Christ the King Sunday 2016
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God the Father and from Jesus Christ our ever-living King. Amen.
I haven’t written our family Christmas letter yet, nor even thought much about the Christmas cards we still send out each year. But Thanksgiving is coming this week. And that means that Christmas is coming, my friends! Have I gotten your attention yet? And I know without a doubt that at our house we will begin to receive Christmas cards on the day after Thanksgiving, or perhaps the day after that.
I predict that the first Christmas card to arrive as always, will be from a good friend who lives in South Carolina. Ginny is an artist, and over the years hers has always been the first to arrive. The cards we have received from her have evolved from hand-made works to commercially reproduced pieces of hers, usually detailing a scene from the story of Jesus’ birth.
Other cards we receive will include the ones beautifully illustrated with doves proclaiming peace on earth, and cute wild animals preparing to either cavort with snowmen or celebrate the newborn king. There will be peaceful snowy scenes of country churches shining with glittered snow and warmly lighted windows. We might receive a few greetings from Charlie Brown and the Peanuts or from other contemporary Christmas revelers. There will be cards that weigh in toward the more “politically correct” Happy Holidays greetings and those that stubbornly declare that Christ is the reason for the season.
We will receive plenty of cards bearing the traditional fairy-tale scenes of the nativity, with a gorgeous Mary and sweetly smiling and very cleaned-up newborn Jesus.
Then we will receive cards that boldly declare what Christians have always claimed about the divinity of the Christ-child, the Messiah, using descriptions from the Hebrew Scriptures about the expected nature and characteristics of the long-awaited anointed one. You see, these cards and the expectations they express contain the titles we wish to apply to the one we call our king.
It is these expectations that I would like to talk about today, on this Christ the King Sunday.
What were these expectations, and did Jesus fulfill them? The most familiar claims about the nature of the messiah come from Isaiah 9:2-7. This well-known oracle, made even more familiar through the works of Handel’s Messiah, performed by choirs the world over, reflect our expectations for a divine king: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
This oracle, while well-known and claimed by Christians as a reference to Christ, did not actually anticipate or predict the person of Jesus. Written in the eighth century BCE, it was likely used to announce or celebrate the birth of a new royal prince in Jerusalem, perhaps Hezekiah, or even the coronation of the new king: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of peace.
As in any transition in national rule or leadership from the beginning of kingly rule to present-day elections, there was great anticipation and hope for the well-being, peace and prosperity of a nation. Isaiah 9:2-7 anticipates such a change in fortune, a coming of “great light,” to dispel the “darkness” of the imperial exploitation and oppression known by the people of Judah under the governance of the empire of Assyria. Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Early Christians transferred this focus on hope, power, might, victory over tyranny, and the coming of promised peace, to Jesus. They saw verse 6 as containing exactly the kind of characteristics they needed from the Messiah, who they now identify as Jesus Christ, the Son of God: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
In the readings of the scriptures this morning, however, we see a dichotomy form between expectations and reality.
The very first reading we heard reflects the ancient Near East metaphor of king as shepherd – and the promise that the Lord would provide a leader who would restore the justice and righteousness that have been all-but-destroyed by a series of bad kings and rulers who have scattered the flock of the Lord, sending many off into exile, and preventing the remnant from fulfilling their destiny as God’s people. There is a promise here of coming reconciliation, justice, righteousness and peace: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
The reading from Paul to the Colossians raises up characteristics of Christ, who is Lord over all. The images are powerful: reflecting the glory of God, the firstborn of all creation through whom all things came into being, powerful enough to defeat even the death, the one through whom God fully dwells in, with, and among us, reconciling us forever to God.
Once again we see absolute conviction in one who is a wonderful counselor, fully divine, everlasting creator and savior, reconciler to and for all nations. On this Christ the King Sunday as we read these scriptures, we too apply these characteristics to Jesus. These two readings are consistent with our expectations. They fulfill for us our ideal for the kind of king we want, even today: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
But – there always seems to be a “but”, doesn’t there? Then comes this morning’s gospel reading, the one seemingly belonging to Good Friday. That’s when we expect to hear about Christ on the cross. Not on a Sunday when we proclaim his kingship and majesty.
We quickly go from images like this [Christmas cards] to this [paintings from the Stations of the Cross]. Something isn’t quite right. Something doesn’t fit. There is a huge contrast between the reading of Colossians or the prophecy of Jeremiah and this gospel.
Jeremiah assures us of a righteous Lord who will heal the brokenness of the nation.
This Gospel, however, is what we need to hear. While together these readings create a kind of balance, still, the vulnerability of Christ on the cross troubles us. Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace? How can Jesus be those things for us while hanging, powerless, from the cross? How can Jesus, hanging from the cross, vulnerable, his body broken and humiliated, be for us a King?
We live in a world where people claim for themselves greatness while demonstrating through their actions true poverty of character and justice. We claim that we are the most powerful and virtuous nation in the world, yet we read each day about the angry and desperate acts of so many who feel victimized, rejected, discriminated against, or threatened because of the color of their skin, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, disability, their gender, age, or religion.
We as Christians frequently claim our own righteousness, and superiority, while at the same time forgetting Christ’s mandate to advocate for and love the weak, the marginalized, the prisoner, the poor, the hungry, and the vulnerable. We make ourselves judge and jury over our neighbors while we ourselves have trouble even seeing past that very large log in our eye.
Today, however, we celebrate Christ the King who shows us the way to true greatness, who demonstrates his greatness in suffering and in great vulnerability. From the cross, Jesus demonstrates extraordinary power as he embraces our humanity through his suffering, and offers full reconciliation for all sinners. On the cross, Jesus is the fullest expression of human powerlessness while at the same time claims the divine power to forgive sin and bring hope and reconciliation to the powerless.
The power that Christ claims is not for himself. The first criminal derides him: “save yourself” is a challenge to act in accordance with the world’s expectations – our expectations; it is a challenge to exercise the kind of power every political authority knows best and claims for himself or herself.
The good news for us is that Jesus refuses. The only power Jesus exercises in Luke’s crucifixion account is to forgive sin and invite sinners like the criminals beside him, sinners like us, to embrace the hope and new life of God’s reign. While fully identifying with all those so easily rejected by the world, Jesus embodies the life, hope, and reconciliation desired by God, to bring the whole world into the relationship God desires for all of creation, as only Jesus, the divine King can do.
With his reign, Jesus brings about an entirely different way of being in relationship with one another and with God. It is a way of being that reveals complete vulnerability that breaks down barriers and gives life to those who are suffering and in pain.
Once again, Jesus proves to be not the kind of king we want but the kind of king we need. One born in the most humble of circumstances and settings, not in a glowing, air-brushed beautiful Christmas nativity scene; one not wielding the sword but instead hammering the sword into an instrument to bring food for the hungry; one not embraced by the masses but betrayed into the hands of tempters and torturers; one not sitting upon any earthly throne, but hanging from a cross.
Jesus is the kind of king we need, not feasting to excess while his people languish, but one who feeds us with his own body, given for us, and his own blood, shed for us, for the forgiveness of our sins, and for the promise of resurrected life with him for all of eternity.
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace at the last – our hope, our joy, and the lifeblood of the world.