11/21/2010 sermon: Behold, God’s kingdom

Location: Holy Cross, Dunn Loring, VA
Text: Luke 23:33-43
LastPentecost (Proper 29), Year C

Behold, God’s kingdom

For the past 25 weeks, since Pentecost on May 23, we have been traveling with Jesus, encountering those whom he encountered, and learning the lessons that he taught while he was en route Jerusalem. And now, just when Jesus is just outside that great city, our gospel lesson makes a major jump in time. If this were a movie, there would be a big fade-away scene with some vignettes of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and all the other Holy Week events, but today’s lectionary simply fast-forwards us to a stop-action scene of Jesus on the cross where he is being crucified.

What’s going on here? When I volunteered to preach today, and Wes accepted, he said the following ominous-sounding words, “OK, but remember that you offered!” So I trotted my seminarian self to the nearest liturgical calendar to see just what it was that I had gotten myself into. “Christ the King!?” I exclaimed out loud, startling all around me in the ever-so-hushed library. I tell you this story because it was the start of my self-directed journey to discover what “Christ the King” Sunday is all about, and I invite you to make this discovery with me.

I’ll tell you what we are going to find. We are going to discover that on “Christ the King” Sunday we proclaim that Jesus is where our allegiance lies. Jesus shows us how to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth. And we have done it here at Holy Cross: Behold, God’s kingdom!

 Jesus, our Lord and our King   That sounds lofty and exalted, doesn’t it? But who talks about kings anymore, especially in respect to Jesus? More often today we hear about Jesus, our friend and our personal savior. Well, not so much in the Episcopal Church, but even we have stripped Jesus of much of his power and authority.

When I began to look up what Christ the King Sunday is about, I expected to discover that it has a two-millennium tradition. After all, in today’s gospel there is Jesus, nailed to a cross, with an inscription above his head, “This is the King of the Jews.” The title sounds important, but it was more derogatory than divine. With the title, “King of the Jews,” Pontius Pilate placed Jesus into a well-known category of rebels who sought the downfall of the Roman Empire and the freedom of Israel.[1] What the Jews hoped for, longed for, yearned for, was the coming of the Messiah, a leader who would liberate them from their oppressors. We hear the foundation of their hope in our Old Testament reading for today, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety.” The people of Jesus’ day knew this scripture, they knew that a ruler was coming; they just didn’t recognize Jesus as their longed-for king.

Perhaps they longed for a hero more than they longed for a king.

We in America consider ourselves fortunate not to live under the rule of an earthly king. Perhaps we have forgotten, if we ever knew, that the role of a king—a king’s primary function—is to establish and maintain order throughout the kingdom. In Jesus’ day a king was first and foremost a divinely appointed warrior. A king ensures the safety of his people. Almost of equal importance, a king ensures justice. The long-awaited Messiah was a king with a cosmic dimension to his job description. The Messiah not only would ensure justice, he would drive evil out of the land.[2] There would be no more tribulation: no more economic downturns, no more cancer, no more depression. Yes, surely the Messiah would be a hero as much as a king.

So here is Jesus—perceived as neither king nor hero—nailed to a cross, with the mocking inscription “This is the King of the Jews” above his head. And to make matters worse, there are soldiers taunting Jesus while he is on the cross, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” Remember Jesus being tempted in the desert? Well now he is being tempted one last time on the cross. “Save yourself, come down, show that you know how to be our king!” they seemed to cry. The people of Jesus’ day longed for a hero-king, one who would save them from their oppressors.

But we don’t long for a such king today, do we?

Returning to my effort to understand this day, I was surprised to discover that Christ the King is not an ancient tradition in the church. In fact, it was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925,[3] a mere two generations ago. Perhaps that is your generation; perhaps your parents’ generation, or your grandparents’. 1925 also was the year that the American Association for Advancement of Atheism formed in New York City. 1925 was the year in which Mussolini dissolved the parliament and became dictator of Italy. 1925 was the year in which Hitler resurrected the Nazi political party in Germany.[4]

The Pope made clear that he was instituting Christ the King Sunday because there were “manifold evils in the world, and the majority of men had thrust Jesus Christ and his holy law out of their lives.” He added, “as long as individuals and states refused to submit to the rule of our Savior, there would be no really hopeful prospect of lasting peace among nations. [We] must look for the peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ[5] The people of Pope Pius XI’s day longed for a hero-king, one who would save them from their oppressors, from Mussolini and Hitler.

But we don’t long for such a king TODAY, do we?

Just a few years after the church began celebrating Christ the King Sunday, two Jewish teenagers met in Cleveland, Ohio. They were

working on their school newspaper. Jerry was a writer, an immigrant from Lithuania. Joe was an artist who had been born in Canada. Jerry later said, “When Joe and I first met it was like the right chemicals coming together.”[6] In their first collaboration Joe and Jerry created a bald telepathic villain bent on dominating the entire world. The idea flopped. Perhaps the world of the 1930s didn’t need yet ANOTHER villain intent on dominating the world. So the teenagers resurrected their character. They made him a hero in the mythic tradition of Sampson and Hercules, one who would right the wrongs of their times by fighting for social justice and against tyranny. We know their creation as Superman, … who was of this world and yet not, … raised by people who were not his actual parents, … who bad people were always seeking to kill, … and whose goal is to rid the world of evil and usher in an era of justice.

Hmmmmm. This story sounds familiar somehow. We may not long for an actual king, but it seems that we do long for a mighty warrior who is on our side and who makes the world JUST—in short, we long for a hero to save us.

What’s the difference between a hero and a king? A hero is only around in an emergency, when evil obviously threatens. Do you remember the role of the people in Superman movies? They stand around, damaged and dazed when confronted with evil, and call to the heavens for someone to swoop down and save them. And after Superman puts things to right, he pats them on their heads and flies away until the next time he is needed to fix things.

Such a hero, if only he were real, would be a lot more convenient than Christ the King, who desires a real relationship with us between his acts of grace. Superman certainly is a lot more believable than Jesus,  … right? He’s a man of steel with x-ray vision and who can … You know that story, but it’s fiction.

But do you know THIS STORY? Jesus is very real and his life has eternal consequences: “God so loved the world,”—the world that he created, the world that is very good, the world that we damaged by our sin—“that he gave [us] his only-begotten Son, [Jesus Christ, our King] that whosoever believes in him might have everlasting life.” And at the start of Jesus’ ministry he announced that the “kingdom of God” is drawing near.[7] Then Jesus taught parable after parable about what the kingdom of God is like. He said that the kingdom of God is both near at hand and yet is far off,[8] both now and in the future. Jesus died on the very cross that he is on in today’s gospel lesson, but his life doesn’t end there. We celebrate Christ the King today because God raised Christ Jesus from death and began a new time, a time in which the values of God’s kingdom rule. Today we celebrate Christ’s rule of our life by being part of his reign here on earth:

  • Christ is king because he has a kingdom, but his kingdom is one that would invite in those who are poor and those who are rich, those who keep kosher and those who do not, the Romans and even the Taliban, people like you and people like me. Behold, God’s kingdom!
  • Christ is king but he claims no power. The values in Jesus’ kingdom are service to others and humility. There is no envy or greed or one-up-manship. Behold, God’s kingdom!
  • Christ is king but not a mighty warrior. There is no place for violence or retribution in Jesus’ kingdom. Behold, God’s kingdom!

To enter Christ’s kingdom all that we have to do is believe in him and let him be King of our life. But there is a sense in which we enter the kingdom through our tribulations, giving us a heart for the tribulations of others.[9] Having tribulations is the “here-and-now” aspect of God’s kingdom. In a very real way we have to be able to thank God for life itself, even when we are diminished with our imperfect reality. But the reward for being part of Christ’s kingdom is, indeed, eternal. I can hear him say, “I love you. I am with you. I will strengthen you. No matter what your situation, I will be with you in the midst of your pain. Today you will be with me in paradise.” Behold, God’s kingdom!

Before this service is over we will pray for God’s kingdom to come “on earth, as it is in heaven.” Christ Jesus shows us how to bring about God’s kingdom. And we have done it here at Holy Cross, haven’t we? How will we use our tribulations to bring God’s kingdom into the world?

[1] Lynn H. Cohick, “Jesus as King of the Jews,” in Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica, Who do My Opponents Say I Am? : An Investigation of the Accusations Against Jesus, Vol. 327 (London ; New York: T & T Clark, 2008), 132.

[2] S. Szikszai, “King,” in  Keith R. Crim and others, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible : Supplementary Volume : An Illustrated Encyclopedia Identifying and Explaining all Proper Names and Significant Terms and Subjects in the Holy Scriptures, Including the Apocrypha, with Attention to Archaeological Discoveries and Researches into the Life and Faith of Ancient Times, Vol. K-Q (Nashville: Abingdon, 1976), 11-17.

[3] Peter Chave, 2003. “Christ the King.” Expository Times 115, no. 1: 24.

[4] 1925 in History, http://www.brainyhistory.com/years/1925.html, accessed November 1, 2010.

[6] Quote from Roger Stern, Superman: Sunday Classics: 1939 – 1943 DC Comics/Kitchen Sink Press, Inc./Sterling Publishing; 2006; other biographical details from Kramer, Blair “Superman,” Jewish Virtual Library, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/superman.html, from the American Jewish History Society, accessed November 4, 2010.

[8] G. Goldsworthy, “Kingdom of God,” in T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Leicester, England ; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 617.

[9] Acts 14:22, as expounded by Dennis C. Duling, “Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven,” in David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1st ed., Vol. IV (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 59.

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