Grace Presbyterian Church
November 20, 2022, Reign of Christ C
This is the last Sunday of the lectionary year, a kind of liturgical New Year’s Eve as it were. Next Sunday when we show up here, provided the Worship & Music Committee does indeed get together this week and get it all started, you will see purple vestments, some greenery about, at least one banner hanging, and maybe even a manger scene – empty, of course; we’re still a long way off from that scene being full. One could magnify that fact of finality with the observation that, as the last Sunday of Year C, this is the end of not just a one-year liturgical observance but of the whole lectionary cycle; next Sunday brings us to the First Sunday of Advent, Year A – we really have come full circle.
For much of the church’s relatively recent history this final Sunday of the liturgical year has been known as Christ the King Sunday, making it one of two Sundays of the year devoted as much to a doctrinal idea as to any event or sequence of events recorded in scripture. The other is Trinity Sunday, which falls directly after Pentecost Sunday, and is dedicated to the mystery that one God is also “God in three persons, blessed Trinity” as the hymn teaches us.
Here the point is that Jesus, the one whose nativity we’ll be marching toward starting next week, and the one whose life and teaching takes up most of the gospel readings across the course of the liturgical year, is king. A few hymns take us there as well, like the one we’ll sing at the end of this morning’s service.
What is harder to come by, however, is a great deal of scripture that is quite so direct about making that point about Christ the King, at least not in the way that we have come to understand kingship and rule in human history.
Kings, or queens in such cases as they reign, often end up seeming horribly out of touch with those over whom they rule. A couple of theatrical examples might help us see this: think of the musical Camelot, as Arthur and his queen Guinevere wonder back and forth “what do the simple folk do?” Their answers, let’s say, aren’t great. Or for a more farcical example from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail (and its later very loose theatrical adaptation Spamalot) that same King Arthur travels through the countryside amongst many of his subjects who don’t even know who he is – “I didn’t know we had a king,” and other such exclamations.
Real life offers the painful example, again from England, of the royal family’s utter disconnect from their people after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, twenty-five years ago. The royal family’s initial dismissiveness after the death was met with a wave of indignation and even anger, to the point that the Queen herself (yes, the same Queen so deeply lauded and grieved at her own death not too long ago) had to come forth with what amounted to a giant public mea culpa and a rather elaborate funeral with no less a star than Elton John involved.
If one confines one’s search to the history of the people of Israel, it looks even worse. When you have some time to kill, take a trip through the books of Samuel and Kings and even Chronicles in the Old Testament and scan through the various kings of Israel and of Judah whose stories are told there, sometimes briefly, sometimes in greater detail. If you do this, take particular note of how many of those kings had their careers summarized in the words “they did evil in the sight of the Lord” or something similar. It’s a lot. You might specifically look at 1 Samuel 8, when the people of Israel demand a king from the prophet Samuel, setting in motion all that doing evil in the sight of the Lord.
To be blunt, calling someone a king in scripture isn’t necessarily all that complimentary. The office has to be respected, of course, but an awful lot of people who filled that office did not earn that respect.
So perhaps it’s not a surprise that the readings selected for this Sunday do less going on about Jesus being a king and more about what Jesus was or was prophesied to be.
Look at that reading from Luke. You might remember it from the season of Advent, of all things, a song of Zechariah upon the birth and naming of his son John, who would be the forerunner of the Messiah. This was what came some nine months after Zechariah had been struck speechless (and maybe unable to hear as well) upon his uncertain response to the angel Gabriel’s announcement of the birth to come. Once that muting has been lifted upon his announcement of his son’s name, this is what Zechariah has to say.
There is a reference to being of “the house of David,” but if you’re looking for royalty or any suggestion of such, that’s about it. Instead Zechariah’s song speaks of a “savior,” one who would preserve the people of Israel from their enemies. The song goes on to sing of mercy and holy covenant, of being able to serve this savior “without fear” – not a way human kings typically work. At last Zechariah sings of a “dawn from on high” that will come “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace.” Not typical king-talk of the time. Or, to put it in modern terms, not exactly a winning campaign pitch for a major presidential candidate these days.
The passage from Jeremiah looks promising, until it becomes known that this passage isn’t necessarily referring to a divine Messiah, but a more earthly king. The earlier verses of the passage speak more of shepherds than kings, but then prophets of that era were inclined to compare a goodking to a shepherd in how that king would rule over, and care for, the people of his realm. Colossians comes the closest in speaking of God who has “rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son…“. From there, though, the passage takes a different direction with its description of “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” and going on to speak of God reconciling Godself to all humanity through this One. Close, but not quite.
Of course, I have left out one reading from the lectionary today, another passage from Luke. It starts off like this:
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
That’s it: a man hanging on a cross, named mockingly as “the King of the Jews.”
For “Christ the King Sunday” to make any sense at all for us, and for it not to lead us off on some very un-Christlike rabbit trails that an awful lot of self-declared Christians are following these days, we have to get over our ideas of what a king is like. That’s not Christ.
Think Good Shepherd.
Think of the teacher.
Think of the one who welcomed the children, and then told his disciples off when they tried to turn them away.
Think of the one who broke the bread and poured the cup.
Think of the one who rode into Jerusalem on a mere colt.
Think of the one who raised Lazarus out of the tomb.
Think of the one who stilled the storm on the sea of Galilee.
Think of the one who was transfigured on that mountain with Moses and Elijah standing by.
Think of the one baptized, with the Holy Spirit crashing in to pronounce him as God’s beloved son.
Think of the one born to Mary, placed in a feed trough, with a bunch of shepherds as the main witnesses.
And yes, think of that one crucified, the one who did not stay dead.
There’s your King, the only king you want. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #662, Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies; #109, Blest Be the God of Israel; #41, O Worship the King, All Glorious Above