Nov. 20, 2022

Christ the King    November 20, 2022     Luke 1:68-79    Luke 23: 26 – 46


Today is Christ the King Sunday – It is relatively new in the liturgical calendar. It was first instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925. He did so amidst the rising nationalism of the day to remind people and nations where ultimate loyalties should lie and to affirm that churches should not be under the control of governments but free to express and practice the faith. It was originally set for the last Sunday of Oct. but was later changed to the last Sunday of the lectionary year, the Sunday before the beginning of Advent. It has since been adopted by most protestant denominations but is sometimes called Reign of Christ Sunday.

I chose the two readings from Luke one from the first chapter and one from the next to last chapter today because they seemed to round out Luke’s gospel and this ends the lectionary focus on Luke for the next two years.  The first reading sets the stage for the coming of Jesus with this dramatic prophecy of Zechariah, couched in all the Jewish prophetic expectation. And the second is both an appalling and wondrous picture of the Crucified Savior messiah, coming with divine grace, a ‘king’ ridiculed and denounced, and given a tortuous death.

The two pictures are both complimentary and oppositional.   The one has all the expectant language of a longed-for mighty hero coming with divine power and authority, fulfilling ancient dreams.  —The other pictures a sacrificial lamb who has become the scapegoat for those who actually are in power.  –But of course, we know ‘the rest of the story’, to borrow one of the late Paul Harvey’s tag lines.  –God was in that suffering dying one. Those who knew and loved him best experienced his presence and felt his power even after his gruesome death.  What seemed like a painful lost cause, was, it turned out, the turning point in millions of lives down through history. What they saw in that act of non-violent self-giving and forgiveness was the action of God giving hope to humankind. Self-giving love is God’s answer to the problem of human evil.

Imagine, the king that God sent, in answer to the centuries old prophetic longing, was a king not of conquest or power, not of mighty armies or political agendas but a pheasant hobnobbing with the poor and the outcasts and calling fishermen to be his version of avant-garde servant-leaders.

I can’t help but wonder what old Zachariah thought as he saw his son’s life and Jesus’ life unfold. –John beheaded, in his early 30’s and Jesus Crucified. –Both executed by the state for what was perceived to be anti-government agitation.  It couldn’t have been what Zechariah was expecting. Jesus’ and John’s lives were hardly like his prophesy in any literal way.

There had been three different people claiming messianic credentials around the time Jesus was born, right after Herod the Great died. They tried to raise armies and foment revolt against the Romans. All three were killed in short order. None left any disciples or caused any discussion of life after death. Interestingly the revolt that finally did take place in 66AD lacked any central leader. A couple of bands of Zealots had some initial success and overran a Roman garrison massacring the Roman soldiers and stealing weapons and gathering more supporters.  Nero responded by sending more of his Legions under the generalship of Tacitus, who later became emperor himself. They were determined to squash this revolt and they did. The Romans knew something about power and how to use it. Interestingly, the Jewish historian Josephus thought that the Roman general Tacitus who became emperor was possibly the messiah the prophets had in mind. He had the pomp and the power.

As we read the prophesy of Zechariah, one can’t help but feel he was expecting something a little more Roman-like. –But that was not what God had in mind.  The God that Jesus revealed by his life and words was a God who seemed to be saying that humanity could only be saved by sacrificial love. -Not the kind of king anyone imagined.

Paul, who writes from prison to the church at Colossae, a little over 60 years after Zechariah, articulates a new vision of Christ as supreme with language that is echoed in the opening of John’s gospel.

15 He (Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, 16 for in[e] 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. 17 He himself is before all things, and in[f] him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God[g] was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Paul writes this in 62 AD, -two years later, he was beheaded by Nero and an earthquake destroyed both the church and the town of Colossae. Neither was ever rebuilt.

I think Paul came to this great poetic affirmation about Christ, not from some grand theological insight, or even revelation, but from his own dramatic and unexplainable encounter with the Resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus. That experience gave him the strength and courage to face his own death and the calamities of his time with a deep and abiding faith that God was with him and involved in the future of the world. –You don’t get that kind of faith simply by reciting Paul’s theology or memorizing the Nicene Creed; it only comes with your own encounter with Christ.

One of the stories I stuck in my files several years ago was of a couple named Frank and Elizabeth. I am sorry to say I did not write down their last name.  But they had an only child, Ted, who was killed by a drunk driver at age 18 just before his graduation from high school. He was the apple of their eye full of promise and plans.  The other driver was also a young man, just a couple of years older than their son.   He was one of those kids who had been in constant trouble.

Frank & Elizabeth were so devastated and angry over the death of their son they could only think of making sure this other boy got his punishment. They wanted him put away immediately -and for a long time.

Of course, it didn’t happen as they hoped. The trial was delayed, and postponed, then continued; all the while he was out on bail.

Frank and Elizabeth kept track of everywhere the boy went in the intervening months. Finally, the trial came, and they expected to get their vengeance. But in the end the boy received 5 years’ probation, with the stipulation that he spend every other weekend in jail and alternate weekends as a volunteer in the hospital emergency room and attend AA meetings. It was part of that attempt at “creative sentencing.”

Frank and Elizabeth were beside themselves with hurt and anger. They followed the young man even more closely, actually coming to the hospital and the jail to make sure his sentence was being carried out.

Finally, this young man, Tommy, was caught by his probation officer driving under the influence.  He was given a 10  year jail term.

Frank & Elizabeth were so involved with him now that they began to visit him in jail. Over a period of about a year of this their feelings about him began to change.  They got permission to have him released into their custody two nights a week. They took him to church on Sunday. It was a little awkward at first, but it gradually got easier. He finally broke down and begged their forgiveness. When the probation hearing came up they spoke for him and promised to help him rebuild his life.

It took a while, but for them, the presence of the Living Christ had been a part of their healing. Grief and anger had almost sent over the edge and torn them apart. Faith in Christ had been the one thing that held them together and helped them overcome the great tragedy in their lives and allowed them to love again.  Christ had become king in their lives. The one crucified & resurrected. It made a difference.  That is the Christ Paul knew. That is the Messiah Zechariah unknowingly proclaimed. That’s the king that makes a difference in human life.

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