Christ the King

November 20, 2022 homily on Luke 1:68-75 and Luke 23:33-43 for Christ the King Sunday

The Crown

The popular Netflix drama The Crown portrays the life of Queen Elizabeth II all the way from her wedding in 1947 to Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and up through the early 21st century. The fact that the show is reported to be the most expensive television series ever produced is indicative of our fascination not just with the British royal family, but of monarchies in general. Think about how many popular shows and movies and books there are about kings and queens, how many fairy tales and Disney movies there are about princes and princesses. History class – at least when I was growing up – might as well have been the history of royal families and all of the wars and battles that were fought to overtake or maintain the various monarchies.

Today there are very few absolute monarchies left in the world. According to my limited research, there are 5 absolute monarchies in the world today – where the ruler has absolute power, and there are 38 constitutional monarchies, where the monarch is bound to exercise power within an established framework, such as a constitution. The overwhelming majority of countries in the world are now republics. But it wasn’t always that way. For most of history, the majority of people in the world were ruled by absolute monarchs – kings, queens, emperors, chiefs, pharaohs, or czars — individuals who exercised the highest authority and power in the land. Their wish was their command. The people did not get a vote. They had to do whatever their sovereign ruler desired, or face dire consequences.

It is against this background that the Scriptures were written. Indeed, a fair amount of the Bible itself recounts the history of the various rulers of the nations of Israel and Judah, and the surrounding nations such as Egypt and Babylon. And yet, large swaths of the Bible were not written by the rulers – those who had the ultimate authority – but rather by prophets and poets and historians who stood on the margins of society, frequently using their prophetic writings to call out the rulers who were misusing or abusing their power.

Of course the Gospels tell an account of a Messiah – a King – who demonstrated a very different way of ruling. Jesus’s Kingly power and authority was exerted in such a different way, in fact, that the majority of the people of his day did not even recognize him as the King that he was and is. Even at the point of Jesus’s death and resurrection – the ultimate display of his power and authority over death and hell and the grave – the majority of people did not recognize Jesus’s sovereign rule and reign. Many stood by scoffing at him. They assumed that if he had ultimate power and authority then he would in fact have used it to save himself – to avoid the pain and suffering that he experienced on the cross.

But throughout his life, and right up until the point of his death on the cross, Jesus exercised his sovereign rule and reign as King in a way that went against the grain of society, and yet was and is very much in line with the way that God has exercised authority all throughout human history. And so to understand Jesus as King, rather than comparing his rule and reign to that of earthly monarchs, we have to look at Jesus’s use of power and authority in light of the way God has always exercised God’s power and authority as the supreme ruler of the universe. And to do that, we have to start at the very beginning.

In the Beginning, God Created

The first verse of the Bible states, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Gen. 1:1 KJV). In Genesis chapter 1, we see God speak the world into existence. God says, “Let there be light, and there was light” (Gen. 1:3). God separates the waters in the sky from the waters on the earth, the sea from the dry ground. God creates plants and animals, fish and birds – all by speaking them into existence. We see God as a sovereign ruler here. God’s word is God’s command. Whatever God says – whatever God speaks – is what happens. God is the supreme authority – the absolute monarch. And God uses that supreme authority in ways that are productive and creative and generative.

And then God does something very unexpected. God creates people. Not through speaking us into existence, as was true of the rest of creation, but in Genesis chapter 2, we see that God formed humanity from the dust of the ground, and God breathed into us the breath of life (Gen. 2:7).

And then we see something utterly fascinating. In Genesis chapter 1, we see God blessing human beings, and commanding us to “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Gen. 1:28).

The word “dominion” here is a word typically used to describe the rule and reign of a king! So rather than holding onto all of the power and authority, like we might typically expect of an earthly king, God empowers people – human beings – giving us power and authority over the fish of the sea and birds of the air, and over the animals that move on the earth. Of course God wants us to use that power in ways that are productive and generative and life-giving. We see this in Genesis 2, where God commissions the first human to tend to the garden. God even gives the first people permission to eat of any of the fruits of the trees of the garden – with of course the exception of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – a command which was given to them for their own protection.

God Empowers

And so we see here a God who has supreme power and authority, and yet chooses to empower others – giving human beings purpose and authority to make our own decisions and our own choices – but within reason, and within boundaries. Yes, there are times when God intervenes, and prevents us from making horrific mistakes. And there are even times when God sends judgment – but always after much warning and pleading and prodding to encourage us to wake up and realize the destructive path on which we are headed.

Throughout human history, God has continued to grant power and authority in ways that are unexpected – often raising up and empowering the unlikeliest of human beings to lead God’s people. People like Moses, Deborah, Samson, David, and Esther. Often they were people who were the least likely people to be chosen – sometimes because of their physical traits, their gender, or because they were poor, or because they were on the margins or outskirts of society. But God empowered each of them to rule and to make decisions.

After God brought the Israelite people out of slavery in Egypt, God did not want the people to have a monarch. God raised up leaders like Moses and Joshua and Deborah who set up laws and led the people under the power and authority of God. But the people continually begged God for a king so they could be like the surrounding nations, and God eventually allowed them to have a king – with the warning that it would not go as they hoped. And sure enough, the history of the Kings of Israel and Judah that we see in the biblical books of Kings and Chronicles are not all that different from the histories of absolute monarchies throughout the world. Kings and Queens who abused their power and authority. Rulers who usurped the throne through violent revolutions, promising to right the wrongs of their predecessor, but so often falling into the same trap.

Occasionally throughout the Hebrew Bible we see godly kings and queens who did in fact use their power in generative ways that blessed and helped the people under their authority. But more often than not, the saying “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” holds true throughout the stories of the biblical monarchs.

Waiting for the Messiah

Fast forward to the time of Christ. The Jewish people were under the rule and reign of the Roman Emperor. They had not been a sovereign nation for many generations. Their king, Herod, was a “puppet” king under the authority of the Roman emperor. But the Jewish people longed for the “good old days” when Judah and Israel were a united kingdom, with their own sovereign monarch. Specifically they longed for the days – 1,000 years before Christ – when King David reigned. And they looked forward with hope and expectation for a messiah – a king and a savior – who would free them from the yoke of Roman oppression and restore the earthly kingdom of Israel.

Even Zechariah – John the Baptist’s father – seems to expect this in Luke chapter 1, when he says, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors…that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. (Luke 1:68-75)

Zechariah’s words were and are indeed true of what Jesus came to do – but not in the way that Zechariah or any of the other people living in his day expected. Jesus did in fact come to save us, and to give us the freedom to serve God without fear. But he did that – not through leading a violent revolution or setting up an earthly kingdom – but instead through instituting a heavenly Kingdom – one marked by love and grace and forgiveness. Through his life and death and resurrection Jesus instituted the Kingdom of Heaven, and it grows and expands as we submit to the rule and reign of God in our hearts and our lives. When we make Jesus the Lord of our lives, and when we proclaim the Good News of Christ’s Kingdom to those around us, then the Kingdom of God advances and takes root.

Christ the King

Against the backdrop of earthly monarchs who ruled with absolute authority, it makes sense that the people of Jesus’s day failed to recognize him as a king. Any earthly ruler would have used their power to save themselves from the cruel torture and shame of death on the cross if given the opportunity. And so it makes sense that the bystanders at the cross assumed that Jesus must be powerless, since he did not choose to save himself. And yet upon closer look at Jesus’s actions from the cross – we see that he exerted his rule and reign in ways that were very much in keeping with God’s sovereign rule throughout human history. Jesus chose to use his power to forgive the very people who tormented and crucified him. He destroyed his enemies by forgiving them – making them no longer his enemies. And in his dying breath, he chose to save even the thief hanging next to him on the cross – who was indeed condemned justly – even though Jesus himself did nothing wrong.

Great Power, Great Responsibility

As people, you and I have been given great power. I know it may not always feel like it. So often we feel powerless. But each and every day we have the power to make decisions that affect us and the world around us. Like so many others before us we can clench our fists and try to hold onto that power – or even use or abuse that power for our own self interests, at the expense of others.

But as followers of Christ, we are called to use the power we have been given in the same way that Jesus used his power – and indeed the way that God has intended for power to be used – in generative, life-giving, creative ways that heal and restore. If and when we have the power to get revenge on our enemies – we are instead called to love. Rather than hold onto grudges, we are called to forgive. Rather than use our power for our own selfish gain, we are called to empower others.

We do this at work, when we share the resources and training we have received, even if we’re not sure there will be a direct benefit to us. We do this at school, when we help our classmates learn to succeed, even if it might make us not stand out as much. We do this at home, around the house, when we willingly pick up additional chores around the house so that a family member or roommate can pursue their dream. We do this when we advocate for those who have not been given an opportunity to let their voice be heard in our company, our
organization, or in the broader society. And we do this when we willingly share some of our power or privileges or resources so that others can have the same opportunities we have been given.

And so this morning may we as followers of Jesus use whatever power or privilege or opportunities we have been given for the good of others. Maybe we live into our baptismal vows to accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil and justice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. And may we follow in the footsteps of Jesus – the King of kings and the Lord of lords – who used his power and authority to empower others.

Amen.

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