Sermon for Sunday 20 November 2016
Christ the King Sunday
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I’d like to start this sermon with an important question:
Is it too soon to spend Sunday afternoon watching Christmas movies?
What about Christmas music? Too soon?
And what about the Christmas tree—approximately when is too early to assemble and decorate it, without seeming ridiculous?
I’m asking for a friend…
The truth is, this year I’m more than ready for a little Christmas.
I’m ready for some light shining in this darkness.
I’m ready for the hopeful expectation of good things about to be born, instead of the gloom and doom about the apocalypse to come.
I’m ready for Mary and Joseph, and the star, and the little town of Bethlehem.
I’m ready for sweet baby Jesus, so full of potential, so full of hope, so full of love for this broken world!
But of course, it’s not Christmas yet.
It’s not even Advent yet.
In today’s Scripture readings, we aren’t in Bethlehem, we’re in Jerusalem. Jesus is not in the manger, but is at Calvary. Advent begins in just a few days, and Christmas will be here and gone before we know it…but before we kneel with the wise men at the manger, today we are invited to spend some time kneeling at the foot of the cross.
If this juxtaposition of death and impending birth seems strange, consider that most Orthodox icons of the incarnation show the infant Jesus wrapped in what could be either “swaddling clothes” or a death shroud. Jesus and the Virgin Mary are often pictured sitting in a cave which could be interpreted either his birthplace or his resting place. This is a subtle but powerful reminder that our faith is not just a Christmas faith. We may prefer the baby Jesus, meek and mild, but we can never forget that this same baby’s life of preaching, teaching, and healing leads him to the cross and to the tomb.
This is the reason that on the last Sunday of the church year, Christ the King Sunday, we hear an account of the crucifixion. As we wrap up another year and look toward the next, we are invited to contemplate the nature of the one we call Lord and Savior. Who is this Jesus, whose birthday is our favorite holiday? Who is this Jesus, whose life has inspired us for two thousand years? Who is this Jesus we call King, and exactly what kind of “king” can be found on a cross?
I recently heard a radio report about a company that will take the entirety of your online presence—everything you have ever Instagrammed, Tweeted, or posted on Facebook—and will compile it into a social media “autobiography” when you die. Because, of course, if you didn’t share it on social media, it didn’t happen! A reporter paid for this special service and asked to have her so-called “autobiography” prepared, in video form, which she then watched in a room full of other people. Her review of the experience was, in a word, “disturbing.” Having your entire life distilled into the sum of your photos, tweets, and shares, is enough to give one pause. And what about your very last social media contribution? Do you really want to be remembered for that last angry tweet? Or for that last cat photo you just couldn’t help sharing? (All cat photos are worth sharing, by the way.)
What can anyone really know about you from your last words, online or in real life?
In this morning’s Gospel text, from the 23rd chapter of the Gospel according to Luke, we don’t hear Jesus’ very last words. But what we do hear in this account of the crucifixion are some of Jesus’ last words to a human being. We hear how Jesus was nailed to a cross, and hanging next to him were condemned criminals: One on his right, and one on his left.
As it is written:
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And Jesus replied: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
“Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
Imagine the joy these words must have given the dying man next to Jesus.
Imagine the comfort these words must have given him in his time of agony.
Imagine the love, and the divine strength Jesus must have possessed, to utter such words of hope and healing to another dying man, even as he also was suffering greatly.
So, what can we know of Jesus from these last words? What kind of king is he?
We know everything:
We know Jesus is the king of healing and wholeness, able to soothe the soul of a dying man with a few words.
We know Jesus is the king of aggravating authorities, denying them even the satisfaction of putting an end to a prisoner, as he offered that same prisoner life and liberation with him in Paradise.
We know Jesus is the king of mercy, as he did not use his last breaths to utter curses upon those who had tortured him, but instead uttered words of grace and forgiveness to a confessed criminal.
We know Jesus is the king of love—not for himself, but for others—for he chose not to save himself, but in great love emptied himself of divine power in order to save our broken world.
Needless to say, it is difficult for the world to comprehend a king like this. For what has the world taught us about kings? Kings are born of royal lineage. Kings live in fortresses. Kings travel with a security detail. Kings live a world apart, untouched by the cares of regular people, much less criminals.
Kings do not get crucified.
So it is really quite something to profess:
My king was born of an unwed mother.
My king’s first bed was in a stable.
My king is condemned by religious authorities.
My king is publicly mocked.
My king is a death row prisoner.
My king is killed by the empire.
My king rules by love and not by might.
It’s a scandal to say such things, especially in this time when world leaders can ascend to seats of power through domination, through exclusion, and even through mocking and ridiculing all who are different.
In the wake of the recent US election, some protestors have adopted the slogan “#notmypresident”. I have mixed feelings about the use of this phrase, especially since my country endured eight years of folks saying nearly the same about our last president, merely for the color of his skin. But it occurs to me that when we proclaim Christ as King over our lives, we are necessarily proclaiming others as #notmyking. When we proclaim Christ as king, we are making a political statement:
If Christ is love, then hatred is #notmyking
If Christ is mercy, then violence is #notmyking
If Christ is truth, then lies are #notmyking
If Christ is of one being with the Father, Creator of all my fellow humans, then racism is #notmyking, sexism is #notmyking, homophobia is #notmyking, anti-Semitism is #notmyking, Islamophobia is #notmyking.
If Christ is my King—the same Christ who spoke words of mercy, healing, and welcome to a confessed criminal in his dying moments—then any and all powers and principalities who stand against the Gospel values of love, mercy, forgiveness, equality, diversity, living together, non-violence, and reconciliation—these are #notmyking, #notmyjesus, #notmyguidinglight, #notmyhope, and #notgoingtochangethewayItreatmyneighbor!
It’s interesting to note that Pope Pius XI instituted the feast of Christ the King in 1925 in response to the rise of fascism in Europe. In that precarious time—not all too different from our own—he called upon Christians to remember what kind of God they serve, and how the reign of Christ is fundamentally different from the fascist values spreading across the world. In his encyclical of 11 December 1925, in which he established the observance of Christ the King Sunday, Pope Pius quoted Cyril of Alexandria, saying:
“Christ has dominion over all creatures, a dominion not seized by violence nor usurped, but his by essence and by nature."
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” said the dying man.
“Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Dear sisters and brothers, as we begin our Advent journey together next week, making our way with Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, let us remember these words of grace and mercy, and the one who spoke them. This is the king whose birth we await. This is the king we follow and serve. This is the king of our lives, and of the world—a king who can be neither elected nor impeached, neither inaugurated nor deposed. A king whose love surpasses all understanding. A king who welcomes all who repent and believe into his kingdom—even confessed criminals. Even our neighbors with whom we disagree! Even us.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.