The One, True King and the Kingdom
Old Testament Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm Psalm 46
Epistle Colossians 1:11-20
Gospel Luke 23:33-43
"Come now and look upon the works of the Lord, what awesome things he has done on earth." (Ps 46:9)
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen
Today is the last day of the liturgical year, and it culminates with Christ as King. We have all sorts of images and experiences of kings. Throughout history, the reign of worldly kings have been a mixed bag. Some have been good, benevolent rulers, while others have been merciless, power hungry tyrants. On Christ the King Sunday, we are called to reorient our understandings of kings and kingship, and focus on our one, true King. We explore Jesus as the future king, the king on a cross, and the king of our lives.
Jeremiah offers us a vision of a future king. The use of "woe" in the passage is funeral language, suggesting the path the people were on was the road to death. Reliance on earthly kings and kingdoms would not lead where they were called to go. Jeremiah foretells a future king provided by God. This king would rule in such a way that demonstrates "The Lord is our legitimate ruler ... He shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land."
Jeremiah looks for a time when his people will be rescued. Luke tells us that the rescuer is a man hanging on a cross. Christ is King, yet He serves and He suffers horribly. Hanging on the cross, Jesus seems powerless, but exercises the greatest power ... "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." Christ is King in quite a different way than the worldly powers and principalities.
Christ the King is holding court, even on the cross. His subjects are not devoted servants bending the knee. He is being judged, punished, and executed. The people stood by, watching, perhaps ignorant or indifferent to the coming kingdom. The religious leaders scoffed at Him. Soldiers were also mocking, but with a sense that they were simply following the leaders. In mocking Jesus as "King of the Jews" they ironically and publicly declare the truth. The first criminal, suffering the same fate as Jesus, taunts Him ... "save yourself.” He adds "save yourself and us" to suggest he understands no salvation apart from the continuation of his own human existence. Jesus knows better. The second criminal, hanging on a cross on the other side, recognizes the truth, "this man has done nothing wrong." He confesses both his faith and repentance. "Remember me when you come into your kingdom" is his version of the Lord's Prayer, "thy kingdom come, thy will be done." He recognizes his guilt and Jesus' innocence, thus demonstrating he can still recognize God. He recognizes God's face and God's rule of righteousness and judgment, submits to it, and this makes him fit for the kingdom.
In a royal proclamation, Jesus states "Today," suggesting the time of salvation is at hand ... now. "You will be with me in paradise." This brings to mind the Garden of Eden, the place God prepared for the first humans. For the criminal and for us, "paradise" is the place God has prepared for us, which is explicitly being with Jesus. Christ's kingdom is in this world, but not of this world. Christ's kingdom is proved in what the Lord Jesus wants to happen and makes happen, what other leaders and rulers are not able or willing to do. To acknowledge Christ as King, is to acknowledge His lordship over all of creation, over life, even death. Christ is king, Christ alone.
Paul tells the Colossians that the King is here, now, and they already know who their King is. Christ is the image of God in the world. As the image of the unseen God, "in Him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell." The "fullness of God" that dwells in Christ, is available through Him to all believers. Paul affirms Christ's active role in Creation. In the "beloved Son" Jesus, ultimate reality came into existence and continues to be transformed. Christ is the head of the Body, the Church. Thus, all incorporated with the Church are in touch with Jesus ... are in touch with God.
This is a different kind of kingdom ... a different kind of king. Paul is not talking about abstract convictions, but about present experience. Through baptism, we pass into God's kingdom. Paul shares his confidence in reconciliation with God as a present reality, and Christ is its means.
Christ's kingship and authority are a challenge to most human understandings of power. We need to hear this, often, since we often don't want to hear it. We want our faith to fit neatly into our world. But it doesn't fit neatly into our standard model of worldly leadership because there is no agreed upon standard of leadership in the world. We all want strong leaders, as long as that leadership coincides with what we want. We are fickle and hard to lead and inspire because we often do not truly understand our deepest needs and desires. However, we clearly know when they are not being fulfilled. We would probably not know justice and righteousness if it were handed to us on a silver platter, and even if we recognized a glimpse of it, we would disagree about it.
There is an invitation here to take stock of our personal and our common life to see what else might have edged into our first place, and to ask that God reorder our lives to suit God's holy purpose. It is not enough to simply disengage from the hierarchies and idolatries to which we often find ourselves subject. The call of Christian life is to seek to transform those systems so that they emulate the grace, mercy, and compassion we experience in the Kingdom of God. Jesus was a lay person, not ordained by any worldly authority. He was an itinerant preacher/prophet from a backwater town, of modest beginnings and family means. Jesus did not have riches. He had a rag tag group of followers who He handpicked. Most of those who heard and responded to His message were not the powerful elite, but the downtrodden and disenfranchised. Yet ... Jesus changed the world, and calls us to do the same.
Our challenge is to recognize the character of God's reign and long for it. Anglican theologian Jeremy Taylor states, "God is especially present in the hearts if his people by His Holy Spirit ... For God reigns in the hearts of His servants. There is His kingdom. The power of grace has subdued all His enemies. There is His power. They serve Him night and day and give Him thanks and praise. There is His glory."
We are to seek Jesus' likeness, which is the image of God in the world, day by day, until we recognize it, accept it, and love it.
In the mid 19th Century, Joseph Barber Lightfoot wrote of God’s Kingdom in the midst of us. With some updating, it still rings true today. “This little society of men and women; this motley group, immigrants from all parts of the world; mostly gathered together from the middle and lower classes of society, artisans and small shop keepers ... poor, ill educated, struggling for a livelihood; some are doctors, teachers, managers, skilled laborers, stay at home parents, and all sorts of others; this little society, with its trials and sufferings and dissensions, is the kingdom of God, is the kingdom of heaven. The Gospel message cannot mean less than this. It tells us that God has come down from heaven, that He has pitched His tabernacle in the flesh, has made his abode among [us]. And so henceforth his kingdom is in the midst of you, is within you. Here He holds his court; here He keeps state. Here His glory radiates, invisible to the mere eye of flesh, but transcendently bright to the spiritual organs of faith. And just in proportion as we realize this fact, just in proportion as we recognize the kingdom as a present kingdom, just in proportion as we see our Sovereign in the midst of us, will the glory stream in upon us, in our parish, in our schools, in our [workplace], in our homes, cheering our hearts and enlightening our path. The sunlight of the Eternal Presence will pierce and scatter the fog and smoke of this beclouded world, and above the ceaseless din of traffic [and noise] will be heard the angel voices of the Seraphim singing thrice ‘Holy’ to the Lord of Hosts.” Amen.