Sunday, November 24, 2019

The Cross, the Throne

On Tuesday the 24th of June, 2014, Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, was invited to sit upon the Iron Throne of Westeros while visiting the sets of Game of Thrones. She declined the honor, perhaps because she did not feel herself properly robed for the occasion; but I have read that it is the ancient tradition of her line that the English monarch does not sit upon foreign thrones. It might also be observed that occupancy of that seat of power tended to bode ill for one's survival prospects, but this did not discourage many claimants from fighting for it, just as Elizabeth's predecessors waged the Wars of the Roses to gain what is now her seat.

And the throne of Jesus? Our thoughts first turn to the images of the Revelation, in which the word “throne” appears forty-four times in twenty-two chapters. This is the testimony of John:

And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and the beasts and the elders: and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands; saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.” And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, “Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.” And the four beasts said, “Amen.” And the four and twenty elders fell down and worshipped him that liveth for ever and ever.
And this is the prophecy of Isaiah:
In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.” And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke.
This is kingship in our mortal understanding: the monarch of heaven and earth, whose glory is beyond human toleration; whose rule is absolute; whose power the angels make manifest from creation to the world's doom. The temptation to arrogate these to ourselves is so very strong: to rule over others, to demand worship and servitude, to revel in wealth and pomp is so very appealing, even consuming; and when poisoned by our sin, so very cruel and destructive. Besides those of nations and states, we make thrones of industry and commerce, that we may rule over the work of others and command the fruits of their labors; even in our households, we establish our tyranny. We lust after power, and thus subjugate others; we lust after goods, and thus make slaves whose labor we exploit; we lust after adulation, and demand toadies and sycophants. Our kingship is entirely of this fallen world: cruel, greedy, arrogant and tyrannical. The glory of the throne of heaven we cannot reproduce, try as we might. But there is another throne, not welded of swords as in Westeros, nor cunningly wrought of stone or fine woods covered in gold and gems as in halls of state. This throne is made of two rough boards and a few nails, and he who reigns from it was crowned not with gold or silver, but with thorns. He who hung upon it (for it offers no seat) was not there worshipped, but mocked; wielded no sword nor scepter of power and authority; received no comfort or riches beyond a drink of ruined wine, but instead suffered under the greatest physical cruelty the state could devise. This throne was not to be desired for wealth or power or renown, but indeed delivers only (as the world sees it) humiliation, helplessness, pain and finally death. It is the ultimate expression of the world's contempt for its king.

And yet in this throne, the cross, there is all the power of the ages. In the cross there is exaltation and victory, abundance and life without measure. The cross is more glorious than every royal throne, every boardroom, every presidential desk, every seat by which men and women lord it over others; and its glory is in precise proportion to the world's contempt. It is from the cross that Jesus, the Son of the Father Almighty, the Lamb of God, the Word made Flesh, reigns over this age, so that in the age to come the throne of the Most High may blaze with the glory of a creation remade through his death.

And John tells us, in the mystery he relates, that there are other thrones in the new heaven, thrones for men and women reborn in Christ. If His throne be the cross, so must ours also be, and therefore he calls us to take up our crosses and follow him. The path to salvation gives, not power, not riches, not comfort, but death to the old life of sin—and life to those who so die. Thus our reign on earth is one of sacrifice, of relinquishing the rule which we so very much desire. It is to give and not to seize, to serve and not to dictate; this is the rule we are given, and our realms are not ours to command and exploit, but instead belong to the weak and powerless and hungry and abandoned and despised to whom we are called to minister.

This is not to say that I think that a Christian is forbidden to be a politician or a business executive or a bureaucrat or any other position of authority and title. Jesus numbered among his followers members of the Sanhedrin, Roman officers, and others of privilege and power, and while he asked of one young man that the latter abandon his wealth, it is not something he asked of all. On the other hand, I cannot say the opposite either, for Jesus did after all say that a rich man's passage to heaven is like unto that of a camel through a needle's eye. But surely if we are wealthy, if we are powerful, if we have others at our command and service, the way in which we exercise such office must reflect the service and sacrifice Jesus made of himself. If we must command and accumulate, we must be mindful that in the end it cannot be to our gratification and magnification, but to God's. I note that for all of the Crown's wealth and panoply, Queen Elizabeth's job is to serve through taking her presence to her people, a duty that by all accounts she takes with great seriousness. Even on her own, literal throne she is merely the mouthpiece of others; it was thus an entirely appropriate symbol that she refused the seat of the murderous, arrogant tyrants of Westeros, mere prop though it may be.

The thrones we erect on earth are likewise but imitations, nay, idols of that of heaven. Our own rule is still sinful, for while we are still of this earth, we carry its taint even as we also manifest the glory of its creator; and that earthly rule shall perish not only as we do, but in the lake of fire which will consume all that is false on the last day. But we may, through grace, extend the rule of heaven as its ministers, by giving up our lives to its service, and walking in righteousness and holiness all our days. And in so doing, we may enthrone King Jesus in our hearts, where he may live and reign forever, with the Father and the Spirit, in glory everlasting. Amen.