Come home to Calvary
Today is the last Sunday of the church calendar. Next week, a new church year begins with the start of Advent. But this morning, we end the year with the liturgical day called “Christ the King” or “The Reign of Christ” Sunday. Now, as a country who fought a revolution in protest of a monarchy, we American Christians tend to shy away from the metaphor of Christ as King. And quite frankly, as a liberated, progressive woman, the whole notion of a hierarchy led by one man doesn’t necessarily sit right with me either. I am comforted, though, by the fact that Jesus himself wasn’t really looking for this title. In the Gospel of John, the sixth chapter, we read that the people wanted Jesus to be king. But verse 15 says, “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” Jesus was not about to have any of that king business, at least not while on earth.
That was never his intention nor his purpose. He wasn’t seeking to be powerful or rich, but rather to empower and to enrich.
The idea of a monarchy wasn’t God’s idea either. When Israel first entered the promised land, they didn’t have a king or a royal family. God appointed leaders who “judged the people.” The book of Judges names and tells some of the stories of these leaders which included people like Samson and Deborah. Israel wasn’t a monarchy; it was a theocracy, led by God, at least at first. But the Israelites saw those around them, and noticed how some of the strongest, most powerful tribes and nations were led by kings, and they wanted that. 1 Samuel chapter 8 describes when the people approach Samuel about wanting a king. It records:
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, … “Give us a king to govern us.”
Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me,
from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you.
And so it is Samuel who ends up anointing Israel’s first and its second king – Saul, then David. The people had God to rule them. But God’s presence and rule weren’t like those of the nations around them. And they wanted something and someone they could see, touch, and physically go to in order to make things right. They essentially said, “But everyone else gets to have a king, why can’t we?” And honestly, I kind of get that sentiment, that need for security and a strong, eloquent, visible leader. Ever since 2016, I’ve started to feel like maybe, just maybe, this country could use a return of the monarchy.
Our 245-year experiment in democracy is not going quite as planned, or maybe it actually is going just as planned, and women, people of color, or those considered deviant in any way were just never meant to have any power, voice, or vote in this system. And yet here we are, against all odds, showing up at polls, getting elected into office, and even leading churches, but our hearts break over and over again as injustice is perpetuated. We don’t want a tyrannical despot, of course, but I could kind of go for a magnanimous monarchy right about now: a system of ruling with no red tape, no bureaucracy,
no compromising to allow basic needs like paid family leave to fall off the agenda, no acquittals for those who are guilty, just one, good and decent person, making fair decisions on behalf of the whole. I think it could be great! Is that too much to ask? Sadly, the answer is probably yes. I don’t always agree 100% with John Calvin, but I sure do understand the theological concept of “total depravity.” I see it in myself, and I see it in others. This weekend, I think we all saw it in the courtroom.
Human beings simply aren’t perfect. Now, I grew up in churches that only lifted up the depravity of people, so I do want to assure you that we are good and beautiful and bear the image of God, but we are not God. And we need some checks and balances to keep us honest. So, leaving power to just one person likely won’t work all that well. Because sometimes God’s reign feels at odds with the world and what we would prefer. Rev. Ben Cremer aptly states that, “We American Christians will always be tempted to allow our own freedom, liberty, rights, and comfort to dictate how we exercise loving our neighbor. Jesus will keep asking us to allow the love of neighbor to dictate how we exercise our own freedom, liberty, rights, and comfort.” Which leads us back to this Sunday’s liturgical celebration of Christ the King.
I learned this week from Nadia Bolz Weber that Pope Pius XI established Christ the King Sunday in 1925 to counter what he regarded as the destructive forces of fascism and the totalitarian claims of Nazi ideologies. Christ is king, not any other rulers or governors, or human authority. We need not answer to or feel beholden to anyone but God, for Christ rules us; no one or no thing else, not our government, not any ideology, not Bruce Schroeder or any other judge in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Ultimately, we will all answer to God, and we are all under the rule of God. Holding this as truth, perhaps with faith as small as a mustard seed, what can we hand over and give to God? If Jesus does indeed reign over all creation and over even our own lives, what might we let go of and let God? Because the greatest gift of having someone else in charge, is that it’s not all up to us, and it doesn’t have to be. We are not always granted justice here on earth, but justice will roll down. God is taking care of it, has already taken care of it, and we are mere stewards. When Isaiah first declared these words:
“For unto us a child is born, and authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,”
Isaiah already had a king in mind, and no, it wasn’t Jesus. It was Hezekiah, a grown adult, who was about to be crowned. But for us, as Christians, when we hear these words today, we do not imagine the coronation of a king, but rather a baby in a manger, who would yes, one day grow to be the sovereign Christ, our “Prince of Peace,” but whose beginnings were humble. This Jesus, God with us, was like every other child who breaks forth from the womb into this world: tiny and crying, wrinkly, and utterly dependent on others. This image and notion of a king breaks the mold for all human expectations.
As a mother of three children, I am struck by Isaiah’s language that a child is born, not to one individual or one specific family, but to us, all of us. And while our culture is pretty individualistic and private about our nuclear families, I am reminded that it was not always this way – children were indeed once born to communities and raised by villages. And children are still shaped and raised by a community’s ideologies and principles. My own parents, first generation immigrants from Korea, found that kind of community through church. And they always say that it is the church that raised me, not them. As we welcome new children and babies into our community, through birth and through baptism, we are given the opportunity to realign our lives once again to the kingdom of God, to remember how God can be revealed to us in the presence of a child, and to give thanks knowing that so many churches in this country have not had a new baby or new member join their community in years. What a privilege it is for us to be surrounded by the sounds and divine interruptions of children! For unto us a child is born!
Jesus, when asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” called a child, whom he put among his followers, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,” (Matthew 18:1-5). Friends, unto us a child is born. Now the words “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” were often associated with battle and warriors and the idea of peace through the defeat and subjugation of others. But Jesus came so that all may have life and have it abundantly.
When Christ reigns, we can rest assured that justice will prevail.
When Christ reigns, white supremacy will not reign.
When Christ reigns, our transgender siblings need not fear for their lives, and no new names would be added to the list of those murdered for their gender or sexual identity.
When Christ reigns, there is peace, wholeness – shalom – for all, especially those whom we might consider the “least of these.”
When Christ reigns, thanksgiving is not just a day but a way of life.
The good news is: Christ does indeed reign. But we are living in this “already, but not yet” reality, meaning that God’s kingdom with Jesus as our Prince of Peace is already here and at hand within and among us. And yet, its fullness and completion are still to come. So in this in-between time, the question is: will we let Christ reign? Can we let go of our need to control, so that God’s will might be done on earth as it is in heaven? Can we hand over our power, so that God’s love reframes the hierarchies and priorities of our society? Can we give back to God the wealth of our riches and possessions, so that God’s gifts might be shared equitably and with all in need? What needs to change in your life and in my life, so that Christ might reign?
During this week of giving thanks, may we also be willing to give up the reigns to which we hold tight, so that Christ might reign fully. Cole Arthur Riley, the woman behind “blackliturgies” offers this prayer for the Feast of Christ the King:
God of another throne,
We are grateful that you refuse to identify with the greedy and oppressive powers of the world.
That you are grounded in another kind of authority – one that doesn’t require you to diminish the power of another in order to walk in yours.
We admit that calling you ‘king’ or ‘ruler’ can evoke both joy and dissonance as we have little imagination for a king who isn’t violently grabbing at power for their own sake.
It can feel like if you are ‘king’, you are on the side of the rich and oppressor.
Thank you for not being concerned with our labels of power and significance.
Restore our hope in a God who can be trusted.
A God who kneels.
A God who decenters the privileged.
The one with the power to swallow up death forever,
and yet still gets close enough to wipe every tear.
Friends, may it be so. Amen.
People who walked in darkness have seen a great light.
But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.