This week's texts:
2 Samuel 23:1-7
Christ the King Sunday is like the New Year’s Eve of the church year. Good news! The promise of the coming Emmanuel is our fresh start. And there may be plenty of things in your life that could use a do-over or some new direction. The great thing about the beginning of our church year is that it is a time of hope and anticipation of the coming Christ child. Next week we begin the season of Advent, and we get to sing all those great hymns like “O Come O Come Emmanuel”—those hymns that speak to our deepest longing for God-with-us.
We sit in anticipation of the beginning of the Christian story—a humble birth in a lowly manger. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that just before we begin the season that celebrates the beginning of Jesus’ life, we hear a story from the end of his life. I think that because we know both the beginning and the end of this story, we do not have to fear the not-so-nice parts in the middle.
We know that God came to earth in the celebrated baby Jesus, and that, in the end, liberated Jesus from the grave and liberated us from the power of death. So the threat of persecution and crucifixion does not have to be what we fixate on. We can hear these words and know that, if we keep reading, we’ll get to the happy ending.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We have a few seasons of the church year to go before we hit Lent and Easter! First, the child whose birth we’re just a few weeks away from celebrating must grow up. He grows up to become a great teacher and noted rabble-rouser.
In this morning’s gospel, he’s given the title King of the Jews. I have to admit to you that up until like two weeks ago, I was adamantly against Christ the King Sunday. I’m very uncomfortable with all the “king” language we use to describe Jesus the Christ. It’s because I can’t think of a King that has served a nation in the way that Jesus has served the people of God.
When we talk about Kings and rulers in this world, we talk about oppression and injustice and beheadings and revolutions and wars and thrones and riches and power and strength and elites…I find it hard to associate these words with the work of Jesus. When I was working at First United Lutheran Church in San Francisco, liberals among liberals, it was brought to my attention just how much of this King language we find in our scripture, and just how little of it has anything to do with the Kingdom of God.
But the reason I can now say I am in full support of Christ the King Sunday is that it was instituted to express just that. In 1925, which makes it an incredibly recent invention in the life of the church, Pope Pius XI wanted to make a statement about the rise of fascism in Italy. He wanted to declare that whatever power Benito Mussolini claimed to have over the nation of Italy, with eyes on the rest of Europe, it was nothing compared to the power of God.
Christ the King Sunday reminds us whose power matters, and that true justice is not obtained by violence. Christ the King Sunday does not put Jesus in line with earthly rulers like I feared it did. Instead, it declares the kingdom of heaven so far beyond the kingdoms of this world, that Jesus’ kingdom could not possibly be of this earth. Pilate cannot comprehend this. The title “King of the Jews” is therefore meant to be a mockery of Jesus and of his work in the world. But, instead, it proclaims for all to hear that the rulers of this world—Pontius Pilate in particular—pale in comparison to the power of God to bring life out of death.
Just as “King of the Jews” proclaimed that God was more powerful than the Roman Empire, Christ the King Sunday proclaims that God is more powerful than any of the corrupt human systems we have put in place.
A former PLTS professor named Robert Smith wrote an incredible book about the Gospel According to John. The book is called Wounded Lord, and it details the counter-cultural, upside-down-and-backwards way that Jesus proclaimed a coming kingdom that looked nothing like the kingdoms of his day—or ours.
Dr. Smith writes that, Jesus’ kingdom is “not the product of this world’s darkness and machinations, its lies and oppression, its greed and its terrible appetite for power. His is a kingdom not of spilling the blood of one’s opponents but of awesome self-giving.”
This, of course, is a kingdom quite unlike the Holy Roman Empire, Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, Franco’s Spain, Idi Ami’s Uganda, Qadaffi’s Libya, Pinochet’s Chile, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Batista’s Cuba, Duvalier’s Haiti, Kim’s North Korea, Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire—isn’t it incredible how many examples of unjust government our world has to offer? There are millions of people in our world who have spent generations under oppressive regimes.
For them, a king who comes to testify to the truth and not be served but to be a servant…what a fresh start that would be.
And so this Christ the King statement by the Pope in a time of serious worldly turmoil was an incredible example of the Church speaking truth to power. Normally, we don’t consider the Pope to be the small voice of the voiceless. How much more amazing is it, then, that the grand institution of the Catholic Church stood up and spoke out—offering its people a different kind of kingdom. One who rules over people justly, as the reading from 2 Samuel reminds us. This text explains that the kingdom of God, “is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.” I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a kingdom I’d like to be a part of.
Last weekend, I was up at the YMCA of the Rockies with 500 high school students and 150 adult leaders. You can imagine that there was much chaos. But Saturday morning, I walked back to our cabin between breakfast and our large group meeting because I’d forgotten something, and in those few minutes, noticed only how crisp and bright the air was, how majestic the mountains were, and how nice the sun felt, though it was only 28 degrees out. And there wasn’t rain gleaming on a grassy land, exactly—there was mostly frost gleaming on concrete—but it certainly felt peaceful and holy just the same. I would gladly pledge my allegiance to a kingdom that felt that way.
But the kingdoms of earth don’t feel that way. We have a lot of kings besides Christ here in our oft-proclaimed Christian Nation. What have we made into our kings and our gods? Things, mostly. Some of us have even made our democratically-elected government into kings and gods. Some of us have expected our President to be the savior of this nation in its time of great economic hardship. Some have demonized our President as the catalyst for the fall of our American empire. It is among these earthly things that we are called to proclaim Christ the King.
Christ, the king who eats and drinks with sinners and prostitutes and tax collectors—the marginalized of his time. Christ, the king who recognizes these people and all people as his family. Christ, the king who rules not by condemnation and oppression and exclusion but by love and empowerment and inclusion. Christ, the king whose words were not welcome in our broken, divided world. But by his words and by his life and by his death and resurrection he made the world whole. God has made us whole and makes us whole and will make us whole.
There are so many titles Jesus has been given—Prince of Peace, Good Shepherd, Alpha and Omega—all of these are warm and inviting titles. Jesus is the beginning and the end—everything in which we live and move and have our being. The kingdom in which he will rule is by no means a reign of terror. In his kingdom, the crown is made not of gold and jewels but of thorns. In his kingdom, there is no grand chariot, but a small donkey. In his kingdom, there is not a throne, but a cross. This is the Christ we proclaim as King.
Just as Pilate sought to define Jesus as King of the Jews, so we seek to redefine him within the framework of this Christ the King Sunday. Jesus’ proclamation of his mission to testify to the truth defines him as indefinable by the world’s standards. Paradox is business as usual for Jesus, it would seem. He sits in the presence of Pontius Pilate, on trial for his life, and shrugs off the ultimacy of death. This is the power of God in our world. To be threatened with all that the kingdoms of earth can muster, and to repeat simply that we are here to testify to the truth.
The truth that calls life out of death.
The truth that offers hope amidst deepest, darkest struggle.
The truth that shows power in weakness.
The truth that finds acceptance among the rejected.
The truth that shines a light in the darkness.
The truth that gives strength to the weary.
The truth that has set us free.
Thanks be to God. Happy New Year! Amen.