“A Different Sort of King”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
November 25, 2018: Christ The King Sunday
Let’s begin today with a little lesson in church history and liturgics. Since the middle of the 20thcentury, the Church has measured time differently than the rest of the world. Today is a great example of this. Today the Christian calendar comes to an end with our celebration of Christ the King Sunday. That might seem like an arbitrary day to end a calendar on, but it is not. Christ the King Sunday is the last day of Christian calendar because when we gather for worship next Sunday it will be the beginning of Advent. Advent is those four weeks leading up to Christmas, and Christmas is our yearly celebration of Christ’s birth as we anticipate his return. The Christian calendar begins as we prepare for and celebrate the birth of Christ and it ends today as we think more about the sort of King Christ came into the world to be.
You might be wondering why the Church measures time differently in the first place. That’s a great question, and there are two parts to the answer. First, the church created its own calendar to reassert its power in the world. The 1950s and 1960s were rough for the church. It was a time of rapid social change, and much of that change brought traditions and rituals into question. As an organization that is built on tradition and ritual, the Church got a little scared. So, the powers that be established the Christian calendar as a reminder to the world that the Church could still makes changes in society and culture and decide its own future and structure.
The second reason the Christian calendar was established has nothing to do with power or structure but with how we, the faithful, follow the life of Jesus. The Christian calendar keeps us in sync with the life of Jesus. The Christian calendar begins as we anticipate the birth of Christ. The Christian calendar ends with a celebration of Christ the King. In between these two celebrations, the life of Christ unfolds. Shortly after Christmas we celebrate Epiphany, where Christ is revealed to Wise Men who are outside the covenant community. From there Christ turns water into wine at the wedding in Cana, and after that he goes up a mountain with Peter and James and John and is transfigured before their eyes. After the Transfiguration, Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem and we are plunged into the days of Lent. When those days are ended we remember Christ’s sacrifice and self-denial, Judas betrayal and Jesus’ death on the cross. There is a really quiet Saturday in the middle before, all of a sudden, the light breaks on Sunday and Christ is risen from the dead! For 50 days after Easter we remember his miracles and pray for the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost.
Then the church moves through what is called ordinary time. There are more weeks in Ordinary Time than in any other season of the church year. During ordinary time we reflect on the Kingdom of God in everyday life. In Ordinary Time we follow along as Jesus calls the disciples and they eagerly follow this amazing prophet. In Ordinary Time we watch as those eager disciples experience doubt and shame and fear, but never give up following. In Ordinary Time Jesus teaches us that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed or a measure of yeast or a precious pearl. In this season Jesus does, well, ordinary stuff, small things that help the Kingdom of God sprout up all over the place. It’s all going somewhere as we heard in the reading today from the book of Revelation. When the time is right, God’s new heaven and new earth will be established and everything will be made new. Until that time, we move through the Christian year, year after year, following Jesus, hearing the same stories and celebrating the same holy days, and, hopefully, getting better and better each year at being his disciples.
Now, the thing before us today is the lordship of Christ. What sort of King is Jesus, really? What sort of kingdom did Jesus come to establish? In order to answer these questions, we must know a little bit more about the power structures in place when Jesus walked the earth. Everything in the time of Jesus, especially power, had to do with King Herod. This is the Herod that the Wise Men visited on the way to see the baby Jesus. This is the Herod who ordered the slaughter of all baby boys in Bethlehem when he couldn’t find Jesus. Herod died within a year of Christ’s birth, and was buried about three miles east of Bethlehem in a massive mountain fort called the Herodium. Herod’s final resting place is a testimony to what he thought about himself. In a place that is almost entirely flat desert, Herod built himself a mountain mausoleum to tower over everything. More than anything, Herod wanted people to think about him and revere him, even after he had died.
Herod’s life, like the Herodium, is massive and imposing. He had 10 wives, one of whom he murdered even though she was his favorite because he thought she had been unfaithful. For good measure, he also murdered the sons he had with that favorite wife. He gave instructions that on the day of his death Jewish elders from villages all around Jerusalem were to be killed simultaneously—this was to prevent power-grabs, but it was also to ensure that there were plenty of tears flowing. Herod’s architectural influence literally still stands today in Caesarea on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Herod’s name can be found on ruins all over Jerusalem that were once sports arenas and theatres. It is likely that Herod wasn’t interested in sports or art or theatre or religion, but it had nothing to do with interest. It was about power. And if it solidified his power and established his legacy, Herod was all in.
This is the world Jesus was born into. While Herod has been a very effective leader, Jesus shows us in the interrogation with Pilate that he will not adopt Herod’s leadership style. Jesus said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world,” and with those words he refuses to play by the world’s rules. Jesus did this early on his ministry, too, when he was tempted by the devil in the wilderness. The devil wanted to give Jesus power over everything and everyone if Jesus would just bow down and worship the devil. Jesus refused because he would not offer worship to anyone but God and God alone. Instead, Jesus chose a leadership style and code of conduct that was entirely in line with God’s alternate vision for the world. Instead of ruling over, Jesus lifts up. Instead of pushing out in order to consolidate power, Jesus gathers in a community that is strong because it is big and vastly diverse. Instead of instituting a rule of law that is destructive and oppressive, Jesus builds his community on love of God and love of neighbor. Instead of fear, Jesus champions love.
When we make a commitment to follow Jesus—and we all made that commitment at one time or another—we are saying that Jesus is Lord and King. That is the basic Christian conviction and creed. To be a Christian is to hold up Jesus as King of all, to honor and glorify him above all else, and to place our allegiance and trust in him above all other rulers and authorities. Jesus came to earth to establish the King of God, an alternative to the kingdom of Herod and all other earthly rulers. He spoke not of the love of power but of the power of love. He gave us his presence, his spirit and his authority, to spread his influence, his teachings, his goodness on the earth until he comes again. If we truly want to be his disciples, if we desire in our heart of hearts to be good Christians, that is the path we must follow. Jesus came not to be served but to serve, and his followers must at all times assume the same posture of service and humility, love and compassion, toward God and towards one another.
There are two things, two things above all else, that might tempt us to follow another way. The first is despair. We pray every single Sunday, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” If you take an honest look around, it is hard at times to see if God has answered our request or not. It is so tempting in those moments to become passive, to throw rocks at an evil world, to dismiss the whole thing as unworthy of salvaging. The second temptation is to use the world’s methods to accomplish a good result, to believe that the ends justify the means. So what if someone gets hurt over there on the way to making things right over here, that’s OK; so what if we tank and trash another economy and society but we ultimately feel safer, God understands.
Both of these, and the actions they produce, are Herod’s and they must be rejected. Jesus rejected them and we must reject them, too. If we are doing the work of Jesus in Jesus’ name, we must do it in the way of Jesus. Herod used his power for his own personal gain. Jesus used his power for the common good. Herod wanted to be great. Jesus wanted to serve. Herod didn’t have any time for the sick, the naked, the imprisoned, or the lonely. Jesus tells his followers that if they want to receive their heavenly reward from God they must heal the sick, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, and accompany the lonely. Herod built. Jesus took things down, stone by stone, particularly those things that distracted from the worship of God and from the true needs of the world. Herod wanted to be remembered, so he built a huge mausoleum. Jesus also wanted to be remembered, but he gave us bread and wine and the commandment to share that bread until all are fed.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, Christ the King Sunday is the moment toward which the whole Christian story has been moving. It is a day for us to adore Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with God the Father and Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. And while it is the end of the church year, it is really our beginning. It is at this moment that we are called to spring into action and participate in the transformative reign of Jesus. Now is the time to stand up and proclaim that Christ, and Christ alone, is King. Now is the time, more than ever, to live and move and act and speak in all the ways that Jesus taught us. Now is the time to give up fear, to give up destructive biases and ‘isms,’ and to embrace the wide community Christ has called together. Now is the time to stop acting like Herod, and to start living like Jesus. Christ is on the throne and he sends us out not to divide and conquer, but to unite and lift up so that the Kingdom of God, the alternative and wildly unpredictable Kingdom of God, takes root and flourishes. Will we go? Will we answer Christ’s call? Will we follow this different sort of King?
Gian Carlo Menotti in Amahl and the Night Visitorswrites,
“The child we seek doesn’t need our gold
On love, 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 lighting He will soon walk among us.
He will bring new life and receive our death,
And the keys to his city belong to the poor.”
Come. Come, let us adore him. Let us adore him who was born in a manger, who walked our earth and breathed our air, who died on a cross and rose again from the tomb, who ascended into heaven, and now rules over all forever and ever. Amen.