Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20; 37:1-7; 2:1-4
In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, King Sennacherib of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them. The king of Assyria sent the Rabshakeh from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem, with a great army. He stood by the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller’s Field. And there came out to him Eliakim son of Hilkiah, who was in charge of the palace, and Shebna the secretary, and Joah son of Asaph, the recorder.
Then the Rabshakeh stood and called out in a loud voice in the language of Judah, ‘Hear the words of the great king, the king of Assyria! Thus says the king: “Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you. Do not let Hezekiah make you rely on the Lord by saying, The Lord will surely deliver us; this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.” Do not listen to Hezekiah; for thus says the king of Assyria: “Make your peace with me and come out to me; then every one of you will eat from your own vine and your own fig tree and drink water from your own cistern, until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards. Do not let Hezekiah mislead you by saying, The Lord will save us. Has any of the gods of the nations saved their land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? Who among all the gods of these countries have saved their countries out of my hand, that the Lord should save Jerusalem out of my hand?” ’
When King Hezekiah heard it, he tore his clothes, covered himself with sackcloth, and went into the house of the Lord. And he sent Eliakim, who was in charge of the palace, and Shebna the secretary, and the senior priests, covered with sackcloth, to the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz. They said to him, ‘Thus says Hezekiah, This day is a day of distress, of rebuke, and of disgrace; children have come to birth, and there is no strength to bring them forth. It may be that the Lord your God heard the words of the Rabshakeh, whom his master the king of Assyria has sent to mock the living God, and will rebuke the words that the Lord your God has heard; therefore lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left.’
When the servants of King Hezekiah came to Isaiah, Isaiah said to them, ‘Say to your master, “Thus says the Lord: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have reviled me. I myself will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor, and return to his own land; I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land.” ’
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
This morning’s reading reminds me of the one about a king who had 10 wild dogs. He used them to torture and kill any ministers that misguided him. Once a minister gave an opinion that was wrong and the king didn’t like it so he ordered the minister to be thrown to the dogs. The minister said, “I served you loyally for 10 years & you do this?!” The king was unrelenting. The minister pleaded, “Please give me 10 days before you throw me to the dogs.” The king agreed. In those 10 days, the minister went to the keeper of the dogs and told him he wanted to serve the dogs for the next 10 days. The guard was baffled, but he agreed. So the minister started feeding the dogs, caring for them, bathing them, providing all sorts of comfort for them. When the 10 days were up, the king ordered that the minister be thrown to the dogs as sentenced. When he was thrown in, everyone was amazed at what they saw. The dogs were wagging their tails playing with the condemned minister, licking his feet. The king was baffled at what he saw. “What happened to the dogs?” he growled. The minister then said, “I served the dogs for only 10 days and they didn’t forget my service. I served you for 10 years and you forgot all at the first mistake.” The king pondered the minister’s words for a while until finally he proclaimed, “Starting from this moment on, I want the dogs replaced with crocodiles!!!”
Isn’t that just typical?! Rather than consider the wisdom of that poor minister’s words and perhaps pardon him for his ill advice, the king changes the rules to ensure that no minister outsmarts him again in the future. To his credit, no king ought to be outsmarted by those beneath him but the minister simply wanted a little compassion and grace. The king should have rewarded him as such for cleverly getting him to reconsider his policy. Clever or not, the minister first had the formidable task of overcoming the king’s pride and ego, a task few have accomplished throughout history. And besides, it wouldn’t be funny if the king had simply pardoned the minister!
Indeed, prideful kings are somewhat the standard throughout history. Our scripture sure attests to several of them! Just listen to our reading for today. In it, we heard the psychological warfare being exchanged between two mighty kings, Sennacherib of Assyria and Hezekiah of Judah. Recall that the Assyrians had already conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and were looking to conquer the southern kingdom of Judah. Jerusalem was the capital of Judah and Hezekiah was its king. Rather than simply descending upon Judah in an all-out battle, the king of Assyria, Sennacherib, decided to try and persuade the Judeans to simply give up without a fight. And by “persuade” I mean play serious head games! Sennacherib sent his own minister, the Rabshekah, to tell the Judeans not only that they would be able to keep their own property and lifestyle if conquered (most likely a lie!) but also that their God (our God!) wouldn’t be able to save them from defeat. And poor Hezekiah initially was overwhelmed by both the lies! He questioned the power of his God (our God!) and, even though he probably knew the Assyrians wouldn’t let the defeated Judeans keep their property, the thought of having to convince the Judeans of this truth was exhausting in itself. The average Judeans, unfamiliar with psychological warfare, would have believed they could keep their property if only they gave up peaceably. Luckily for Hezekiah, he took his concerns to God in prayer and was assured by God to go through with fighting the Assyrians. God fought with Hezekiah and the Assyrians were defeated.
Both kings were typical prideful kings. It was only through God’s grace that Hezekiah came away as victor. Even he wasn’t fully convinced of the power of his God (our God!) God needed to continually reassure him of his victory. And even then, he believed it was because of his own efforts that he would be victorious. Hezekiah, like many kings, failed to acknowledge the work of God in all victories. Well, he eventually did and grew to love and trust God in his kingship.
Now then, what does this exchange between Hezekiah and Sennacherib have to do with what we are celebrating today, Christ the king or the reign of Christ? Our reading doesn’t end with Hezekiah and Sennacherib. No, we went back to Isaiah chapter 2 where we heard a foreshadowing to a different type of king. Isaiah, himself a prophet of God to Hezekiah, foretold of a coming kingdom in which the Lord himself will judge and arbitrate over many peoples. And unlike the standard kings who relied on warfare to maintain and build their kingdoms, the Lord will rely on peaceful efforts for his kingdom: the people “shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war no more.” Even psychological warfare, the kind engaged in by Sennacherib and Hezekiah, is warfare and all-too-often relied on by kings of this world.
Our Lord Christ is a different kind of king. His power rests in his words and his healings, not in his violence and mind games. As Revelation tells us, “from his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, ‘King of kings and Lord of lords.’” (19:15-16) From his mouth and from his hands comes nothing but love…love for all people! He rules over all people, even kings and lords alike! And his reign is a reign of peace. Our Lord isn’t a violent Lord…no, overturning the tables in the temple and arguing with the Pharisees and Sadducees and inciting people presumably without sin to cast the first stone were NOT violent acts! They were teaching acts. Violence teaches nothing, it simply destroys. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “for the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (14:17) Peace and joy and righteousness and love, these are the qualities of Christ’s kingdom. Not pride or arrogance or violence or manipulation or fear. These are the qualities of kingdoms other than our Lord’s.
We celebrate our Lord’s reign today because it is a good and right reign. We rejoice in our Lord’s reign because it is an unending reign as we hear in Hebrews, “your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom.” (1:8) Most importantly, we give thanks for our Lord’s reign because it is a life-giving and life-sustaining reign. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.