Sermon delivered on Christ the King Sunday C, November 24, 2013, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
If you would prefer listening to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 23.1-6; Psalm 46.1-11; Colossians 1.11-20; Luke 23.33-43.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday, a feast relatively new in the Church’s calendar. Pope Pius XI instituted this feast in 1925 as a way to resist the rise of totalitarianism and secularism of his day. It marks the culmination of the brief Kingdomtide season we have been celebrating during the Sundays between All Saints’ Sunday and Advent Sunday where we have reflected on the reign of Christ on earth and in heaven. It also marks the last Sunday of the Church’s calendar year and as its name implies, today is a day when we celebrate Jesus as King, Messiah, and Lord of all God’s creation. So this morning I want us to look briefly at what having Jesus as king in our life might look like and why we should even care.
Imagine you are a Judean living in Jerusalem during the time Jeremiah issued the prophecy we heard in today’s OT lesson. You and your people are in trouble. Babylon has already deported the cream of the crop from Jerusalem and is once again threatening to invade your land. This is all very troubling to you because you really do believe God is sovereign over all the nations and their rulers. You really do believe that the God you worship at the Temple is the same God who delivered your ancestors from their bondage to slavery in Egypt. So why has God now apparently abandoned you and your people? O sure, you hear guys like Jeremiah accusing your people of forgetting what it means to be God’s chosen people to be a blessing to others but you are trying hard to follow God’s law and ritual requirements. So what’s going on?
Then you hear Jeremiah’s message today in which God promises to replace the rulers (shepherds) who have led your people to ruin, gather up the remnant from captivity, and be with you all once again. Not only that, God says he intends to finally fulfill his promise to king David to raise up God’s Messiah to rule his people wisely and with justice. This resonates with you because it is consistent with God’s behavior and faithfulness toward his people in the past, something that our psalm celebrates today. So what kind of king and Messiah would you be expecting to see, especially in light of the fact that this person would represent God’s faithfulness and glory? A mighty warrior? A conquering hero? A strong and outspoken political leader who is quick to deal with Israel’s enemies and the problems that beset your nation? A man with striking physical traits and intellectual abilities that would immediately draw people like yourself to him?
Do you see the point? Paul states very clearly and boldly that God’s promised king and Messiah has come as promised to straighten out things and put them to rights, and his name is Jesus. But according to Paul, Jesus is much more than the promised Messiah. He is the very image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, meaning that Jesus is not the first creature created but rather that he is the supreme ruler over all the cosmos. Jesus is also the firstborn from the dead, meaning that not only is Jesus ruler of the present cosmos, he is going to be the ruler of God’s new and reconstituted creation that will be fully born when Jesus returns in great power and glory to raise the dead and consummate God’s victory over evil won on Jesus’ cross. We can’t get a much more exalted and clearer description of a king than this. King Jesus is ruler now and forever!
But very few people in Jesus’ day and many in our own day steadfastly refuse to acknowledge King Jesus as Lord and ruler of God’s creation. We see this dramatically illustrated in Luke’s account of the crucifixion in our gospel lesson today. In a story heavy with irony, we see that the shepherds of Israel in Jesus’ day have actively worked to crucify Jesus and are now mocking him because they have accomplished their goal. “If you are really God’s Messiah, save yourself and come down from the cross!” they taunt him. But we quickly realize that if Jesus had saved himself we would all be lost forever.
Their mocking seems to be infectious because soon we see not only the soldiers mocking Jesus but also one of the criminals being crucified with him mocking him as well. Not only that, we notice the average folk are cooly detached from what is going on around them. They stand by and watch in silence instead of protesting this massive injustice. And of course the Jewish authorities (shepherds) had gotten a gentile ruler to buy into their injustice. Jesus wouldn’t have been hanging on the cross without Pilate’s consent. In this unfolding drama it seems Luke wants us to see the kind of behavior that led God to issue his condemnation of Israel’s shepherds for leading his people astray. Their Messiah had come and they are literally killing him!
Why is this? Simply put (although it’s not really all that simple), nobody was expecting a crucified Messiah. The kind of king and Messiah we envisaged a few minutes ago is exactly what many of Jesus’ contemporaries expected. They wanted someone who would kick their enemies’ teeth in and punish the nations for their cruel oppression of God’s people. None of this love your enemies and pray for them stuff. And no judging of others? Forget about it! Besides, if Jesus were really the Messiah, he wouldn’t have allowed himself to be crucified by the hated Romans. He would have been busy driving them out of the country and cleansing God’s Temple.
And we are not much different today. We don’t expect Jesus to cleanse the Temple and drive out the Romans, but if he’s really king of all creation, we certainly expect him to be at our beck and call to relieve us from all that bedevils us and put all the world’s wrongs to right. And of course that just isn’t happening as fast as we’d like, in the manner we prefer, or on the scale we’d like. Like Jesus’ contemporaries, if we are really honest with ourselves, we prefer Jesus to dispose of our enemies (which will naturally be his as well) so that we can get on with the business of enjoying life. And let’s not even get started on this business of unanswered prayer. What kind of king is this Jesus anyway?
Well, again Jesus is the kind of king we didn’t expect or particularly want because he doesn’t meet our expectations of how a king should behave. A king should be all about pomp and circumstance and power and glory and might, not some naked and bloodied man hanging on a cross for others to gloat over and mock. But this is who Jesus is and he has bigger fish to fry than what our own petty desires might allow. The kingdom that Jesus is bringing about on earth as in heaven is a kingdom of God’s love and righteousness, a love that spared us from God’s terrible wrath and the just penalty of death for our sin and rebellion against him. By Jesus’ death we are reconciled to God and find peace with him and each other. And we are formed into a new family of believers known as the Church to continue to embody Jesus’ presence to the world that still largely hates him, and therefore we can expect to be hated too.
We know Jesus is the promised Messiah because he is the firstborn from the dead and has ushered in God’s promised new age where there will be no more sin, sorrow, suffering, sickness, alienation, loneliness, madness, evil, or death. It doesn’t matter who we are or what we have done. By his blood shed for us on the cross, King Jesus has opened the doors to God’s eternal kingdom for us and invites us to come in, even when we are still wearing our filthy rags. We see this powerfully illustrated in Luke’s gospel when Jesus tells the repentant criminal, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Not tomorrow. Not 10,000 years from now. Today. Jesus didn’t ask the repentant criminal if he had the right pedigree or qualifications or whether he was worthy of living in God’s kingdom. Jesus simply responded in love and mercy to a dying and desperate man’s request to find healing, love, mercy, and forgiveness, just like every one of us desires. This is a king worthy of our highest love and worship and it takes a pretty hard heart not to be moved over God’s love for us that this scene exemplifies. And if we really come to understand how abhorrent our sin and rebellion are to God, when we consider what God has done for us on the cross of Jesus, we cannot help but be changed forever, and for the good.
There is, of course, good news and bad news in all this. The bad news is that when we are baptized in Jesus, we are baptized into a death like his (Romans 6.3). And what led to Jesus’ death? His claim of Messiahship and its attendant way of kingdom living. That means for those of us who choose to follow him, we are going to have to do the hard work of learning how to kill off our selfish desires so that we can stop making life all about ourselves and instead learn to love and serve others the way Jesus did. It’s a lot easier, for example, to sit home and enjoy a few drinks with friends than to go out and sort and pack up boxes of food for the poor. It means we will have to engage in the hard work of killing off our pride so that we can engage in the equally hard work of forgiveness and reconciliation and peacemaking when we’d rather just stick it to those we don’t like. It means we have to learn how to live with ambiguity and uncertainty that is part and parcel of this life because we realize we are part of a far bigger cosmic conflict between good and evil than meets the senses and that often we end up suffering from the collateral damage from that battle. And what can we expect for trying to live the way Jesus calls us to live? Persecution. Suffering. Ridicule. And sometimes even death. It is the way of the cross and if anyone is going to follow King Jesus, he/she is called to this way of life, with all its attendant suffering and sorrow because we live in a world that is hostile to God and his good purposes for it and us.
But there is also good news in following this king. As Paul reminds us, in this life we are to rejoice in our sufferings because our suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us because God’s love is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Romans 5.1-5). In other words, the same Spirit who lives in us and testifies to us about our hope in Jesus also gives us the strength and power to become like Jesus in his self-giving love and to endure the hostility that results from imitating him so that we can pass from death to life. That is why it is actually possible to have real joy in our life that is not tied to the circumstances of life.
But there is also a bigger prize that awaits us. As Paul also reminds us in his letter to the Romans, when we are baptized in Christ we share a death like his so that we can also share in a resurrection like his. We believe this promise is true because we believe Jesus really is the first-born from the dead. This is the hope that Paul talks about when he speaks of hope not disappointing us and in our desire for instant gratification, we dare not dismiss or marginalize our future hope because if we do, we will surely allow the Evil One to rob us of it and therefore rob us of the joy that is ours when we live our lives in ways that imitate King Jesus in his self-giving love and suffering. After all, if we do not have this future hope, a hope based on our belief that Jesus really has entered into our promised future glory through his own suffering, living the kind of life he calls us to live right now makes absolutely no sense at all. In fact, it would just be weird.
But following the way of the cross is not weird because it is God’s chosen path to glory, mysterious as that may seem to us, and our suffering and self-giving love is the only way to achieve it. King Jesus had to endure it and so must we whom he calls to follow him. Do we have the needed wisdom and humility to accept God’s chosen path to glory and rejoice in it? It is a question each of us must answer in the course of our lifetime. My prayer for us all, like Paul’s in today’s epistle lesson, is that we will find the needed grace and humility to embrace God’s path to glory and the lifestyle that accompanies it because in it there is Good News for us, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.