Jesus is king! Does this acclamation resonate in you today? Does it call forth from you a heartfelt “amen”?
As much as I hope it does, I appreciate the fact that the idea of kingship is a foreign one in the 21st century, especially in the United States.
Not only do we Americans have no king, but our founders explicitly rejected the claims of a king—any king—over them. Remember learning about the War of Independence in school?
Since then, most of the world has followed suit. Out of the 195 countries in the world, very few still have a king. And most of these are mere figureheads, like King Charles of England. He may hold regular consultations with the prime minister. But his power is symbolic, and his office largely ornamental.
Even the kings who hold real power present a picture of kingship that is far from desirable, at least according to Western standards.
There is King Salman of Saudi Arabia. He may be a friend of the United States and other Western powers, having produced for himself and for his allies a great amount of wealth from oil.
But his reign has been criticized for its intolerance of political dissent. And only recently have women in the Saudi kingdom been given rights that we have long taken for granted.
Other kings with real power provoke an even greater sense of outrage. King Mswati of Swaziland has made international news every year since the turn of this century when he revived the traditional Reed Dance, in which tens of thousands of young women dance at his estate.
After watching the show, the king chooses one of the young women to be his next wife—a choice that no woman has the right to refuse.
The king now has 15 wives, who regularly take chartered jets for international shopping sprees. Meanwhile, two-thirds of the Swazi people live in poverty, and the country today has the world’s highest rate of HIV infections.
Most of us would prefer to sweep the office of “king” into the dustbin of history. But in spite of the impotence, indifference, and immorality that we associate with monarchies today, we still uphold the office of king.
For we confess a king who has power greater than King Mswati of Swaziland, who has riches more abundant than King Salman of Saudi Arabia, and yet rules over all with perfect justice. The scepter of righteousness is the scepter of his kingdom. And all his ways are just and true.
We are talking about Jesus. Jesus is king! And his reign is unlimited in duration and universal in scope. About him, the Psalmist prophesied: “He shall be revered as long as the sun and moon endure, through all generations” (Ps. 72:5). He shall have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth (Ps. 72:8). And all kings shall fall down before him and all nations shall serve him (Ps. 72:11).
That is to say, his reign extends far beyond any one nation to encompass all peoples, all governments, all economies, all families, all creatures, and all ages.
This is depicted in the spectacular vision of the Apostle Paul, in our first lesson. The Apostle proclaims not only the resurrection of Christ from the dead. He proclaims also the exaltation of Christ to God’s right hand. The two are inseparable but distinct.
The first signifies his victory over sin and death.
Just as David, who went out to defeat the giant Goliath, who held God’s people captive to fear, so too Jesus went out to destroy the one who holds the power of death, that is, the devil, to free those who all their lives were held captive by their fear of death.
The second signifies royal power, the authority to rule over all.
Just as David returned home as a conqueror and later received a throne, so too Jesus rose from the grave as a conqueror and received David’s throne.
In Advent we will hear about this enthronement through the words of the angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary. “He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David. And he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:34).
Here is the fulfillment of the promise. Here is the royal successor to David, the rightful heir to the throne, whom David himself anticipated. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself said: “The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool” (Acts 2:34-35).
This is confirmed here in the Apostle’s vision: “God raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places…and he has put all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over all things for the church…”
Did you catch that last part? He exercises his power for the good of the church. For the author of Ephesians, the church points to the ultimate purpose God has for all creation: to bring all things together in heaven and earth under Christ. The whole universe is a theater in which God displays the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness towards us in Christ Jesus.
Jesus is king! As king, he has all the rights of a king, of arresting and liberating, of condemning and acquitting, of pardon and execution, of life and death.
This is depicted in another spectacular vision. This one comes from our Gospel lesson. There Jesus appears as the Great King seated on his throne of glory, surrounded by all his angels, who are his royal servants.
There is a great court room. And the court is in session. This is the Last Day, Judgment Day, on which the books are opened and all the people who have ever lived, both the great and small, are there awaiting judgment. This is a staggering sight.
Parenthetically, the order in which our grand theme unfolds today is reflected in the Creed we recite each Sunday: we are contemplating him “who sitteth at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”
The scene reinforces the point we have been making: Jesus is the king of the nations. All nations will come and bow down and worship before him and give glory to his name.
But there is more to be seen here. All the nations are portrayed under the image of sheep and goats. And wherever we see sheep and goats, we can count on it that a shepherd is near.
In ancient Israel, the king was compared to a shepherd. This association owes its origins to David, Israel’s model king. He was the shepherd boy whom God took from the pasture to be ruler over his people Israel.
But David himself points to his successor, as we have already seen. We refer here to the Good Shepherd, the Great Sheperd of the sheep, Jesus Christ himself. Jesus is the Sheperd King, who here is separating the sheep from the goats in judgment.
But there is even more to be seen here. The Shepherd King cares for his own so much that he identifies himself with them. Under the cover of the hungry, thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick and the prisoner, the shepherd goes out to meet the sheep, as well as the goats. Jesus is the King who encounters us in the needy.
Let us pause here for a moment so we can appreciate how truly remarkable all this is. The splendor and majesty of a king prevented him from mingling with his subjects. He does not fraternize with the common people, not to mention the lowest among them. He is far removed from them. But Jesus is different.
When Moses told the Israelites how to appoint a king in the Promised Land, he said: “You shall surely set a king over you whom the Lord your God chooses; one from among your brethren you shall set as king over you; you may not set a foreigner over you, who is not your brother” (Deut. 17:15).
The command reflects the recognition that it is important for the ruler to have the same roots and experiences as the people he rules. Only one who is bound to them by natural ties can fully identify with the problems of the people, participate in all their troubles, and sympathize with all their joys and sorrows.
Listen again to the words of our King: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matt. 25:35-36).
This, it turns out, is the very criterion by which the Great King judges the peoples who stand before him. “Lord, when was it that we saw you in any of these conditions, and we did any of these things to you.”
It is worth nothing that neither the sheep nor the goats recognized Jesus in these people. As Pascal famously wrote: “The elect will be ignorant of their virtues, and the outcast of the greatness of their sins.”
But here is the difference. The sheep did not neglect the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, naked, the sick and the prisoner. Instead, they fed, welcomed, clothed and visited them.
And yet Jesus does not speak of “them” in the abstract. He speaks of the one, the very least of these. The focus here is perhaps surprising to us. Surely, just one “needy” person isn’t all that important in a whole world of needy persons!
And it is not only a single person helped; it is the least significant. We can imagine this least significant as the least impressive or the least attractive or the lowest, according to any of the scales we typically use.
This is the one overlooked in our world. This is the one neglected and forgotten. This is the one who feels invisible, unseen, misunderstood. In a world that judges and ranks people on the basis of their looks, on their output, on what value they can add, on what they can contribute, they are worthless.
But how worthless are they really, if in an encounter with them, we have an encounter the great king himself, the one who is “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come”? (Eph. 1:21).
This is a very great paradox: in the very lowest one, we encounter the very highest, Jesus the King, because he is not ashamed to identify himself with the very lowest.
This is how it really is! And yet there are those who do not believe. This will also be revealed on judgement day, when the secrets of men’s hearts are laid bare by Jesus the King.
They, the unbelievers, also ask: “Lord, when was it that we saw you in any of these conditions, and we did any of these things to you.”
And he will say to them: “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
The king is repelled by heartlessness. The heartless cannot exist in his presence, but go away into eternal punishment. Today we in the Protestant mainline have to regain the courage to say this.
“Away from me, you evildoers!” “I never knew you.” These unpleasant words are part of Jesus’ vocabulary in the Gospel, and so they need to reenter ours, if we are to be faithful to the Scriptures (Frederick Dale Bruner). The Reformer Martin Luther observed: “This passage speaks of eternal reward and of awful punishment, and if these cannot move and challenge people, nothing can.”
Jesus is king! And he must reign until all his enemies become his footstool. How much better it is to submit to him, to be his loyal subjects, to obey his royal law of love, than to reject him, to rebel against him and join his enemies, and then to face the judgment!
Let us therefore acclaim him as king! Let us find comfort in the knowledge that he exercises his power, by which he is able to bring everything under his control, for our good.
Then we can watch the tumult of world events calmly, because we know that nothing escapes his control. He guides all things to the ends that he appoints for them, because he is the all-powerful king. In whatever situation, nothing can give us greater comfort than to call to mind that everything is subject to the will of him who is our savior. Amen.