Christ the King Sunday, November 24, 2013
Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 46, Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:33-43
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last day of the church year, the day we celebrate Christ’s reign over all the world. We celebrate the coming kingdom, and we celebrate the one who will bring it in to us. But kings and kingdoms are pretty far removed from our day-to-day lives; after all, we don’t have kings here in America. About the only time we think about royalty is when the British royal family has a major event like a wedding or a new baby, or a scandal that makes tabloid headlines. So what does it mean when we say Christ is King? What does it mean when we say we are waiting for Christ’s kingdom to come? What is a king supposed to be like, anyway?
In the ancient world, shepherds were a common metaphor for kings. Shepherds took care of their flocks, kept them together, protected them from harm, and made sure that they got enough good food and water. Kings were supposed to be like that: taking care of their people, uniting them, defending them from enemies and establishing civic order, and making sure that resources were fairly distributed. Of course, there’s a huge difference between a human king and a shepherd: the shepherd is a lot smarter than a sheep, and knows what’s good for the sheep better than the sheep do. A human king, however, isn’t necessarily any smarter than any of his subjects, and doesn’t know better than they do. In fact, you can expand that to all political leaders. Our presidents, senators, congressmen, governors, are not inherently any smarter, any morally better, than the average joe on the street.
We may not know much about kings and kingdoms, and most of us don’t know as much about shepherds as people in biblical days, but it’s not hard to understand God’s point in today’s first reading. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord.” God is complaining that the kings and priests who are supposed to take care of and lead God’s people have failed. Worse, they’ve done the opposite of what they were supposed to do. They’ve scattered God’s people instead of gathering them in, they’ve driven them away instead of seeking out those who are lost. They have abused the people they are supposed to be leading and protecting. In other words, they’ve been bad leaders.
It should not take much thought to come up with modern leaders who have done the same. How many have focused on short-term good rather than long-term good? How many have chosen partisanship over cooperation and the greater good? How many of them have chosen to spew slogans that appeal to a small core constituency and alienate everyone else, instead of finding common goals and working towards solutions most people can support? How many have chosen comfortable lies over hard truths? How many have chosen to benefit themselves instead of working for the good of those they’re supposed to lead? How many have taken the loyalty they are given and used it for bad purposes? Political leaders, religious leaders, social leaders—all have tended to fall prey to the same problems. All have tended to focus on themselves to the detriment of the greater good.
It’s no wonder God gets upset. It’s no wonder that God chooses to act. In Jeremiah, he tells of a day when the bad shepherds—the bad kings and politicians and priests—of this world will no longer be in charge. “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up a righteous branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” That righteous branch is, of course, Christ Jesus our Lord, God’s son, whom he sent into the world. And the reign of Christ will not be completed until he comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead. But that reign will come. The day will come when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. The day will come when true righteousness and true mercy are the rule rather than the exception. And on that day we will know the joy of living in God’s kingdom.
It’s interesting to look at the Gospel reading for this day, when we celebrate the Christ’s Kingship. What does it mean, that Christ is king? What kind of a king is he? Well, it turns out, Jesus is not much like the human kings and leaders that we’re familiar with. Jesus Christ is a crucified king. And that’s proof of how different a leader Jesus is. Think about it: human kings and presidents have bodyguards, people whose entire job is to protect them, and, if necessary, to die for them. Jesus is just the opposite. Instead of asking that people die to save him, Jesus dies to save his people. Human leaders have many reason for asking others to be willing to sacrifice themselves for the leader’s sake. Surely, any of those reasons are infinitely more true of Jesus. By any objective measurement, Jesus was more important and more worthy than any human being. Yet he didn’t ask others to save him; he went willingly to his death to save everyone else. He put our good over his own. He died so that we might live. He rescued us from the power of darkness so that we might be citizens of his kingdom.
And this great gift was not just for a chosen few. Jesus sets aside his power and glory for the sake of all people: even the criminals beside him have only to ask to receive the gift of the kingdom. And the people who have taken Jesus, put him on trial knowing he is innocent, and sentenced him to die—they, too, receive the gift of forgiveness through Jesus Christ. They don’t deserve forgiveness. They are in the process of murdering an innocent man for their own benefit, to get him out of the way. The criminals being crucified with Jesus? They didn’t deserve forgiveness, either—at least one of them freely admits that his crimes deserve the death penalty. Jesus doesn’t tell him, “no, really, it wasn’t that bad.” And Jesus doesn’t tell the people who are putting him to death that “oh, it’s not that big a deal.” These are real sins. They are doing a deeply horrible thing. Jesus doesn’t try and whitewash it or diminish it. But he does forgive them. He does tell the criminal that he will be with him in God’s kingdom.
The soldiers mocked him as he forgave them. “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” they said. They couldn’t imagine a king who would act like Jesus. They couldn’t imagine a king who would value his people more than his own life. They couldn’t imagine a king who would endure humiliation and pain for the greater good. The leaders who had trumped up the charges that led to Jesus’ arrest mocked him too. They had felt threatened by Jesus, because he was different. He didn’t fit into their nice neat categories; he didn’t follow their lead; he taught with authority and spent time with tax collectors and sinners. He didn’t act like they thought a Messiah should. They couldn’t imagine that God would choose to humble himself for the sake of his people. They couldn’t imagine that God would allow his chosen one to die. They couldn’t imagine the kingdom of God beginning with the death of the one who came to bring it. They watched the greatest act of love imaginable, and saw only failure. Their king was right there in front of their eyes, and they could not see him.
Can we? Or do we take Jesus for granted? Jesus Christ is Lord of All, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Prince of Peace. We say the words, but do we mean them? Are we willing to give our allegiance and loyalty to Christ who died for our sake, or do we give him lip service while following our own whims? Are we willing to admit our sin and guilt and accept his forgiveness and the Kingdom that Christ brings, or would we rather scoff because God’s kingdom doesn’t look like the kingdoms of this world?
God loves us, every one of us. And he knows our strengths and weaknesses, our needs and wants and fears, even those we don’t know ourselves. Unlike the leaders of this world, God has far more wisdom and understanding than we do, and more compassion as well. While the leaders of this world fall prey to their own flaws, God heals us and makes us whole. While the leaders of this world scatter and divide people, God brings us together and reconciles our differences. While the leaders of this world are willing to sacrifice others for their own good, God sacrifices himself for us, so that we may have peace bought through the blood shed on the cross. That is what makes Jesus Christ the King of Kings, the Lord of All, the Prince of Peace.