King Jesus

+ A sermon for Reign of Christ Sunday (Year C) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on November 24, 2019 +

Text: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

Audio: LINK

“The people look to a monarchy for something bigger than themselves. An inspiration. A higher ideal.”[1]
Those are words from the character of Queen Elizabeth II in the Netflix series “The Crown.”
I’m a big fan of the show and in my anticipation of the release of the new third season, I’ve been re-watching the series and I was struck by these words. maxresdefault
The Queen was responding to criticism from her husband, Prince Philip, about the over-the-top pageantry planned for her coronation, how it makes the monarchy seem out of touch when her people were still on war rations.
But she insisted that the opulence was important precisely because of the state of her nation, that this ceremony could provide inspiration for a people who were struggling; that the monarchy’s very purpose is to leave us commoners in awe and give us hope in something that is larger than ourselves.

Now, as much as I’ve heard that we don’t care about the British monarchy, as much as I’ve been told that the United States has had no use for kings and queens since 1776, I’d like to argue that our viewership of events like last year’s Royal Wedding and our following of the Royal Family tell a different story.
The throngs of tourists clamoring to see the changing of the guard each morning at Buckingham Palace betray our interest.
The very fact that we have so many shows like “The Crown” and movies like “The King’s Speech” or “The Queen” prove that we have a fascination with monarchy, that we too long for something larger than ourselves, something regal and magnificent.
And we long to be able to peak behind the veil, to see the people behind the crown.
Or maybe we just like the drama.
Because when we watch shows like these, we see a paradox, that this unattainable monarch, this august royal family, is, in fact, utterly human.
That they have the same problems and squabbles that we have, that their idealized marriages aren’t perfect, and in the end they are just people.

But even in this republic of ours, I think we look for similar qualities in our leaders.
As much as we talk about the presidency as an office of the people, an aspiration for anyone who puts their minds to it, we still demand a level of perfection, a certain ‘pomp and circumstance’, a dignity, a so-called presidential quality from the person who occupies the White House.
We long for a ruler who is still larger than ourselves, in whom we can put our trust and our hopes and dreams.

Christ Pantocrator in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

So on this Reign of Christ Sunday—often called Christ the King Sunday—we may expect a similarly august depiction of Christ reigning in glory.
We may expect visions of Christ processing in regal garb and a crown of gold set upon his head.
We expect to be told of that day when Christ will at last take his throne as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Queen of the Nations and Sovereign of the Cosmos.

Is that what you heard from our gospel reading today?
Because, honestly, when I first read that text, I thought I had looked up the wrong scripture.
On this day we celebrate Christ’s kingship, we see him crucified.
We see Jesus executed at the hands of the state, convicted of treason and sedition – the charge nailed on his cross “The King of the Jews.”
We see him mocked, his kingship derided by the Empire, by religious elites, by soldiers, even by his fellow condemned.
We see a paradox of the one we call our king of kings and lord of lords crucified on a Roman cross, hung between two criminals, labeled an enemy of the state.
We don’t see our Lord enter the royal city in a gold carriage, but on the back of a humble donkey.
We don’t see him crowned in the grandeur of Westminster Abbey, but enthroned on a cross.
On this day that we celebrate Christ’s reign, we may expect the majesty we proclaimed in our gathering hymn, “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” but our gospel smacks us with the mysterious meditation we will soon sing in our hymn of the day, “Holy God, Holy and Glorious.”

“Holy God, holy and powerful,
power without peer,
you bend to us in weakness;
emptied, you draw near,
and we behold your power.”[2]

If King Jesus is compared to the glories of the monarchy or the ostentation of the presidency, it certainly seems like his kingship is left wanting.
Where is the institution that is larger than ourselves?
Where is the inspiration of hope?
Where is the higher ideal?
It sure seems like we have been left with a defeated man, convicted of treason, executed by the state, and we have chosen that man to be our king.ethiopian-crucifixion

But the mystery of our faith is that it is exactly in this image that we see the power of God.
It’s exactly in the paradox of Christ crucified that we perceive the love of God proclaimed for the whole world.
It’s exactly in this moment that seems like the utter defeat of Jesus that we see the culmination of his life and ministry.

This day marks the last Sunday of our church calendar, which this year was centered in the Gospel of Luke.
And way back at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Luke, he stood up in his hometown synagogue and preached his inaugural sermon, his manifesto of what his ministry would look like.
He declared: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
No small claims, no hedging his bets, but a audacious and plain statement of his mission.
And for the rest of his earthly life, for the entirety of his ministry, he embodied this bold proclamation.
He declared the good news of God’s love for the poor and the outcast, he healed the sick and released those captive to sin and death, he brought liberation to people living under oppression and announced God’s jubilee.
And with his proclamation, with his life and ministry, he brought a gospel of God’s radical and expansive love that was so offensive, so dangerous to those who were in power, so wild to those who couldn’t dare to believe it, that they crucified him.
They used the most gruesome instrument of torture yet devised—one reserved for the most insidious enemies of the state—and hung Jesus between two criminals on a roadside to die.

If I’m honest, this day has always seemed to me a little strange on our liturgical calendar.
For those of us who don’t live with monarchy, the labels seem anachronistic.
For those of us who long for a mighty ruler who will right the world, this seems anticlimactic.
I was reminded last week why this feast is on our calendar in the first place.
It’s actually the most recent addition of our festivals, first added to the Roman Catholic calendar in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. During those tumultuous years after the First World War, the pope saw a rise in nationalism and strongman dictators; he saw a people who were losing faith in their leaders and leaders who had lost sight of their duty to care for their people.
Perhaps not unlike the rulers we hear about from the Prophet Jeremiah whose self-serving policies and actions, whose disregard for the poor and suffering, whose abandonment of God’s teachings brought ruin upon their nation.
Perhaps not unlike our rulers today and our own rising tide of nationalism and strongmen, our own disregard for the poor and suffering, our own uncertainty brought by corruption and discord and even overthrows of governments.
And so Pope Pius established this feast day to remind us that no matter the governments around us, we have an allegiance to the Kingdom of God; no matter the clanging cries of nationalism, our citizenship resides in a kingdom that knows no boarders; no matter the corrupt or malevolent leaders, God has raised up a righteous ruler whose power is made known in service and whose proclamation is peace and love.

“Cristus Rex” in the Chapel of the Resurrection, Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Indiana

Because while the Roman Empire did indeed execute Jesus on that cross, we trust that God raised Christ from the dead.
While the powers of this world tried to stamp out Jesus’ ministry, we are confident that his kingdom has been established and he has cemented his reign.
We are bold to proclaim that we have a new king, a new dominion.
We pledge allegiance to the crucified yet risen one.
Risen and living, so death can no longer have dominion over us.
Risen and living, transforming that instrument of torture and death into the fount of joy and life so we can receive an abundance of life.
Risen and living, having overcome and triumphed over the rulers of this world so we can experience the fullness of Christ’s perfect reign.
This is Christ, our King, in whom we live and move and have our being.
This is Christ, our Queen, in whom all things on heaven and earth have been created and reigns above all things.
This is Christ, our Lord, in whom the fullness of God is pleased to dwell.
This is Christ, our Monarch, who reveals how all earthly power is merely a façade, hiding humanity behind a veil of authority, who shows us that the glorious power of God is seen in humility and service.
This is Christ, our Sovereign, who majestically rules from the cross, whose law is love, and who reigns with grace, reconciliation, compassion, and care for the outcast and the vulnerable.

And like that sermon in Nazareth, we make this proclamation fully aware of its consequences.
Because when we declare that Jesus is Lord that means that Caesar is not.
When we pronounce that Christ is King that means that no president or ruler or earthly monarch has a claim.
When we pray that God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, we are praying for that coming day when God shall finally overcome all earthly powers and fully rule in the perfect love and justice that we saw in Jesus’ ministry.
Not that Christ will come and reign on the thrones of this world, but that he will continue to confound our expectations and transform our realities into his new and perfect kingdom.

And while we may wait with hope for that coming day when all will be right and Christ will reign, while we may grow anxious at the state of this world and its leaders, while we may pray with that criminal on the cross hoping against hope that this Jesus was for real and his mercy would extend even to those justly condemned, we cry out “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom!”
And we hear from our Lord who declared to that man on the cross and declares to us that today, “today, you will be with me in paradise.”
We don’t have to wait for some distant day because today we have been joined into Christ’s kingdom.
We are no longer subject to failed and corrupted leaders because today our citizenship has been transferred into the Kingdom of God.
We no longer have to be fearful for our future because today Christ reigns above all earthly powers, above all governments and states, and brings us into the new reality of his reign.

Christ the King of Kings, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

And because our Lord has told us that today we are with him in his Kingdom, we know that this is more than some far of heaven in which we put our hope; we know that we cannot see our citizenship in Christ’s Reign as some escapist fantasy that allows us to detach from this world.
Because today we are citizens of Christ’s reign.
Today we are part of Christ’s promise.
We have been made ambassadors of our Lord.
Through our baptisms we are members of Christ’s royal priesthood.
And as citizens of Christ’s Kingdom, we are called to follow our King Jesus in resisting those earthly leaders who fail to live into Christ’s teachings.
We are called to follow our Queen in caring for the outcast and downtrodden.
We are called to make this world reflect the perfect reign of justice, peace, and love that our Lord has established.
We are called to live into the sure and certain hope of this new kingdom that is coming and that is already here.

Long live the king.

[1] The Crown, Season 1, Episode 5 “Smoke and Mirrors”

[2] Evangelical Lutheran Worship 637

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