Sermon for Christ The King
November 20, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
The story of the return of the king is very, very old. This story cropped up long before Tolkien titled his third installment of The Lord of the Rings. As always happens, the details vary, but the framework endures. An old wrong causes a good person to lose title, rights, and property, so he goes into obscurity, maybe takes a new name, gaining wisdom, experience, and friends, until — in accordance with prophecy — he is able to return, vanquish his enemies in an epic confrontation, and usher in an era of peace and prosperity. Versions and elements of this story crop up in Game of Thrones, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Chronicles of Narnia, and have antecedents in Robin Hood, the Biblical story of David, and even the oldest extant work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh. Comparing the central figures in these stories to Christ is a time-honored thesis for literature classes. But don’t try it in a theology class. Because the comparison breaks down very quickly when Christ, and not one of these characters, is the standard to which the other figure is compared.
The reason why is in part because the Christ story is even older. As John so eloquently explained, Jesus Christ is older than all of the universe, and was fundamental to its very creation. As the Creed puts it, Jesus is “of one Being with the Father,” which includes sharing in eternity. So the first point of divergence is that Jesus was never not a king.
His divinity, like his kingship, is not just constant, but everlasting, in creation, in his birth, his growth, the growth of his movement, even through his betrayal, arrest, trial, condemnation, torture, and death. Even in the joyful mystery of his resurrection, when his friends were amazed simply to see him alive again, he was who and what he always had been. And now he reigns in heaven, and will return again to rule what is, and always was, his own. His return will not require an epic confrontation or much vanquishing at all, really. He will come to forgive and to save, not to condemn. Even his enemies to him are nothing more than sinners in need of his redemption. No one and nothing, not even death or the devil, can stand against him.
Christ’s story follows a different narrative arc, which is appropriate for a different kind of king. Nothing was ever taken away from him. Anything he lost, he gave away. He gave up the glory of heaven for the fragility of flesh. He passed up the efforts of the people to make him the kind of king they wanted, the kind they knew, the kind who has use for palaces and swords and heirs. He told his friends not to fight on his behalf, and allowed himself to be handed over to suffering and death. He did this not only for his friends and his supporters, but also for his enemies. He gave up his life for those who took it from him.
What kind of a king does this, or anything like this? Not any king the world has ever produced, and that’s the point. I understand why some people are not comfortable with the Feast of Christ the King. The world has produced some good kings, some terrible ones, and many whose flaws balance their virtues. And the world itself is slowly moving away from monarchy itself. Putting the Prince of Peace, the Suffering Servant, the Word made flesh into the same category as earthly rulers seems as undignified as it is unnecessary. So it’s a good thing that’s not what the Church is trying to do. We already know that Jesus and his kingdom are not of this Earth; his reign and his being are without compromise; his justice and righteousness are as perfect as light, and he rules with boundless love and sacrificial humility. He is our true and ideal king, and the claim of any earthly ruler to kingship is metaphorical, or aspirational, at best.
We keep the feast of Christ the King to acknowledge the truth about Jesus, and about the world, and to recommit ourselves to his authority. Jesus is entitled to have first place within us for we, and all things, were made through him, and in him, and for him. If that makes us less loyal to the rulers of the Earth, so be it. They found him so threatening that they crucified him. He found them so misguided and pitiful that he interceded for them as their flunkies cast lots for his clothing.
Our story does have one element in common with the stories I mentioned earlier. Following and serving our King is not without risk. Even if our rulers don’t see us as threats, and ask little of us, Jesus himself asks a great deal of his followers. He asks us to be like him, to take up our own crosses as we follow his way. He asks us to submit ourselves, our wills, our causes to the cause of his kingdom, the reconciliation of God and God’s creation. His invitation to join him in Paradise is a call to sacrifice in the midst of life. He calls us to join him in bringing Paradise to Earth before we join him in the paradise of heaven. He calls us to follow his lead in uniting humanity under his gracious rule, where we can enjoy true freedom — freedom from sin and death — and the true peace of unity in him.
Acknowledging his kingship is the first step, and we do so on the last Sunday of the liturgical year in order to make that step a leap into the dazzling future of life in him. That future is assured to us even though it transcends our limitations. It is greater than the greatest of us and broader than all the kingdoms the world has ever known. It is ours because we are his, and so by faith we share with Christ in all the grace of his kingdom.