A sermon preached by Pastor Robert Schaefer
First & Spring Creek Lutheran Churches
Christ the King – November 21, 2004
Text: Luke 23:33-43
Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
What are the marks of a king? What sort of tell-tale signs do you look for in order to recognize a king in pictures, on television, in a movie? How do you know which person is royal, and which is common?
It’s simplest just to go by appearance. A king will be riding on the tallest, whitest horse of anyone. His robes will be clean and thick, with a soft plush pile that brushes lightly against his ruddy, healthy skin. If he is wearing armor, it will glisten, and the jewels that are lavished on his garments will catch the light like a hundred sparkling prisms. Long or short, his hair will be healthy and shiny, and his beard, if he has one, will be well-groomed and thick. He will tower, ramrod straight above all the lesser men, never slouching for a moment despite the weight of his armor or his power. And most telling, this picture-perfect king will certainly wear a crown atop his head. The total effect is a powerful one – when we see a man decked out in this fashion, we feel the stirring of awe and fealty in our breasts, no matter that the noble king is nothing more than in image on a screen or page.
Truth be told, you could clean up the rudest peasant and outfit him in all the royal trappings, and we’d be sold. But no matter what you’ve heard, clothes don’t make the man. An evil, power-hungry slave might wear the robes of a king, but his actions will soon enough make it clear that no noble, royal blood courses through his heart.
True lords, the kind whose nobility causes us to automatically bend the knee without a second thought, are rare, and their honor and authority come from within – from who they are, not what they wear. We can’t know them in the fullness of their hearts, but the man we can see in their actions tell us the caliber of their souls. How do you recognize a king, a true king and no imposter? Look not for the outside signs, but for the character and integrity that shine through a person’s deeds, and you’ll soon recognize the one.
Unfortunately, most people are way too impressed with those outside signs. It’s too much trouble to look at a man’s life, and so we sum him up from the publicity photos and paparazzi snapshots.
We’re no better than those ancient Jews of Jerusalem.
They had enough sense to recognize that the corrupt and power-mad Roman overlords who had enslaved Israel were no true kings. The Jews were, in fact, ever looking for the king, the one from God, the King who would restore God’s people now scattered across the earth, putting his enemies at his feet one by one until his rule, like God’s, was complete and perfect. The Jews awaited this King, this Messiah, the Christ with the passionate anticipation only an oppressed, occupied people can hold. A nation watched for his appearance, holding its breath and praying.
Whatever Israel was looking for, this man Jesus wasn’t it. Here was no king at all! Just a crazy man from a hillbilly town in the sticks. His robe was grubby and sweat-stained, his feet were covered in the dust of a hundred mile’s walk. The handful of people who followed in his train were even worse off – fishers, beggars, women who were known around the countryside as harlots. A ragtag little Messiah, and his scum-of-the-earth army of fanatics. Not a mark of kingship to be found in the whole bunch, the Jews quickly realized. No crown, no armor, no jewels or robes. Just a mob of dirty, poverty-stricken zealots. Even worse, a filthy little mob who would draw down the wrath of Rome on the Jews.
Is it any wonder they killed Jesus? Is it any wonder the mocking caption above his head bore these words: “Jesus of Nazareth – King of the Jews”?
Today is Christ the King Sunday. Be honest – when you saw the name of our festival, when you noticed the whites on the altar and the pulpit, did you expect to read about an execution? Or did you expect some glorious passage about a shining-white Jesus bolting through the heavens at the head of uncountable angel armies? When you think of Christ the King, isn’t the dark, splintery ugliness of that blood-spattered cross something you’d like to forget, ignore, pretend never happened?
The truth is that we’re no better at recognizing the marks of a real king than the ancient Jews were. We take a quick glance at a person and decide who they are, where they came from, where they’re going, through some unholy calculus in our heads, the sum of their clothes, grooming, and way of carrying themselves.
The magazine Psychology Today recently ran an interview with 24-year-old Yoanna House, the young woman who won the title “America’s Next Top Model” in a television reality program. This time last year House was a nanny. Now she’s one of the most in-demand faces in the fashion world, and has a good foot in the door with Hollywood, as well. She’s newly minted royalty in a star-obsessed world.
Pop Psysch asked her:
Do you consistently get recognized now?
Sometimes when I don’t [get dressed up and wear makeup], I hear people say, “That’s totally not her, don’t flatter her.” Yesterday a girl came up to me and asked, “Are you the girl from the show?” I had no makeup on. I said, “No.” She said, “I didn’t think so.” And then she said to her friend, “I told you so-that’s not the girl!”
Take away the makeup and the high-fashion clothes, and no one recognizes Yoanna House’s beauty. Doesn’t that make you sad?
We never see Jesus’ beauty, either. We never recognize his true kingliness. While we’re busy looking for crowns and robes, Jesus bleeding and dying on his cross. We’re prone to laugh at the cruel joke painted above his head, but that scornful sign actually speaks the truth that we turn away from – Jesus is the King. This is what Kingship looks like. A real King, a good King, a heavenly King looks like nothing so much as a Spirit-filled man, pleading with his Father to forgive even the brutes with the hammer and the nails. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is never more a king than when we find him broken and dying on a cross… for us.
True lords, I’ve said, are known by their actions, because those actions point to the great goodness of their hearts. Jesus said that to die for one’s friends points to the deepest love a person could hold in his heart – he said that, and then he went out to die not just for his friends, but for his enemies as well.
Jesus has always been King and Lord, as Paul reminds us, since before creation began. But that glory that is rightfully his is not how he chooses to reveal himself to us. We challenge him just as the crowd did, just as the criminal who hung beside him. “If you’re really Lord, prove it! Let’s see some heavenly sign.” The truth is, there is nothing in heaven or earth that proves Jesus’ right to be Lord more than his loving death on the cross. There is no greater sign we can receive than the gift of redemption that was nailed to the wood for our sake that day at Golgotha.
If you want to know Jesus, the true King and true Lord, he would have you do nothing but kneel before his cross. That’s where he chose to reveal himself to the world. That’s where he showed his true power. That’s where Jesus was truly lifted up above every other person and every other thing.
On the cross, in that gift of absolute love for you – that’s where you will know that Christ is King. Amen