It might seem odd for us to turn and visit the cross right before advent. After all the holidays are coming up. Everyone’s favorite scriptures of the nativity and the birth of the savior are in the weeks ahead. This is a time of anticipation and celebration. And as we turn to celebrate thanksgiving, we see our savior on the cross, suffering and dying and forgiving us despite ourselves. It does tend to put a damper on the festivities, doesn’t it?
There’s a reason for it, I promise. Today is the end of our church year, also known as Christ the King Sunday. Next week advent begins, but before we prepare for the birth of the infant savior, we take a moment to see Jesus as Lord. This is a day that draws to a fitting close the Christian year, which begins anew next Sunday. We began the year by looking forward to the coming of Jesus into the world, and we end it by reminding ourselves that he is the eternal King.
Our world has strong ideas of what authority is, of what power and royal splendor should be like. Though the word king doesn’t mean what it used to. The term king is seen as largely irrelevant today. Because we have no contact with real kings, the word “king” has come to be used figuratively in reference to a host of historical characters who are not the governing heads of any countries. We have Elvis as the king in this country. On television, we might see a character who carries the title of king, but no one who really rules. The royalty of England does not have much power, because Great Britain is not rules by the monarchy, but by an elected parliament.
But that’s not the way it was back in Jesus’ day. In his day, a king’s power was virtually absolute. Even if there were a set of laws, the king could overrule the law because ultimately the king’s word WAS the law. When we began calling Christ our King, we were using that term to someone that commanded all of our allegiance. Someone who had all of our respect and someone whose laws we would follow no matter what.
Yet Jesus never acted as a king. Even when he had people willing to follow him, happy to revolt against Rome and follow his lead, Jesus refused. He refuses to be the master of the world, the mighty monarch, the spiller of blood. His reign subverts our notion of kingship.
He is the king who serves the other. He is the king who dies for the other. He is the king who is ridiculed, scorned, and mocked. Most insufferable of all, is the fact that in this scripture Jesus plays a powerless sovereign. Dying on his cross-throne, Jesus is taunted repeatedly for the fact that he does not save himself. “You a savior?” they jeer. “Then save yourself.” Soldiers with their sour wine chide, “Aren’t you a real king? Save yourself.”
And our king, rather than smiting them down, rather than freeing himself from a painful death, forgives his tormentors. More than that, he asks his Father to forgive them for their ignorance. After asking for their salvation, the king promises paradise to another thief who is dying. Then our king breathes his last and dies. Wait, that is not how the story is supposed to go.
We’re not always comfortable with this image of Christ as king, are we? We prefer to focus on the resurrection and the triumph over death. Or maybe we turn to the transfiguration, when Jesus is a shining light of the divine. The truth of the matter is we don’t want to think about our God suffering and dying. The very idea makes us uncomfortable. Jesus’ victory is over death so focusing on the dying seems wrong. And yet, we are offered this passage today. Not the resurrection, but the suffering and death. That is our King.
In some ways, our first passage this morning is more like what we expect from a Christ the King. Our first passage is full of Paul’s lyrical description of the divine Christ, reigning in glory. “for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Now, that is kingly. That is the sort of divine talk we were hoping for.
In this hymn of celebration, Paul uses one of my favorite phrases for Christ in the entire Bible. He calls Christ the Image of the Invisible God. The firstborn of all creation. In Jesus we get the image of what our unseeable creator is really like.
But as image or an icon of Jesus is more than simply what the invisible God looks like. He is also the One through whom you and I enter into God’s eternal yet ever immanent presence. That is what icons do for us; they transport us into the reality they signify. The world of computers gives us an easy example for today. When you click on an icon, the program behind it opens to you, and you find yourself transported into its wondrous world. In a relig
ious and liturgical frame of reference, focusing on an icon draws you through that image into the presence of the one so portrayed.
When we experience Jesus, we also experience the invisible God fully. Now Jesus came to earth, fully human, which is what we will be spending the next several weeks talking about. Advent prepares us for the wonder that our God became fully messily human and dwelt among us. Today however, I want to lift up the part where Jesus is fully God. Our God came to this world so we might see him better. More clearly. So that we might be rescued from the darkness and pulled into the light. God created everything and came to earth and dwelt among us.
There is a story about a young girl who was scared of thunderstorms. She ran to her parents whenever she heard the thunder. Her parents would reassure her and take her back to bed every night. One night her mother said “Don’t worry. God is with you even in the thunderstorm. You will be alright” and tucked her back in. Ten minutes later after one particularly loud crack of thunder the girl was back down in her mother’s lap. “God is nice and all, but sometimes you need someone with skin on.”
We need someone with skin on, someone embodying God. Jesus is that someone. It is in Jesus we can grasp the divine. That we can see our King. And yet what do we see from our Savior and King in the gospel passage today?
Not golden crowns or mighty thrones. Not for our God. Our God is nailed, bleeding to a cross. He is mocked and beaten by those around him. And through it all, in the midst of his suffering, he thinks of others. “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” That is what the image of our invisible God looks like. It is a word for others in the midst of pain. It is forgiveness in the middle of being tormented. It is hope that out lasts even the worst of what the world offers.
We celebrate Christ the King today, not because of Jesus’ regalness, but because of his humility; not because of his power, but because of his compassion; not because of his triumph, but because of his perseverance through suffering; not because he fixes our lives, but because he shows us the way to live.
We are called to follow our King. As Christians, we have promised to do as he did. To be images for the divine for others. After all, we are called to be the body of Christ. Therefore we only see the divine reflected in each other today. We are called to live out that image of the invisible God. To show people who our Lord really is. It is through Christ that the world finds reconciliation with God. When we open ourselves up to be used as reflections of the divine we may be giving someone a glimpse of the God they have never seen. We offer up ourselves as dim reflections of that glory.
So we live our lives as if Christ the King Sunday holds reign every day, offering the image of God to those we meet as best as we know how. We live our lives as if Christ is really our Lord and King, following his example. And it is in grateful thanksgiving that we serve our King.