Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.Book of Common Prayer
Advent will be upon us next week, but this week we celebrate Christ the King. It seems a fitting ending for the Ordinary Time of the Christian calendar–where the focus has been on our life in the Spirit–to circle back again to Jesus and his rule.
The readings for this Sunday in the Episcopal Lectionary begin with Jeremiah 23: 1-6. Here the prophet laments the failure of Israel’s earthly kings to truly shepherd their people. He looks ahead to the promise of a “righteous Branch” whose name is (as the KJV has in all caps) THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.
The mediation on Christ the King begins with the need of a king who will care for his scattered people. But the prophet also calls out the need for judgment. True kingship requires righteousness judgment. We recognize not just the need for a king, but for a true and good king who will reign as a shepherd.
The Epistle reading in Colossians 1:11-20 establishes who that king is and why he is qualified to be the King.
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.
Here Paul teaches Christ’s role in creating and sustaining the created order as well as his role the redemption of his creation. Christ can be King because he is Lord. This world is not only his creation, but he is the “beginning” and the “firstborn” of this creation. When you say “Today we celebrate Christ the King,” these are the images we call immediately to mind–the glory of a Creator, the victory of a Redeemer, the power of a Sustainer.
But notice verse 19 & 20, here we see the foreshadowing of theme that will help to make sense of the words that follow in the Gospel reading:
“19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and 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. ”
God the Father has submitted his glory and fullness to Jesus. While he may have the “right” to be King, it is his pleasure to submit that to his Son. Hold this in mind as you turn to the words from the Gospel in Luke 23:33-43.
Here on Christ the King Sunday, we don’t read the story of Jesus’s glory like baptism, the Transfiguration, or Ascension, we move right to the heart of the Crucifixion story where Christ is mocked as King of the Jews and taunted by the thief to demonstrate his power by rescuing them all from death. This is not the story we are looking for this day, is it? What about the king who will rule with righteousness? What about the power of a Creator King to judge and restore the hope of the people? This story doesn’t align.
And yet, this is exactly what we need to realize. The story of our King doesn’t align with what we think of kingship. It is, rather, the story of humility. It is the rule of a King in an upside-down kingdom where death is life, where meekness is majesty. In the way that the Father lays aside himself to allow his fullness to dwell in the Son, so the Son lays aside his rule to redeem his people.
The concept of humility is not one that we readily embrace as humans, especially in the West. In fact, some argue that it is a uniquely Christian concept (see this sermon by Glenn Packiam). In fact, it is our pride that can get in the way of receiving this truth. Are we willing to submit to someone who is so willing to submit himself? To serve a king such as this requires a similar kind of humility. Only such a king is worthy of our worship.
It is also fitting that this vision of humility and sacrifice are the words that open the door to Advent and Christmas where we consider the magnitude and wonder of his surrender in the Incarnation.