Sunday, November 24, 2013

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

And he said, Jesus, remember me when thou comest in thy kingdom.

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.

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 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. Shouldn’t they have the same advantages? Samuel was upset by their request 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 manner of the king that shall reign over you: he will take your sons, and appoint them unto him, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and they shall run before his chariots; and he will appoint them unto him for captains of thousands, and captains of fifties; and he will set some to plow his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and the instruments of his chariots. And he will take your daughters to be perfumers, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. And he will take your men-servants, and your maid-servants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks: and ye shall 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.

There are those who say that they can’t identify with the Christian faith because of the Father image of God. They had terrible, abusive fathers and they are afraid that the Father/God of Christianity is like them. The bible certainly tells us stories that seem counter to the Gospel understanding of mercy, grace and forgiveness. I think the same might be true of Christ as King. Could you look forward to the rule of Christ if you lived under the tyranny of a man like Henry VIII? Would we worship a Messiah that is like Saul? That is possibly why so many prefer to see Him in the role of friend or teacher, rather than king.

Our focus over the past few weeks has been 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 Apocolypse. 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.

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. “Dost thou not even fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.” 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. “To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise.”

Christ the King is in no way like Henry VIII or Saul. His Kingdom is not in this world. His Kingdom is not limited by time or space. It has no need for wealth or property or soldiers armed with spears. His Kingdom will never be overthrown by a wannabe. His Kingdom will never end. In the Gospel lesson, we see a contrast between human ways and God’s way. The first criminal and the others mocking Jesus could not see the kingdom or promise in a dying man on the cross. They wanted Jesus to prove His power in earthly and physical ways. They wanted a king that would save them at that moment. The criminal wanted to be saved from his deserved punishment and from the immediate consequences of his faults. The second criminal looked to Jesus for salvation in a whole new way: a salvation that was not temporary, but permanent and eternal.

Christ the King, the One for whom we wait, is not like Henry VIII or Saul. He is not going to be a King that sits on a throne in a palace on this earth. He won’t need to fight the neighboring kingdoms for more land or enslave His people so that He will become greater. Christ the King will set everything right, finally completing what He began that day on the cross.

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 suffer the failings of our earthly shepherds, but God’s promises continue to be true. He will, 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.

It is funny: we don’t really want the Henry VIII type of king, but we are even more uncomfortable with the type of King that would die on a cross. We prefer to see Him in His glory, the resurrected body that defeated death and the grave to rise as victor over His enemies. The picture of the cross shows us a defeated man who could not even save Himself. He was ridiculed, the sign over His head identifying Him as king of the Jews was little more than a joke.

But it is that very image that gives Jesus the power to be our King. No other king could have accomplished our salvation. In the text from Colossians Paul writes, “For it was the good pleasure of the Father that in him should all the fullness dwell; and through him to reconcile all things unto himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross; through him, I say, whether things upon the earth, or things in the heavens.” The peace will never come through the works of men, through the strength of a king, through the power of human ability. Peace comes through the cross, and it is the King that hangs on the cross that we worship this day.

What is most incredible is that the King we see on the cross, the human flesh that died for our sake, is the Logos of God that was with Him from the beginning. When the Jews missed seeing the Messiah that stood before them, they missed the Word made flesh who was before all things. Paul writes, “for in him were all things created, in the heavens and upon the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through him, and unto him; and he is before all things, and in him all things consist.”

We need not be afraid of this King, because Christ is not like the human kings that have always failed. Christ is the image of that which we cannot see. He is the Word made flesh, the God of creation dwelling with us. He was there when God laid down the foundations of the earth and it was through Him all things were made. In Christ we see that God did not make the world and disappear, but that He has been with us always, planning even in the beginning the redemption that was to come. Everything is His, and through Him we are re-created and reconciled to God our Father in heaven, part of the body of Christ and blessed with eternal life in Him.

On this Sunday we celebrate the kingship of our Lord Jesus Christ. In Him we are made new, changed by His love and His mercy and His grace. God is our righteousness because no man can make us pure and holy. It is only by God’s power and might that we can truly live as we have been created to live. That is why our greatest sin is to turn to other rulers, to put earthbound kings above our God. As we look to their strength, we destroy our relationship with the only One who can save. Earthly kings are created beings, imperfect and bound to disappoint. Even those kings that were counted as righteous were failures in some way. Only God is perfect. Only God is faithful. Only God can provide the hope that will not disappoint. He might not look like a King hanging on the cross, but it is because He willingly went to that cross that we can now call Him King. It was there that He was crowned. We can trust that in the midst of our own troubles, He is there with us, ready to save.

This is easy for us to say when we are in a good place, but what happens when we are in that time of trouble? How many of us have experienced something that made us ask, “Why me?” I wonder how many of those kings spent sleepless nights asking the same question as they heard rumors of the wannabes on their way to the battlefield? They might have been powerful and confident and even arrogant, but they had doubts, too, especially when they experienced defeat, no matter how small or large.

Vance Havner was an evangelist in North Carolina whose wife died of an unusual disease. All his hopes and dreams of living a long, happy life with her passed away when she did, and he found no consolation. He missed her touch and her voice so much that he was constantly tempted to ask “Why, God?” In his book, “Playing Marbles with Diamonds” he writes, “You need never ask ‘Why?’ because Calvary covers it all. When before the throne we stand in Him complete, all the riddles that puzzle us here will fall into place and we shall know in Him fulfillment what we now believe in faith – that all things work together for good in His eternal purpose. No longer will we cry ‘My God, why?’ Instead, ‘alas’ will become ‘Alleluia,’ all question marks will be straightened into exclamation points, sorrow will change to singing, and pain will be lost in praise.”

It is hard to live in faith when the world around us is falling apart. It is especially hard when we do not think our human rulers are on our side. It is easy to give up and become pitiful. “Why me” falls so easily off our tongues. We see the wicked prosper while believers are persecuted. Sickness, pain and death still reign and we often mourn the loss of those we love. The question “Why” has been a stumbling block for many, the straw that breaks the faith of those who do not trust in the Lord. There are those who say, “I can’t believe in a God that would allow this to happen.” They would rather have a ruler here who can do something to make their life better, than someone they can’t see or hear or touch. Or, they’d rather deal with it themselves, relying on their own strength or power to get things done.

We have a very limited vision and we see things through our own experience. Just as we think of a king as something like the awful Henry VIII, or a divine Father as like our imperfect fathers on earth, our understanding of Christ the King is limited. We ask “why” because we can’t see beyond today. We can’t see beyond this moment. We seek to create the world we want, accept the world that others demand or give up and then we miss what God is doing in our lives. We want to know and understand why everything happens, and in doing so we often lose sight of God.

It is easy to lose sight of God when it seems like we’ve been waiting forever for something that has not yet happened. Here we are again at the end of a Church year celebrating Christ the King, but He has not yet come. Next week we begin Advent, counting down the days until we celebrate His birth. Again. We cry out in our pain, “Come, Lord Jesus,” but He does not come. We prepare our hearts for His Judgment Day, but it never happens. We look for an escape from the world and hope that today is the day when God will take us into His arms for eternity. But most of us will wake tomorrow to another day. It is no wonder that we ask “why?” We feel as though God has forgotten, that Jesus is late, and that we have been forsaken.

The people in Malachi’s time thought the same thing. They saw wickedness succeed and the righteous suffer. They wondered why they should even bother being faithful. They didn’t even see these words as being against God. But God reminded them to trust in Him and to continue to live the life that He has called them to live, no matter what happens in the world around them. God says of those who do, “And they shall be mine, even mine own possession, in the day that I make; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him.”

We have been waiting a long time for Christ the King to come, and it is incredibly hard sometimes. Our kings fail us too often and we constantly turn away from God by trying to create our perfect world on our own. We are looking forward to a Kingdom of beauty and peace and joy, without wars and schemes. We long for a King who will not abuse His power or take advantage of His people. We look forward to the day when we will truly dwell in the Eternal Kingdom. But we have a hard time waiting for God to make these promises happen.

God says, “Trust in me. Do not trust in human kings or in your own strength.” Christ the King is coming. He is, even now, on the horizon. He is our salvation and will be faithful to His promises. “Why?” is a question that will remain in our minds and on our tongues as we wonder about the wickedness and suffering in this world, as we face our own pain and loss. Yet, we can rest in the promise of God that one day everything will be clear. For now, it is up to us to live as God calls us to live, no matter the circumstances of the world around us, doing His work in the world. As we wait in faith, let us encourage one another and keep our eyes on Jesus, resting in the assurance that our cries of woe will be turned into joyful alleluias of praise and thanksgiving, soon.

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