“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” John 18:37
It’s Christ the King Sunday – sometimes called Reign of Christ Sunday. We haven’t had this celebration for very long – less than one hundred years. It was first introduced by Pope Pius X in 1925. Pope Pius was concerned that rising dictatorships in Europe and people’s increasing fascination with the secular world were drawing people away from a trust in the authority of Jesus. So he instituted a Sunday to lift up the image of Jesus as a loving, just, and merciful king. Different Protestant denominations, including Lutherans, embraced the celebration as well, adding it to our observances on the final Sunday of the church year.
Here in the United States we get a little twitchy about the subject of kings. It’s in our country’s DNA, I suppose. Consider this statement from our Declaration of Independence: “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.” The document then proceeds to outline a host of specific examples of the tyranny that King George III had exacted upon the colonies, such as imposing taxes without their consent and depriving people of the benefits of a trial by jury. King George gets accused of a lot, including this bold statement: “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.” No wonder we have some hang-ups about kings.
When I was a high school English teacher, I would have my junior students write Declarations of Independence of their own. They could decide from what or from whom to declare their independence, but they had to use the rhetorical style and structure of the original. The most common audience for these declarations were parents, which makes sense for teenagers nearing graduation. But another popular choice were declarations of independence from a boyfriend or girlfriend – obviously when the relationship was not going well.
Most of us cherish our independence – not just as a country but as individuals. We usually don’t want someone telling us what to do. We want to be able to handle things ourselves and make our own decisions, without being controlled by a king or any other kind of authority.
But what I find interesting is that on a day that we call Christ the King Sunday, Jesus does not seem to embrace the title of king. His back-and-forth with Pilate is like a dance. Remember that Pilate is basically a political hack. He’s a mid-level bureaucrat trying to appease both the religious authorities who are trying to contain Jesus’ influence and the political authorities who pay Pilate’s salary. You can practically hear Pilate’s frustration that Jesus does not play along:
Are you the King of the Jews?
Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?
I am not a Jew, am I? Your own people have handed you over to me. What have you done?
My kingdom is not from this world.
So you are a king?
You say that I am a king.
Jesus resists being cast as a typical king. He’s not interested in reflecting the world’s notions of power. If Jesus were the kind of king that Pilate is expecting, he’s be rounding up an army of his followers to do battle on his behalf. But Jesus doesn’t want to command an army…or force us to bend to his will…or throw around his power in all of the tyrannical ways that people have come to expect of kings and rulers.
What kind of king is Jesus? Here’s what he says: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
We might very well ask, along with Pilate: “What is truth?” Certainly truth gets distorted in a million ways in our world. Lies can be spread with the click of a button, and not even an army of fact-checkers or websites like snopes.com can seem to counteract the speed with which misinformation travels.
In the midst of all the noise and the all the lies, Jesus comes with an invitation. He comes with the truth. The truth that we cannot be completely independent. The truth that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. The truth that we need the forgiveness and the new life that only he can give. The truth that the greatest power is found not on the world’s terms. The greatest power means generously, sacrificially giving of ourselves as Jesus has shown us how to do.
This week we begin the Advent season during which we wait for our king to enter into the world – not, as one might expect, with pomp and circumstance. No parades. No elegant coaches carried along by horses. No trumpets proclaiming his royal arrival. This king will come to us in the dark of night. The sounds won’t be glamorous – the crunch of hay underfoot, a few animals mooing or bleating, the occasional whimpers and cries of a baby.
As we prepare for Advent, a season of waiting and watching, it’s good to remember what happens when that baby grows up. We close the church year near the end of the story as we know it, with Jesus on the brink of crucifixion. A time when the worked-up crowds will cry out for the release of a common thief and let Jesus go to the cross.
It looks nothing like what we expect from a king.
It looks everything like what we need from our king. Amen
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ