Sunday, November 20, 2016

Christ the King
Malachi 3:13-18
Psalm 46
Colossians 1:13-20
Luke 23:27-43

‘They shall be mine,’ says Yahweh of Armies, ‘my own possession in the day that I make, and I will spare them, as a man spares his own son who serves him.’

I will admit that I struggle with the concept of war. I suppose we should all struggle with it because war is never a good thing. It is, unfortunately, a part of our fallen world and ultimately war can accomplish peace. We all hope that it could be done a different way, but we recognize that our human imperfection will lead to conflict. I struggle with war as it is waged today because it is no longer necessary to look our enemies in their faces. We can battle from afar, send smart weapons and bomb them from ten thousand feet above the earth. We can even wage war over the internet. We no longer have to face the reality of what we are doing to our neighbors.

I struggle with the concept of war and have even wondered, along with others, whether a Christian can fight. Martin Luther once said, “War is the greatest plague that can afflict humanity, it destroys religion, it destroys states, it destroys families. Any scourge is preferable to it.” Yet, he also believed that a soldier can be a Christian. “It is just the same way with the occupation or work of the soldier; in itself it is right and godly, but we must see to it that the persons who are in the occupation and who do the work are the right kind of persons, godly and upright.” This gets into the doctrine of the two kingdoms, where we both live in the world and yet are of another world. We live in the eternal kingdom of God, but also live in this fallen world, and we are called as Christians to find a way of being true to our true home while dealing with the imperfection of this one.

I struggle with the concept, despite the fact that I was married to a military man. I can tell you that despite thirty years of service, some of which included being part of the horrors of war, my husband is godly and upright. He did many things during his years of service that glorified God. I’m not a pacifist in any sense of the word, although I’m not sure I could ever serve as a soldier. I haven’t seen the movie “Hacksaw Ridge,” but I imagine I would probably struggle in many of the same ways as the lead character who was a pacifist war hero: he found a way to serve without touching a gun.

As Christians we struggle with the concept of war because we know we are called to love our neighbors, whoever our neighbor might be. We are commanded to love our enemies. How can we wage war on someone we love? It is good that we ask ourselves this question. I’m not sure we’ll ever come to a good answer, but as we struggle we seek God’s will and His grace. We seek God’s will, knowing that sometimes even He used war to make people turn to Him. And we seek God’s grace to be forgiven when our warfare is less than godly.

Still, we don’t like to think see God as war-like. Both the Old Testament lesson and the Psalm call God “Yahweh of the Armies” or “LORD of hosts.” The book of Malachi uses that phrase more than twenty times, and it is used extensively in the works of the prophets. They lived at a time when they had to face war, especially war that was brought on by their own unfaithfulness, as God used their enemies to subdue them. When a people, who have no army, are faced with the coming of a great army, to whom can they turn? God calls them to turn to Him.

We live in a frightening world. Every age has its own fears and troubles. We need people like soldiers and policemen and justices to serve to keep the peace. It seems contradictory, but a strong military is necessary for a lasting peace. The best armies are those that never have to raise a gun but whose very presence helps people dwell together in peace. It is true that some of the worst wars have been waged by bad armies that may have been strong but not wise, but as Luther suggested, the best armies are filled with men who are godly and upright.

So, what do we, like Israel, do if we are on the verge of war but do not have an army to guard and protect our people? What do we do if we are faced with destruction and we do not have the power or strength to stand up for ourselves? We turn to God. He is our refuge. He is our strength. He is the LORD of hosts, Yahweh of the Armies and He has our back. Some of the stories of those battles in the Old Testament are amazing. God won those battles, destroying thousands with only hundreds of soldiers.

We may struggle with the image of God as the commander of a great army, but as we dwell in this imperfect world, isn’t it good to know that He has our back? Isn’t it good to know that He can defeat those who would destroy us? Isn’t it good to know that when we are powerless, there is a Power who can save?

We see many images of God throughout the Church year. You can find many different lists of “The Names of God”; there are too many to list here, but they include Abba, Creator, Redeemer, Friend, Master, Shepherd and Teacher. We see Him love and encourage and discipline. We see Him scold and rebuke. We see Him guide and teach. We see Him save and call us to live out our salvation.

We end the Church year with this image of Yahweh of Armies. Christ will come again. He won’t come on a donkey, as He did when He entered Jerusalem before His crucifixion. He will come on the clouds with thunder and lightning, with a double-edged sword. He will come to fight the final battle, to finally and completely destroy the last enemy. He will come as King! Christ the King is coming and He is coming to finish the work He began at the cross.

What is a king? I like to read historical novels, particularly those that are set in the late Middle Ages to Renaissance England, the 14th through 17th century mostly. I am fascinated by the relationships between the different nations and the ways those in power used one another. It was rarely pretty: too much war and scheming. Of course, the reality of the day for anyone outside the court was usually poverty, dis-ease and the constant fear that the king, or whoever wanted to be king, would use them as pawns in a very expensive game.

Most of the time the average villager didn’t even care who was king, they quickly bowed to whichever man told them he was in charge. They didn’t have a choice; their local nobleman made their choices for them. They fought when they were told to fight. The king or wannabe took whatever he wanted. It was dark and violent and sad. Oh, there were bright spots. Not every king was insane, greedy or manipulative. Some did great things for the country and the world. The Renaissance was a time of beauty, when the arts thrived. Some of the greatest love stories came out of this period.

I think this is where, at least in America, we get our answer to the question: what is a king? We think about Henry VIII and his six wives, only one of which outlived him. We have pinned his character on most, if not all, monarchs, deserved or undeserved. The king will do whatever he wants to achieve whatever he wants whether it has to do with power, authority, wealth and even love. He has no higher power, and thus is his own judge. At least that is what many of them think. Henry even took the power of the church and God, into his own hands, and so had the right according to his own understanding to do anything. That kind of power leads to abuse, so it is no wonder that the early Americans chose to be ruled by a different sort of system. They fought to get it.

Once we gained our freedom, the leaders of the day wanted to crown George Washington. He refused. He thought the offer was inappropriate and dishonorable. He fought the war for the sake of the American Republic, not for his personal self-aggrandizement. Unfortunately, a king by any other title can abuse his position and take advantage of the people they have been charged with protecting, but I think we have a negative opinion of any king based on our understanding of the past.

We were warned. During the time of the judges in Israel’s history, the people saw that the world had kings who could lead them. Kings protected their people. They provided for their welfare. It seemed to the Israelites that the nations with kings controlled the world. They had powerful armies. Shouldn’t they have the same advantages? Samuel was upset by their request for a king because he saw it as a rejection of his leadership, but God told him that it was Him that they were rejecting. Their request showed their lack of faith. They didn’t need a human king because they had the King of kings, but He agreed to give them what they wanted.

But He did so with a warning. “This will be the way of the king who shall reign over you: he will take your sons, and appoint them as his servants, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and they will run before his chariots. He will appoint them to him for captains of thousands, and captains of fifties; and he will assign some to plow his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and the instruments of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers, to be cooks, and to be bakers. He will take your fields, your vineyards, and your olive groves, even their best, and give them to his servants. He will take one tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give it to his officers, and to his servants. He will take your male servants, your female servants, your best young men, and your donkeys, and assign them to his own work. He will take one tenth of your flocks; and you will be his servants. (1 Samuel 8:11-17, ASV) The king of Israel would be just like any other king: he would abuse his power and take advantage of his people. This warning certainly came true for Israel.

We tend to turn to human strength to get us through our times of trouble and to praise human strength when we succeed. Unfortunately, humans will follow the same pattern, turning away from God and choosing human leaders. Assigned by man, shepherds will always fail because man chooses based on human traits. Assigned by God, shepherds will faithfully serve the people, because God looks at the heart and chooses those who are right with Him. We see this most clearly in the story of David. Saul was being exactly the kind of king that God expected. He was abusing his people and his power. God sent Samuel to anoint the next king, a better king. God chose David out of all his brothers, even though he was least of them all. Samuel expected the oldest, strongest brother to be the one, and thought the same thing for each other brother as God rejected them. In the end, David turned out to be a good king, although even David made mistakes.

Christ the King Sunday celebrates the return to our life under the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. As Christians we are called to respect and obey whatever earthly leader God has assigned for our time, but He is our true King. We dwell in two kingdoms for the moment, and while we are meant to be godly and upright in this kingdom, our hope and our peace will always be found in the eternal one.

Our focus at the end of the Church year is the end of time, looking forward to the Day of Judgment. The Day of Judgment is that day when Christ the King will come and judge the heavens and the earth. Last week we heard from Luke the Olivet discourse, otherwise known as the Little Apocalypse. This passage of scripture shows Jesus describing the end of days. Of course, the apocalyptic texts are understood differently by different Christians, but what we do know is that Jesus promised that the day would come when the Son of Man will redeem the whole world. We see this as a future promise, but we also know it is a promise that has already been fulfilled. We dwell in two kingdoms: the earthly one and the eternal one that God has promised.

Does it seem strange that the Gospel lesson for Christ the King Sunday is the text from the Passion of Jesus? Why would we show our King of kings in such humiliating and horrific circumstances? We can’t possibly think that the dying man on the cross is a king of any sort. How can He rule from the grave? Wouldn’t it be better to focus on texts like the triumphant entry into Jerusalem or the Resurrection story? Those stories show Christ as the Victor! If we are going to have a king, let him at least be a winning one, right?

Instead, we see Jesus on a cross, not a throne. We see Jesus in suffering, not glory. He is not honored by the people; He is condemned, ridiculed and rejected. What sort of king is that? In Luke’s story, we see someone who recognized that the cross was Jesus’ crowning achievement. One of the criminals joined in the derision, but the other rebuked him. “Don’t you even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then, He asked Jesus to remember him when He came into His kingdom. He may not have totally understood what was happening, but he knew that Jesus was truly the king and for that faith he received the promise. “Assuredly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Jesus Christ was crowned on that cross; it was His throne and because of His obedience to His Father on that first Good Friday, we can now wait expectantly for His coming as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

We struggle because we live in a fallen and imperfect world. Yet, we can live without fear and worry because Yahweh of Armies is by our side. We might have to fight. We might have to do some things that we do not want to do. We might have to do things that do not seem Christian or Christ-like. A fallen and imperfect world makes for some very gray areas: there is no black and white.

This is how Martin Luther dealt with this problem: “If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter, are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. It suffices that through God’s glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day. Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins? Pray hard for you are quite a sinner.”

Sin boldly. This is not a call to do whatever you want because you think you can get away with it, or that you know God will forgive you anyway. This is an encouragement that when you do have to do something that falls into those gray areas of life in this world that Christ is ready to forgive. But, we are ever reminded to do so as godly and upright people of faith.

Jesus is the One who can truly save us. As the psalmist sings, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” We may struggle to do the things that we are called to do by our earthly kings, but we can trust in God’s promises. He has established a King that will not fail us. He has appointed His Son to rule over our lives. Our circumstances may seem out of control. We may find ourselves in exile or beaten by our enemies, but we can rest in the knowledge that God is the driving force behind our lives. When our leaders fail, and when we are led astray, God has not forgotten His promises. He is faithful even when we cannot be. Be still and know. He is God and He is with us. And He has appointed the King who will not fail, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul asks the question, “Where do we look for our salvation?” Do we look to human kings or priests or shepherds? Do we seek help from foreign gods or allies? Why do we look for mortal answers to our questions when we have a God who can overcome even death and the grave? We do it because it is our natural state of being. We are fallen, imperfect people. We are no different than the criminal who couldn’t see the reality of God’s glory and throne on that cross. We can’t do it on our own. Jesus died so that we might live. It might seem odd that we would end the church year with Jesus on the cross, but His death is the culmination of our entire year. He was born to die so we can live. That is how God dealt with the failed shepherds and how He will take care of His people forever.

We can look to man for our salvation, but man will always fail us in some way. We can look to earthly kings to lead us and take care of us, but they’ll fail us, too. We can appoint those who appear to be strong and intelligent and powerful, but their authority is limited and they will always tend to lead God’s people away from Him. That’s why Paul makes the point that Jesus is something other than man. He certainly was human, was born, lived and died. We see His life and His ministry as we journey through the church year. But Jesus was something else. He is God. In Him is the fullness of God, and through Him all things exist. He is the force that holds the world together and He is the one who saved us from ourselves.

The scriptures for Christ the King show us images of God that are hard for us to understand. He is Yahweh of the Armies and the King of the cross. We can trust that He is by our side and that He is ready to save us from all that wants to destroy us; He will even save us from our own fallen and imperfect nature and forgive us our sin. Just like that criminal on the cross, we can cry out in faith to Jesus, “Remember me!”

When we are faced with difficulties, God is with us. He is our refuge and our strength. War will happen and we might have to fight, but even as we struggle with this reality, we can trust that God is our salvation. His hand moves mountains and His love melts hearts. He is our help in trouble. We can’t know for certain when the day will come. It is not for us to know. The very reason God has not told us the day or the hours is because he knows that we will try to save ourselves. We’ll try to hide from the inevitable. We’ll try to stand on our own strength. We will turn to leaders who promise things that they cannot fulfill. God is our only hope. We are called to dwell in His presence knowing that Christ the King may appear at any moment, even while we are actively involved in the ordinary work of the earthbound kingdom in which we live. We belong to Him and He will save us.

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