Last Sunday was Christ the King Sunday for those of us who follow the liturgical calendar. Here's the sermon.
November 24, 2019
This morning for Christ the King Sunday we have tried to show a bit of pomp befitting a king. The choir in their robes. The hymns are high and probably use every note on the organ and piano. We’ve tried to evoke a certain feeling in worship today befitting royalty. And our first reading from has Colossians has helped tremendously. “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.” Our second reading now subverts it all as we become part of the crowd standing before Jesus upon his throne. Listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you from the gospel according to Luke chapter 23 starting with verse 33.
READ the scripture.
So this is not necessarily the expected gospel reading for the day… but it is the right one. It is the right one because it clearly lays out what is truth and what is right as a follower of the Lord of Lords and King of Kings.
You see, I still haven’t been able to let last Sunday go… and the difficulty I had in trying to say something simple. When we Christians grow weary of doing what is right according to Christ, then our faith is put into neutral and it idles in place. When we go silent. When we put our light under a bushel. When we fail to embrace the aspirational sanctification that follows the example set by God’s amazing grace-filled justification… we are idle. And maybe… maybe that’s a personal faith struggle that I’m having at the moment… trying to balance personal faith and a public pastor’s faith… I’m still trying to find my feet underneath me with being a called pastor again and not being a transitional pastor where I know my time is limited as is the scope of the ministry before me.
Regardless of what elements that may be personal, though, I think this struggle to be authentic… to have integrity in our faith in the now… in whatever situation we find ourselves in… it is a struggle that I hope we are all having to one degree or another. I go back to those words from Colossians and a phrase like “the strength that comes from his glorious power”… which is beautiful in its language… a phrase like that turns on the understanding of just what is that “glorious power”. Even “enduring with patience”. Do we endure until this moment passes… quietly toughening it out… or is our endurance expressed in our not growing weary of doing what is right… of keeping that vision of Christ on the throne in front of us… to inspire and challenge us? And in your vision… is that throne the cross? Or is it the power and the grandeur of what one might imagine a heavenly throne to be? I think it matters.
Here in Luke… as Jesus is raised upon the cross between the two thieves… the sign placed above his head… “The King of the Jews”… Jesus offers up that prayer of forgiveness. We have been talking for a few Sundays now about the way in which we order things matters for our theology. As we read through our passage today… notice that the prayer for forgiveness comes first. Before the leaders come to scoff. Before the soldiers begin to mock. Before the one criminal derides Jesus as he hangs there on his cross. Jesus has already prayed for their forgiveness. Their dismals and diminishing of Jesus is already subverted because of Christ’s prayer of forgiveness. It is a crucial theological question… what happens next when Jesus has already forgiven? What does that say about us?
In reading through Luke’s telling, you have to keep that prayer up front because the message from all three of these… the leaders, the soldiers, the criminal… is save yourself. If you are the Messiah… then save yourself. This is one of those times when what the characters say is what they truly believe in their hearts.
The religious leaders scoff how Jesus had saved others… and their hearts are revealed. What did it get you Jesus? What did you get from saving others? Where are your riches? Where is your privilege? People’s gratitude will only go so far and now you are left alone to save yourself. You forgave too soon… before you got paid.
The Roman soldiers mock from their feeling of power. To them he is the failed king of the Jews… another failed king of a people who have no power… a conquered people… the poor and useless who ought to be eternally thankful of the benevolence of Rome’s power. This is the normal way Rome treated all conquered kings who would not submit to the greater power. Save yourself. Show your power to be greater than that of Rome if you want our loyalty to shift. Come off that cross.
The deriding thief is almost conspiratorial in tone. If you’re really one of us… and you’ve got the ability to do so… save yourself and us. We will help you in the end. Our ways will help you to be the king you need to be. Everybody’s corrupt… it’s just some of us are better at it than others. We’ll show you how to really save yourself… and us.
Save yourself. It’s a message that is everywhere in our culture today. It constantly fills our ears giving us cause to set ourselves apart from others around us. It’s a message people readily buy into. You can’t trust anyone. Everyone has some ulterior motive. The only way not to be stabbed in the back is to stay one step ahead. You are the only one you can truly count on and trust. It is a message that infests our faith. How many Christians believe that Jesus offers the means of salvation… the way to salvation… but it is up to you to ultimately save yourself by grabbing hold… by claiming what Jesus offers? Sure Jesus may pray for forgiveness first, but that forgiveness is not yours until you allow yourself to be forgiven by Jesus. The gospel of Luke especially pushes against that belief.
Save yourself. Empower yourself. Ought we not be submitting ourselves to Christ’s rule instead? Isn’t that why we have Christ the King Sunday every year on this the last day in the liturgical calendar… to remind us of our ineffectiveness at saving ourselves? To remind us that we are subjects to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords… not people who have voted him into the office of savior?
Save yourself. Come down off that cross. Surely, that’s not the way.
Yet, Jesus… back in chapter 9 of this very gospel… Jesus says what to us? “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”
Saints, how weary it is to take up your cross daily and to follow Christ in the real world. How hard it is to joyfully give thanks to the Father for this… this inheritance of the saints of light. That inheritance is the discipleship of the cross.
Who are the religious leaders of today who, in doing all the wrong things, actually make the best case for the authentic Christ? Who are the religious leaders of today who enjoy the wealth and the position of their own self-created temple systems? Theirs is the proclaimed faith of a Messiah who saved himself and who left the lost to fend for themselves. That is their discipleship. Or how many people today are looking for that greater power to believe in… are hungering for something else than what is before them in a way that is not about enriching themselves or trying to get to a better foothold than their neighbor? The way of a servant king who becomes the sacrifice… who forgives others instead of taking them to task or obliterating them in some way… is not the power we seem to yearn for or respect. Or how many mock Jesus when in their hearts they are afraid… all they really want is for someone to take them off of their own cross. Take this cross away from me and replace it with self-saving blessings. I am afraid to trust that there might be truth in grace that forgiveness may be right. I’m afraid to serve with patience. There must be an easier way that has a better guarantee of success. Love is too weak. Or how many are like the crowd, who only stand silently watching as the drama plays out before them… never taking part… never engaging… never even looking for what may be happening under the surface of the story of which they are a part… remaining in neutral and just idling. Or finally how many of us are like the other thief… who I haven’t spoken about this morning… the other thief who asks Jesus to remember us when he comes into his kingdom, but really don’t know what it is we’re asking of Christ… or that that request may very well mean the giving our own life as we know it as we hang there on our own cross alongside the crucified Christ… the King of the Jews?
On this Christ the King Sunday… amidst all the pomp we can muster… we read a passage about the crucifixion… when we are already turning our eyes toward Christmas and the birth of Jesus… toward the other end of the Jesus story… where salvation and kingship comes in the miracle of life… and not through death and resurrection. But the two… death and birth… fit together because this moment in Luke is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophetic vision of the Messiah… this the one who gives his life for his people. All those words of peace and salvation that we will hear in the coming weeks as we light the Advent candles will take us to this point in the story… the point of the cross… and not a time when Jesus will choose to save himself.
The next time we come to this table set with a broken body and spilled blood will be on Christmas Eve. This table is definitely not a scene from the manger. This table brings us to this moment… to the firstborn of the dead. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. All glory, laud and honor are yours Christ our King. Amen.