33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 [Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Well, friends, as I said before, “Happy New Year’s eve.” Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday in our Christian calendar.
And the end of our year does not end with a big ball dropping in Times Square, or a big party with wine and streamers. Our year ends with a proclamation that Christ is King.
Last year, on Christ the King Sunday, I began talking about who the kings are out in our society. I mentioned that Justin Bieber had gotten a crown tattooed on his chest and he had just won a whole slew of American Music Awards. So I asked the question: Is Justin Bieber king? That afternoon, on Facebook, one of our parishioners wrote, “Today, at church I learned that Justin Bieber is king.”
Let me be very clear: Justin Bieber is not king. Perhaps he thought he was king, but if you watch the news, you’ll see how seemingly out of control Justin Bieber’s life is becoming and how powerless he really is. And it is quite sad, really.
Today is Christ the King Sunday, but what does it mean to claim Jesus as King?
We don’t refer to many things as kings anymore. Perhaps it is an image that has fallen out of societal understanding. But I think we can still get the metaphor. Kings have power. Kings have control. Kings are at the top of the top. To claim anything or anyone as your king is to say it is the one who rules your life. It is the compass inside you that gives you direction. In the hard form, you might say that your king is the boss of you. The one who tells you what to do. In a softer form, you might say that your king is your mentor. The one who gives you direction and meaning and purpose, the one who nudges and encourages, but also challenges.
So today is the perfect day to ask yourself: who is your king? Who or what is your compass that guides your life?
You know for some people, it is tradition. Tradition is their guide. I’ll ask someone as question about why they believe what they believe and they’ll say, “Well, that’s just how I was raised.” So how someone was raised, what they were taught as a child becomes their compass. Tradition is their king. But the question is: does Jesus Christ ever challenge how we were raised?
For others of us, our politics is our King. Whatever political party we ascribe to – liberal or conservative – can be our King. Sometimes, when I’m talking with someone about a particular issue, I’ll ask them, “What do you think?” And if they don’t know what they think or haven’t thought about it, they will say, “I don’t know, whatever the liberal answer is.” Or whatever the Conservative answer is. They don’t even know what they believe but they know who to align with. The liberals or conservatives. But the question is: does Jesus Christ ever challenge our politics? Interestingly enough, I’ve never heard anyone say, “Whatever the Christian answer is.”
Or lastly, sometimes whatever is trendy is king. Whatever the new thing is. Whatever garners that person the most attention for being aligned with. Your king is whatever makes you look best at this particular moment. But the question is: does Jesus Christ ever challenge what is trendy?
Christ the King Sunday was started in 1925. It was after World War 1. And it has been said that it was a protest against what people were seeing happening in the world. When nations seemed to be more concerned about themselves than about others. When people were abusing powers. And so this Sunday was to remind everyone that Christ and Christ alone is King. That Christ is our compass and no one else.
What’s amazing about all of this is that if you look at our gospel text for today, nothing about Jesus looks like our understanding of King. Remember, we said kings have power, kings have control, kings are at the top of the top. And Jesus is in the exact opposite position: Jesus is nailed to a tree. He can’t move, he is weak, and beaten. His body is exposed as his clothes have been torn off him. He is being punished as a criminal. And not only does he not look like a king, but he is mocked as a king. The leaders who are killing him say, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God!” “If you are king of the Jews, save yourself.”
Kings have power and kings have control and so according to those mocking Jesus, if you are the king of the Jews, than save yourself. Ahh, which means we forgot one detail about kings. Kings save themselves. Kings do everything they can, in their power, to save themselves and their kingdom. Powerful people will do just about anything to save themselves, to remain in power. We see this in politics all the time – politicians doing and saying whatever they need to in order to get reelected.
The people mocking Jesus tell him to save himself. Because that’s what kings do. And what does Jesus do instead? “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” What a are very un-King-like thing to do. Jesus turns the whole notion of what it means to be a king upside down. He isn’t powerful, he’s vulnerable. He isn’t the one with all the control, he is the one forgiving those who had control over him. He isn’t at the top of the top, he is on the cross, with all the other common criminals.
Which is what makes today such a radical statement in the church. To claim Christ as our king is to claim vulnerability, forgiveness, and shared-suffering as that which guides our life. That where we find life to be most meaningful and most worth living is when we ourselves can be vulnerable, instead of trying to be the most powerful. When we can be forgiving instead of revengeful. When we can share in people’s suffering rather than cause and mock people’s suffering.
You see when you claim Christ as your king, you declaring an allegiance but also a new direction. You declare who gives you direction, who you answer to. It is to live by an entirely different compass than world lives by.
Pastor Paul Hoffman was the speaker at a pastor’s conference this past week out in Washington. My friend was at it and he told me the story that Pastor Hoffman shared. This pastor had a new couple show up at church, Robert and Maria. They were children of the congregation but they hadn’t been back in awhile and now they have their own child, Jared. And they wanted Jared to be baptized. So they joined the baptism class that Pastor Hoffman offered. It began in the fall and ended with the child being baptized at the Easter Vigil service. Midway through the class there is a signing ceremony in which the participants stand around the font and the sign of the cross is made all over their body as the participants are reminded that our entire lives belong to God.
Not long after that, Robert asked to meet with the pastor. “We’ve never really talked much about my work, pastor.” Robert began. “But through the ceremony and the Bible studies and conversations with in the baptism class, I realize I can’t continue to keep working where I work. You see I am the manager of a downtown club. Actually, it’s a strip club, and as I participate and realize how God loves and values all people, I can’t continue in a work that exploits women.” Robert quit his job. His family had to move and sell their house because of the new degree he decided to get – in physical therapy. Because of what Robert learned in baptism class for his son, his entire life and work changed. It went from one that objectified the body to one that honored and cared for it.
It’s not easy to call Christ your king. Because when you do, everything gets turned upside down. Maybe even your entire life, like Robert. So what does it mean to claim Christ as king? It means to place vulnerability and forgiveness and shared-suffering as more valuable than any other way of life. And this way of life is not always easy. And it is not always safe. In fact, it might mean we end up on a cross some day like Jesus. Thought it is risky, this way of Jesus, this way of the cross, is the only thing that sets us from to live and die lovingly. And it is the only way to real fullness of life.
So, may we have the courage to claim Christ our king today and in the year ahead. Amen.