If you lived during the times of the Roman empire, you had to pay homage to the emperor. To show that you were a loyal subject, to show that you acknowledged him as your king, you went, on occasion, to a temple to pour out a drink offering over an altar dedicated to his genius.
This was a simple gesture, but one loaded with symbolic significance. By it you proclaimed: “We have no king but Caesar!”
It probably has not occurred to you very often that we are doing something similar when we come here to worship. Our very presence here together proclaims: “We have no king but Christ!” We are his loyal subjects.
Today we celebrate Christ the King. It is the last day of the church calendar. Next Sunday we enter into a new year with the First Sunday of Advent. Calvin Seminary professor John Witvliet observes that the day helps worshippers, who may be already be thinking of Christmas, to remember that Christmas is about much more than a babe in a manger. It is about a sovereign Christ whose name shall be called “mighty God” and “prince of peace.”
Author and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright wrote a book with the striking title: How God Became King. In Christ God has become our king. Is this not good news worth celebrating?
Down through the centuries, rulers have seized and wielded power over nations. They promised their subjects peace and prosperity. But even the best of them never fully delivered on these promises. On the contrary, instead of prosperity, many have brought misery and ruin. Instead of peace, they have brought violence and war.
Israel was one of these nations. They knew what it was like to have kings that failed to deliver on their promises. They suffered the misery and ruin, the violence and war, that resulted from the disastrous policies of foolish and corrupt kings.
But they held out hope that one day they would know lasting peace and prosperity. We call this messianic hope, because it is rooted in the hope for a messiah. The word “messiah” means “anointed one.” The Greek translation of the word “messiah” is “Christ.” The two words are interchangeable; they are one and the same.
Israel had this hope, because her prophets told her about a messiah who was to come. One of those prophets is Jeremiah. In our first lesson, he denounces the shepherds who neglected and harmed and scattered the sheep. He means, of course, the kings of Judah.
Why does Jeremiah compare kings with shepherds? We have here to call to mind David, the ideal king. In David, these two figures are welded together.
David was the boy shepherd who protected his father’s sheep; with him they could feel safe. He would not leave them when predators stalked them. He rescued them from the jaws of lions and bears.
These were evidently transferrable skills, because when he was enlisted to stand against Israel’s most formidable adversary, a giant named Goliath, he neutralized this threat also. This time it was not sheep he was protecting, but God’s people.
Psalm 78 eulogizes David in these words:
God chose David his servant
and took him from the sheep pens;
from tending the sheep he brought him
to be the shepherd of his people Jacob,
of Israel his inheritance.
And David shepherded them with integrity of heart;
with skillful hands he led them (Psalm 78:70-72).
David is the good and just king. He was qualified to rule over God’s people since his reign displayed compassion, mercy, protection and life for the people of God.
About most of the successors to David’s throne, the same could not be said. Far from it. Under their rule, the rich got richer, and the poor increased in number. Public works with magnificent architecture sprang up, but so did vast slums mired in poverty. Justice became a commodity that only the rich could afford.
Bent on consolidating their power, the kings also entered into foreign alliances with the surrounding nations. Here they ignored the warnings of the prophets, who advised them in vain to consult with God first. They should have listened to them, because these nations betrayed them time and time again, resulting in invasion and captivity and exile.
There are words of judgment for the kings, but words of comfort for the people. God will punish those kings, but gather the lost sheep. This reminds us of Jesus’ words about gathering his sheep, and even to the point of leaving the 99 to go in search of the one that was lost. New and better shepherds will do what kings were supposed to do— “tend them” so they “will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any of them be missing.”
But after centuries of disappointing experience, there came the gradual realization that no mere human ruler can shepherd like this. Only God can tend his flock like a shepherd. Only God can become king. And that’s the background of the most explicit Messianic prophecy in Jeremiah. “The day is coming when I will raise up to David a righteous branch….”
The shepherd God will raise up for the people will deal wisely and execute justice. He will be named “The Lord is our righteousness.” God will become our king.
Let us shift scenes. We are no longer with Jeremiah and the exiles. We are now with Jesus at his crucifixion. From the outset Luke has wanted us to see that Jesus is the fulfillment of Messianic hope. He is the righteous branch that God has raised up for David.
This is what God revealed to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, already at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. Consider the first few verses of his song in Luke 1:68-79: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old” (Luke 1:68-70).
Could Jesus really be the king who finally succeeds where the long line of kings before him failed?
Luke reveals Jesus to be the king that God raised up for David, not in the defeat and destruction of Israel’s enemies, but in the taunts and sufferings that the Davidic king endures, as detailed in the Psalms.
Luke draws on Psalm 22 when he tells us that Jesus’ enemies casts lot for his clothing.
Jesus adversaries ironically give voice to the connection between Jesus’ messiahship and his sufferings when they say:
1) “Let him save himself if he is the Messiah, the chosen one of God” (23:35b);
(2) “Save yourself if you are the King of the Jews” (23:37);
and (3) “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us” (23:39b).
The epitaph on Pilate’s placard likewise reads: “this one is the King of the Jews” (23:38b).
The taunts of the Jewish leaders, the Roman soldiers, and the criminal all echo the reviling words of the enemies of the Davidic king in the Psalms.
Jesus’s crucifixion against the background of these psalms of David shows that Jesus’s messianic vocation is not simply compatible with his suffering and crucifixion, but these are actually the authentication of his kingship.
Jesus is the righteous and faithful sufferer, who, without wavering, entrusts his cause and hope for vindication to God.
What about us? Is this what we expect in a king? Is the kind of king we are looking for?
If we were ever asked about our ideal king, we might say: the king must be both powerful and good. If he is powerful but not good, then we must submit to him, but not willingly. He rules by coercion, not by persuasion.
But what about a king who is good but not powerful? At first glance, it may seem that Jesus himself is a candidate here. Even if his enemies could concede that he was good, they certainly did not see him as powerful. “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”
This evidently he could not do.
Defeated in a contest with his enemies, he could only wound them from behind. That is, he could only attempt to give them a bad conscience for wronging him. “Father, forgive them, for they not know what they do.” For what did they need forgiveness, if not for the wrong of lynching an innocent man?
Are not these words the most pathetic expression of powerlessness? This was the verdict of the great nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the great enemy of Christianity.
But what if we hear these words differently? What if behind them lies something very different? What if instead of weakness they reveal a love of unimaginable depths? What if they really do reflect the desire of the Father to forgive the enemies of his beloved Son even as they are torturing him? What if they really do express the heart of the Son to forgive his torturers? What if, in this king, instead of the love of power, there is the power of love that shows itself in that even at our very worst God is not willing to give up on us?
This is a kind of power that the kings of the earth did not have then and do not have now. They have power but they use it only to coerce. But in Jesus there is a power that changes people from the inside, that turns a man’s enemy into his friend, and seats them both at a table that God himself has set.
He will be called the Lord is our righteousness. In this scene there is only one who hears the words as they are meant to be heard. We mean here one of the thieves crucified next to Jesus. “We have been condemned justly, but this man did nothing wrong.” God opened the eyes of this thief so that he could recognize and acclaim Jesus as king. The man presents his petition before Jesus as a suppliant before a king: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
After his gruesome and degrading death by public torture, his discredited followers, starting out in Jerusalem and then spreading out all over the Mediterranean world, delivered the message that this crucified man is a King whose power is universal in scope!
One of them, named Paul, even had the audacity to say this: “He himself is above all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). In this One crucified in weakness all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (cf. Col. 1:19). And through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or in heaven, by making peace through his blood of the cross (Col. 1:20).
This is the kind of king we have. Is this not good news worth celebrating?
This special day on which we do celebrate this theme has its origins in a papal encyclical that Pope Pius XI wrote in 1925. It was his response to the most devastating war that the world had ever seen until then. World War 1 saw the fall of four royal houses: Hohenzollerns, Romanovs, Habsburgs and the Ottoman Empire, all within four blood-drenched years.
Thus the celebration of Christ the King came into a world still reeling from the war’s incomprehensible carnage and global political upheaval. Then, as now, people were asking: who can guide us in into what is good and right and just? Who can show us the way of peace? The Pope’s encyclical appealed to the Old and New Testaments of the Bible to show “how God became king,” to draw again on the words of author N.T. Wright. In response to the political chaos everywhere, Pope Pius XI offered the comfort of a king, “of whose kingdom there shall be no end.”
Even the staunchest Protestant could not deny this core teaching of the Bible. And soon Christ the King became a special day in the church calendars of many Protestant churches too, including the Presbyterian Church (USA).
The Son of God reigns. He is ruler of the kings of the earth. His throne is the cross. But it is precisely there that he shows that he is the Davidic king about whom Jeremiah prophesied. Here is the good Shepherd, who did not leave his sheep when danger threatened, but laid down his own life for us all.
Let us therefore acclaim him as our king. Let us always remember that our first allegiance belongs only to him, not to any government or political party or ruler of this world. We are first his loyal subjects; we are first citizens of heaven. Our politics is not a politics of the right or the left, but a politics of his kingdom. Only as we keep first things first do we as the church point to the one who holds all authority in heaven and on earth, Christ the king. Amen.