Sunday, November 24, 2019

Sermon: "The Peculiar King", Luke 19:29-44/Luke 23:33-43 (November 24, 2019)


Okay, before I begin, I want to make sure we’re all on the same page on one thing: hopefully, we can all agree that the English language is REALLY weird. For example, the meaning of a sentence can change dramatically depending on which word you emphasize. This has nothing to do with the language itself (grammatically speaking) and everything to do with inflection. Take, for example, the sentence, “I never said she stole my money.” If you emphasize the first word, “I”, it implies that someone else made the accusation: “*I* never said she stole my money.” If you emphasize the second word, it’s a forceful denial of the premise: “I NEVER said she stole my money.” If you emphasize the third word, it indicates that the speaker may be implying something unspoken: “I never SAID she stole my money.” You can go through and try it with the rest of the words on your own if you want. It’s a fun game.

Any English phrase at all can fall prey to this linguistic quirk—including the titles of our liturgical celebrations. When Pope Pius XI instituted “Christ the King” Sunday in the 1920s, he was deeply concerned about rising secularism and fascism. His intention was to remind the faithful that no human authority, whether derived from politics or charisma or knowledge, is above Christ. He wanted to remind us that CHRIST alone is king, no matter how authoritative or wise or reassuring other leaders might seem. Although the pope didn’t originally make this assertion in English, our understanding of things is shaped by the language we use to describe them, so I think it’s fair to play our word emphasis game here. If he were playing with us, I think the pope would argue that the first word should be emphasized to properly convey his intentions: “CHRIST is king”. No one else—Christ.

And yet, I think that sometimes when we arrive at the end of the church year, we erroneously put the emphasis elsewhere, whether consciously or subconsciously: “Christ is KING.” This is still true, of course, but it subtly shifts our attention and changes the meaning of this day. We place the focus on the prestige and status of our savior rather than reflecting on what it means that CHRIST is the one, the only one, who ultimately rules over us all. We celebrate the power instead of the person. And we assume that Christ’s power is the same type exercised by human rulers, just magnified exponentially in its influence.

Our hymns and iconography reflect this inclination. Most hymns about Christ’s reign focus on him being a victor, a conquerer, and if you google “Christ the King” you’ll find image after image of Jesus in a magnificent throne, sitting in an obvious power pose with a shining golden crown on his head (and he’s usually white because, let’s face it, that’s what power and authority has meant to westerners throughout most of our history). It’s next to impossible to find anything that reflects the nature of the Jesus we read about in the gospels. The Jesus that we tend to celebrate this Sunday is a winner, a mighty commander, the very model of everything that we imagine when we think of a secular king.

But when we shift the emphasis back from “King” to “Christ” (as I believe was originally intended) we stop projecting our own regal expectations onto Jesus. Suddenly, Christ is the center of the celebration, and he gets to decide for himself what it means to be king. And boy, does he have some strange ideas! Instead of showing us images of himself majestically robed in golden splendor, Jesus paints a picture for us of him humbly riding into town on a small colt, borrowed from a stranger in town. Instead of bold hymns celebrating his power and might, Jesus sings to us Good Friday laments, reminding us of the king on the cross, who willingly died at the hands of the government.

For Christ, being king doesn’t mean throwing his weight around, crushing his opponents underfoot, and wielding his power indiscriminately, no matter how effective a method that might seem to us. Christ’s version of a king is humble and gentle. Christ’s king expects rejection, even from his closest friends. Christ’s king endures humiliation and repays it with forgiveness. Christ’s king brings hope to the hopeless, even in the midst of his own suffering. Christ’s king is defined by the giving of himself, completely and totally, even to the point of death. CHRIST is king, not anyone else, and so in this case, being kingly first and foremost means being Christ-like.

It makes sense, if we really believe that God is totally, utterly, completely in charge. Yet we still don’t get it. “If only you knew,” the king mourns, “but now these things are hidden from your eyes.” We struggle to understand how it’s possible for the King’s realm to be one of peace and sacrifice. This king’s authority comes in strange packaging that’s alien to our lived experience: he uses it not to enrich himself or become more powerful, but to offer forgiveness and salvation to others. And we struggle to comprehend how this could be. Since we can’t understand it, we reject Christ’s idea of what it means to be king.

But the thing is, even if we resist it, no matter how hard we push back against this idea of a humble, vulnerable, merciful king, it ultimately doesn’t change anything. There’s one more round of the emphasis game that we haven’t played yet. Not only is there truth in the phrase “CHRIST is king”, but we also know another truth: “Christ IS king”. No matter what Christ does, even if his actions seem decidedly ignoble to us, even if we’re uncomfortable being ruled by a humble and merciful monarch, Christ IS king by his very nature. The Greek word “Christos” means “anointed”. To be anointed is to be consecrated, set aside for a holy purpose. Jesus Christ is the one who is king, because that’s who he was born to be, who he’s been since the beginning of time. No conditions, no qualifications. Christ IS king. Not by virtue of circumstance, but by his very nature. It’s simply who he is.

Unlike other kings we know of, his authority isn’t derived from his lineage, or his might, or the social constructs that humanity has built. And because his authority is entirely derived from within himself, he doesn’t need to play by any rules but God’s. He doesn’t need to work within the established social order, he doesn’t need to prove his strength or his parentage. He just needs to be the king that he is, whatever that might look like. And apparently, that looks like feeding the hungry, healing the sick, eating with sinners, washing his friends’ feet, and speaking the truth to earthly power, no matter the cost.

It turns out that we serve a king who turns the tables on what a king is supposed to be, because it’s who he is. He shows us with his every action. We serve a humble king who enters the city on a borrowed mount. We serve a vulnerable king who suffers alongside us. We serve a servant king who offers us forgiveness and salvation from the cross, even to criminals, even at the cost of his own life. We worship a peculiar king, indeed.

So, what does this mean for us? How are we supposed to serve such a strange ruler? Well, if our king is peculiar, then perhaps that means that we’re meant to be a peculiar people. Maybe we should resist the power and authority that the world tells us is so important. Peculiar. Maybe we should allow ourselves to be humble and vulnerable for the sake of others. Peculiar. Maybe we should rethink what we actually want in a leader, and begin to demand that our earthly rulers better reflect the qualities demonstrated by our heavenly one. Very peculiar. We know that the peculiar king doesn’t rule through coercion or might, but by upending our expectations and transforming the world. Maybe, if nothing else, we should seek to be more like him.

Yes, Christ is KING. Our God is sovereign and all powerful, but we already knew that. That’s not why we celebrate this day. As we stand on the edge of the liturgical year and look towards what it means to be Christian in the days and eons to come, don’t fixate on the power and victory that we think being “king” implies. Instead, shift the emphasis: reflect on the fact that CHRIST is king. Let’s say it together: CHRIST is king. Not tyrannical dictators, not selfish leaders, not fallible humans of any kind. Shift it again, and declare to one another that Christ IS king. Say it out loud with me: Christ IS king. It’s who he was, is, and always will be, no matter what. And remember that CHRIST IS KING in his own peculiar, unexpected, marvelous way, a way that no king has ever been before or ever will be again.

Earthly kings can lose their mandate. Earthly kings let us down. Earthly kings look out for their own self-interests. Earthly kings forget to care about those they rule. Because they’re only human. So why not try following someone different, someone human—but also divine? A king who is king whether riding on a donkey or dying on a cross…defying our expectations at all times, even now as we begin to anticipate his birth once again. We owe it to our peculiar king to look for him in the places he wants to be found, rather than the places that we expect a king to be. And we owe it to him to be his peculiar people, following his example and declaring his strange reign to the ends of the earth. Amen.

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