Christ the King
Christ the King
Is this Royal Glory?
Last Sunday evening, I watched Sleeping Beauty with my daughter on television. It wasn't the first time we had seen it -- my daughter has the tape. But as I was watching the movie, I thought about the way that Disney portrays kings in its cartoons. Usually, they are depicted as powerful, forceful people who live in palaces and are surrounded by servants. Disney didn't invent that view of kingship -- they merely picked up on an idea that is popular in our culture. When we think of kings, we rarely think of modern kings -- mere figureheads with no real political power. Usually we think of powerful individuals whose word is law, in spite of the fact that no king has ruled over our country in over two hundred years, and even when one did, his powers were severely limited by the British Parliament. So when kings are portrayed in movies and literature, they are usually portrayed as powerful individuals, surrounded by servants and soldiers and all manner of wealth and finery. The word king carries that powerful image for us. Today is the last Sunday of the old church year. It is Christ the King Sunday. Today, we focus especially on the fact that our Lord is a King and that he is ruling even as we speak. For that reason, our gospel lesson for today should be a description of the glory of Jesus as King. Listen to the words of Luke 23:34-43, and as you listen ask yourself, is this royal glory? [Read text]
Is this royal glory? If you think about it for a minute, glory is something that you see. A glorious battle is only glorious in the telling. Those who remember the victory and the long odds make it glorious by retelling over and over again how great a victory it really was. Royal glory, too, is something that is seen. A king who dresses himself in the most splendid robes and who surrounds himself with all the symbols of power and even greatness but who never ventures out of his palace to receive the praise and love of his people, never really experiences the glory that could be his. An essential part of glory is the recognition, the praise and honor, that go along with it. According to that definition, our text for today certainly is lacking in glory.
In our text for today, Luke doesn't show us Jesus in heaven, surrounded by his angels and receiving their praise. John shows us that in the book of Revelation, but our text for today is about as far away from that picture as we could get. Luke doesn't show us the resurrected Christ today, he doesn't even show us Jesus majestically entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. No, in our text for today, we see Jesus nailed to a cross. The Romans didn't crucify just anybody -- usually they only crucified slaves, robbers and assassins. Just the opposite of being a glorious death, crucifixion was the most humiliating death in the Roman world. For the Jews it was doubly so, because the Old Testament law considered a man who was hung on a tree to be cursed by God. Jesus' death was not a glorious, royal death -- it was the death of an accursed slave.
Luke shows us another way in which Jesus' death was totally humiliating. The people that Jesus came to save actually mocked his death. Luke tells us that the religious leaders sneered and made fun of Jesus. "He saved others, let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One." These were God's own people. This was Jesus' "home crowd" if you will. They, of all people, should have been jumping up and down cheering for their Savior. But instead, they taunted him as he died for their sins.
They weren't alone. The Roman soldiers who stood guard at his feet added insult to injury. In fact, they showed their utter contempt for Jesus and his entire people. "If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself." Ever since the Roman conquest of Palestine, the Jews had been trying to regain their independence and to put a Jewish king on the throne instead of a distant Roman emperor. But they were powerless to do so in the face of the only superpower of their day. The soldiers whose job it was to keep the Jews in line by brute force had only contempt for a man they thought had come dreaming of a glorious revolution. They mocked his apparent failure. That, too, seems to have been behind Pilate's famous sign: This is the King of the Jews. After a long day of wrangling and politics, Pilate wanted to put the Jewish leaders in their place. Rome was in control. Anyone who claimed to be the rightful king of Israel could expect what Jesus got.
Jesus had sunk almost as low as you could get -- but he hadn't hit rock bottom yet. As he hung there on the cross, mocked by the governor, by the Roman soldiers and even by the people who should have known who he was, Jesus went down one more step. He was mocked by a criminal so low that he was being crucified. The absolute dregs of society thought that he could relieve some of his own pain with a little "gallows humor": "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" What more humiliating death could there be than to die in agony mocked by the absolute scum of society?
It's easy for us to sit here in our comfortable little church, nearly two thousand years later, and shake our heads at those poor, misguided sinners who taunted our Savior as he hung on the cross. We might even be tempted to think that things might have been different if we had been there. At the very least, we would like to think that we would have been part of that little group of people which included Mary and John who mourned the death of the man they loved. But let's be very careful that we don't fall into the same trap that those unbelievers fell into that horrible afternoon. What happened there was blasphemy -- they were mocking God on the cross. We aren't very likely to commit open blasphemy. Nevertheless, we do have to ask ourselves if we aren't guilty, at least occasionally, of heaping insult and mockery on our Savior. How could we do that? Well, how many people know that we are Christians? How many of those people have seen us deny our faith in Christ by joining in when they curse and swear and tell dirty jokes? How many of us have actually used the words "Jesus Christ" as an expression of frustration and anger? Are we really so different from those people who ridiculed our Savior on the cross? Or do we have to admit that by our words and by our humor we have denied that Jesus is our Lord and mocked what he did for us?
I am the first to admit that many times in my life, I have not given glory to Christ with my words. I would be ashamed to repeat some of the things that I have said in anger or frustration that made a mockery of what Christ did for me on the cross. But if there is anyone here today who feels the same way, I have a remedy for that shame: that very cross of Christ. When Jesus hung there on that cross and suffered the humiliation of having his own people mock and ridicule what he was doing for them, he suffered what we all deserve for our sins. We deserve God's ridicule and taunting, we deserve to have all the people we have ever wronged get in our faces and rip us apart, while we die, writhing in agony like the accursed slaves we are. But Jesus took all that taunting and mocking and jeering and baiting for us. Jesus suffered our humiliation and our death and now we are forgiven. God even forgives us for all the times that we made a mockery of Jesus by our lives and our words. It is all paid for. It is all taken away. That is why the humiliation that Christ suffered is so important for us -- it was our humiliation. It was the humiliation of a slave who deserves to die. It is what we were saved from and what we now will never have to suffer. That is why, when we ask on Christ the King Sunday, is this royal glory? We have to answer, no, it definitely isn't. Praise God that it wasn't.
Glory so often equals the cheering that a person hears. When John Glenn returned from space, he was given the ultimate honor that New York City can provide -- a ticker tape parade. Simply put, we was driven along while thousands of people cheered for him. But the cheering of the crowd isn't the only element of true glory. During his lifetime, Adolf Hitler heard many people shout themselves hoarse cheering for him. But his glory was fleeting. Today, the overwhelming majority of the world is revolted by him. In spite of the cheering of the crowds, what he accomplished was a to attach a permanent sense of shame to Germany and to sicken the whole of mankind. True glory does indeed include honor and praise, but it also includes the greatness of the person and his deeds. True glory outshines the momentary cheering or jeering of the crowds and inspires lasting fame and honor.
Jesus' death was humiliating in the extreme, and at the same time, it was the most glorious event in history. Jesus earned the mockery of the scum of his society, and the eternal praise of the church for all ages. He earned that glory by what he did on the cross for us. Jesus died to pay for our sins -- and not just ours, Jesus died to pay for the sins of those Romans who crucified him and mocked his kingship, for those unbelieving religious leaders who dared him to save himself and even for those two criminals who hung on either side of him. Taking the rap for someone else's crimes might not seem all that glorious to us. After all, who of us would consider it an honorable thing to go to jail for a crime that he did not commit? But it was the most glorious deed in all of history because it was the greatest love that anyone ever could have shown. Jesus loved us so much that he gave us life to save us. If a fireman were to lose his life dashing into a burning building to save a child, we would consider that to be a truly honorable, even glorious, thing. Jesus dashed into a burning building, knowing that he had no chance of getting out alive, to save all mankind. Every human being that ever lived or ever will live had his sin paid for by Jesus' death. That is a truly glorious death.
Jesus won a kingdom by that death. Without Jesus' death, the church could not exist. But now it does exist and Jesus reigns over it, and indeed over all creation. From now until time ends, the church praises him for what he did two thousand years ago. But we are not the first ones to praise Jesus for his victory: God the Father did it first on the first Easter morning. On that day, God declared to all people everywhere that this was no impostor who died on the cross, this was no deranged criminal. This was his Son, whom he loved. Far from failing in his mission, God declared with the empty tomb that Jesus had won. He had paid for our sins and he had opened the doors of heaven. The Father declared that Jesus is both God and Savior when he raised him from the dead. God continued to praise the victory of Christ when he ascended into heaven and he sat at the Father's right hand -- the ultimate position of honor and authority. And God has set a day when Jesus will return, and all people everywhere will have to acknowledge that Jesus is both God and Lord. Even the unbelievers will have to cheer for him. They will have no choice.
Until that day comes, the praises that Jesus hears from this earth come from his church, the gathering of his believers. Those praises are no different from the praise that he heard on the cross. Jesus heard praise when a horrible sinner repented and trusted in his Lord. When one thief mocked Jesus, the other defended him. He clearly confessed that he deserved what he was getting, and yet, he turned in faith to his Lord and trusted that Christ, and Christ alone, could save him. The desperate defense of a dying criminal may not seem like much to the world, but to God it is the sweetest praise. God loved both of those thieves on the cross, in spite of the fact that they were scum. He wanted them to be saved, and when the second thief confessed his faith and defended his Lord, heaven rejoiced. It was the sweetest sound on all that horrible, dark day.
It is a sound that is repeated day after day and year after year as the church turns in repentance and faith to God and confesses its sin and trusts in Christ to get into heaven. No one knows better than we do how many times we have denied our Lord with our lives and with our lips, but God still comes to us with Jesus' death and offers us forgiveness. Our confession of our sin and of our trust that it has been erased by Jesus' blood is the ultimate song of praise that sinners sing to their resurrected and ascended Lord.
Jesus himself testified to the true, royal glory of the cross when he promised that dying sinner, "I tell you the truth, today, you will be with me in paradise." Jesus gave that man what only the King of Heaven can give: life eternal in heaven. That sinner entered heaven that day when he died. Jesus, our King, promises us exactly the same thing. He has won our salvation. Jesus tells each and every one of us on our death bed, "Today, you will be with me in paradise."
All of the jeering, all of the mockery, all of the pain of Calvary is over. The world is still mocking Jesus -- it will until he returns and the world discovers just how big its mistake has been. But the cheering has already begun. The fact that we are here today is part of that cheering. Like the thief who defended his Lord in spite of being nailed to a cross, each of us cheers for Christ with our lives of faith. Our testimony to our neighbor, our hymns of praise and our teaching of our children are all a part of that chorus that we raise day after day to God. Our lives that let Jesus' light shine, our support for our church in both money and time, our encouragement for one another in good times and bad are also all part of that glory. When we look at Jesus hanging there on that cross and we ask, is this royal glory? With united hearts and voices we answer, Yes, it absolutely is.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, our King, today and everyday is our opportunity to praise the victory of the cross. We praise it, not because we have to, but because of what it is: it is our victory over death, it is our salvation. Our King took our place to give us life. Our lives and our lips are our praise to God for that victory. Let us lift up our voices in song and in confession in this church service, and let us go out into our homes and our workplaces and glorify God with our lives and with our testimony. Amen.