The Lion of Judah
A sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany
Through the Bible in a Year • Mark E. Ryman
Genesis 49:8–12; Psalm 45:1–7; Revelation 5:1–10; Matthew 19:23–30
On our visit to the Museum of the Bible in November, there were lots of wonderful things to see. There was an extensive exhibit that reconstructs an ancient city, excavated on a hilltop over the Valley of Elah, traditionally the site of the showdown between David and Goliath. It shows evidence King David is not just a fictional character of the Old Testament.
There was also a display of modern Bible illumination, a history of record jackets by hymn writers and singers and gospel artists, displays about Luther and other Reformers and key figures in history, 14 stations of the cross by a renowned sculptor, and six large floors of other incredible artifacts and displays, including a working theater where we saw the Broadway musical “Amazing Grace.” There was even a Disney-like ride on which you felt—a little too realistically—as if you were flying around Washington DC, seeing all the Bible verses inscribed on its monuments and buildings.
I’d love to take a group of you back in the Spring. If you go, I promise, we’ll see every floor, every exhibit. We’ll even go to its gift shop and to “Manna.” That’s the museum’s sixth floor restaurant, where you may eat foods flavored with Mediterranean spices, even rotisserie lamb.
Yet, for all six floors of great exhibits, I really wanted to be on just one floor all day long. Indeed, I want to go back and spend the whole day on that fourth floor. The fourth floor is where they keep their biblical items, hand-lettered manuscripts, old printed Bibles and books, and Bible art—whether illuminated initials or full pages of Bible illustration.
That’s where my mind was all day, even though I enjoyed the other displays. I wanted to see those Bibles and manuscripts. But we had to rush to see it all. So, I’m still a little focused on that fourth floor. I really would like to go back and spend the day on just that one floor.
The story of the Bible—the overarching narrative of the Old and New Testaments—is a little like my fascination and focus on the fourth floor of the Museum of the Bible. I’d like to explain. But first…
Let us pray. Merciful God, through the gift of your grace you call us to repentance, obedience, and eternal life through the preaching of your Word. Transform us so that we are able to set aside all that might prohibit us from following your call to new life; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
The Bible contains so many things to read. People have their favorites: miracles, healing, prophecy, world religions, biblical archaeology, history, cultures, and even diet fads based on the foods of the Bible. The list of people’s interests goes on and on.
But I would suggest that there is an actual focus in the biblical story, one floor to spend the day or a whole life: the kingdom of God. Oh, you could say that God or Jesus is the focus, and you’d be right of course. But this isn’t the children’s sermon; I’d like to go a little deeper.
As I mentioned earlier, there has been a longstanding effort to disprove the reliability of the Bible and even biblical history by pointing to the lack of archaeological evidence for King David or a Davidic kingdom. So much of the Bible’s story is based on that kingdom. In our readings this past week, as we read through the Bible in a year, we saw how the kingdom motif has begun. A variety of kingdoms are mentioned, including Babel, Abimelech’s, and others. In Wednesday’s reading, you will come across Exodus 19:6, which says: “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
On December 22nd, Peter will echo these words. On December 28th, you will read John’s revelation of the coming “kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ” (Rev 12:10) and how “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev 11:15).
But all of that begins in the first book of the Holy Bible, where we read on Wednesday about Jacob’s blessing of his sons. Today’s Old Testament Reading focuses on one son, Judah, upon whom the kingdom of God would be based. Father Jacob says, “Judah is a lion’s cub,” but the Judaic lion will mature into King David 14 generations later—whether some archaeologists think he existed or not. Additional archaeological digs will show this to be true. In the meanwhile, we Lutherans will just have to have faith in God’s Word.
As an additional 14 generations pass, we come to the full maturity of the Lion of Judah in Jesus. Jesus came “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom” (Mt 4:23) wherever he went. That was his constant message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 4:17.” His parables begin, “For the kingdom of heaven is like…” And to whom did he say that the kingdom of heaven belongs? Little children (Mt 19:14). For “Whoever humbles himself like [a] child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:4). What is it that we should seek first, above all other things? “…the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Mt 6:33). What do we pray will come, when we pray the prayer our Lord taught us? “Thy kingdom come” (Mt 6:10).
I’m telling you, the Scriptures are all about the kingdom. Why? Because the kingdom, as all kingdoms are, is focused on the king. Last Sunday, Denise reminded us that the answer is always Jesus. Indeed! It’s all about Jesus. He is the King of kings, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, promised in Jacob’s blessing. The scepter will never depart from Judah, and so we pray: “Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.”
Jacob’s blessing says, “To him shall be the obedience of the peoples.” What peoples? All peoples! The Lord declares through Isaiah: “Every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance” (Isa 45:23). Paul adds a bit more, telling us who the Lord is. “At the name of Jesus every knee [shall] bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Php 2:10–11). And the psalmist sings: “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever” (Ps 45:6).
Still, Jesus says that he will share his kingdom with those who follow him. When the Son of Man, the great Lion of Judah, is gloriously enthroned, his disciples will also sit upon thrones as judges of the world—specifically, judges of Israel’s sons and their descendants. Who is it who sits on these twelve thrones? Just the twelve disciples? Really? Judas too? Paul and John make it clear that, “If we endure, we will also reign with him” (2 Ti 2:12). The servants of God—you and I—will “will reign forever and ever” (Re 22:5) with Jesus in heaven.
I confess: the specifics are a mystery to me. But it is a mystery of an ancient and future kingdom, promised thousands of years ago by a dying old man named Jacob. It was that same Jacob who wrestled with God all night at Mahana’im and was therefore renamed by God. “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Ge 32:28).
This wrestling with God is the very nature of the kingdom. In Lutheran terms, it is the struggle of the cross. It is keeping faith in Jacob’s blessing of a great Lion King, despite the doubts, fears, despair, and feelings that threaten us so long as we are in this flesh. Wrestling with God through the long night of life, means that we are focused on nothing else, lest we are overcome. We grab hold of this Lion tightly and do not let go. And in the struggle, we also learn to love what has become to us his tight embrace. Do we not sing, “O Love that will not let me go…”?
And when at last, the night is far gone, when the bright rays of an eternal morning shine down upon those who have been faithful in the struggle, who have not been distracted by the cares of this world but have been true to Christ’s kingdom, staying focused by keeping the Name of the King…as Jacob of old was renamed, our great King, the Lion of Judah “will write on [them] the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God, and My new name” (Re 3:12).
And there, they “will reign with him in glory, forever and ever.” May you be true to the great Lion of Judah on the throne, holding tightly to him no matter what this long night throws at you. Return to him in his Word and Sacraments. Remember your baptism. The King has claimed you for his kingdom. Keep the faith—in him.