This sermon was delivered on November 24, 2013, at Jasper United Methodist Church.
Common English Bible (CEB)
33 When they arrived at the place called The Skull, they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” They drew lots as a way of dividing up his clothing.
35 The people were standing around watching, but the leaders sneered at him, saying, “He saved others. Let him save himself if he really is the Christ sent from God, the chosen one.”
36 The soldiers also mocked him. They came up to him, offering him sour wine 37 and saying, “If you really are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” 38 Above his head was a notice of the formal charge against him. It read “This is the king of the Jews.”
39 One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus insulted him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
40 Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, “Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die? 41 We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
43 Jesus replied, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.”
For weeks leading up to April 29, 2011, and for weeks afterwards, there was only one thing that the media seemed to be able to focus on for any length of time. Every newscast devoted airtime to the event. It was replayed over and over again by those who recorded it. Talk shows couldn’t get enough of it. Millions were spent on it in the most extravagant ways. For a time in the English speaking world, it was impossible to ignore the Royal Wedding of Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, and Catherine “Kate” Middleton.
We loved every second of it; the glamour, the pomp and circumstance, the tradition, the celebrity, all of it we could not wait to consume, and if we didn’t love it, it wound up consuming us anyways. Their faces were plastered on magazines, billboards, and tv screens. History was being made, and a grand celebration was had by anyone who cared to witness it, and the rest suffered through it. We even had a bit of an encore of the wedding earlier this year by the birth of the Royal Baby Prince George, another event which was inescapable in its grandeur. If anything was confirmed by these events, aside from the vows made by the couple themselves and the child borne by them, it’s that people are obsessed with royalty.
A short glance at our culture will tell you the same thing, even outside of the British royalty, and it has been for quite some time.
Our fairy tales usually involve the chivalrous quests of knights out to win the hand of a fair maiden princess, or a prince trying to undo a curse, or a peasant girl becoming a princess. The plays of William Shakespeare almost entirely dealt with the lives of royalty, or at the very least the rich and famous. In the 20th century, there was a resurgence in the popularity of royalty, the blame of which we can squarely put on the work of the Disney Corporation. One of the most iconic characters in video gaming is a princess–princess Peach! This week as the news outlets look back on the short presidency of John F. Kennedy, we remember that we romanticized him and his family, dubbing it the “era of Camelot,” and pretending the first family was actually a royal family. From all of this we can conclude that royalty matters a great deal to us… but why?
Why do we have such an obsession with royalty? Is it because of the glamour? The history? Is it the power they wield? Perhaps all three, in a way, but most of all I think it’s because collectively we wish we could be royal. There is no doubt we humans like to decorate ourselves and our surroundings, and being king or queen, prince or princess, means we have the best stuff around, hypothetically. The best clothes, the best real estate, the best everything—royalty comes with grandeur and glamour. Not only that, all our history is centered on so-called “important” people, usually heads of state or royalty. There’s a reason we remember people like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Richard the Lionhearted, Henry the VIII, Queen Elizabeth, and so on—that’s who history was written about, and we all partly wish we were the star of our own story like they were.
However, that third thing I mentioned, power, is not quite so universal. Sure, some people would love to have the power of royalty, to make decrees, to rule over other people as absolute sovereign. At the same time, power can be thoroughly intimidating, because it comes with responsibility—not everybody wants that. Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown after all. Power is a dangerous thing in the wrong hands, but it is a coveted thing nonetheless, and there are surely a lot of people in this world that crave power such as a king or queen might have. It’s no surprise, though, how such power has more often than not in some way ruined the kings or queens of history. Power, in almost all cases, tempts people to misuse it or abuse it. Yet even still, we crave power.
But what if there was a king who did not crave power, or glamour, or historical importance? What if there was a king who cast all of it aside? What if there was a king who instead of adulation, adoration, and the accessories of the office, instead wanted a relationship with those who he was called to rule? Who in almost every way did not act like a king as we understand them to be, and instead, acted as the king we aspire to have? A king of peace? A king of compassion? A king of kings? There was one such man. And we killed him like a criminal.
Today is the last Sunday in the Christian calendar, and next week begins the season of Advent. However, before we get there, we celebrate today, a day known as Christ’s Reign Sunday, or Christ the King Sunday. This is one of those days that, as you think about it more and more, you realize it’s a bit of a strange thing to think about. I recognize that as Christians, we have a long history in the bible and in our tradition in calling Christ King. We don’t even really think about it very much; we just say it because we are supposed to say it, and we imagine Christ as he is described in Revelation, sitting on the throne of judgment at the right hand of the Father, robed in glory and power and majesty. That’s the kind of king that we are used to seeing, and that’s what we imagine when we call Christ “king”—but that’s not nearly at all how he is described in the majority of the New Testament, and it’s certainly not the Jesus we see in the scripture from Luke.
The story of the Crucifixion from Luke is one that seems to bounce around all over the place. Really, it’s kind of like a well edited movie, something that Orson Welles might have directed.
First, we have a wide angle shot of a barren hill, upon which we see three crosses, with Jesus in the center surrounded by two criminals, one on each side. Slowly, the camera zooms in onto the center cross, over the small crowd gathered around, past the soldiers, cutting out the other criminals at his side, until all we see is the face of Jesus, bloody, bruised, breathing heavily. Upon his head rests a makeshift crown made out of pricker weeds, digging into his flesh. Over the murmurs of the crowd we hear him gasp… “Forgive them, Father, for they don’t know what they’re doing.
The shot changes. We focus on some soldiers gambling off to the side of the stage over his clothing. Another shot change. We see the crowd, dismissing him, sneering, losing what adoration they used to have for him in exchange for cynicism and dismissal. We overhear one voice, one of the city leaders. “Hmph! So much for him. If he’s supposed to be the anointed one, the one who’s come to save us, then let’s just see him save himself.” We see other heads around him nodding in agreement.
The shot moves again, back to the soldiers. We close up on a stick one of them is holding, as he puts a sponge on it soaked with spoiled wine, sour and nasty. He holds the stick up to Jesus face as if to offer it, and then shoves it in his face, laughing. They echo the leader in the crowd. “Save yourself.” It slowly pans up, past the head of Jesus to the top of a cross, where we see these words engraved on a sign. “Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum.” Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.
As the camera lingers on the sign for several seconds, a voice cuts over the din of the crowd. It’s one of the criminals hanging with him. “Hey! Hey you! Lord Fancypants! Aren’t you supposed to be the anointed one?! Ain’t you supposed to kick the Romans out? HA! So much for that eh? Why not take their advice? Save yourself—“
“Lay off him.” He’s cut off by another voice, the voice of the other criminal. “You’re sentenced to die, just the same as him. Don’t’ you have any respect, if not for this man, than at least for God? We deserve this. He doesn’t. Lay off him.” The man is quiet for a second. The camera cuts to the accused criminal, looking indignant but defeated. Back to the defending criminal. “Hey whats-your-name…Jesus… if you are a king, you know… I’m not asking for anything special. Just remember me when you get your kingdom.”
The camera moves back to Jesus face. He slowly turns his head, as much as he can, to the man who asked this. We see how much pain it causes. We see the strain of the crucifixion taking its toll. Jesus opens his mouth and croaks, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.”
It’s a poignant scene. It’s one well engraved into our collective memories. But it’s not necessarily one that screams out Jesus’s royalty. We see Jesus in pain yes, suffering, dying. We see him mocked. We see him merciful in the end. The scene just doesn’t seem what we could call “kingly,” a thought remarked on by almost everyone in the scene. Everyone seems to be making fun of the fact that he’s supposed to be this king, this huge, imposing, powerful person with an army and a title, adorned with glory, power, and glamour. The words get passed around to everyone—“If you’re a king, save yourself.”
Were he doing his ministry today, he would definitely be a disappointment to us as much as he disappointed them then. We glorify and glamorize the idea of royalty. He wasn’t married, so no royal wedding for us to obsess about. While he never had children, he was a child himself, and we make a big hoopla over it in the season of Christmas, but it hardly would have made a blip on the Nielson ratings of we had it today. He would be vilified as a taker, a parasite, a false prophet, a traitor, a pretender to the throne, a zealot, a drunk, and a rabble-rousing rebel. We would hardly call him a king today were he around today. We would mock him just as much as they mocked him, even at his death. Which makes it all the more important why we call him king.
He is a king. Just not the kind of king we’re used to. Jesus is the opposite of everything we associate with kings. Where we think of a king as powerful, Jesus takes on the position of weakness. Where we think of a king as rich, Jesus was a poor wandering rabbi, living off the kindness of friends and strangers. Where we think of a king as a warrior, we see Jesus the peacemaker, who calls us to turn the other cheek, to walk the extra mile. Where we think of a king as one who seeks self-importance, Jesus’s last acts were that of forgiveness to his persecutors and mercy to the humble. Though he was thoroughly innocent, Jesus took on the punishment that put him in the same place as traitors and criminals. Jesus was a criminal royal, a condemned king.
As we begin our new Christian year, our slow but ever accelerating descent into the Advent season, we should remember the image of Christ the crucified king, the peasant prince of peace. In the glitz and glamour, pomp and circumstance surrounding the upcoming countdown to Christmas, remember who we call Lord and King. When we say Christ is king, we ought to remember the original, unspoken intent behind those words. Christ is king—which means Caesar is not. The emperor is not in control, whichever face he may have today, or whatever form that takes in your life. It may be celebrity/royalty worship. It may be overt and extreme deference to our elected officials. It may be the many gods we place in our life—money, our job, our security, our anger, our grudges, our envy, our fear, our suffering, our depression, our self-gratification, etc. and so forth. Christ is king, and that means nobody else is or should be. Those are hard words to live up to. I encourage you to do it anyways.
When you leave here today, I want you to do a couple of things. First of all, pray, either by yourself, or with your family, and find out the things that preoccupies you. If nothing jumps out, give it a few days, and make note of all the things that take up your time. Find out who or what is king in your life. Second, acknowledge it. Simply admit to yourself what you put before Christ in your heart. Don’t worry, he already knows what it is; this is mostly for your own edification; but confession is above all an act of cleansing. Third, do something in the coming weeks of Advent to put Christ back as the king of your life, and live into the example of Christ. That means one not of self-importance, but of self-giving; not of glamour or power, but humility, acknowledgement of your weakness, and the willingness to help the weak in your life or your community. It might be prayer. It might be fasting. It might be mission work. It might simply be just spending more time with your family or friends instead of at work or whatever takes up your time.
Christ is king, and not in the way we are used to seeing kings. Remember that as you go from this place today. Know that instead of power, seek mercy; instead of glamour and adoration, seek humility; instead of self-importance, seek peace. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.