Thursday, January 31, 2008

“What Kind of King?”

Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43 [1]

I think we have a hard time “getting into” today’s commemoration in the church calendar, the festival of Christ the King. How can we actually “celebrate” the reign of Christ as King if we don’t have any positive images of the concept of “king”? From our point of view, kings oppress, they foster tyranny. Kings take away “unalienable rights,” they do not protect them. Kings are those who engage in things like “taxation without representation,” who foster “abuses and usurpations” that are intended to reduce people “under absolute Despotism.” At least, that’s how the Declaration of Independence words it. From that perspective, I think we are more likely to view a king as a despot than a savior!

But, of course, it was not always so in the history of humankind. In many cultures, the rise of a great king signaled the beginning of a golden age. In a number of cases, Kings were responsible for bringing peace to a multitude of warring principalities, as in ancient Rome. Of course, that’s the perspective of those who benefited from the pax romana. I doubt that the peoples they suppressed would take that point of view. The same is true in medieval England. The legend of King Arthur concerns a great king who ruled wisely and who brought peace, stability, and prosperity to the British Isles. At least that’s the view that Thomas Malory takes in his famous epic poem, “L’morte d’Arthur.” There may be a few Irish or Welsh or Scottish folks around who would beg to differ!

With all of that history of human kings behind us, it’s difficult for us to conceive of Christ as king in a way that has any appeal whatsoever in our day and time. But as our study of the parables of Luke has shown us, the Kingdom that Christ brings is different from all other kingdoms. When the kingdom of God comes, it means good news for the poor, release to the captives and recovery of sight for the blind, it means that those who are oppressed are set at liberty (Luke 4:18). When the kingdom of God comes, it means peace and righteousness, the conditions that make life thrive (cf. Colossians 1:20).[2] The kingdom of God means the end of violence and death and disease and suffering and sickness and oppression and injustice.[3] It means that all will know and worship the Lord;[4] it means life that is full and everlasting;[5] it means unimaginable joy.[6]

So why should we celebrate Christ as “king” on this day? We celebrate because Jesus is not a typical king. In fact, from the perspective of the kings of the earth, he looks nothing like a king. Kings execute those who don’t follow the program, they don’t die on their behalf. But Jesus is a king who died in order to invite a criminal to share paradise with him (Luke 23:43)! Kings demand that those who have the privilege of speaking to them follow certain protocols and etiquette. But Jesus is a king who suffered insults and abuse so that all those who have been insulted and abused might be healed.

As the PC (USA) Study Catechism puts it, “He was the Lord who took the form of a servant; he perfected royal power in weakness. With no sword but the sword of righteousness, and no power but the power of love, Christ defeated sin, evil and death by reigning from the cross.”[7] Kings reign from elaborate and ornate thrones and wield power through wealth and weapons. But Jesus is a king who uses the power of love to break through the lovelessness of our world. Kings use the systems and structures of the world to keep things the way they are, but Jesus is a king to sets us free from all the oppressive structures and vicious circles of domination, oppression and subjugation.[8] When we celebrate Christ as “king” it represents “the most radical reversal of the ideal of rule that can be conceived.”[9]

We celebrate Christ as our “king” on this day because the good news of the New Testament is that in Jesus the Christ God has begun to make the blessings of his kingdom available here and now! We celebrate Christ as our “king” because he is the one who exercises all “authority in heaven and on earth” by “emptying himself even to death on a cross.”[10] We celebrate Christ as our “king” because through him we can already have a foretaste of the peace and joy and everlasting life of God’s kingdom.[11]

[1] © 2007 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/25/2007 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Ps 85:10; Isa. 9:7; 52:7; Lk. 2:14; Rom. 14:17; Eph. 2:15.

[3] Isa. 2:1-4; 25:8; Rev. 7:17; 21:4.

[4] Jer. 31:31-34; Isa. 40:5; 49:26; 66:23.

[5] Rom. 5:17, 21; 1 Cor. 15:22; Rev. 21:6.

[6] Isa. 55:17; Rom. 14:17; cf. Jürgen Moltmann, “The Disarming Child,” in The Power of the Powerless, 34.

[7] The Study Catechism, question 41.

[8] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 87-98, 99, 223.

[9] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 102; he elaborates (p. 103), “True dominion does not consist of enslaving others but in becoming a servant of others; not in the exercise of power, but in the exercise of love; not in being served but in freely serving; not in sacrificing the subjugated but in self-sacrifice.”

[10] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 103.

[11] Moltmann, “The Disarming Child,” in The Power of the Powerless, 36.

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