My November 20th Sermon in San Miguel
What King Is This? Texts: Colossians 1: 11 – 20, Luke 23: 33 – 4
(If you prefer to view the video of the sermon, here’s the link)
After I sent my draft of this week’s Order of Worship to Luke Rich so that he might prepare it for the printer, Luke sent a message back. “Is this the right reading?”
It’s a good question. Why are we having a reading about the crucifixion of Christ now? It’s not Holy Week, not even Lent. For most of us, if this Sunday has any particular significance, it is as the Sunday before the American Thanksgiving.
But it is also, for us, for the church, the final Sunday of the church year. We call this, “Christ the King” Sunday. The year, our year, ends with a shout of acclamation, with the declaration that “Jesus Christ is our King.” Next Sunday we begin a new year. It will be the first Sunday of Advent.
Before long we will be singing “What Child Is This?” But before that, today, we ask “What King Is This?” We ask what kind of King is King Jesus? What kind of Lord and God is he?
Remember that Rome’s Caesar was considered divine, God himself. Roman citizens were expected to hail Caesar by saying, “Caesar is Lord.” Christians got in trouble because they wouldn’t say that. They said, “Jesus is Lord.” Every time they said. “Jesus is Lord,” they were also saying, “Caesar is not.”
What kind of King, what kind of Lord, is he?
Many, perhaps most rulers, use their power to enhance and to protect themselves. Their power is self-aggrandizing. They compete ruthlessly for power and retaliate against their enemies. As Jesus said, “You know that among the Gentiles, those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and the great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not to be so among you, but whoever wishes to be great among you, must be your servant.” (Mark 10: 42 -43)
In our lesson for Christ the King Sunday, Jesus hangs upon the cross. As he did so he was taunted and mocked. Three times. First, we are told “leaders” scoffed, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Messiah.” Such cruelty, such smugness. And do you hear how the leaders defined power? It is the power to protect, to save, yourself.
Second, the soldiers who had divided among themselves his few clothes, mocked him saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” Kings save themselves. Finally, one of the two criminals crucified alongside him said derivsively, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” “If you are a King, prove it, save yourself. Tiime for the big power play.”
As he began his ministry, Jesus was tempted, tested, three times by Satan, each an invitation to use his power as the Son of God, to enhance himself, to save himself. Now, at the end, three times again. “Don’t you get it Jesus, the whole point of power is to save yourself!”
That’s how the world understands power. That’s how the autocrats, the so-called “strongmen” of today’s world understand power. That’s how Vladimir Putin understands power. And that is now how some Christians now understand power. They assure us that Jesus today would be carrying an AR-15 to destroy his enemies.
Jesus is not that kind of King. His crown is a crown of thorns, his throne is the cross. He did not lord it over others. He submits to God’s will. He shares our vulnerability rather than offering an illusion of invulnerability. He gave himself to us and for us, to save us, to wipe out a debt we could not pay ourselves. The enormity of that debt is on display here. We may think we would never say such things, never taunt or scoff at one so suffering and rejected. That we would never use our power to protect ourselves. Are you sure?
The world’s kings and rulers make never-ending demands of their followers. Be more loyal to me! Give me more! Work harder for me! For them, the King, the one with power, whether Pharoah in Egypt or Putin in Moscow or Likes on Facebook/ Instagram, demands ever more of us. It’s never enough. We are never enough.
In Christ the King, God gives, gives himself. This King offers grace — his one-way love — for our cruelty, for indifference, for our self-satisfaction. He joins, hangs with, the broken, the lost, those who are at the end of their rope. He gives hope to the hopeless, mercy to the broken and rest to the weary. “Come to me all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
And yet . . . and yet, sometimes we preachers and we, church, also sound like the world’s harsh and demanding kings. We sound like rulers lording it over others, and not like the one who said, “I will give you rest.” We preach law, not grace; demand, not mercy.
Desmond Tutu, the great South African archbishop once said something that has helped me a great deal. He said, “People think Christianity is a religion of virtue. It is not. It is a religion of grace.” What is the difference?
A religion of virtue says to people, “If you are good enough, then God will love you.” Perhaps you heard such a message from a parent or a preacher? Many of us speak such a message to ourselves, and then beat up on ourselves when we don’t measure up. “If you are good enough, then you will be loved.” That coin has another side: “If people knew the truth they would know what a mess you are, and that no one could ever really love you.”
“Christianity,” said Tutu is not a religion of virture or achievement. Ours is a religion of grace. A religion of grace says, “I love you, I forgive you, I am for you. There’s nothing you can do to deserve my love and nothing you can do to undo my love for you.” Just the other day I heard a man speak of his father, who he acknowledged was an imperfect man in many ways. But whenever his father introduced him to someone, he put his arm around him and said, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well-pleased,” the same words spoken at Jesus’ baptism. What a gift.
Craig Parton is an attorney who serves as the United States Director of the International Academy of Human Rights based in Strasbourg, France. In his book, The Defense Never Rests: A Lawyer’s Quest for the Gospel, Parton describes his journey from unexamined atheism to faith in the Gospel. His conversion was all about grace, God’s one-way love and mercy for him.
But not long after converting to Christianity, Parton says he was dismayed to discover that much of modern American Christianity isn’t about grace, it is a treadmill of personal self-improvement, striving to fulfill laws and rules, or a roller-coaster ride chasing one spiritual high to the next, always seeking but never fully satisfied.
“I experienced what happens when the Law and the Gospel are not understood and thus not distinguished. My Christian life, which truly had begun by grace, was now being ‘perfected’ on the treadmill of the Law. My pastors told me to yield more, to pray more, to give more, to care about unbelievers more, to read the Bible more, to get involved with the church more, to love my wife more, to love my kids more.
Many years passed before “I understood that my Christian life had come to center, not on Christ, but upon me, on my life, my obedience, my yielding, my Bible verse memorization, my prayers, my zeal, my witnessing, and my sermon application.
“Something had changed. God was a Father all right, but a painfully demanding one.”
For Parton, the fruit ultimately born in his life by these so called gospel messages was exhaustion and weariness. To Do List Christianity and Self-Improvement Spirituality burnt him out.
It left him hating himself for the ways he fell short and the times he relapsed, and it made him critical and self-righteous towards others whose discipleship did not measure up to his own. As a result, he was less content and more unkind than he had been before he became a Christian.
Parton’s preachers and church had, perhaps with good intentions, replaced a religion of grace with a religion of virtue, replaced the Gospel with Law. The demands never let up. Parton beat up on himself for failing to achieve what he thought he should. It wasn’t about what Christ had done but what he himself must do.
There’s another side to turning Christianity into a demanding religion of law, of achievement. It encourages us to pretend to a perfection we do not possess, to pretend that we always have it together. That we need no grace, need no Jesus. “I’ve got this, I’ve got it together,” is the message.
A young pastor friend of mine noticed that a member of his congregation had not been in church for several weeks so he sent her a note saying she had been missed and asking if she were okay. He got the following note back:
“Thank you for your kind note. You’re right. I’ve not been to church in over a month. There is no reason for my absence other than to say that I simply could not do it anymore. I felt like, for my own good, I had to stay away.
“Some background,” she added, “might be helpful:
“After my son graduated from high school, we discovered he’d been abused for years by someone close to our family. It tore us apart. My son lashed out with anger and alcohol. I blamed myself for not knowing, not seeing it, not being able to stop it. I nursed my own guilt with alcohol and pills. With a lot of help, he’s healing slowly and putting his life back together. When he was a boy, he was so happy. I could easily have shot the man when I first found out. That’s not all.
“My daughter married her high school sweetheart, whom, she did not discover until too late, was an alcoholic. He was a respectable-looking accountant who first just slapped her around a bit. When he finally really hit her, she left with our grandson but only after he’d spent all the money she’d saved.
“Jason, here’s why I have stayed away from church. I know that, as a Christian, I should forgive those men. I know I should forgive myself too. I know that I should at least be working towards forgiving them. But I can’t. And, believe me, it’s not because I haven’t tried hard.”
“Maybe it’s not fair to you, but it felt like every time I came to church I wasn’t being told what God has done for me in Jesus. I was told instead what I needed to do for God, to do what I already can’t find the strength to do; namely, forgive them. Church just somehow became another place in my life where I felt like a failure, and you, though you seem like a nice person, you became another man in my life who was devouring the parts of me that remain.”
She ended the note with a postscript:
“I’ll be back and give it another try. But a word of advice, since you’re a new preacher: I don’t need to be reminded every Sunday of what I ought to do as a Christian. Believe me, knowing what we should do is not the problem for any of us. Every day, though, I need a reminder that God has met me in my failures— God has met me in my failure to forgive— and God forgives me.’ (emphasis added)
That, dear friends, is the gospel of our King and Lord and Savior, Jesus. His is not the word of law, asking us always to do more, to be better, to work harder or to pretend we have it together when we don’t.
His is the gospel of grace. He knows how you and I have failed. Those failures do not define you. It is his grace that defines you. He knows the burdens we carry. He know the sins and addictions that have imprisoned us. He has become our sin, that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
One of the criminals crucified with Jesus taunted him, “If you are the Messiah, save yourselves and us.” The other criminal told the truth about his failure, his desperate need of mercy. No longer did he try to be the king and lord of his life, in charge of his life. He threw himself upon Christ’s mercy and mercy he found. “Today,” said Jesus to this man, “you shall be with me in paradise.”
A friend of mine likes to say, “At the end of our rope is where God’s office is located.”
Our king is not a merciless and constantly demanding ruler who requires us to achieve, or pretend to a perfection we can never possess. Ours is not a religion of law, but of grace.
Rejoice, dear ones, for God’s grace is real, God’s mercy is powerful, and God’s forgiveness carries away our sin and our shame. That is what this King, enthroned upon a cross, does for us.
“He has,” as Paul writes in the passage from Colossians, “rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Rest this day in this, in what God has done. Rest on the grace of the one who is King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the Risen One.
“For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Amen.
** I am indebted to my friend, Jason Micheli, for the story of his parishioner and her note.