When we think of royalty, when we think about rulers of any kind, we have certain visions in our minds. We have certain understandings of the kind of strength, power, and authority that it takes to lead a world, a country, a state, a city.
But always, ALWAYS, when it comes to God, when it comes to Christ, we are handed a vision and understanding that does not, CANNOT be anything like what we think. In order to understand THIS king, I think it can be helpful to return to our original Biblical stories of what a ruler and king are.
The Hebrew people were told, from the beginning, that God was their God. They were told that because of who God is, God’s strong presence in their lives, God’s overarching leadership and most of all, God’s amazing and faithful love, that the Hebrew people needed no other ruler, no other guide. But the Israelites were scared. They were scared to be a nation without a clear leadership who could defend them, lead them into battle, show them as a united and strong people. They insisted, they asked for a ruler. God gave them judges, people who could help them make decisions and interpret right from wrong. But again, these were not what the people wanted. They were afraid. They didn’t believe they could rely on God alone against other nations. We hear the rest of this story in the book of 1st Samuel, chapter 8. “Now when Samuel got old, he appointed his sons to serve as Israel’s judges. 2 The name of his oldest son was Joel; the name of the second was Abijah. They served as judges in Beer-sheba. 3 But Samuel’s sons didn’t follow in his footsteps. They tried to turn a profit, they accepted bribes, and they perverted justice. 4 So all the Israelite elders got together and went to Samuel at Ramah. 5 They said to him, “Listen. You are old now, and your sons don’t follow in your footsteps. So appoint us a king to judge us like all the other nations have.” 6 It seemed very bad to Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us,” so he prayed to the Lord. 7 The Lord answered Samuel, “Comply with the people’s request—everything they ask of you—because they haven’t rejected you. No, they’ve rejected me as king over them. 8 They are doing to you only what they’ve been doing to me[a] from the day I brought them out of Egypt to this very minute, abandoning me and worshipping other gods. 9 So comply with their request, but give them a clear warning, telling them how the king will rule over them.”[b]10 Then Samuel explained everything the Lord had said to the people who were asking for a king. 11 “This is how the king will rule over you,” Samuel said: “He will take your sons, and will use them for his chariots and his cavalry and as runners for his chariot. 12 He will use them as his commanders of troops of one thousand and troops of fifty, or to do his plowing and his harvesting, or to make his weapons or parts for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, or bakers. 14 He will take your best fields, vineyards, and olive groves and give them to his servants. 15 He will give one-tenth of your grain and your vineyards to his officials and servants. 16 He will take your male and female servants, along with the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys, and make them do his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and then you yourselves will become his slaves! 18 When that day comes, you will cry out because of the king you chose for yourselves, but on that day the Lord won’t answer you.” 19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel and said, “No! There must be a king over us 20 so we can be like all the other nations. Our king will judge us and lead us and fight our battles.” 21 Samuel listened to everything the people said and repeated it directly to the Lord. 22 Then the Lord said to Samuel, “Comply with their request. Give them a king.”
So the people were given kings. And we’ve had those kings as models for us ever since. We have come to expect that rulers are people who give us a certain stability or protection, but that do so at a very high price. We expect this. No matter where you stand politically, or who you support or what kind of government you value, we all know that there are costs we’d rather not pay to having human leadership, human rulers.
And yet, God continues to show us another way. God continues to show us God’s way. And God’s way is different. And when we could not see it from what the judges had to say, and when we could not accept it based on what the prophets had to say, and when we could not live it based on what God said to us through scriptures and stories and people and history, God finally sent God’s son to us. God sent Jesus to show us this other way, this different way. Jesus came, the real king, the ultimate king, who acts nothing like we expect or understand rulers or leaders to behave. He doesn’t walk around with body guards protecting his every step. He doesn’t insist on taking from us to feed his profession or the services he offers us. He doesn’t build a strong defense system or any other kinds of large government operations or organizations. Instead, instead he shows us something very, VERY different. He feeds anyone who comes to him hungry. He heals anyone who comes to him sick (and sometimes even dead such as Talitha and Lazurus). He listens and allows even the most rejected, the least “acceptable”, the least “worthy” to physically touch him. He includes children, women, people of different nationalities and backgrounds such as the Serophoenician and the Samaritans, he includes tax collectors and prostitutes. He doesn’t reject them because they aren’t “the chosen ones” or part of his nation, or part of what we deem acceptable. He doesn’t take their wealth and live in a big mansion. He lives poorly, simply, and asks for nothing in return. He relies on the kindness of strangers and does not worry about his own survival or well-being. He leads with TRUTH rather than threats or negotiations.
And when THIS king, this king that we cannot understand, this king who acts completely differently from what we want or expect or demand from our human rulers, when this king is killed, as of course he would inevitably be, this king still, on the cross, in his dying moments, behaves completely differently from any king we can imagine. He doesn’t send for his troops to rescue him. He doesn’t call for a start of war or revenge. He doesn’t threaten the end to those who did this to him. He doesn’t shout out “you will be sorry”, and he doesn’t fight back in any way.
Instead, as he hangs there on the cross, as he dies, as he suffers the deepest pain, he continues to think about others, others who are suffering. And again, it isn’t the “good” people he worries about in that moment. It is anyone, anyone at all who is suffering. He is hanging on the cross next to two people who have done wrong, who are being killed as criminals for some atrocity or another. Maybe they were both murderers. Maybe they killed children. We aren’t told. What we are told is that in that moment Jesus doesn’t ask. He doesn’t care what they have done. What he cares about is that they are scared and suffering. And in that moment, this king, who does not “rescue” them or himself, even when he is goaded on to do so, instead, in that moment, as he suffers, hanging on the cross – he offers to the criminal crucified next to him the promise of paradise. He reaches out with the strength of knowledge and love that goes beyond any personal suffering, and he offers life, real life, to the scared and dying person next to him.
This is the KING that we are given, the REAL king, the savior, our God. He does not jump off the cross to save himself, despite the pain, and the inevitable death that he faces. He does not “negotiate” or play politics. He lives life following God to the fullest, and he pays for it with death, a death he accepts even while he loves and cares for those around him, even those whom, like this criminal next to him, we would probably not deem worthy of that love or care.
Walter Brueggermann said it this way – “Every (government) regime is frightened….. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing alternative futures to the single one the (earthly) king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.” Well, again, the king that we see, the king that Jesus presents is not this kind of king. This is the king who IS the prophet, who IS the artist…who takes all of our understandings of rulers and leadership and what it is to command people, and he turns them on their head.
This week is Thanksgiving. And then we begin Advent. And all of them, Christ the King, Thanksgiving, and Advent connect… all are about seeing God in the unexpected places, being grateful because we have seen God, and expecting that God, Christ, King, Jesus as a baby – will not be what we expect.
I struggled with the sermon this week. I struggled to write it because I am saying the same thing that is being said across the country on this Christ the King Sunday. That Christ the King is nothing at all like the kings and leaders we think we need. That instead Christ the King is the King GOD wants us to have – a king of love, compassion, service, selflessness, faithfulness – God wants us to have nothing else but God for our king, our leader, our ruler. What is new in that? What new word can I bring that you have not heard every year on this Sunday? What stories can I possibly tell you to illustrate this reality? But then I thought, the thing is, we need to hear this every year. Because we are still, STILL looking for that earthly king to lead us. We still are. And that is not the king God calls us to have lead us.
So how will we recognize this Christ? How do we recognize this King? As we enter Advent, as we come to God with thanksgiving in our hearts for all we have been given, how do we know our loyalty is to the right king? How do we know we have found Christ again?
We will know him, as we always do, by his love. Amen.