Christ the… King?

The sign on his cross reads, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” That sign was meant to be a bit of extra mockery, a warning to the people about what happened to those who claimed lordship over the land. It was meant to degrade the notion of a king, to dash the hopes of the proud and to bring sorrow to the oppressed. It was meant to say, “This man is no king.”

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Christ the King B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Daniel 7:1-18
Psalm 93
Revelation 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37

“The Crown of Thorns” by Doug McCullough is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

A few weeks ago in Confirmation class, we talked about when the Israelites transitioned from the time of the Judges to the time of the Kings.

The Israelite tribes found themselves under attack by outside nations, and each time, God called a Judge to unite and lead the people to victory. The system seemed to work alright, but eventually, the Israelites decided that they wanted to be like every other nation. They wanted to have a king to lead them.

Included in each Confirmation lesson is a short video that introduces questions about the topic in what I think to be humorous ways. In the video about Israelite kings, the Israelites are given a warning that, just like when taking a medicine, there may be some, well, unpleasant side effects to having a king. These side effects include:

“Having the king take your children, fields, vineyards, olive groves, grain, wine, servants, cattle, and donkeys. Consult your prophet immediately if your King exhibits any of the following behaviors: aggressiveness, agitation, confusion, hallucination, narcissism, adultery, or megalomania. Other severe side effects may include: depression, famine, civil war, exile, enslavement or nausea.”

That’s quite the list. As the Israelites did end up learning, a king wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be. They expected someone to save them, to liberate them, to fight for them, and to lead them. And, to an extent, the kings did. But their regal saviors never quite lived up to their hopes and their dreams.

We actually have plenty of experience with this. We just forget that we do. I’m sure we remember the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns in which Barack Obama was unfairly and wrongfully portrayed as the savior of our nation. And before we get too smug, notice that we are doing the exact same thing with certain candidates in our current presidential race, and the results will be the same. We put our absolute hope in our kings, and while we may get what we want, we’re always disappointed.

Part of the problem is that we don’t really know what we want. And because we don’t know what we want, we fall back on the things we do know. A king exists to be strong and powerful, to defeat our enemies, to wage war. Every king in history has had this duty. Even our own President is the Commander-in-Chief of all our armed forces. As far as we’re concerned, this is what kings are for.

Which makes it awfully strange that we have something at all called Christ the King Sunday.

It’s a very popular image. We name churches and schools Christ the King. Many many icons from ancient times depict Jesus in the regal crown, in royal robes. We apply to him the aspects of what we think a king should be: powerful, mighty, fighting for us, victorious. And you know, we aren’t wrong. The visions in the book of Revelation depict a God who is powerful, who is mighty, who does fight for us, and who is victorious.

But what does it mean to be powerful? What does it mean to be mighty? What does it mean to fight for us? What does it mean to be victorious?

Even in his own days of walking on the earth, Jesus Christ was somewhat of a mystery. He rarely conformed to people’s expectations and disrupted their understandings. He challenged their thinking and the authority figures of his time. He hung out with the people most hated and despised by society. In fact, he did so so much, he ended up being arrested and put on trial for sedition, for blasphemy, and for disturbing the peace of the Roman Empire.

In the Gospel according to John, when Jesus is taken before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, a long discussion takes place in which Pilate tries to figure out what to make of this Jesus. Jesus’s and Pilate’s interactions are full of tension, of back-and-forth question and answer, of trying to figure each other out. There’s a lot of misdirection going. When Pilate asks the Chief Priests who hand Jesus to him what Jesus did wrong, they respond, “Well, we wouldn’t hand you anyone who wasn’t a criminal, so logically, he’s a criminal!” Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king, and Jesus asks him who told him that.

Pilate wants Jesus to say that, yes, he is a king. In doing so, Pilate will get to fit Jesus into a little box he knows how to deal with: if Jesus admits to being a king, then he’s challenging Roman authority, and the case is easy against him. Pilate can say, “This man is a king: he is powerful, he is mighty, he fights with his followers, he strives for victory. He is a military man, and must be eliminated.” But Jesus never gives him that satisfaction. Even when Pilate asks again, “So you -are- a king?”, Jesus answers, “You say that I am a king.”

The conversation, in the end, doesn’t matter much. Pilate, though never getting the answers he desires, caves to pressure from the crowd and sentences Jesus to death. Jesus is flogged, mocked, beaten, stripped, and hung on an instrument of torture to slowly die. A sign is placed on his cross that reads, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”.

That’s a far different picture of a king than we usually have depicted. Instead of a golden crown, he wears a crown of thorny branches. Instead of a royal robe, he’s stripped naked. Instead of a throne, he’s hung on a cross. Instead of throngs of followers willing to do his every bidding, he’s abandoned by nearly everyone, including those closest to him. And yet, the sign on his cross reads, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”

That sign was meant to be a bit of extra mockery, a warning to the people about what happened to those who claimed lordship over the land. It was meant to degrade the notion of a king, to dash the hopes of the proud and to bring sorrow to the oppressed. It was meant to say, “This man is no king.” But I wonder if it didn’t do just the opposite.

I contend that Jesus, beaten, bloody, naked, hanging on a cross and dying, is exactly the image of a king he intended to be. Earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus argues that no one can take his life from him: he gives it up willingly. He willingly is crucified and dies. He chooses it for himself. He gives up everything that could be afforded him as king as human beings understand the word. And in doing so, he became the greatest king that has ever lived.

This is the strange God we worship. What kind of a God chooses to be a king that gets beaten, stripped, nailed to a piece of wood and left out in the elements to die? Not gets forced to, but actually chooses to? I’ll tell you want kind of God: the kind of God that is willing to do whatever it takes, whatever is necessary, whatever will work, to prove a king’s love for the people; the kind of God willing to sacrifice everything as one last great act of love for a people living in darkness, chained to their loyalty to sin and death.

This isn’t the God or king we wanted, which is a very good thing. We don’t know what we want. Instead, Jesus Christ showed us God as the king we desperately needed to be free. Today we give thanks to God for being not only a king, but the king come to ransom us and make us free, without power, without might, without violence, without victory as we understand them, but instead with love, with compassion, and with sacrifice

Author: Pastor Ken

Ken Ranos serves as the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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