Christ the King Sunday, Year B, Sunday, November 25th, 2012
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14, Psalm 93, Revelation 1:4b-8, John 18:33-38a
Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Salem, OR
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Having just been through an election year, I had a hard time getting enthusiastic about celebrating Christ the King Sunday today. It seems every time we turn around these days, we see examples of leaders doing terrible things. Lying, cheating, betraying their principles, doing stupid things, more concerned with getting or maintaining power than they are with using that power wisely for the benefit of their people. Mouthing pious platitudes while backstabbing others, and then throwing mud at their competitors to make themselves look better. Pontius Pilate would fit in perfectly. Indeed, his question to Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson—What is truth?—would fit perfectly in the mouth of a modern-day politician.
As if the examples of our leaders weren’t bad enough, there’s the term “king” itself. Kings are people out of story books, at best, and at worst—well, any student of history can point out that most kings have been at least as bad as our modern politicians, if not worse. So why devote a whole Sunday to proclaiming Christ’s kingship? It sounds so old-fashioned, so irrelevant, so naïve. Yet the metaphor of Christ as king—the metaphor of God’s “kingdom”—is woven throughout Christian understanding.
What is truth? What is kingship? What is God’s kingdom, and what are we saying when we pray “your kingdom come”? So often when we think of these questions and things like them, we start with what we know—the leaders and kingdoms around us—and project those onto God. Instead, I think we should look at God and use that as our measuring stick.
In the Gospel lesson, we have two examples of leadership before us: Pilate, and Jesus. Pilate is a typical ruler of his day. Jesus … is not. Pilate is concerned for his reputation. Pilate is concerned with maintaining his power, not an easy thing in a place as turbulent as Judea was. Pilate wanted to be in control, and he wanted everything to fit into his own ideas of how things ought to be. Pilate evidently liked using dramatics to appease the crowds and portray himself as a good leader. We know from history that Pilate and the priests and elders of Judea often clashed, and that not long after Jesus’ death Pilate would be removed from his post. History also tells us that Pilate could be both cruel and capricious. There he is, his hold on power crumbling, and his enemies bring him someone they want him to execute. He dithers about what to do, going back and forth to try to figure out what the heck is going on. In the end, he concludes that Jesus is probably innocent of the charges against him, but that it would be politically inconvenient to drop the charges and let him go. So, instead, Pilate executes a man he knows is innocent in order to keep himself in good standing with the crowds.
It seems like the triumph of this broken, earthly kingdom over God’s kingdom. It seems like Jesus’ kingship—whatever that may be—is at an end. It seems like the raw power and corruption of this world wins out over justice and righteousness. And yet, in that very act, God’s kingdom begins to break in.
It’s no accident that in the hours before Jesus’ death on the cross, Jesus and Pilate trade barbs about kingship and the nature of power. It’s no accident John tells us this story of what passed between the two as Pilate was deciding whether or not to have Jesus killed. Because Pilate may be the one on the judge’s bench, here, but he’s the one on trial. Him, and every other ruler of this world. And in this wrongful death, Jesus shows us what it truly means to be a king.
Jesus, you see, is not in this for power, or riches, or to have crowds screaming his name. If he were, as Jesus points out, he wouldn’t have let himself be captured without a fight. He would have taken the crowds that have followed him throughout his years of teaching and tried to turn them into an army to defend himself, to overthrow the Roman ruler and his corrupt government and install Jesus in his place. But Jesus didn’t do that. Jesus handed himself over, knowing that he was going to his death. Why did he do that? Because Jesus knew that it was only through his selfless act of love that he could break the power of sin and death. Jesus loved the world—that power-mad, sinful, broken, messed-up world—so much that he was willing to die for it. Jesus loves each and every person who has ever lived and ever will live—as sinful and broken as we all are—so much that he was willing to die in pain, and agony, alone on the cross. For Jesus, kingship doesn’t mean arrogance or self-aggrandizement or selfishness. For Jesus, kingship means putting the needs of his people—all his people—before his own well-being.
So if that’s what kingship means, where is Jesus’ kingdom? In Greek, the word “kingdom” can also be translated “rule” or “reign.” Jesus’ kingdom is the place where Jesus reigns, where God’s will is done. Jesus’ kingdom is a place where no one goes hungry. Jesus’ kingdom is the place where no one is sick, or hurt, or grieving, and every tear has been wiped away. Jesus’ kingdom is the place where all people are filled with joy. Jesus’ kingdom is the place where no one is abused or bullied, where swords have been beaten into plowshares. Jesus’ kingdom is the place where love wins. Jesus’ kingdom is the place where truth and integrity are the norm, where justice and mercy go hand in hand. Jesus’ kingdom is like a party, a banquet, where all are invited and there is enough for everyone. Jesus’ kingdom is what God intended the world to be from the very beginning, and Jesus’ kingdom is what the world will be at the end, when Jesus Christ comes again.
Jesus’ kingdom, obviously, is not the world we live in. And Jesus’ kingdom is obviously a better place than anywhere we could build ourselves. For the fullness of God’s kingdom, we will have to wait until Christ comes again.
And yet. And yet, we are not just citizens of this world, we are also citizens of Jesus’ kingdom. We live caught between the two, acknowledging the reality of the world around us and yet yearning for the coming of the kingdom. We live knowing the spiritual hunger of this world and yet anticipating the feast to come. We can’t create Jesus’ kingdom and we can’t hurry it’s coming, but we can live in the reality we know is coming. In Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, we get a glimpse of what it will be like. But we also see other glimpses of it. Remember, Jesus constantly said that God’s kingdom was close at hand, if we only had eyes to see it and ears to hear it. Every time someone chooses love over hate, we have a foretaste of the feast to come. Every time someone chooses to do the right thing instead of the easy thing, we have a foretaste of the feast to come.
As followers of Christ, we are called and invited to join in the work of the kingdom. We are called to spread love and mercy and forgiveness, to act with integrity and justice. We live in this broken, sinful world, and we are sinners ourselves, yet we have tasted a little bit of the feast to come. We have seen glimpses of Christ’s kingdom. May we learn to live in the light of the coming kingdom.