets up kings, he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding” (Daniel 2:21). As the hymn goes: “Crown him the Lord of Years! The Potentate of Time, – Creator of the rolling spheres, ineffably sublime!”12 Beyond our ability to imagine, he has full power over time, over history, over the present and the future; he has command of creation, he has dominion over the course of human affairs, and all the bloodiness of all the Herods and all the tears of all the tragedies are steered toward his ends and answered in his time. He meets the hopes and fears of all the years, for not a year has ever come or ever will that doesn't bend the knee to Christ the King.

So in 2024, may we find blessing in him, enjoying all the graces that this King of All the Years has to offer us – for he who makes worlds and rules time, “the source of our life, our food, our kingdom, our peace,”13 what can he not give to bless his people? And in 2024, “may all nations call him blessed” (Psalm 72:17), all nations – ours included – be prayed for and evangelized and discipled until they rule by his rule. In 2024, may we bless the Father through him, may we live a God-centered life in Jesus' kingdom (Psalm 72:18). As we reflect on 2023, as we take that good, hard look in the mirror, nothing less is our standard and our goal – and when we find ourselves helpless and needy in the face of it, then above all will our King hear us. And so, as we seek this King's bounty in 2024, “may the whole earth be filled with his glory! Amen and amen” (Psalm 72:19).

1  Henry Grove, Considerations on Time and Eternity, Adapted to the New Year (John Clark, 1719), 4.

2  “Public Dissatisfied with Biden-Trump Rematch,” AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, December 2023. <>.

3  David Ramsey, speech on 4 July 1794, reprinted in Gazette of the United States (29 July 1794): 2. The latter passage is adapted from William Linn, The Blessings of America: A Sermon (Tammany Society, 1791), 20.

4  “To the Freemen of the United States,” National Gazette (2 April 1792): 1.

5  Ebenezer Fitch, valedictory address at Williams College, 2 September 1795, excerpted in Gazette of the United States (20 November 1795): 3.

6  Gazette of the United States (13 June 1795): 2.

7  David M'Clure, Sermons on the Moral Law (Beach and Jones, 1795), 242.

8  Alexander Addison, An Oration on the Rise and Progress of the United States of America, to the Present Crisis, and On the Duties of the Citizens (John Ormrod, 1798), 40-41.

9  Samuel Rocca, Herod's Judaea: A Mediterranean State in the Classical Work (Mohr Siebeck, 2008), 25-29.

10  Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 17.191-192, in Loeb Classical Library 410:459.

11  Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 34.1-7, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 6:197-200.

12  Matthew Bridges, “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” verse 5, in ibid., The Passion of Jesus: A Collection of Original Pieces Corresponding with the Five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary of our Blessed Lady (Richardson and Son, 1852), 64.

13  Laurence Kriegshauser, Praying the Psalms in Christ (University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), 160.

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