Listen to the sermon from Sunday, November 20, 2016 titled “Cross Wise” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
Gina and I just finished watching “The Crown,” a Netflix series about Queen Elizabeth II. The acting is excellent, and the story enthralling as we watch a young woman’s personal identity slowly subsumed by her royal persona and duty. “The Crown” is the latest in the American love affair with the royal house of Windsor. We’ve ridden the roller coaster of their family drama for years – Princess Diana, Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, Prince William and Kate Middleton.… And as if the real headlines weren’t enough, we flock to films about their lives. What is this fascination even Americans, who have no use for monarchy, feel for England’s royal family? I think, in part, it’s our nostalgic longing to have an ideal, if only symbolic leader.
Today we come to the end of the year in our calendar of Christian worship. Since last December we have celebrated the birth of Christ, the revelation of his identity, his miracles and teachings, his cross and resurrection, the coming of the Spirit and the work of the church. Today we celebrate his cosmic eternal reign in what used to be called “Christ the King” Sunday, but we have renamed “The Reign of Christ” Sunday to be less patriarchal and less monarchical. For all our nostalgia, we just can’t connect with the notion of being ruled by a King.
The royal theology of the Bible and Christian tradition has a rich history. After their conquest of the promised land, the Hebrew tribes formed a weak confederation joined by a common religion. As needed, local tribal leaders called “judges” rose to lead them against enemies all around. But the people began to push for a King like the other nations had, to lead, defend and unify the people.
The Hebrew scripture has two versions of the story. In one, God takes their begging for a King as their rejection of God being their King and warns them they will not like being ruled by a monarch (1 Sam 8). In the other, probably written by a royal chronicler, God chooses their King and establishes a royal dynasty to represent Divine rule as the “anointed one,” or “Messiah.”
Saul was their first King, but he was more of a tribal warrior than an oriental monarch. He offended God, then lost his crown, his dynasty, and his life in battle with the Philistines.
David was anointed King in his place, and David’s court articulated the Royal Theology so central to our sacred story. They told the legend of the heroic shepherd boy who became the Shepherd of Israel. They told the story of the boy psalmist who became the sponsor of Israel’s liturgy. They tore down the local tribal shrines, then consolidated the religion and government and unified the tribes at a new capital, Jerusalem. They articulated the theology that the King was chosen and anointed by God, that the “anointed one” or “Messiah” was adopted by God as God’s son (Psalm 2), and that he represented God’s rule over the people. They recorded God’s covenant with David that his royal dynasty would last forever. It helped that David was a military success in conquering the tribes around them and extending Israel’s territory to the greatest extent in their entire history.
He was followed by his son Solomon who transformed the monarchy into an Ancient Near Eastern court like the other nations. Though known for being wise, Solomon unwisely made alliances through intermarriage with the royal households of other nations. He had 700 wives, princesses, and 300 concubines in his royal harem (1 Kings 11:3), but his foreign wives brought their foreign gods with them. He levied harsh taxes and used forced labor to build a glorious temple/palace complex. After his death, Solomon’s son refused to change these policies, and the other tribes rebelled, so that David’s great kingdom Israel became the two minor kingdoms of Israel and Judah, which would eventually be swallowed up by the empires of Mesopotamia.
David became the nostalgic ideal King, and the people longed for another David who would make Israel great again. Instead, they were poorly served by petty tyrants, inspiring a later psalmist to write: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help” (Psa 146:3). When the last King in David’s line was dragged away into exile, the people remembered God’s promise to David and began to look for a future Messiah who would be like David. This royal messianic theology became the framework for the early church to understand Jesus as the anointed one, Messiah, the son of David, the son of God, the eternal King.
Even though their royal institutions were quite different from the biblical context of the Ancient Near East, the monarchies of Christian Europe naturally identified with and adopted the language of biblical royal theology, exploiting it to promote their power. These monarchs, claiming Divine Right, were less than ideal, even disastrous to their people. The people rebelled along the way, and hard won limits on monarchs were finally set in place.
Nevertheless, in 1776, our American forbears said “enough is enough!” and told King George III of England to take a hike. It’s easy for me to be flippant with a revolution that took so much sacrifice and blood, but American democracy was an experiment in balancing power with a realistic recognition of the danger of power and the necessary limits placed on any mortal who rules. And that experiment continues.
So we rejected monarchy. Nevertheless, we have ambivalence towards royal imagery. We prize our democracy, yet long for the impossible ideal of a perfect monarch who rules mercifully, establishing peace, prosperity, and justice for all. We even project that ideal on candidates, ignoring evidence to the contrary in our romantic longing to be led wisely.
But today we say, Christ is that perfect King. And not in the way of royal idealism you might expect. Luke doesn’t lift up some ancient romanticized institution, but turns the whole idea of royalty on its head. Instead of a King enthroned on a gilded chair, Luke offers us King Jesus enthroned on a cross. Pilate makes a sarcastic insult to the Jews by placing a sign over Jesus that says “This is the King of the Jews.” But Luke takes his bid. That’s right, he says, this is our King! His kingdom is here among us and beyond, now and not yet, yesterday and forever. He promises Paradise to the penitent. He is enthroned on a cross. His regal crown consists of thorns.
What kind of King is that? Who needs a King like that?
What kind of King is that? This is the King who loves the lost, the least, the left behind, and the left out. This is the King who welcomes the stranger, loves his enemies, and challenges every self-serving exercise of power. This is the King who puts a towel around his neck and washes his disciple’s feet on the eve of his crucifixion. This is the King who came “not to be served, but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.”
Who needs a King like that? We all do.
Our eternal King is always and forever the nail-scarred, crucified Christ. Every monarch, every President, every public leader should follow his model of leadership as loving, self-sacrificial service. Every Christian should follow his lead in upholding a model of power that serves, of power-with instead of power-over, of power that empowers all to be their best. This is not just our ideal; it is our calling in Christ. In the words of the martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness, and pride of power, and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christians should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.
The dominion of God spreads only as Christians live by the ways of our crucified King. Then let us affirm Christ today as our eternal Sovereign and give him his crown rights over our lives. And let us be the agents of his rule in loving service, principled engagement, and courageous advocacy for God’s justice and peace in the name of the Reigning Christ. Amen. May we pray?
We submit to you by obeying the call of the crucified Christ our Sovereign, following in his service whose dominion has no end, and whose love leaves no one out, for he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, one glory, for ever and ever. Amen.