Sunday, November 21, 2010

The King No One Expected

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When people used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up I’d usually say “a king” – well, sometimes I said wizard, but mostly I said “king.” I always took that whole “you can do whatever you want in life” thing a little too seriously. But I wanted to be a king. I loved the idea of being in charge, and in junior high I got my chance. I was alone with my younger brother for a few hours after school each day. Naturally, there was a list of chores to be done, and because I was in charge, the division of labor was quite simple. My brother would do the work and I would supervise. And I was a harsh taskmaster. I would bark orders, enforce penalties, and rule with an iron fist. I thought the arrangement worked well but my brother complained, a sitter was hired, and I was dethroned. I thought I knew what it took to be king, but apparently, I didn’t really understand.

Here’s the question I want us to wrestle with tonight. Do we know what it means to be a king? Is there a “true” king of our world? If there is, do we know His character? And just so you know where I’m coming from tonight is “Christ the King Sunday,” which happens once a year in the Episcopal Church. Jesus’ kingship – that’s what we’re supposed to contemplate and celebrate tonight. But the questions we’re asking are the very same ones that people in Biblical times asked themselves – Who’s the King of our world? What’s he like? Do we understand his character?

The people in tonight’s Gospel sure don’t, because tonight we see the King of the world nailed to a cross – he’s mocked, taunted, and shamed. Now remember, in our Gospel story tonight, it’s only been a week since Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem where he was met with shouts of joy and great expectation. Why? – Because people believed that in Jesus their long awaited King had finally arrived. Not sure if you remember that story, but people spread their cloaks on the road to honor Jesus as he passed by. They shouted at the top of their lungs, “Hosanna! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” But tonight – just one week later – the shouts have shifted. It’s not “hosanna, hosanna.” Its “crucify him, crucify him.” Apparently Jesus wasn’t the King they were expecting.

But why not? After all, they were expecting a Messiah – so why didn’t Jesus fit the Messiah mold? Well, we have to remember that the Jewish people had been under foreign oppression for centuries. Since 586 BC the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, and the Greeks had all ruled over them, and now it was the Romans, and it seemed wrong to the Jews of Jesus’ day that a pagan nation would govern them. So they prayed for a king. They wanted a king. They expected a king. And because of that they fantasized – they fantasized about what sort of king God would send them.

One group, the Zealots, thought the Jewish people had become cowards. So they waited for a military king to lead a rebellion against Rome. The Essenes had a different solution – to establish a new society out in the desert, which is where they waited for their king. And then of course Pharisees, who liked to blame sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes for all their problems. “Yes God will send a King,” they’d say, “but first we have to become more pure. So as the Jews prayed, wished, and waited for a king, they all misunderstood what sort of king God would send. For 1st century Jews whose hearts were set upon an earthly king, the story did not end well. Military rebellions were crushed, people were killed, and in 70 AD the Jewish temple was destroyed and when that happened all hope for a king was lost.

The scandal of the Christian Gospel is that somewhere in the midst of that mess – when no one was looking and when the masses were blind to the truth – the true King of Creation entered our world. To paraphrase CS Lewis, the Author of the play stepped onto the stage, the Writer of the novel became the Chief Character. Of course no one recognized him. To quote the Gospel of John, “He came to what was His own but His own did not receive Him.” After all, people expected all kinds of kings but not one – not one person thought, “Maybe a young carpenter will emerge from an insignificant corner of the Roman Empire to announce that through Him the Kingdom of God was now here.” Of course no one expected that! And isn’t this the irony of Christianity? That in a world where all hope for a king was lost the true King of the world had come and that, aside from a few misfits and peasants, not one person even noticed.

The reason the church makes us celebrate Christ the King Sunday every year is to force us to ask, “have we noticed?” Do we know the true king of our world? Do we know what he’s like? Do we understand His character? Because it’s really easy to confess Christ as King on the one hand, but to live on this earth as if we were our own king anyway. I mean, isn’t that where you and I find ourselves today – trying to sit in the driver’s seat of our own life? Perhaps you remember this part of Eucharistic Prayer C: “You made us the rulers of creation. But we turned against you, and betrayed your trust; and we have turned against one another.” In other words, we live in a world that’s chosen power over love, which means that our kingdoms inevitably clash, as we wage war with the weapons of control and manipulation. Far too often our lives become a series of passive aggressive moves and countermoves to defend our petty kingdoms. Worst of all, we have lost the ability to see people as they really are – children of God made in the image of Christ – the true King of our world.

The good news of the Christian Gospel is that Jesus Christ is King and that he died to restore our broken world, our broken relationships, and our broken hearts. As tonight’s reading from Colossians puts it, “he’s made peace by the blood of his cross.” On the cross Jesus shows us what it truly means to be a king. It is good news that Jesus isn’t the sort of King the Jewish people were expecting, because we know about worldly “kings” all too well. Jesus is not a Stalin or Mussolini, a Hitler or Hussein. Jesus is not a harsh taskmaster. He doesn’t bark orders, enforce penalties, and rule with an iron fist. After all, Jesus didn’t enter Jerusalem on a chariot pulled by stallions and warhorses. No – the King of Kings came riding in on a donkey! God did not become human in Jesus Christ to overthrow Rome. He became human to overthrow sin. And tonight we see how He did that – Jesus Christ took the form of a slave and he died on a cross.

Now, we have a natural tendency to assume that in taking the form a slave Jesus was wearing a costume and disguising the All-Powerful and Mighty God. But here’s the miracle, and in some sense the point of tonight’s sermon – Christ the King did not disguise who God is. In taking the form of a servant, Jesus revealed who God is. God is the Infinite Servant; the most Humble Person in the entire Universe. In other words, Jesus did not come as a servant in spite of the fact that he is God; Jesus poured out his life for you and for me precisely because He is God. Jesus Christ is the King who serves.

That is the kind of King we ask to rule over us when we give our lives to Christ – the kind of king who washes his disciple’s feet, and who feels equally as at home with prostitutes and lepers as he does with the righteous and respected. Jesus is the king whose chief delight is to show mercy. Jesus is the King who willingly submitted to a violent death on a Roman cross, and then begged His Father to forgive the very people who arranged that death. Jesus is the King who enters Jerusalem not a chariot but on a farm animal; not with an army but with a dozen fishermen; a king Whose power is revealed not in the breaking of bones, but in the breaking of bread. Jesus is the king no one could have expected.

So if you’d like, think of tonight’s reading from Luke as a coronation ceremony. But notice, Christ the King isn’t seated on a throne. Christ the King is nailed to a cross, and when that happened a revolution was launched – a revolution that turns the world’s notion of kingship upside down. Jesus invites us to join that revolution and to be kings with him by living lives of love, service, and prayer. Jesus is the one, true King of our world, and because of that you and I are free: we are free to pour out our lives in love for one another. We are free to dream Godly dreams and to take Godly risks. We are free from God’s judgment. Why? Because Christ the King was judged for us.

So blessed be God – Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – and blessed be God’s Kingdom now and forever. AMEN.

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