Anyone remember when Prince William got married in 2011? His fiancée, Kate Middleton, had an 18-carat blue sapphire and diamond ring—a ring that was previously owned by Princess Diana herself. After eight years of dating, Prince William was finally ready to ask Kate to marry into the royal family. News of their engagement swept the media around the world.
And then, it was the wedding. Shown live on TV (and re-shown many times afterwards) people around the globe watched William and Kate say their vows and become the next British modern royal couple.
And then, it was news of William and Kate’s first born son that got everyone’s attention. Pictures of baby George were everywhere. Photo spreads of George’s baptism dominated magazines for weeks. And then they had their second child, Charlotte, who also got a lot of media attention.
Now, people are obsessed with Princess Kate’s shoes and feet. She is known for wearing heels while playing cricket, and on a trip to India earlier this year, the couple’s first trip overseas since their daughter Charlotte was born, media outlets exploded because—get this—when entering a museum at which visitors had to take off their shoes, Princess Kate DARED to bare her un-pedicured feet. News outlets went nuts because she didn’t make sure her feet were meticulously cared for, and some even speculated that she had a foot condition. You can’t make this stuff up.
It’s incredibly strange to me that Americans seem to be fascinated by England’s royal family. Most Americans would say that we are decidedly against having a monarchy (Revolutionary War, anyone?), and yet we want to read about the future king and queen of England and their offspring, and I guess even read about their feet.
Maybe we like hearing about the royal family because (although the current royal family doesn’t have this as much) we still think of a king or queen as having power to rule. And ruling over a place means that a ruler has the power to make things happen. Great things. Life-changing things.
In Psalm 46 [our Call to Worship/the Psalm we read responsively), God is a God of power. Of might. A refuge. A fortress. Even when everything is in chaos—the earth changing, waters roaring, mountains trembling, nations warring, kingdoms tottering-- God only needs to utter a word, and the earth melts. God is always present and has power over all. “Be still and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth,” God tells us. The eternal king, God rules over all and acts to make great things to happen. Martin Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress is our God” is based on this psalm.
Luther writes in the second verse of “A Mighty Fortress” how powerful the Evil One is, yet there is One even more powerful:
No strength of ours can match his might! We would be lost, rejected.
But now a champion comes to fight, whom God himself elected.
You ask who this may be? The Lord of hosts is he!
Christ Jesus mighty Lord, God’s only Son adored, He holds the field victorious.
Satan is powerful, but Jesus is the one who “holds the field victorious.” Jesus is the “mighty Lord,” adored as God’s only son. Jesus’ power and might is the main reason we celebrate the last Sunday of the church year as Christ the King Sunday. Jesus is King—ruler over all, powerful and mighty, able to vanquish the devil in the name of all that is good.
And yet, the Gospel reading in Luke today paints a different picture. Jesus, beaten and weak and abandoned by his disciples. Jesus, not saying a word in his defense or trying to escape from his death sentence. Jesus, crucified on a cross like a criminal and flanked by two other criminals. Jesus, mocked by almost everyone around him, telling him to save himself. Even the title over his head added to the mocking. The sign above him, “This is the King of the Jews” mocked rather than praised him. It basically said, “Ha! You’re a king, huh? Well, we’ll see about that! What kind of a king is put to death like a criminal, with no friends?”
And really, if we think about that, what kind of king is Jesus in this picture? What happened to the King Jesus, the Messiah, all-powerful Christ? What happened to King Jesus who, only a short time before, had ridden into Jerusalem with shouts from the people: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” But now Jesus isn’t a king ruling with power—Jesus is belittled, mocked, beaten and dying. Not much of a king, most would say.
And still today, we want our leaders to be powerful, mighty people. We want our leaders to be strong, to stand up to those who would try to bring them down. A good leader is one who knows what he or she wants and then goes for it. A good leader speaks up and is able to navigate through all of the political relationships necessary to stay in power. Wanting good, strong leaders is not necessarily a bad thing—we want people who will lead us well. But we tend to focus on the strength of our leaders so much—and because we do that, any weakness in our leaders means that we should feel nervous.
Every election cycle, in political campaigns we see lots of ads and media coverage preying on this fear—political candidates like to show the weaknesses in their opponents. And even when their weakness has nothing to do with the leader being able to serve in his/her role, our view of the leader goes down and the leader is no longer considered effective.
I don’t have to cite any examples from our most recent presidential campaign, because it’s still very fresh in our minds-- and I’m sure as I was speaking, you were remembering many examples of this. The message with these ads and the media coverage is clear-- any weakness in a leader means that he or she is less effective. Just as it was in Jesus’ time, we still today expect our leaders to be powerful and strong, with hardly a sign of weakness.
But-- in the Gospel reading for today, there was one single person who sees leadership in a different light. One of the criminals was like everyone else—he mocked Jesus and told him to save himself. The second criminal, though, says to the other. “Why aren’t you showing the proper respect to God? All three of us are going to die today. We got what we deserved, since we did what we’re being punished for, but Jesus is innocent and is being executed anyway.” Then, amazingly, the man asks Jesus to remember him when Jesus enters Jesus’ kingdom. This man sees Jesus as a king, while everyone else did not or could not.
So what made this man different? Why was he able to recognize Jesus as a king he is, when everyone else only saw Jesus as a weak and dying man who should be ridiculed? Maybe it was when Jesus asked his father to forgive those who were crucifying him and mocking him. Maybe it was then that he realized Jesus was different—how many of us would be able to do such a thing, to ask God to forgive the people who are killing us? Only Jesus, Messiah and God in human form, could do such a thing.
This unnamed man, this criminal, is ridden with guilt, and in desperate need of forgiveness. He knew he would be dying that day, and knew that he was dying because he was getting the punishment he deserved. And while the other criminal continued to mock Jesus as the others had done, this man realized instead that he needed Jesus’ love and forgiveness. So he asks Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And Jesus gives the man more than he even asked for. Jesus not only gives him the forgiveness the man craved, but eternal life with Jesus himself. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Even while dying, Jesus-- the true king-- is able to give the man more than he could ever ask for.
When Will and I were driving to Ohio recently, and when we stopped for gas in Pennsylvania, this was a sign we saw across from the gas station. I took the picture as we were filling up the tank. [Show picture of sign that reads: “TRUMP: Our Only Hope! Make America Great Again!”]
And as I looked at this sign, I got angry. And I wasn’t angry because it was a Trump sign. I wasn’t angry at Trump. I wasn’t angry at Clinton. I wasn’t even angry at the election in general, although I have to say that the whole election process this round really tapped into some deep-seated emotions I didn’t even know I had. I was angry because this sign was saying exactly what was wrong with how we viewed our candidates. Saying someone is “our only hope” is downright scary.
Because here’s the thing. One of the major reasons this election got so nasty and so awful is because we put ALL OUR HOPE in who would be president.
We put our hope in human beings, fallible humans, just like us, to save us, to save our country—and said that the opposition would ruin us, ruin the country. We believed that a certain person would usher in a uptopia and make our country the way it was supposed to be, and the other person would make our country hell on earth and run the U.S. into the ground and cause World War III.
Seriously. We all did it at some point. Even if we weren’t originally thrilled with the choices, we saw our chosen candidate as our last chance, our “ONLY HOPE.” It may have been because we wanted things to be better, wanted to believe that whoever became president could make a difference. It may have been because we feared for what would happen if the other candidate was elected. It may have been because the media tapped into our deepest fears and encouraged us to see one or the other candidate as our only hope.
My guess is that it was all of the above, a perfect storm where we truly believed that all our hope rested on one human being.
But I’ve got news for you. Our hope has been misplaced. Our only hope is NOT President-elect Donald Trump, or Hillary Clinton, or Gary Johnson, or Jill Stein, or fill-in-the-blank-with-any-politican’s-name. NONE of these people are our only hope. NONE of these people can save us. Our elected officials can make a difference, of course, that’s why we have elections and elect them. But they are not our only hope, they cannot save us.
You know who is our only hope? You know who can save us, and HAS saved us? JESUS. Jesus, God in human form, who came down to earth to teach and heal and forgive, and speak and act against evil and to ultimately die for us so that we could live with him forever. ONLY JESUS does that. That’s who our only hope is—not any politician. Our hope is in JESUS.
In a world where we tend to misplace our hope and put our hope in our earthly leaders and expect them to be super strong and perfect and make our world perfect, we find out really quickly that they will always fall short. They are only human.
But Jesus, who is 100% God and 100% human, shows us a different way to be a leader, to be king. He is a completely different kind of king.
People expect a king with a crown and a throne. Jesus the king has a crown of thorns and dies on a cross, like a criminal.
People expect to provide for a king by paying taxes, so that the king can live in a palace, have entertainment, and eat lots of rich food. Jesus the king has nowhere to lay his head, travels to teach and share the Good News, and provides for us.
People expect a king to wage wars against other nations and have the people die for him in battle. Jesus the king wages war against evil and dies for us.
People expect a king to die honorably, in battle or otherwise. Jesus the king dies at the hand of an oppressive government, as a criminal.
But here’s the coolest thing ever-- the criminal execution of Jesus on the cross becomes the biggest victory for humanity! On the cross, where it seemed like Satan had won, God actually won. By sacrificing his life, Jesus defeated sin and death on the cross. The cross, this Roman execution device, is transformed. It is now the symbol of God’s victory over all.
We can proudly wear this symbol around our necks, display it in our homes, in our churches, because it symbolizes God’s amazing and transformative power over evil. Amazingly, Jesus’ kingly power, the power described in Psalm 46, is made obvious in the weakness of the cross.
It’s power in a way we don’t expect—the power to die, the power to sacrifice, the power to reign through weakness. Jesus is the surprising king, a king who died and rose from the dead and sent his Spirit to sustain his followers. He loves you so much that he was willing to do all that!
I saw a framed story on the wall of a colleague, and it told the story of a child who had a conversation with Jesus. The child asked Jesus one day “How much do you love me?” And Jesus stretched his arms out, replied “This much,” and died.
Jesus the king loves you and died for you so that you could be free to live for him, to live as princes and princesses in his kingdom. Because Jesus does that, for us, we can put our hope in Jesus Christ, who was and is and will always be OUR ONLY HOPE. Because it’s JESUS who rules over our country and our world, who saves us, who we worship as our king.
And that is the power of Christ the King. Amen?