November 21, 2010

If you are King of the Jews

Passage: Jeremiah 23:1-6, Luke 1:68-79, Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:33-43, Luke 23:36-38

The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’

The announcement this past week that Prince William and Kate Middleton are engaged to be married has occupied our news agencies; the royal family garners lots of attention, Prince William in particular because of the likelihood that he will one day be our King.  Yes, I said our King; I mean Canada, of course.  The monarchy of Canada is the core of both Canada's federalism and its Westminster-style parliamentary democracy, being the foundation of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the Canadian government and each provincial government.  Our current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II,  as sovereign is shared equally with fifteen other countries within the Commonwealth of Nations, all being independent and the monarchy of each legally distinct.

The Monarch’s representative in Canada is our Governor General whose primary task is to perform the sovereign's constitutional duties; acting within the principles of parliamentary democracy and responsible government as a guarantor of continuous and stable governance and as a nonpartisan safeguard against the abuse of power.

I am old enough to remember singing “God save the Queen” at school; today we have no place at school for God—it would seem we don’t think God can do much saving; we are little more tolerant of the Queen—generally, though, the Monarchy is reduced to our curiosity with details of a Prince’s courtship, the ring given for engagement, and wedding plans.  I would suspect that the idea of allegiance to a Monarch is a foreign idea to most Canadians; in our post-modern era we are much fonder of the idea of allegiance to self—the social networking website MySpace a telling case in point.   It seems to me that most think of our monarch in a largely symbolic way, if we think about monarchy at all.  The Monarch seems far removed from the practical realities of life.

This is Christ the King (or Reign of Christ) Sunday; the Apostle Paul said “all things were created through him and for him”.  “Are you the king of the Jews” asked Pilate.  “My kingdom is not from this world”, replied Jesus.  Clearly Jesus conceives himself to be king.  As his disciples, how do we conceive of Jesus as King—is it mostly symbolic, far removed from any practical impact on my life?  In our post-modern MySpace-world does the King have any space?

1. In many languages, it’s a tiny word often consisting of just two letters; they all mean our English word “if.” But what a wallop that little word packs.
It’s amazing when we think back on our own lives how often we have done foolish things—or become irrationally upset and angry—just because someone lobbed that little word “if” our direction.  How many foolishly dangerous or precarious things didn’t we do just because some other person dared us, “if you weren’t such a chicken I’m sure you could do that!”   And there are those moments of getting our backs up just because someone challenged us by saying, “If you are a real man; if you really cared about me; if you had an ounce of backbone”.

Jesus began his ministry with the devil in the wilderness challenging him three times, and the way he tried to get under our Lord’s skin was to say “If you are the Son of God, then . . .” Now as the ministry comes to an end on a cross at Golgotha, the devil uses some surrogates once again to lob this tiny word in Jesus’ direction: “Jump down from there if you are the Son of God!   “If you are the king of the Jews, then do something.”

“If you are the king”—this is, at bottom, derision of Jesus.  The core of Jesus’ message was “repent, the kingdom of heaven has come near”.  To some Pharisees who had asked when the kingdom of God would come Jesus answered: ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’ The clear implication is that the kingdom of God is right here, right now—according to Jesus—the reason is because the King is right here, right now.

It is sin that blinds humans to the presence of the King; the rebellious world wants nothing to do with him.  It seems to me that one of the ways we could speak of our faith in Jesus Christ is to speak of it as allegiance to the King.  It could be that we are nervous of the idea of allegiance to any king because of the way other kings have disappointed us by being arbitrary or power hungry.  But we are standing at the foot of the cross; in view of the fact that our Lord has gone to hell and back for us in the cross, we can set aside any notion of arbitrary, heartless tyranny.

2. He (Jesus) doesn’t look like much of a king hanging there on the cross; inert, helpless, powerless.  In some respects you could understand why soldiers might deride him in this way; “if you are the king of the Jews”.  After all, if he is a king of anything he does not appear very regal; his kingdom looks very iffy. He certainly does not look like a king to whom we would care to swear our allegiance; if he cannot protect himself how will he help us?

I think that as Christians we have read the crucifixion story so often its familiarity obscures its horrors to us.  The death of our Saviour is so precious to us because it is here our sin is forgiven; it is here that God renders the just judgement of our sin reconciled in Jesus; it is here that the rupture between God and us caused by our rebellion is healed.  When we approach the cross it is holy ground to us (rightly so) and to speak of it lightly feels sacrilegious. For some focus on the brutality makes us squeamish and seems to diminish our Lord whom we love.

That being said, I would like to push this point of his powerlessness a little further with you.  If we moderns were writing the story of a King who saves us it would go much differently.  Our stories are filled with retributive justice and vengeance being visited on the perpetrators just when we thought all was lost; somehow the hero will defy all the odds, stagger to his feet, commandeer some weapons and blow the enemies away.  And we cheer at such movies, don’t we?

At the risk of sacrilege; if this were a story as we humans would write it somehow Jesus would find the strength to snap the nails from his hands and feet, jump down and commandeer a sword or two from surprised soldiers and vanquish the foe; the final scene would be Jesus back at the temple surrounded by his weary but happy warrior-disciples looking forward to the new order of light and happiness.  At his arrest Jesus told Peter to put his sword away; “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father and he will at once send me more that twelve legions of angels,” Jesus added.  Now that is more to our liking; twelve legions of angels showing up!  But he doesn’t do that; he just hangs there.

“If you are King of the Jews, save yourself,” shouted the soldiers.  “And me too”, derided one of the criminals crucified next to him.  Is this not, in substance, the very accusation many today still hurl at God: if you are God why don’t you do something about the evil in the world—something more to our liking?  If you have the power why don’t you use it?  The world concludes that precisely because he hung there he is no king.

Is the kingdom of God really among us right here, right now?  Is Jesus really the King—the one through whom and for whom all things were made?  There are things that occur, the evil of which makes us wonder—as Christians were are not immune to the devastations of life and we wonder that our King seems unable or (worse) unwilling to protect us.  One of the truths the cross of Jesus shows us, precisely because Jesus just hangs there is that God has a perspective on things we do not; and as Jesus trusted his Father in heaven we too must trust him.

The Apostle Paul wrote “in all things God works for good for those who love God”.  (Some manuscripts have “all things work together for good”, the other reading is preferred).  The point is not that everything that happens is somehow good; rather, if God works our salvation through the dereliction of the murder of his own Son so too he can work the happenings of our life in the same way.

3.  In some respects, then, we can understand the bystanders saying “if you are the king”; the kings and leaders of this world have power, power they readily use for self preservation. Jesus is like no king they know; therefore, they conclude, he is no king.  Might we not also ask, is God’s exercise of power like the way humans wield power?

When we speak of the power of God we often think of it like the strongest person or thing we know only to the “nth” degree; supersized strength. When God says “vengeance is mine I will repay” many are hoping that means that God is saying; “leave it me, I will really smack them around; your vengeance is child’s play compared to what I will do to them.”  I suggest to you that when God says this of vengeance he is telling us that he has a perspective on things that we do not; our ideas of appropriate measures are possibly not best.  Often when Jesus was asked questions he didn’t answer them because the questions were fraught with incorrect assumptions.

Power, when used Biblically of God, is the power to achieve purpose; it isn’t the power to do whatever he wants, rather it is the truth that nothing will thwart God in his ability to achieve his purposes which are always consistent with God in his being; namely that he is love. On the cross of Jesus Christ, precisely when he appears to us to be most powerless and helpless he is most powerful achieving his purposes to redeem the world and us.  Perhaps it is our ideas of power that need some reworking.

4. Matthew tells us that the sign that hung over Jesus on the cross read: This is Jesus, the King of the Jews. The irony intended by Pilate is rich and was aimed at humiliating the Jewish leadership—and Jesus, for that matter.  You see the name Jesus is the Greek name that corresponds to (translates) the Hebrew name Joshua which means “God saves”.  The sign reads “This is “God saves”, the King of the Jews.  Pilate knew precisely what he was doing; he was announcing that the God of the Hebrews couldn’t save anyone from Rome’s power and might.

Pilate—in his rush to flex his political muscle over others—stumbled onto the truth of what was happening here.  This is God saving us.  By all appearances—that is from a human perspective—Jesus is simply one more criminal being disposed of by the power of the brutal machinery of Roman occupation. What God is doing here is for our salvation; not even the power of Rome can stand in God’s way to achieve his purposes to save humanity.

Jesus said (John 10:17-18)... “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”  The gospel teaches us that while God gives himself to us and for us he never gives himself up to us or over to us—we cannot manipulate God.  What looks to us like a powerless and helpless God is in fact God achieving his purposes to save—it is God in the might of his power.

Now I know this is completely upside-down to us; it is hard to comprehend.  To consider that God in what appears as utter helplessness and powerlessness is God acting in his mighty power to save is to undo much of what we think of power arrangements.  It is—nonetheless—what the gospel declares.

We could spend a lifetime reflecting at the foot of the cross; a lifetime of sermons exploring the truths that radiate from this event would not do it justice.  One further reflection I invite you to consider by way of application.

Most of us want our lives to count for something.  In days of strength we put our efforts to do things that are meaningful; we achieve things and it feels purposeful.  There are moments when we actually get glimpses of what God is doing through our lives.  We work and provide for the welfare of our family; we build a business that garners livelihood for others; we contribute some good to the lives of others through our work; we get involved in charity work; we teach a Sunday school class; we serve the congregation in supporting the proclamation of the gospel.  We find a sense of purpose in our doing.

And then come things that diminish us; tragedy, disease, debilitation and we feel useless.  We aren’t able to do and so we think the purpose of our life inhibited.  My paternal grandfather lived to be 104 years of age; in his later years he said to me he wished the good Lord would take him home because he was of so little use.

Here is the thing; does anything look more useless and purposeless than the crucifixion of the Son of God?  Just as God was able to work his everlasting purposes in the Son so he can in our lives, whatever the diminishment.  The thief crucified next to Jesus who asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom; his life is still bearing witness to wonderful love of God wrought that awful day.

In the name of the Father, and of Son, and of the Holy Spirit.