A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, November 24, 2013
King – “a male monarch or ruler of a country or major territorial unit; especially one whose position is hereditary and who rules for life.” So records the dictionary. I am wondering if anyone here today has ever met a king. What was he like? I am reminded of the charming scene from Amahl and the Night Visitors in which the boy asks each of the visitors if he is a real king. “Are you a real king, too?” he asks the dark one. “Yes” he replies in a sonorous bass. “Have you regal blood?” “Yes.” “Can I see it?” the boy presses. “It is just like yours,” comes the patient response. “What’s the use of having it then?”asks the incredulous child. “No use,” is the thoughtful reply. Apparently there is nothing inherently unique or special about royal blood or wearing a crown or living in “a black marble palace full of black panthers and white doves.” It has its social value, but in the end the poor crippled boy and the imposing king are not that different.
We know about kings from reading, of course, literature and history and even the news. Just yesterday I noticed on the cover of National Enquirer that poor Prince Charles has now turned 65, leaving him no hope of ever being King of England. We have images of kings from art and movies and television. The Bible is rich with stories of kings, good and bad, wise and foolish, strong and weak. We remember devious assassins like Richard the Third and dashing heroes like Richard the Lion-hearted, weak, evil kings like Ahab and the glorious rule of David. Kings rule with power and might and accumulate land and wealth.
So how did this get to be Reign of Christ or Christ the King Sunday? Jesus of Nazareth, whom we now know as the Christ, scarcely fits the definition. In truth, the Feast of Christ the King or in more modern terms, the Reign of Christ, is a quite recent addition to the liturgical year. It was first proclaimed by Pope Pius XI in December of 1925 in an encyclical that lays out the church’s teaching on the kingship of Christ, who rules not only over the church, but over the whole world as well. Even if that rule is not fully realized yet it will be by the end of time.
Still, for many modern Christians, especially free-thinking Baptists, the notion of celebrating Christ as king is a troubled one. I suspect many of us would agree with Dan Clendenin who writes, “Today the language of kingship is outmoded and offensive. There are good reasons for this,” he says. “We don’t live under kings, so the metaphor feels irrelevant. And we’re rightly repulsed at how the reigns of kings meant a reign of terror for most subjects — massive wealth and power attained by cruelty and exploitation, which was then passed on by birthright to people who did nothing to deserve it.” I believe there are several of those stories in the Bible.
Clendenin suggests that the blame for crowning Christ king should be put more on Paul than Pius. He also sees that “…the language of kingship is embedded in the Christian story. The earliest followers of Jesus, [as well as] his detractors, used the language of kingship to describe who he was, what he said, and what he did.”
Today’s gospel reading from the 23rd chapter of Luke tells us that Jesus died an ignominious death, hung on a shameful Roman cross between two thieves. Over his cross was nailed a crude sign proclaiming with bitter irony that this was the “King of the Jews.” The crowd laughed at him, chided him to save himself, spit on him, gambled over his garments. There was nothing royal in that scene and the blood that flowed was just as real as yours and mine.
When we rehearsed the Song of Reflection for today’s service, several choir members pointed out that it seemed awfully somber for the rapidly approaching holiday season. It sounded more like Lent than Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas. But, indeed, it is a recommended song for Reign of Christ Sunday. Like our Call to Worship, it juxtaposes pain and majesty, suffering and redemptive power, compassion and grace in ways that give us real insight into Christ as king.
The genius of the metaphor is shown in the way Paul takes it and spells it out in the introduction to his letter to the Colossians. Christ is king because he is the ruler over all that is and has been from its very creation. And yet he is a king like no other, one who takes the notion of rule and transforms it into something beyond human imagining. As the old hymn sings so beautifully, “The King of Love my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never…” King of love! Now there’s an oxymoron for you. Didn’t you catch the definition? A king rules with power and might, with armies and a treasury. Surely a King of Love is doomed to defeat and death.
In Paul’s beautiful hymn that begins the letter to the church at Colossae, he helps us see and understand the kind of king Christ is. He is both Cosmic and Crucified Christ, ruler of the universe and one who gives his life in humility and service to the living God. Paul says “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” What a majestic perspective of the Cosmic Christ to whom we owe our life and allegiance! What promise of glory!
At the same time Paul points out that “He is the head of the body, the church;” – that‘s the very human us – “he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in [very human] 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.” As the contemporary song asks, “What if God was one of us?” That’s the point Paul says, God was one of us, in the person of the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, who walked the earth to tell us and show us what life with God was really like. In the Crucified Christ we have been invited to live into that amazing, grace-filled relationship with joy and thanksgiving. God was one of us who suffered and bled and died and rose again, all in very human being.
The great turning point in Amahl and the Night Visitors comes when the poor mother, faced with abject poverty, nothing to eat, no fuel for the fire, no hope for herself and her crippled son, decides to take a little of the kings’ gold. She rationalizes that they won’t miss a little and it is for the survival of her own dear child. She is caught red-handed by the servant. In the ensuing panic, Amahl fiercely defends his mother. When things have finally quieted down, one of the kings, Melchior, observing their desperate need, sings,
“Oh woman, you may keep the gold.
The child we seek doesn’t need our gold.
On love, on love alone he will build his kingdom.
His pierced hand will hold no scepter.
His haloed head will wear no crown.
His might will not be built on your toil.
Swifter than lightning, he will soon walk among us.
He will bring us new life, and receive our death, and the keys to his city belong to the poor.”
We exist in this sacred tension between our vision of the Cosmic Christ, the great king of the universe and the Crucified Christ who gave his life in humble service. Living somewhere between the Cosmic and the Crucified Christ, as members of the body of Christ, can we turn from all that lures us away, all that threatens the fulfillment of God’s reign, all that frightens us, to pray with our whole being that we might be filled with knowledge of God’s will, with spiritual wisdom and understanding; that we might lead lives worthy of Christ, fully pleasing Christ, bearing good fruit and growing in the knowledge of God? Then might we also pray to be made strong – not from dominating power or wealth or fame or other false promise on which we’ve hung our star; may we be made strong from Christ’s own glorious power to endure all with patience and to walk in the light of God – even when times are rough and the road ahead does not look promising. Always and forever, the King of Love walks with us. Amen.