If you look on the church calendar, today is Christ the King Sunday, which is, hands down, my least favorite day in the Church Year. One reason for that, I suppose, is that I don’t readily acknowledge authority. I’ve never been a rule follower and kings, of course, make a lot of rules. That’s why the call them rulers.
I must say, though, that this personal reluctance to acknowledge authority does not extend to Jesus. I am more than glad to acknowledge his authority in my life. But I still am uncomfortable claiming him a king. I actually believe that doing so diminishes his authority instead of enhancing it.
Name a current ruling king. There aren’t many kings these days. Even if we can name a couple we don’t know anything about them. And most of those that fill that role are either ceremonial, having no real authority, or they are bloody despots who ill serve their subjects. Most of this latter kind of kings are found in the Middle East clinging to their power at all costs, or in Africa where they are seeing if they can out genocide each other.
Now we can go into history and start naming kings, but it doesn’t do anything to promote the Jesus for King movement. The most famous king in American history is, of course, King George III, who we fought a revolution against.
Some of us here may remember the name of the father of the current Queen of England, I don’t. And others of us may be able to rattle off a few kings from Europe’s past, thanks particularly to William Shakespeare. Those kings don’t come off very well, but not as bad at the overwhelming number of awful kings we read about in the Old Testament.
To be truthful, the first image that comes to my mind when I think the word king, is those loveable, buffoonish characters in the Disney movies. They are clueless and easily manipulated by children, wives, servants, etc.
So I believe it is fair to say that when we think about kings we are thinking about buffoons, irrelevant figureheads, or tyrants. It’s also true that when we acknowledge Jesus as King, we have to deny the reality of what we understand kings to be and imagine Jesus as the ideal king, even if we really believe there is no such thing as an ideal king. Some people would call that intellectual dishonesty. Kings are buffoons, irrelevant, or tyrants, except, of course, for Jesus. So we will go ahead and call him king even though it really makes no sense.
Now my grandmother might have suggested that I am making a mountain out of a molehill here. My grandmother had one of the best perspectives on life that I have ever come across, and she noticed a lot of molehill sized mountains in her day. So I will try to keep that in mind.
The problem is, though, that when I hear people talking about Jesus as king I do notice a tendency by some to make him into a buffoon, an irrelevant figurehead, or a tyrant.
If you were to ask your average nine year old to think about Jesus as king, I can’t help but believe that those Disney images would pretty quickly come to her mind. And it seems to me that there are those who, though they wouldn’t think of Jesus as a loveable buffoon, do see Jesus as the king of the universe who can be easily manipulated. Just ask him nicely, and he will give you what you want. The preachers who insist that Jesus wants us all to be prosperous are basically suggesting ways we can manipulate the king of the universe to fill our bank accounts.
According to the many end times books we find in Christian Bookstores, Jesus will return as a king in full regal glory, and reek his terrifying revenge on his enemies. He will slaughter millions upon millions who refuse to acknowledge his eternal reign, while his loyal subjects will be rewarded with his bountiful beneficence. In any other context we would be putting such a king on trial for crimes against humanity.
Perhaps the most popular understanding of the kingship of Jesus though is the one that sidelines him as ceremonial and irrelevant to what really happens in this world. Many Christians are glad to sing about a Jesus who sits on his throne, one whom we adore and worship, one who establishes his reign in our hearts. But this is not a Jesus who has much to do with the world we all live in. He is tending to things in his heavenly palace, in whose courts we long to find ourselves. But he doesn’t have really anything to do with the stuff in this world that needs the attention of somebody in power, issues like war, hunger, injustice, global warming, or human rights.
It’s obvious that in the New Testament there are references to Jesus as king. We have read a couple of them this morning. But I do think if we take a look at them a bit more closely, we will see they raise some important issues about the kingship of Jesus.
The first one came up in that conversation when Jesus stood in judgment before Pilate. Pilate, of course, had a lot invested in this idea of kings since he served at the pleasure of Caesar. And he was more than a little bit interested in what Jesus was up to. Was Jesus, as his accusers charged, claiming he was the true king of Israel, rather than the conquering Caesar. Was there something seditious here he had to squash, or another crackpot on some kind of religious mission.
Jesus left Pilate totally confused. Jesus refused to acknowledge himself as a king, but he talked about his kingdom. What kind of subterfuge was going on here?
What Pilate never understood was that Jesus was thinking in completely different categories than Pilate could imagine. Pilate didn’t understand how subversive Jesus really was. Jesus was here to not claim kingship, but to totally subvert our understanding of kings and nations and how we live in this world.
The only Kingdom Jesus was interested in was the one he taught about all during his ministry; the Kingdom of God. There’s no place for palaces and armies and lords and ladies in that kingdom. They truly are irrelevant to the kingdom where the powers that reign are love, mercy, humility, forgiveness, peace, compassion, inclusion, and faithfulness to God’s vision for this world. Pilate could have never understood that, save a commitment to become a follower of Jesus himself.
In John’s Gospel, we may have Jesus dancing around the idea of being a king, but even if he is willing to make that claim for himself it has nothing to do with our understanding of kings. Do you imagine that the Jesus who wandered Israel as a peasant wants to spend eternity on a throne?
Many of the end times preachers see the opening words of the Revelation that we read earlier as confirmation of their hope that Jesus will return as a warrior king who will not maim, not wound, but annihilate every non Christian on the face of the earth. Now there’s a king, for you. “Riding in the clouds, he’ll be seen by every eye, those who mocked and killed him will see him, people from all nations and all times will tear their clothes in lament. Amen.”
What if the seer in the Revelation, though, is telling us that what’s going on here is not lament because Jesus is coming back to exact revenge, to claim his divine kingship at the safe end of the sword but, rather, the lament is because we have been missing what his kingdom is about?
We live in a pretty brutal world. We don’t need Jesus to come punish us for missing God’s ways, we are doing a good job of it ourselves. We are punishing ourselves with our wars and violence. We are punishing ourselves with our neglect of the poor and the abuse of the creation. We are punishing ourselves for loving money more than we love God or each other. We are punishing ourselves with our prejudices.
The seer of the Revelation was writing to a group of Jesus followers who were seen as a threat to the empire because of their refusal to pledge their allegiance to Caesar. But the Seer wanted to reassure them they had it right. The lamentation would come when folk finally realized they had let Caesars and kings and presidents and prime ministers set the course of this world rather than the ways of God, and had paid an awful price for doing so.
So this is Christ the King Day whose legitimacy I have dismissed. Next week we start Advent and we’ll sing those carols and read those scriptures that talk about the king of kings who salvation brings, this king of kings and lord of lords who shall reign forever and ever, alleluia, alleluia.
Nevertheless, my thoughts will not be about Jesus as king, but Jesus who points us to a kingdom that is beyond any human understanding. That this king of kings was born to a poor peasant girl in the back of a barn is our first hint that we have to rearrange our thinking because this is no buffoon, no irrelevant figurehead, no tyrant. His mother did say after all that the birth of Jesus was the sign that God was going to bring down the powerful from their thrones.
We may try to think of Jesus as a king, but it’s never really going to work. And I guess Christmas is about trying something new.