Texts Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 1:67-79, Luke 23:33-43
Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is the Sunday that marks the culmination of the church year, before we move into Advent. This feast day was placed at the end of year as kind of a pinnacle, a day we celebrate the all-embracing authority of Christ as King and Lord of the cosmos. Today, we are reminded that, as Christians, we are subjects of Christ and Christ alone, and that his power transcends all powers. Now, the two texts that Connie read really seem to point to that understanding as Jesus Christ as exulted King. But the next reading from the lectionary texts seems out of place. It is the crucifixion of Jesus, a text we would seem more fitting during Holy Week than during a celebration of the Cosmic Christ. However, it also points to an understanding of how God sees and anoints Jesus as King. Let us hear the word of the Lord.
Read Luke 23:33-43
What does a king look like? In our country of elected representative democracy, the idea of kingship can be a little hard to envision. The closest we can come to is the British royal family, which if you hadn’t heard, is in the news again with the recent engagement announcement of Prince William to Kate Middleton. Just like any bride and groom, there have been discussions about the guest list, venue and the date. But, as one report put it, these decisions are “eagerly anticipated by literally billions of people.” Some of you may remember the extravagance of the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana, Williams’s parents, in the early eighties. Odds are this wedding will not be any less lavish. Estimates range from 20 to 40 million British pounds for the expected cost of this upcoming wedding. Converted to US dollars, that comes in at 32 to 64 million dollars. It is also expected that the wedding will boost the British economy by 620 million pounds, or just shy of one billion US dollars. But, that’s an OK amount for the future king of England, isn’t it? This future king will represent the United Kingdom to the rest of the world as he receives foreign ambassadors and high commissioners, entertains visiting Heads of State and makes State visits overseas to other countries, in support of diplomatic and economic relations. This will be the king who will open parliament, sign the acts they have passed, and meet with the Prime Minister. He will also be the one who will provide a focus of national identity, unity and pride.
In the text I read, we get a glimpse of what the people were looking for in their king, the Messiah, the one who would be anointed by God to be their prophet and king by what they say to Jesus. The Messiah would be their savior as he frees Israel from the oppression of the Romans and gives them back their national identity, uniting them, and bringing back the pride of the people of God. He would be both a religious and military leader. He will come to establish an earthly kingdom of peace and justice that would be centered in Israel. And none of that happened with this man nailed to the cross. Now, crucifixion was a common punishment at this date in history, but it was also reserved for those who had perpetrated two crimes, treason and avoiding due process in a capital crime. Jesus is dying a rebel’s death. And the sign that hung over him revealed his crime of treason, “This is the King of Jews.” There can be only one king, and that is Caesar.
It is those words, “This is the King of Jews,” that bring about the mocking from the onlookers. The leaders who had brought about the charges that say, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, the chosen one!” The true chosen one of God would be able to call forth an army, whether it be of men or of angels, and bring himself down from the cross, and rid us of these Romans. This man can do none of that. And if he could, why doesn’t he?
Some of the soldiers who were now at this place called the Skull were in Pilate’s chambers when he had sentenced Jesus to crucifixion while at the same time declaring his innocence. The soldiers’ acts are a mix of mockery and compassion as they offer wine to lessen the pain alongside such words as, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” Even if you have a little kingly authority, save yourself from this humiliation, save yourself from this kind of death. This is no way for an innocent man to die.
The criminal next to Jesus hung on his cross because he was guilty of treason, more than likely having led an unsuccessful group in rebellion against the Romans. Looking up at the sign that hung above Jesus and then down at him, he literally blasphemed Jesus with, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” We led others against Rome; free yourself and when you do, free us! We will follow you as you become the King, because we will recognize the power you have! We want the same thing you do! We want freedom!
What does a King look like? It didn’t look like Jesus that day as he hung on a cross to those who witnessed it. But it also is hard for us to picture Jesus as king that way as well. It’s easier to turn to Paul’s word in Colossians to describe Jesus as King than it is to look upon Jesus during the crucifixion. We don’t like to think of the one who had the power to create all things in heaven and on earth as being nailed to the cross, with seeming little power to do anything about it. We do not like to picture the one who holds all things together being torn apart by the weight of his own body. We want a king who can save himself and us!
In the mocking words of the scoffers and in the inscription put over his cross, we are faced with the true nature of Jesus’ Kingship. On the cross, Jesus is tempted by these scoffers in his calling. Just as the devil had earlier challenged his vocational identity at the beginning of his ministry in the desert by offering him a different and less painful path to Kingship, Jesus is now being invited to save himself, to avoid the cross, and in the process to save the criminals as well. He is being tempted to be the kind of King not unlike the one depicted in the false charges brought against him. But he does not respond that way; he remains steadfast to fulfilling the divine will of what the Messiah will look like, not by what the scoffers want the Messiah to look like.
Ironically, the words of those around him, those who ridicule and belittle him, pose the paradox of his mission. He will save others, but he is the Messiah who saves others only by not saving himself. All power is given up in the cross, and in that powerlessness of the cross, Jesus demonstrates the authority that ultimately rescues criminals, scoffers, religious leaders, and even us. Christ’s reign is established in and through the crucifixion. He does not rule by threat or military domination. His authority is not sustained by asking homage from others. Surrendering all the divine and human power that he has on the cross for the sake of others, Jesus defines for us what sort of king he really is.
What does a king look like? The other criminal on the cross recognizes Jesus as who he is and dares speak his revelation. He acknowledges that he himself is guilty and deserves to be hanging on that cross, but he also recognizes that Jesus is innocent. And he also sees that Jesus will enter his kingly realm not by coming down from the cross, but by dying on it. He pleads not to be forgotten, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It is a confession of faith that in some deep mystery of the gospel, death must take place so that new life can take place, that renewed life can occur, that resurrection life can be experienced and true freedom can be found. He recognizes that God will vindicate this King on a cross next to him and bring Jesus into his proper rule.
Friends, I ask you what does our king look like? The good news is he is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all of creation, for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross. It is on that cross that we deserve to be hanging in condemnation, but our innocent king hangs there in our place. It is also good news that we can approach our king and say, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And God, who has crowned Christ as head of the church, has already brought us into the kingdom of his beloved Son. It is because of Christ our King, who has been, at the same time, humiliated on the cross and exalted in the empty tomb, that we find redemption and the forgiveness of sins.
Friends, this is who we worship. This is why we are here, so we can encounter our King! This is the one in whom we live, and move, and have our being. This is the one who saves us, Jesus Christ, our Lord and King.
Now, may all power and glory and honor be his now and forever more, Amen.