Sermon for Christ the King

Sermon for Christ the King, November 20, 2016
“King of What?”
Preached by Pastor Gregory Sakal
Scriptures: Luke 23:33-43

High Summer at The HilThen he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

What kind of a king is this? Stripped of all dignity and power, executed in the most shameful possible way, betrayed by one of his own.

Yet, this is not a king who condemns, but one who forgives, even a criminal who is executed alongside of him.

He welcomes a common criminal into paradise.

This is not a king in the sense that we would understand a leader today, especially in the context of our recent election.

This is a king who, rather than trying to gather as much for himself as he’s able, instead has given away everything he ever had…a king, who rather than seeking the adulation of the rich and powerful, has challenged them in ways that eventually contributed to his downfall.

The death of Jesus on the Cross was as much a political death as it was a part of God’s ultimate design for humanity.

The Romans, and the puppet government of Israel simply reached out to crush what they despised, as a warning to anyone who would challenge their hegemony.

While his male disciples may have scattered after Jesus’ arrest, the women remain faithful, and follow Jesus to the very cross where they mourn his torment, and eventually, his death. Such would have been the way in ancient times. If the king were afflicted, his true people would gather around him.

At this point though, we might ask, “King of what?” His male followers, who in the order of the day were the only ones who really mattered, had scattered or were hiding. The kingdom that he came to proclaim had apparently been dismissed.

Yet Jesus reveals his kingship to the repentant thief who is crucified along with him, and Jesus promises him the kingdom of heaven.

He reveals his lordship in his humility, and in the choices he made. He could have called upon great divine power to save himself from the cross, but he was faithful to his mission through the end.

There was a lot of manipulation and scheming that went into plotting the death of Jesus, but it didn’t work. The death of Jesus on the cross wasn’t the end of the story, it was the beginning.

Neither was it the end of Jesus’ life; it was the beginning of that as well.

It wasn’t the end of the kingdom that Jesus came to proclaim, but the beginning of it.

It was the beginning of a kingdom that was without borders, without constraints of time and place, ethnicity, nationality, or of any of those things by which kingdoms and kingship, up until that time, had been defined.

The crucifixion and all that led up to it must not be seen as something external to ourselves, done by others, or seen as simply a sacrificial act on the part of God.

It was an expression on the part of a loving God of the broken, desperate, suffering and torment experienced by all of humanity.

It was an expression of a God so loving, so complete, and so self-giving that this God chose to unite himself to our very nature in the very real human person of Jesus Christ.

The suffering of Jesus through his passion and crucifixion wasn’t merely an atonement for human sin; it was a participation in the full human experience.

The suffering of Jesus was a full union with us in the suffering experienced by all of humanity.

It was a reflection of our broken nature by which our very God chose to suffer and die with us.

But the kingship of Jesus carried with it something of the father by whom he was sent: a second chance, and eternal life. The disciples who fled were forgiven, and recalled to new life. Jesus himself was raised from the dead on the third day, and we with him.

However, the temple and all that it represented were thrown down by the Romans who were in their own time crushed and overthrown as well.

Those who were called to follow Christ became part of something bigger than anyone anywhere could have possibly envisioned or imagined. Through his full participation in the human experience, Jesus broke through the bonds that held humanity in their grasp and replaced them with loving arms of unconditional love.

As Paul reminds us, “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

More than that, however, we have become a part of Christ’s very body: the hands, feet, head and heart of the body of Christ with the grace of God to guide us as we continue to build up the kingdom of love, compassion, kindness, and justice that Jesus came to proclaim.

Christ is within us, just as all of humanity is contained within Christ.

When we suffer, Christ suffers with us. When we rejoice, he is glad with us. We raise one another up just as Christ raises us up.

We love and forgive one another just as Christ loves and forgives us.

This is the kingship that we share with Jesus Christ.

This is the essence of our faith: that Christ is one with us, and we with him.

This has nothing to do with elements of our belief: whether on a given day we believe, or not, doubt, or not the things that scripture tells us about Jesus. Our faith is not measured on our blind acceptance of words, but in the entering into of a mystery so profound, that words alone cannot express it.

Fred Buechner, a well-published Presbyterian minister and author who at age 90 is still going strong once said:

“Believing in him is not the same as believing things about him such as that he was born of a virgin and raised Lazarus from the dead. Instead, it is a matter of giving our hearts to him, of come hell or high water putting our money on him, the way a child believes in a mother or a father, the way a mother or a father believes in a child.”

In other words, we believe in our union with God through Christ. We believe that Jesus Christ dwells in us, and we in him.

We accept His presence as a reality in our lives, in our church, and in the world; a presence that we must represent to the best of our ability through how we give ourselves in service in our attempt, however feeble, to fill the seemingly bottomless well of need around us.

Our faith is not expressed in what we say we believe, or disbelieve. It is rather expressed through our very lives; through our relationships with others, both those close to us, and those completely unlike us; both within our own faith community, and in the wider world.

We all wait in faith and hope for that great day when Jesus will come again amidst clouds and great glory. However, in anticipation of, in preparation for that great day, we must spend all our lives getting ready.

We spend all our lives perfecting ourselves in the very image of Christ as we challenge ourselves continuously to grow; as we challenge ourselves continuously to shed those aspects of ourselves that divide and separate us from our brothers and sisters.

We can’t do this alone in our rooms.

We cannot do it through the study of scripture alone.

Our faith is to be lived in community with others, and in so doing, we will fail—perhaps fail often. But always, our God of another chance, raises us up through his mighty healing power to try yet again.

So much of what has passed, and continues to pass, for Christianity in this world is nothing but the worst aspects of our humanity as we attempt to assert ourselves as being “Right”; as having all the answers, or worse, the only answer.

Most all conflict and war and misery throughout history in this world has had at least a partial basis in religious differences. It’s bad enough that Muslims, Christians, and Jews are often in disagreement, sometimes violent disagreement with one another.

Most appalling, however, is the unwillingness within the Body of Christ for us to lay aside our differences and to join together instead of splitting apart.

Jeremiah has something to say about this:

“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD.
Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD.”

Those who proclaim that their way is the only way; who condemn the lives of other people, whose politics oppress the poor, who are unwilling to acknowledge and confront their own prejudices, yet profess the name of Jesus are exactly the types that Jeremiah is railing against.

A Methodist pastor in Portland, OR a few years back put up on the signboard in front of his church: “God prefers kind atheists over hateful Christians.”

This is something I truly believe. For God judges us by our actions and our lives, not by what we claim to believe. If we say that God is love, and we fail to love one other through our words and our actions, who do we think we’re kidding?

If we judge others through the lens of our own small pettiness and indifference, how can we possibly reflect the light of Christ within us and within others that will bring his kingdom to full-fruit?

Better to be an atheist who serves others in selfless dedication than to profess the Christian faith and lead a life of self-centeredness and self-righteousness.

Jeremiah further prophesies that the stem of Jesse shall one day bring forth a righteous king: “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”

This kingship prophesied by Jeremiah is the kingship in which we all share.

Our faith in the ultimate goodness of God, and the generosity of his love are what bring us into the center of the Body of Christ whose work we have been given to do in this world.

It is through our failures, our vulnerabilities, our challenges, and our successes that we are brought ever more fully into the Body of Christ.

Rather than sit back and wait for the return of Jesus in smug certitude of our beliefs, we must look for ways to give ourselves ever more fully into the hands of Christ.

God in Christ continuously seeks us out. God’s greatest joy and desire is to join us with one another in a community of faith, and join all of us together in faith with Him.

In the struggle to perfect ourselves, Christ will manifest himself in us.

In our answer to God’s love and His passionate desire to bring us closer, the King shall most certainly one day come among us.

God has promised to save us from our enemies, even when our own worst enemy is ourselves.

Zechariah says in part, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

This will absolutely and ultimately happen.

The people of Jesus’ day were waiting for a king to throw down the Roman tyranny and restore their kingdom to what it once had been. But God in Christ doesn’t move backwards, he moves forwards.

It would seem that folks in this country want that same thing—a leader who will return them to an imagined, idyllic past that in reality, never existed—a past in which minorities knew their place, and old white men ran everything.

What our king will bring when he comes is likely beyond our present imagination. How best then to prepare for it? How can we get ready for that which we probably cannot now hope to fully understand?

Well, coming back to Fred Buechner, our expectations should not be based on words or beliefs.

Our time should not be spent attempting to correlate blow by blow the events described in scripture with the events in this world. That is a passive, limited approach to understanding the kingship of Christ based on our own smallness.

Instead, we live in the faith, hope, and certainty that the Kingdom will manifest when we are ready to receive it.

If we really wish to hasten that time; if we really desire to hasten the coming of the Kingdom, then let us not waste time worrying about the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, as some folks are apparently doing just now, or watching the news on TV, attempting to correlate every storm and earthquake to a biblical event.

Rather, let us use the time we have been given to realize as fully as possible with our  God-given gifts of intellect, reason, and skill, to dedicate ourselves fully to living out our work as the body of Christ in this world.

The king shall come, and on that great day, we must be prepared by building an appropriate palace for him. Not a palace of stone and masonry, but a palace whose beauty is compassion, whose adornments are love, and kindness, and grace.

Not a palace with walls that keeps people out, but a palace whose emblem is the opening embrace of a loving God who seeks to bring all people to himself.

That palace, my friends, is a loving heart which we have emptied of all self-interest, and given over fully to the loving grace of a God who gave us everything he had.

On the front page of our bulletin this morning is a quote from a sermon by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of a group of German pastors who stood against the Nazification of the established state church in Germany—a church that fell right in line behind Hitler’s abhorrent treatment of anyone not deemed of sufficiently Aryan origin.

Bonhoeffer’s church was called “The Confessing Church.”

Many German protestants had voted for the Nazis in the elections of 1935. One such pastor was Martin Niemöller, who at first, supported the Nazis in their design to lockup the Communists. After all, he thought, why should we have godless communists in our midst.

It was only after the viciously anti-Semitic intentions of the Nazis became apparent that Pastor Niemöller changed his position. It was he who famously once said,

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Niemöller continued to speak out against intolerance and racism  until the end of his life, in 1984. Unlike Dietrich Bonhoeffer—who was hanged in 1945 for his positions against the State—Niemöller narrowly escaped death.

A chief weapon of authoritarianism has always been—and still is—complacency. As our resident theologian, Pat A. once said about our Allston neighborhood’s relationship with a certain academic institution,

“It’s like a lobster on the stove in a pot of cold water. You turn the heat on, and the lobster doesn’t realize he’s going to get cooked to death until it’s too late.”

This was the relationship of the Temple government in Jerusalem with the Roman empire. If we follow the rules, don’t make waves, and keep to ourselves, we’ll be fine, they thought.

They weren’t.

And certainly, Jesus wasn’t willing to do that. He stood firm both against Rome, and against the religious authorities for their adherence to the law, bereft of the law’s intent.

He died for his witness to God’s truth, just as Dietrich Bonhoeffer did over two thousand years later.

In the weeks, months, and years ahead, we will doubtless ourselves be called upon to resist the temptation to complacency. The concept of a “Muslim registry” should be abhorrent to all of us, just as a Jewish or Christian registry would be.

Our tendency is to hold back, to not speak out, to not attract attention, to stay out of trouble.

But as Bonhoeffer reminds us when he says,

“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christians should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”

…we will likely be called upon to do no less than this, and possibly much more. Baptists have always had a reputation for being troublemakers.

Our King came to proclaim a realm whose in-breaking has already begun—the already, but not yet—the kingdom of which we are the harbingers and agents.

The Kingdom in which the weak are loved, protected, and nourished; where the despised and downtrodden have comfort and safety; where the poor are raised up, and receive the same justice compassion, and forgiveness as the rich;

The kingdom where all are loved and forgiven.

This, my friends, is the Kingdom that has been given into our hands—the kingdom of which we have been made stewards.

Our task is not to fall in line behind demagogues and tyrants; our task is not to allow our faith to be used as a means to exclude and oppress; our task is not to go along to get along, but to bear witness to our King—to Jesus Christ—and to the truth of a loving, saving, inclusive, and forgiving God whose kingdom he came to proclaim.

Let us pray:

Shepherd of Israel, hear our prayer
as your Son heard the plea
of the criminal crucified with him.
Gather into Christ’s holy kingdom
the broken, the sorrowing, and the sinner,
that all may know
wholeness, joy, and forgiveness. Amen.

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