In case you were wondering about the title of this post, let me explain. I have been taking a week’s holiday. At least I was, until Sunday. The priest who was due to come and take the services was unable to get to St John’s because of the weather conditions, so I found myself having to take the 10am mass. Since, being on holiday, I hadn’t written a sermon, I had a quick look on my PC this morning to see what I’d preached previously on this particular week in the lectionary. And, it turns out, the last time I preached on this particular Sunday in the three-year lectionary was in 2004. So, rather like a TV chef, here’s one I prepared earlier – well, six years earlier to be precise – and which I preached this morning since I’m never one to waste the opportunity of having a captive audience!
“Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew 3:2
I’m sure most of you, at some time or another, have seen a cinema film about King Arthur. He has been portrayed innumerable times on the silver screen – from Richard Harris in the musical version “Camelot” to Sean Connery in First Knight. From Robert Taylor in “Knights of the Round Table” to a cartoon boy in the animated version of T. H. White’s classic novel “The Sword in the Stone”. And I suspect most of you have come to the conclusion from seeing one or more of these films that the King Arthur who is portrayed never existed in reality.
The latest film to feature Arthur and Guinevere and all the rest is the Disney blockbuster “King Arthur” starring Clive Owen and Kiera Knightley (Well, it was the latest film six years ago, though looking back I don’t think it was the blockbuster it was expected to be!) And one filmgoer who clearly didn’t believe in King Arthur took exception to Disney’s poster advertising the film, which boldly proclaimed: “King Arthur – the untold true story that inspired the legend”. So what did he do? He complained to the Advertising Standards Authority on the grounds that the poster was misleading, since there is little historical evidence to support the Arthurian legend and it implied that the film’s storyline was based on historical fact. And – to his surprise – the Advertising Standards Authority proclaimed that the film is, indeed, based on historical fact and the story it tells of King Arthur is based on true story.
The King Arthur of legend as we now know him probably has his roots in a figure from the early 6th century. History has many examples of a people’s need, hope and desire for a powerful hero, a “saviour” figure, during difficult times. In the fourth and fifth centuries, tribes and racial groups were on the move in Europe, and the resulting upheaval destroyed the integrity of the Roman Empire. The British maintained a resistance to these barbarian attacks, independent of the tottering Empire, and, thrown back on their own resources, certain places clung proudly to their Roman heritage. During these turbulent times, inspiration was drawn from memories of past order and patterns of government. After the Roman armies had left Britain, a hero arose who successfully led the Romano-British against the Saxons at the battle of Badon in the year 516. In time he became a legend, and many stories of great exploits became attached to him. He is remembered even today as the British King Arthur. Surrounded by mystery, in origin and in life, he was believed by later generations to be the best of all knights, the richest and noblest of all kings, endowed with the princely virtues of goodness, generosity, justice and courage, and loved by all. A king who would return in his county’s hour of greatest need – the once and future king.
King Arthur is immortalised along with his Knights of the Round Table, the Holy Grail, Excalibur his sword and Guinevere his wife. The ideal of Arthur and his times may have become a fantasy, but the imagined loss of such a hero and a time clearly feeds a deeper hunger for king-like leadership for all time and all peoples. Many cultures have a legendary king who, like Arthur, will supposedly one day return when his people are in great need. That was true of the people of Israel at the time of Jesus. Several anointed and powerful “saviour” figures were expected in Jesus’ day in Israel — royal, priestly and prophetic. Chief amongst these was the expected anointed one of God, or Messiah, who would be a descendant of king David. Rather like Arthur, David had come to be seen as an ideal king, despite all his faults, and people expected his ancestor to come and rule over them. Such expectations were high when John the Baptist came on the scene – the people were waiting for this king to come and throw out the Romans. And John the Baptist was a highly significant figure at this time. His preaching had created a widespread revival movement, and his followers were quite a group within Judaism, mentioned by the historian Josephus more amply than Jesus himself.
But for John and for Matthew, John’s significance lay only in his relation to Jesus. Wherever John the Baptist is mentioned in the Gospel it is to throw light on the mission of Jesus. We learn very little of John’s life as Matthew hastens on to the coming of Jesus, the focus and purpose of John’s life and ministry. Jesus, the one more powerful than John, is coming, and that changes everything. In chapter 1, Matthew outlines the genealogy of Jesus, the son of David, the one recognised in the prophecies of Isaiah, the end-time successor of King David who was expected to restore Israel as God’s people, free and sovereign. Now, in chapter 3, Matthew records the importance of John’s preparation for Jesus’ coming. He preaches of the urgency of repentance because the Kingdom is now near, he preaches that one is coming with power to baptise with the fire of the Holy Spirit, take away sins and one day to judge the world. The Messiah is coming with power, not in the way Israel expected of the ideal Davidic King, but in the way required in the Kingdom of God. Matthew’s Gospel awakens us to the Kingdom of our God, to Jesus, as son of David and Son of God, and to the power and life of the Spirit. The one to whom John the Baptist directs us all, Jesus Christ, radically overturned and challenged what had been known and expected of a royal reign, and continues to do so as we come to know and understand Jesus, who he was and is.
Jesus is the King of kings, in both divine and human realms, and his Kingdom is with him. The prophecies in today’s readings direct us to Jesus, the son of David, the Anointed One. With his birth, life and death, Jesus is revealed as also being the Son of God, possessing the very life of the Godhead, sharing with us through the life of the Spirit. With Jesus, we have the fulfilment of the world’s dreams for kingly leadership, for a King who reigns with majesty, righteousness, compassion and holiness. Yet he is more than any royal leader has ever been, and ever will be, more than worthy of our whole allegiance and hope-filled trust.
I doubt whether many people actually believe that King Arthur will return one day in our hour of greatest need. The truth about this real figure who gave rise to the legend is lost in the mists of time – but he was an ordinary human being who came to be seen by many as an ideal king. And the rest really is legend. But the truth about the Messiah, the Son of David, is different. For the Jewish people David came to be seen as the ideal king. They believed that the Messiah for whom they waited would embody the ideals of King David and would rule God’s kingdom on earth with justice and truth. His descendant Jesus, the son of David and the Son of God, is the hope of the whole world, unlike any other king. In Jesus God’s kingdom and power have come among us and continue to do so as we recognise Jesus. What makes Jesus different from the likes of King Arthur is that he is not the stuff of legend. His promised return is not the stuff of legend.
He has returned already – he came back from the dead and left an empty tomb. He returns today – he dwells in us through his Holy Spirit and he comes to us in the bread and wine that is his body and blood. He will come again in his kingly power as he brings in the eternal reign of his kingdom. As we approach Christmas, the image of Christ as our King may allow us to be filled with awe and peace, humility and quiet as we recognise the power he inhabits for us and our world. Perhaps our Christmas preparations this year might reflect a little more reverence than before, a little more gentleness, and a little more hope, aware that our King, the Messiah of the whole world, was, and is, and is to come. Our once and future king.