This text feels a bit jarring on a day like today. After all, a reading like this, at least for me, sends my mind and heart right back into Holy Week. I know that we have had the trial of Jesus, he has carried his own execution tool to the place of The Skull, and now here we are. We know this story because we’ve heard versions of it time and time again during Holy Week as we prepare our hearts on Palm Sunday or Good Friday. And hearing even the smallest portions of the same readings we hear during Holy Week take me back there time and time again and the feelings and emotions are all the same. There is lament, grief, sadness, anger, and just blah… so to have all of this on a day we call Christ the King feels weird. The only comparison I came up with for my feelings was this: it feels like having a birthday cake (complete with candles) and balloons at a funeral. A king isn’t regarded this way.
At the same time, perhaps this reading is the perfect thing to prepare our hearts and minds for what is about to happen: Advent. In case you didn’t know, Advent starts next Sunday. As we anticipate the birth of the newborn king, it might be good to know what kind of King we actually are anticipating. Are we anticipating the kind of king that rules with an iron fist? Are we anticipating the kind of king that employs nepotism and lies? Are we anticipating the kind of king that stays in power until forced out or until he dies? Are we anticipating the kind of king that dares not be challenged? We all know the answers to those questions. And the answers to those questions is what got Jesus a state sanctioned execution.
Instead the kind of king that hung on the cross was one that notices the marginalized. We start the beginning of Luke with Mary declaring that the hungry will be fed and the rich will be sent away empty. So, of course we end Luke with Jesus, the one Mary sang about paying attention to the marginalized: his fellow so-called criminals hanging with him. One was deriding him and the other was rebuking him. It would have been easy to ignore both criminals. But even in his final moments of life, Jesus notices, assures, and loves those that society would rather punish and forget. In that, Christ invites us to be more like him, to be more like a king should be and notice those forgotten or at least aim to see the image of Christ in the most vulnerable.
What makes Christ the King Sunday so challenging is that is is counter-intuitive to how we live and function in this world. To claim kingship means that we are claiming power, riches, wisdom, strength, honor, even the power of intimidation. I mean, there’s something to be said about all of that. In all honesty, that sounds like part of what might even be called the American dream. Throw in money, property, and health, and you’ve got it made! We would really be living like kings (and queens). Yet we know that the same king we confess was Christ the Lord wasn’t like that at all. What a strange dichotomy.
This text takes everything we know about what it means to say “Christ is king!” and turns it on its head. Because we know the end of the story: Christ will die, descend into hell, ascend into heaven, and take his place at God’s right hand, but first he must suffer terribly. Not very king-like. Kings don’t suffer. Kings don’t even let themselves been seen with the sniffles. Yet, at the same time, kings don’t associate with the poor. Kings don’t associate with the hungry, the hurting, the forgotten. Kings don’t associate with widows, prostitutes, or even children. But we have a king that not only associates with those people but gives them preferential treatment!
It is one thing for us to say that Christ is King. But for us to confess it and believe it is completely different than saying it. Because if we’re honest, we say a lot of things we don’t believe. We practice half-truths a lot, sometimes without even thinking about it. “How do I look?” Answer “great.” Always. Not to say that isn’t the truth. But we know if we were honest, and I mean brutally honest, we might end up on the couch. Weekly, whether we know it or not, we confess and profess our faith in the creeds and in the confession that Christ is king. We confess that our faith is in the one that saw the marginalized and is in the marginalized. We confess that the powers of this world are nothing compared to the powers and principalities of God’s kingdom. We confess and believe that the greatest weapon anywhere isn’t water, it isn’t nuclear, it isn’t even money, it’s God’s love and we are told that nothing comes between us and that love. We confess that in a world that wants to constantly divide groups into us and them the kingdom is a place of “we.” When we’re really honest, we’re not playing it safe because Jesus didn’t play it safe.
Jesus didn’t play it safe and it got him executed, hung. And we confess that this same “criminal” is our king, our Lord and savior. It’s not what this world expects. But it’s exactly what this world needs. Because the world needs someone that will rescue and save us from ourselves. We confess that Christ is king “not because we are weak, but because God is strong, and God is love. We have a confessional faith because the grace of God is sufficient for all. There is grace for us and for the people we do not like. We have a confessional faith because God is our refuge and our strength” (Feasting on the Word, Westfield 336). We confess that Christ is king because we are not.
As we start to prepare for the anticipated arrival of the Christ child, let us remember that when we sing “what child is this” the answer is the same king that would flip tables and heal lepers. When we sing about “the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head” that same sweet head bore a crown of thorns for being a threat to the government. And yes, Mary knew from the beginning the difference this king would make to the forgotten, the lowly, the outcast, and the troubled. She knew that he was then and would always be Emmanuel, God with us.