11-20-16 Readings: Samuel 5:1-3 Ps 122:1-2, 3-4, 4-5 ,Colossians 1:12-20, Luke 23:35-43
Most of us have some pretty weird images in our minds when we hear the word “King”. Perhaps you think of TV images of British royal family, with huge spectacles of weddings, the gloved hand waving slowly from the motorcade, and the invasive pictures taken by the tabloids. Maybe you think of palaces, golden crowns with jewels, and social elites. Some think about the King Arthur stories or movies of heavy handed monarchs with no compassion for the impoverished peasants they rule. All in all, kings are not like anything in our lives, and, as students of American history, we may even have a cultural dislike and distrust of kings.
So we find ourselves at a loss to understand why we would celebrate Christ as a King. I will suggest that we should travel back in time, back to King David of the Old Testament. I pick this point in time because we are about to begin the season of Advent, and will soon read that Jesus was of the family of David; there is something special about the Kingship of David.
Our 1st reading comes from 2nd Samuel, the book of history about the reign of David. Saul was the 1st king of Israel. God directed his prophet Samuel to anoint David as the next king. After Saul’s death, all of the tribes of Israel came to David and announced, “Here we are, your bone and your flesh. (When) Saul was king, it was you who led the Israelite army out (to war) and brought them back (triumphant). (God) said to you, ‘You shall shepherd my people Israel (in their relationships with each other and with me) and shall be commander (of the military forces) of Israel.’” This marks the moment when twelve tribes, previously only loosely connected, really became a unified kingdom. What were they saying? Their sense of solidarity under David’s rule was so strong that they refer to Genesis 2:23, when God makes a woman from the man and Adam exclaims, “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” The tribal leaders of Israel are declaring their people to be one with this King who was chosen by God.
Our Psalm offers a snapshot of exactly this – all of the tribes in Jerusalem, flowing up to the temple together. The people are rejoicing in each other as they feel the unity, and they rejoice at being together and in worshiping God as one community. This is also an image of the heavenly Jerusalem, where for eternity we come to God, cleansed of our ideological differences, as one body in love.
From this we get powerful images that transcend culture and time. We are all one in God. God walks closely with us; God is the source of all that is good. Amazingly, God took David, an adulterer and murderer, a warrior and politician, and used his gifts to make a unified people out of twelve tribes which had fought among and against themselves. We too, can be somewhat less than perfect, and still be God’s beloved people, in a mutually loving relationship, and our gifts can be used to bring peace and community from hatred and chaos.
But we cannot miss the image of warrior in this story, because that image led to the popular idea of the Messiah, or Christ, as a military leader, a King like David, who subdued all of Israel’s enemies. The people of Jesus’ time were more than willing to believe that the Messiah would destroy the Roman armies that oppressed them, and would bring peace to Israel once more. As a result, the Romans took no chances with this “so-called” Messiah. The sign, “This is the King of the Jews” makes the crime against Roman power clear. It is the lowest of mean-spirited domination to use the title of “King” in this way. The crucifixion of Christ offers an opportunity for the rulers, the soldiers, and the thieves to mock Jesus, this man who apparently will do nothing to save his own life.
But love that is willing to suffer is greater than the power to dominate. Jesus is indeed a King, but his reign does not end at the temporal limits of one place or time. He tells the thief who defends him, that “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
What is it with that “today” thing? It is a term Luke uses to announce a significant and almost breathtaking change. While not necessarily some measure of time, it marks an event has begun a new day in our lives. At the nativity story in Luke 2:11, the angel tells the shepherds that “Today a savior is born; he is Christ the Lord. In the synagogue of Nazareth in Luke 4:21, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61 that he has been anointed to preach, proclaim, recover, and release, and says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”. In Luke 19:9, Jesus says of Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house…for the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” Suddenly, the Kingdom of God has broken through and the unexpected, the unimaginable has happened, “Today,” St Paul would say in Colossians, “(We were) delivered from the power of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
And so, an entirely new image of “king” has entered our lives. It is the reversal of all that we may have been thinking. He is the king who serves us, not the mighty monarch we cower before. He is the king who died at human hands, so that we can join him in eternity, not the warrior who sends us out to fight his battles. He does not have an army. He has no need to protect himself, but he shields us. He forgives those who offend his laws; he does not punish but restores. He does not tax, but invites us to his banquet. He is ridiculed, scorned, mocked, and appears politically powerless, yet he performs miracles and leans his ear to the softest whispering of a prayer. This is a King who has no need of violence or vengeance, no use for envy or lust or desire, yet he controls the wind and the waves. This King is innocent of any sin, yet knows all of our follies, loving us while we are at our worst. This King needs no riches, furs or purple robes, but is himself the source of all beauty.
In the end, we call Jesus “King” because our vocabularies do not yet know the fullness of his Glory. The Title “King” tells us more of what he is not than what he is. But he gave us a concrete gift that we hold dear. Jesus left us the gift of the Eucharist, where we draw together, like King David’s people, where we can be joyful as we recall his life and teachings, his death and triumphant resurrection, where we know we are one with the body and blood of our Christ, and will be forever.