November 24, 2019
Village Chapel Presbyterian Church
Dr. Todd R. Wright
It is an odd time of the year. We are bombarded with mixed messages.
It is a few days before Thanksgiving, but we’ve been hearing ads for Christmas for weeks.
Speaking of the two …
Is Thanksgiving about sharing a meal with family or a feast of football?
Is Christmas about celebrating the birth of our Savior or a way to save the economy?
Are they civic holidays or religious ones?
And where in this mix does “Christ the King Sunday” fit, with a story of the cross?
As one scholar puts it, “Everything about this liturgical emphasis on kingship and crucifixion feels off in a world awash in turkeys and tinsel.”1
Like I said, “mixed messages”! So what are we to make of Christ the King?
Well, the day marks the end of the Christian year, that great arc that takes us from the birth of Jesus through his life to his last week on earth, his death and surprising resurrection, and on to the birth of the church and lessons for living the faith, until we loop around finally to this one last reminder of the way Christ wades into our world, turns everything upside down, and redefines even the simplest terms.
For example, what is a king?
The Bible isn’t sure.
In some places earthly kings rule with wisdom and compassion, like a good shepherd.
In others they are brutal and self-serving; they oppress and exploit, like Pharaoh or Herod.
In some places they are appointed by God, used by God, blessed by God.
In others they abuse their god-like power and worship idols rather than the God of Israel.
In some places they are warriors.
In others they are poets.
So when a sign is placed on the cross, saying, “This is the King of the Jews,” in Greek and Latin, and Hebrew, it is making a statement for all to hear, but it’s a mixed message.
With that sign they are mocking him. They think if he was really a king, he would have come with a sword and armies that would have fought for him. They think he should have schemed, manipulated, lied, done anything, to get and keep power. They think kings should be above it all. They must never be human or humiliated, never abandoned, alone.
But we know that the sign is true. Jesus is a king.
We have seen his power … to inspire and heal.
We have seen his wisdom and compassion.
We have seen him lead a ragged army and take Jerusalem by storm, like a seasoned warrior,
… before being arrested like a common criminal.
Like I said, we are awash in mixed messages, including about the nature of kingship.
So Luke presents Jesus between two criminals as a way to wrestle with the issue.
One criminal joins in the derision. He sees Jesus as everyone else does – as a self-deluded fool, a failure, a fraud. If he is going to change his mind, he’ll need a display of power as proof.
But when the other criminal speaks, “there is none of the fear, scorn, or doubt we hear in the others’ voices. Instead what we hear in his voice is [the tremor of] confession. [There is a] sense of sorrow, an admission of guilt and repentance, as well as a sense of faith. The way he speaks to Jesus, and what he says, suggests that this thief knows the promises of God.
He knows he is as a sheep lost in the wilderness, and somehow he sees in Jesus the good shepherd, who lays down his life so the sheep can come back safely to the sheepfold. [He] sees the fear, violence, and degradation around him, and somehow he sees in Jesus the faithful shepherd, the king who rules with justice and righteousness.”2
What are we to do with this swirl of mixed messages?
Desmond Tutu tells the story of a light bulb. It shone brightly and proudly and all were grateful for its light. It grew quite proud of itself, for the way it could chase away the darkness. It became arrogant, thinking that all the light it produced was due to its own merit and skill. Then one day, Tutu chuckles, that light bulb is removed from the socket and placed on a table. It tried and tried, but could bring forth no light on its own. It had never realized that its light came from a power station. The truth was that it had been connected to the dynamo by little wires strung out over great distances, wires that were ignored and unsung.3
So the key to sorting through mixed messages is to be clear about what is true:
The kings of the earth are like that light bulb. They blaze and boast, all the while ignoring the truth – they do not understand power.
At its best, the Church has proclaimed the truth. True leaders/true kings are those who love, who serve, who suffer with and for the people. We know that truth because of Jesus Christ.
But we have been just as susceptible as anyone else to the siren call of the world’s power. Since at least the 4th Century we have thrown our support behind leaders who display muscle and arrogance and enough cruelty to get the job done. It has clouded our judgment, not just about kings, but about holidays and money and the way to best live life.
But if the second criminal teaches us anything, it is that we can make mistakes and still find our way to the one who can save us – the humble king, the good shepherd, the one who opens wide the gates to paradise – Christ, the King.
Grab hold of that truth. Live your life by it. And use it to guide who you will follow. Amen
1 from Jill Duffield’s blog on our passage, “Looking into the Lectionary” 11/18/19
2 from Yvette Schock’s commentary on the passage in the Christian Century, 10/30/19
3 drawn from “The Other Kingdom” by Michael Battle in the Christian Century 11/7/01