A Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King — Nov. 20th, 2016
Jesus, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of each heart gathered here this morning be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord, as we come to encounter you in your word. Amen.
Today is the feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday before we begin a new church year and enter into Advent next week. It’s a Sunday when we boldly proclaim that Christ is King today, here and now, over all things. It’s a perfect way to end the long green season after Pentecost and to lead into the season of Advent, where we enter as a church into longing and expectancy for Christ’s return, when that reality of his lordship, already present in the lives of his people the church, is fully consummated “on earth as it is in heaven.”
As I was preparing to preach this week, meditating on the texts and praying over what God would have me say to you all about our King Jesus, I was reminded of a true story that I first encountered through a French film that was released about 5 years ago called “Of Gods and Men”. Perhaps some of you have seen this film; likely many, if not most, of you have not. While it is perhaps one of the best pieces of Christian art I have ever encountered, I have no idea what the faith of the filmmakers is, and it definitely does not fall into the sort of propaganda-passed-off-as-art category that many of the most successful box-office “Christian” movies of the last few years have. No, instead of setting up a straw man of evil secularism to be torn down by a young, idealistic, and Hollywood-attractive true believer who makes us all feel good about the superiority of our belief system, this film tells a simple story of simple people who seek simply to be faithful in extraordinary circumstances.
The film centers on a group of eight French Trappist monks who live together in the Monastery of Our Lady of Atlas in the mountains outside of Algiers during the height of the Algerian Civil war. These are men who are devoted to a simple life of community, prayer, and work and they are a valued and stabilizing presence in the impoverished Muslim village of Tibhirine. Forbidden by law to evangelize in the Muslim country, they nonetheless practically and indiscriminately care for their Muslim neighbors in the name of Christ, providing health care to hundreds of people a day and actively engaging in the life of the community, attending children’s birthday parties and sharing meals with villagers in their homes; They are committed to being the presence of Christ to their neighbors, and the love they bear the men, women, and children in the village is returned. At the time the film takes place, violence has been escalating for years between the military government and Islamist rebels and the death toll of innocent victims, particularly European, non-Muslim victims, is rising. The presence of these men of God, who love without prejudice is seen as a threat by both sides of the conflict; To the military government because they provide medical assistance to all in need without asking questions of political allegiance and to the Islamist rebels because they are foreigners and Christians who have no place in their vision of a fundamentalist state. The danger posed to this small band of brothers is very real and they are given many chances and even encouraged by many to leave. These monks, contrary to any romantic visions we may have of their vowed life, are mere humans like you and me, and they are not without fear, even terror, at the potential of being targets of violence in a battle that is not their own. They have no desire to be martyred. They struggle mightily with the weight of putting their lives on the line, but they choose to stay. They remain, in an expression of faithfulness to the God who called them and the neighbors they love in his name. In the end it costs them their lives; kidnapped in March of 1996 by Islamist rebels and initially held as a bargaining chip to try and secure the release of political prisoners, their remains were found two months later. While the circumstances of their death remain a mystery, what is clear is that they died because they refused to leave the community they cared for in the name of Christ.
If we will allow them, stories like these raise so many questions for us. Why would they do that? What would cause a person to willingly remain in harm’s way, when they could easily escape to safety with little or no personal consequence for their retreat? Shaped as we are by a particular view of foreign missions, we may ask why they would remain in a place where they are forbidden to preach the Gospel to their Muslim neighbors? If you’re not trying to convert them, to get those heathen souls saved, then what’s the point?
While it may not be apparent at first, the answers to these questions, I believe, are intimately tied to what we understand it to mean when we proclaim that Jesus is our King, and that we, the church, are ambassadors of his Kingdom and citizens of not first any bordered nation but, as John Kiser in his book on the Monks of Tibhirine has called it, “the country of the Gospels”. To understand what it means for us to say these things, we must first understand what kind of King this Jesus is and what kind of Kingdom he reigns over, so that we may then seek to play our small but significant roles faithfully, in fidelity to those realities as he has defined them in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. And to do that, we must turn to the Scriptures.
Let’s begin with today’s passages from the Old Testament, because they set the stage for us, creating an expectation of the kind of king that God intends to send to reign over his people. The first passage today was from the prophet Jeremiah, who had the unenviable position of prophesying to the Kingdom of Judah their destruction at the hands of the Babylonian empire and the subsequent scattering of the sheep of Israel; which, if you’ve read the book of Jeremiah, you know was a message that was not particularly well received by the Kings and religious authorities to which he delivered God’s words. Given the brief snippet we read today, this is pretty understandable, right. V.1 — “’Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!’ declares the Lord.” Then beginning in V.2 — “’You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds’, declares The Lord!” If you’re a king over Judah, these are not words you want to hear from a prophet of the Most High. These men have been given the task of shepherding God’s people and instead they have led them astray, and the consequences of their actions have now led to ruin for the whole of the nation.
But even as God rails against the rulers of Judah, he reaffirms his covenant commitment to his people. Where their kings and priests have scattered, he will gather in, drawing them back to their fold and he will cause them to “be fruitful and multiply”, reestablishing them in the commission of their creation, the original blessing of Genesis 1. He will do this by rising up good shepherds for his people, who will care for them, calm them in their fear and dismay, and ensure that not one is lost or neglected. And over it all, he will raise up a King, a “branch (descendant) for David”, the great Shepherd king of old, the man after God’s own heart, who will execute justice and righteousness on behalf of the Lord for his people. In his days, “Judah will be saved and Israel will dwell securely” and this king will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
Interestingly, all of these commitments that God pledges to accomplish through a good and righteous King and good and faithful shepherds echo the promises of Psalm 46, which is this beautifully immanent picture of God’s own relationship to his people. It’s 11 verses repeat over and over that God is with his own, indeed a very present help, their refuge and strength and fortress, the one who shelters and protects, so they need not fear. The psalmist proclaims that the nations and kingdoms and even their very means of ruling, the powerful violently repressing and marginalizing the powerless, will be overthrown by the Lord. He portrays God as the one who topples Kingdoms and nations, declaring war on war itself that it would cease entirely, all it’s weapons utterly obliterated by the Lord. Then we will “be still”, at peace, and know that he is God as he is exalted as the sovereign over the nations of the earth. This commitment is for his people, who have been and will again be oppressed under wicked kings both from within and without, but this also pictures for us the fulfillment of God’s promise to bless all the world through the descendants of Abraham. As theologian Jurgen Moltmann has said it, God, through his coming king intends “to awaken Israel for the salvation of the nations.” All the earth, all the nations, will exalt the name of the Lord, the God of Jacob. A new kingdom, one that brings salvation, peace, and protection, not oppression, to the people is coming.
I think the brilliance of the lectionary is on display today in the selection of the Gospel reading from Luke 23, because we’ve just been given a vision of what kind of King we can expect, one who is triumphant over all nations and kingdoms, who casts down the wicked and rules with justice and righteousness, and I think our natural inclination is to want to jump straight from here to the glory of the resurrection, the vindication of Jesus kingship in his victory over the grave, for us. But the uncomfortable truth is that death always proceeds resurrection. This was true for our King Jesus and it is true for us. Yes, the Lordship of Christ was vindicated on Easter morning at the empty tomb, but his reign, which topples the powers of darkness, is inaugurated at the cross, where God incarnate, the man Jesus of Nazareth, hangs bleeding to death between two criminals; and if we miss this, we miss something absolutely fundamental to how we live as faithful followers of our king.
This passage in Luke 23 is so crucial for us because of how strikingly it juxtaposes the scene of Jesus’s crucifixion with the assertion that this man, sentenced to death, is Israel’s promised king. Throughout Luke’s narrative of Jesus’s life, he records in word and action Jesus life as witness to the good news of the Kingdom. At his word, “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Just one week before the scene we read today, Jesus had entered Jerusalem to shouts of joy and praise to God from the multitude of his disciples saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest Heaven!” His followers believed beyond any shadow of doubt that this was the promised one, the messiah who would liberate Israel from her enemies and reign over them as King.
But here, all hope that Jesus would be the one to liberate Israel from oppressive Roman rule seems to have been reduced to a cruel joke. Jesus hangs from a tree with a sign above him that reads “King of the Jews”, having already been beaten to within an inch of his life, and is subjected to the mocking cries of those gathered around him as death approaches.
First Luke tells us, the rulers (the religious leaders who had conspired against him, the chief priests and Pharisees) scoff at him saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One.”
Next the soldiers mock him, saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”
Finally, Luke tells us, even one of the criminals hanging at his side get’s in on it, taunting Jesus with, “Are you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
Save yourself, they all say… But instead he hangs. And he prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Now we have the benefit of knowing how this story ends, right; a vindication is coming, but that should in no way lessen the weight of what we see happening here, because this is utterly remarkable. The deep irony of this moment is that Jesus, the incarnate God, had legions of angels at his disposal and could have done more than just save himself. He could have utterly destroyed his enemies. He could have, with a word, stepped down from the cross and commanded an army the likes of which this world has never seen to wipe these murderous scoffers off the face of the earth in an instant. But instead, he prays for them. He advocates on their behalf to the father for forgiveness. He responds to their mocking appeals that he save himself by saying, in effect, “Not without you.” He looks on those who have condemned him to die and he sees his brothers for whom he will willingly suffer and lay down his life, even as they continue to afflict him, blind to the depths of his mercy poured out on them.
Perhaps even more remarkable, is that in this darkest of moments, where death appears to be winning, we actually see the first fruits of the Gospel begin to bloom, and in the most unlikely of places. Two thieves hang on either side of Jesus, and when the first joins in the mocking, the second rebukes him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he turns to Jesus and says, “Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”
In the moment these words must have seemed the utterings of a madman. What kind of kingdom awaits a man condemned and well on his way to violent death? But somehow, miraculously this criminal saw in the sufferings of Jesus a truth that even his own disciples had not yet grasped. It was in this, in the willingness of the innocent Jesus to suffer with and for the justly condemned, to enter into and bear that which was not his to bear, that a new kingdom, one that ultimately shames and overturns the kingdoms of this world, was born. Somehow, miraculously, this man who we do not know had ever encountered Jesus before their shared final day, who we do not know had ever heard the good news that Jesus proclaimed, saw in his last moments the Kingdom come in the actions of Jesus of Nazareth, bloodied and broken on the cross; the King of Kings, who makes peace by laying down his life for his enemies, not defending himself but offering himself in full; for the transformation, renewal, and salvation of the world.
Church, you do not have to be paying very close attention to know that the nations, and kingdoms, and empires of this world run on antagonisms. Country vs. Country, tribe vs. tribe, culture vs. culture, vie for power and influence and justice is understood amongst theses competing factions as, “you hit me, I will hit you harder.” But the kingdom Jesus brings utterly repudiates this way of domination. Radical forgiveness and co-suffering love in the pattern of our savior are the way in which his kingdom will come. As N.T. Wright so eloquently puts it in his excellent survey of the theology of the four Gospels, “How God Became King,”: “The establishment of God’s kingdom means the dethroning of the world’s kingdoms, not in order to replace them with another one of basically the same sort (one that makes its way through superior force of arms), but in order to replace it with one whose power is the power of the servant and whose strength is the strength of love.”
So allow me to move into the intensely practical for a moment as we close. What does it mean for us to live as people whose power is the power of the servant and whose strength is the strength of love, here and now, in this beautiful and broken country we call the United States? Well, you may have noticed over the last two years of political campaigning for the office of the presidency, we live in a time where the divisions among us, whether along political, social, economic, gender, or racial lines are certainly more pronounced than they have been at any point in my 36 years of life. And whether you feel that last weeks election results were the best, or the worst, we could hope for given the choices we were given, the reality is there are a great many people living among us who find themselves afraid. Religious and racial minorities, and many women and lgbtq folks are afraid; not only of what the incoming administrations policies may mean for their rights and freedoms, but of the climate of deep divisions that exists in our country in which the most vulnerable and marginalized among us are most often the victims of targeted hate. What this means for us, frankly regadless of how we may feel about the legitimacy of those fears, is that we have work to do… We GET to be people of radical forgiveness and self-giving love, even if and when we come under attack for doing so, so that those who fear, even those who our own culture may tell us are our enemies, know that they are loved by our God, and so loved by us. To do this does not require us to abandon our convictions or to reach an ideological agreement with folks whom we may differ with on important things. It does, however, require us to affirm their humanity and dignity as image bearers of the God who gave himself for us while we were still his enemies. It requires us to lay our weapons down, even our weapons of self-defense, so that we can be servants of all. These are the means our King has given us to kick against the darkness, until it bleeds daylight; and they are the only means that will achieve the coming of God’s kingdom.
Perhaps, if we can grasp this, we can begin to understand why the Monks of Tibhirine would refuse to leave their Muslim neighbors, even in the face of death. They understood that by Jesus suffering and self-sacrifice, he brings us into his Kingdom, criminals though we may be; and that we, now his hands and feet on earth, shepherds in the pattern of our Shepherd King, manifest his kingdom using the same means, until he comes again; By my life laid down for not only my friends, but also my enemies, in hopes they might become my brothers. I confess, that in a world that encourages us at every turn to live into a narrative of us vs. them; That sees in those of different faith, of different politics, of different gender or skin color or sexuality people to be feared and/or dominated for the sake of self-protection rather than those to be loved and affirmed as fellow image-bearers; that screams out for us to save ourselves, I long to see his Kingdom come more and more fully among us. Christ invites us, Church, to come and die, that in so doing we might truly live. May the Spirit who rose Christ from the grave dwell among us richly that we might know the joy of resurrection many times over as we live in faithfulness to the one who called us.