Christ the King & Advent 1
The cross is an ugly image. A heartrending image.
The crown of thorns: horrifying. We’ve made them palatable with oversaturation or profuse glorification, but they are not an easy thing to behold. And to base your whole religion around it is kind of grotesque, actually. Especially when Advent starts today and we want to start thinking about a cuddly baby laying in hay, the irony of the last Sunday of the Church year last year - which we missed because of the ice storm - stands starkly before us. We’re at the beginning of the story now, we don’t want to hear how it ends…
We like happy endings. The finale of the church year should be optimistic, conclusive. But instead of glorious depictions of might and strength, of magnificence and authority, we end the whole church year with talking about our leader hanging foolishly, weakly, dying on the cross. Then we go immediately into longing for his birth as a helpless baby.
How are we any better than the soldiers who mocked him with the sign above his bleeding head, “King of the Jews”? How can we keep this cycle up when we know what’s coming? Who is our Jesus anyway?
I watched Spiderman with Owen this week. There is a scene where Aunt May gives Peter Parker a little pep talk/lecture about heroes. “We all need heroes,” she says, we need someone powerful in our corner. It give us hope, something to aspire to, something to believe in. So is Jesus our hero? Like an ace up your sleeve, a get of jail free card, like the immunity idol in your back pocket, He’s got my back and he’s in charge. Jesus is our protection, our king, our muse, or our mascot? Is that what it means for him to be king? A hero? Is this who we are longing to come when we sit in our waiting of Advent? God to sweep in and rescue us?
We don’t have much reference to kingship in our culture; it’s hard to imagine what it means in today’s vernacular and worldview, but one thing I do know is that kings are important and powerful. So why on earth, would we end our church year talking about him dying? as a common criminal? And if we really hear it, how can we not stand there along with the bystanders and ask the same thing – if he really is the Son of God, why doesn’t he save himself? Some King.
The kingdom of God is like… Jesus’ parables often begin.
It’s like a woman who loses a coin, or a sheep wandering off, it’s like a corrupt employee or treasure buried in a field,
it’s like a vineyard owner putting manure around a tree or seeds being scattered on the ground or a lump of yeast being stirred into batter.
It belongs to little children and is entered less easily than the eye of a needle for those with power and wealth.
it is a banquet feast that will bring those from every direction, and the last will be first and the first last,
and blessed are the poor, for it is theirs.
It is here; it is coming,
it is yours’; it is out of reach,
it is preached about, witnessed, heard, seen, it is in your midst; it is promised or threatened, there are signs pointing to it but it remains far off and you’ll never enter it if you are selfish, wealthy gossiping, immoral or slanderous,
You get there by water and the Spirit,
by being poor or vulnerable, or suffering
or by caring for the poor and vulnerable and suffering,
but no, it is received, given, not pursued or grasped…
it is joy and peace in the Holy Spirit,
it cannot be inherited by sinners,
but it is for sinners and not righteous people…
What in the world is the kingdom of God? And what does it have to do with a crucified savior? Or a baby in a manger, for that matter?
That the greatest image of the reign of Christ that we can think of to lift up on Christ the King Sunday is the image of his crucifixion should offend us and stop us in our tracks.
Because it means that when searching for a way to describe how Jesus is king we say THIS is how God rules.
THIS is how the fullness of God’s sovereignty is revealed – by joining the forsaken and forlorn and the guilty, and being killed. But letting the powers and justice system of the people God loves unjustly put him to death.
God’s reign is love. It is love.
And as love, it comes vulnerably into a world of violence and power struggles and pain, and where it goes is to the pain, not to the power.
Our sovereign came into this life right alongside of us and said, you want to know how I am your king? This way – you are not alone. You will never be alone.
Also, all these ordinary things all around us and in our lives - seeds, yeast, manure, managers and employees, banquets, found animals and lost things: these are how you describe the kingdom of God. That the immortal, invisible God only wise, inaccessible and hid from our eyes made Godself known, flesh-and-blood-and-breath-and-sweat-known, right here in the dust and stuff of every day life. The kingdom of God is not otherworldly, it is not, actually, glorious. It is real and earthy and tangible and familiar.
But we do NOT get to remove the other side of the paradox, this mighty juxtaposition we have thrust before us on reign of Christ Sunday. God is with us. But hear this, GOD is with us.
This guy hanging there, killed with the criminals, is the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; that in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, and in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”
And most astonishing of all, “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.” Even in weakness and the most glaring powerlessness, the God of the whole universe was reconciling ALL THINGS to Godself, all things, in heaven or on earth, in past and future. Nothing is outside of God’s hand.
About to breathe his last breath as the life is leaving his body Jesus turns to the anguished thief and says, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
What more preposterous words have ever been spoken by a dying man? What more outrageous thing could a punished and vanquished person utter?
He might as well have leaned over and whispered, “Hey, actually, I am the sovereign ruler over all that is, and all that will be, and over heaven and earth, and even as I hang here dying right next to you, right alongside your own dying, neither this death nor your own is able to stop me from being king of it all.
Not even pause it for a moment.
You will be with me. I’ll see to it. This is not the end for you.
This, my friend, is one passing moment within the eternity which I hold in my own hand.”
This is how Christ is king. Eternity held in nail-scarred hands.
The kingdom of God is a mystery to me. And Jesus didn’t make it any easier to understand with his stories and explanations. It’s almost as though it is the kind of truth that can’t be defined, only described, like “freedom” or “love,” or “hope.” It's almost as though it’s the kind of thing that needs parables and poems to get at it.
I can’t define this mysterious kingdom of God. But I know when I see it. It looks like reconciliation, and forgiveness, and kindness. It looks like weak people being empowered and strong people using their strength for someone else. It sounds like the tender words of care, or the silence of deep listening. It feels like true justice, and like deep peace. It smells exactly like hope.
As the church, we are the people who live in the kingdom of God – who see and hear that God’s kingdom is breaking in all around is, the kind of kingdom that is best revealed in the person of a crucified God. And so knowing this kingdom unfolds in suffering and in joy, that nothing in life is outside of God’s reign, we seek ways to actively participate in its coming.
And if you look back on that wall you will see in people's words and pictures lots of ways we actively participate in the kingdom of God: caring for each other, reminding each other of truth, helping one another, praying, singing, laughing, hoping, serving. The church is the community that lives the kingdom of God. We shared in the kingdom of God on Friday when we celebrated the creations of a few artists a half a world away that we are just getting to know, and raised $500 to support their refugee communities back home. We shared the kingdom of God when filled this room with neighbors and strangers and we sang, and rejoiced and talked about gratitude and headed into the night on our way to Thanksgiving gatherings.
We belong to the kingdom of God. Which evidently means we suffer, because our king doesn’t hold back from suffering, just jumps right in alongside us.
And it means we get involved in the ordinary stuff of life, which seems to be the place where you most often glimpse the king at work,
and it means we always live with the torment of an often mysterious faith, that is a little like déjà vu, just barely within grasp, a moment of aha! here, a glimpse of hope there, a feeling of joy or prayer of yearning that tugs you out of this realm and into another for a second or two.
The longing for more, the frustration and desire to see it fully realized are part of our faith. They’re the part that Advent holds up.
Because this kingdom we are part of is an “already but not yet” kingdom, it is in our midst now and yet is not fully here, it has arrived but is coming. It’s bigger and broader, and smaller and simpler, than our minds or the categories of this world can yet grasp.
We live the kingdom of God even as we long for it. Our passage from Colossians is an ancient Christian hymn – can you just hear it sung? He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation it rings out.
It’s hard to imagine the early community of faith singing these words had any more grasp on what they really mean than we do. But by their singing them and by our reading them we are declaring these unfathomable things in kingdom of God language, saying that we are all together committed to the journey of unraveling their meaning and significance in our lives little by little and day by day as we live the kingdom of God.
A beautiful poem by Walter Bruggamen says,
"When we sound these ancient cadences, we know ourselves to be at the threshold with all your creatures in heaven and on earth, everyone from rabbits and parrots to angels and seraphim….
That is how it is when we praise you. We join the angels in praise, and we keep our feet in time and place…awed to heaven, rooted in earth.
We are daily stretched between communion with you and our bodied lives, spent but alive, summoned and cherished but stretched between…"
This is how we live in the kingdom of God.
“Awed to heaven but rooted to earth.”
Your kingdom come, we will continue to pray, your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Amen. Come Lord Jesus.