Christ the King? What Kind of King is Jesus!?
Even though we call this day, the last Sunday before Advent, “Christ the King” Sunday, today’s readings really give us a story of two kings.
Now, what comes to mind when you hear the word “king”? For me, certain images immediately begin to arise: first, a crown, of course, covered in gold and jewels. Next, a scepter—a big stick—also wrapped in gold and jewels. Next, I think about the kind of clothes that a king tends to wear: velvet and furs, cloth-of-gold, and other rich fabrics. Last of all, I imagine the kind of place where kings live: a giant palace or castle.
Each of these images symbolizes power, wealth, prestige, and confidence. And I think we humans seeks a ruler with these things because we hope that if they have wealth, power, prestige, and confidence, that some of that will transfer over to us.
The first king we have to consider today is King David, and we hear from him in our Hebrew Bible reading for this morning, from the second book of the prophet Samuel. In this passage, David is an old man, and he knows his time is running short. So he gives a sort of farewell speech, saying goodbye to his family but also to the whole nation. And this is how he opens his remarks: “The oracle of David, son of Jesse, the oracle of the man whom God exalted, the anointed of the God of Jacob, the favorite of the Strong One of Israel.”
David certainly doesn’t lack for confidence! Indeed, David seems to fit the mold of the king that I just discussed: a rich and powerful man, respected and confident. David clearly thinks this is what a king needs to be to get the job done.
Now, this vision of kingly leadership is especially relevant to us, because David is the model and archetype of the Messiah. Indeed, David uses this word in his speech. The word we translate as “anointed” is messiah in Hebrew. So this king—this powerful, wealthy, prestigious, confident king—is the model for human hopes and expectations of the Messiah.
So how does Jesus compare to this model of kingliness? Well: Jesus had no power, no wealth, no crown—at least not the kind you want—no palace, and no army. Indeed, Jesus knows that he does not fit human expectations of a king. He makes this clear in our passage from the Gospel of John this morning.
Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of Judea. As a representative of the Roman Empire, he would have been very anxious about any home-grown kings that cropped up in conquered lands. So when Jesus is brought to him, he starts to interrogate Jesus about his “kingdom”. And here’s what Jesus says: “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over…” Jesus is clear: he has no power and no army. That’s not the kind of king he is.
Jesus as a king is radically different than David as a king, or Caesar as a king. But those two men seem to fit the mold of kingship better than Jesus! So what are we saying when we say not only that Jesus is a king, but indeed the King—the King of Kings!?
If Jesus truly is the King, and yet his kingdom is so different from what we humans expect, this must tell us something about God’s “kingdom”. Indeed, we can find some evidence for God’s view of what a king ought to be much earlier than the Gospels. Our Hebrew Bible reading this morning was from the second book of Samuel; let’s go back even further, to the first book of Samuel:
This brings us to a time before any kings had ruled over Israel. For centuries, there had been a series of impromptu, charismatic leaders that we refer to as the “Judges” (though they were nothing like what we think of as a “judge” in modern terms). These leaders would arise during times of crisis, lead the people through that crisis, and then return to their homes afterwards.
But over time, the people decided that they wanted a permanent and powerful ruler—just like the other people nearby had. And so they call for a king. The first book of Samuel, chapter eight, tells us that when God heard about the people’s desire for a king, this is what God says: “they have rejected me from being king over them”. The human expectation of a powerful king runs directly counter to God’s vision for human society. Humans seek power and wealth while God hopes to build peace and justice. Indeed, God makes it clear that although humans assume that the power and wealth of kings will somehow trickle down to the people, the reality is exactly the opposite: a king gains power and wealth by taking it from the people. In any event, the people are adamant, and God accepts their call for a human king.
So we know that God’s view of human leadership is different from our own expectations, and then we hear that, indeed, Jesus’s approach to leadership is radically different than most human leaders’. So what does it mean to call Jesus a “king”? And what are we talking about when we speak of “God’s Kingdom”?
(Of course, many people today prefer to use a different word than “kingdom” to describe God’s presence and rule, since the word “kingdom” implies that God is somehow male. Some people will talk instead about God’s “holy reign”, or something along those lines. And of course this is totally appropriate. But the truth of the matter is that whatever words we humans use will fall short. The reality of God is beyond our reckoning.)
So what is the view of human leadership that God points to in the first book of Samuel, and that Jesus models for us in the Gospels? Well, instead of power, God has love. Instead of wealth, God has self-sacrifice. Instead of prestige, God works to sustain others. Instead of authority, God has patience. Instead of violence, God acts to heal. This, I think, is what Jesus means when he says that his kingdom is “not from this world.” The values that God calls for through Jesus are radically different than the ones we humans expect and assume.
People expected the Messiah to be a mighty king, sword in hand, who would defeat his enemies to found a prestigious new kingdom. And this is, of course, a very human expectation; it’s not unique to one people or another. We can see this in the Jewish expectation of the Messiah, but also in the Roman attitude towards their emperors, in the English devotion to their kings and queens, and many of us also worry that we see the same deference to arbitrary authority in public attitudes towards presidents and prime ministers today.
But the message we get from Scripture is that God’s reign is nothing like this. And if we are seeking to be disciples of Jesus, to be lovers of God, to be people seeking beauty, peace, and truth, we must pay attention to this. We have to turn from our human expectations to these divine ones. We have to turn from the human idea of kingdom to the divine promise of God’s compassionate rule.
Now, Christ the King Sunday is a relatively new feast day on the Christian calendar; it was only instituted in the 1920’s. The pope at the time announced this new celebration to counteract the rise of authoritarian politics in Europe at the time. So it is totally appropriate to use the themes of this day to criticize politicians—and my guess is that many of us have one politician in particular we’d like to criticize; one politician who seems more like a David and less like a Jesus!
But if we are truly honest with ourselves, we know that the preference for power and wealth instead of love and compassion is not limited to one man or to one party. Unfortunately, most politicians are seeking power, wealth, prestige, and confidence over anything else. So we should call all politicians to account. We should call all politicians to hear God’s warning from first Samuel, to seek the divine priorities instead of those human ones.
But I don’t think we should limit the impact of Christ the King Sunday to national politics. What if we took these same lessons and applied them to our own lives? What would it mean to be more like Jesus—and less like David—in the way we treated our friends, our families, our coworkers, and our fellow parishioners here at St. Mark’s? How often do we find ourselves seeking power and authority in our interactions with spouses, when talking with coworkers, when sitting in a committee meeting downstairs here? We must be ready to turn from these values to the ones we hear Jesus calling for instead.
You know, I’ve been pretty tough on David today—he’s been the villain of my story. And he really wasn’t a great guy in many ways. If you read through both books of Samuel, you’ll hear just how bad he could be! He did some really monstrous things. And yet, Jews and Christians alike do point to him as the model of the Messiah; we do think we have something to learn from him. But what could that be, if he got so much so wrong?
The thing about David is that, although he often stumbled into deeply immoral behavior, whenever someone called him out for it, he actually admitted his wrongdoing and then really tried to do better. Now, he often immediately failed to do so! But he seems to have honestly tried. And I think that’s such an important example for us. If you’re like me, you, like David, make mistakes. Sometimes even really serious ones. David shows us that even highly imperfect people can hear God’s call, turn from their old ways, and struggle to do better. In that way, David is an important and powerful example to us.
We Christians easily fall into a habit of thinking that, when it comes to improving and saving the world, our job is to just wait. To wait and wait, and then someday, God will show up and everything will be fixed. But in truth, I think God is already in our midst, already working and building “the Kingdom”. The reality is that God is waiting for us to join in that work! We are the ones we have been waiting for. May we have the courage to learn from David, to turn from our old ways, to hear God’s radical call, and then join God in the work of building God’s holy reign of love, compassion, and justice. Amen!