Ezek 34:11-12, 15-17
1 Cor 15:20-26, 28
It’s that time of year when our thoughts turn liturgically to advent – that shrinking season that has been eroded into near non-significance by Halloween on one side and Christmas on the other, two commercial tsunamis with the shrinking island of Thanksgiving – or at least Black Friday — in the middle. Jesus once said that you can’t serve both God and mammon, and it looks like Mammon is winning.
In any case, next Sunday we begin that beautiful season of waiting and preparation for the coming of our Lord and Savior, and, in a slightly underplayed theme in scripture, our king. This Sunday we are celebrating the Feast of Christ the King. It’s something of a puzzle actually. It appeared in the Church’s calendar only in 1925, when Pope Pius XI instituted it as a rejoinder to what he correctly perceived as the advancing tide of secularism and atheism. But it didn’t do much for the kings of the earth themselves.
Only about a dozen real kings are still in evidence today. Plus two queens, a couple of Grand Dukes, a prince or two, and a smattering of sultans and the like who aren’t real kings although are still absolute monarchs. All the kings and queens, except one, King Mswati III of Swaziland, are constitutional monarchs, meaning they don’t have the kind of power and authority that once made the title feared and generally loathed. In the United States, France, Ireland, and other Republics, we simply got rid of kings one way or other. For democratic republicans or for that matter republican democrats, being called a king is not a compliment, which seems to be the bottom line in the recent display of annoyance expressed by Mr. Boehner and President Obama.
Still, even in the United States, we have a kind of nostalgic admiration for what might be called the true king, as seen in the popularity of stories and films such as The Lord of the Rings and King Arthur. We have fond memories of the Kennedy administration’s Camelot image, an echo of the affection we have for Arthur. These stories tend to turn on the quest for the true king, the real king, who will restore the rule of justice, love, and peace that false kings and queens have squelched. There’s a little of that in Game of Thrones, but not much. In that, as in the actual history of the world, kings tend to be bloody, violent, mean, and nasty. It’s helpful to recall that when the Israelites first demanded a king. The prophet Samuel took them to task and when they finally prevailed warned them that their kings would be tyrants, thugs, killers, and bullies. That included the best of them, David, whose moral compass got lost in the shuffle soon after he killed Goliath.
Years back, the novelist and scholar Robert Graves wrote a book called King Jesus which turned on the teachings of Jesus as a wise philosopher rather than a ruler, and the title was meant as a kind of gentle irony.
Jesus himself had some major reservations when the king business was brought up. When after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, his countrymen were about to come and take him by force to make him king, “he withdrew again to the mountain by himself” [John 6:15]. Even before Pilate, as we read in all the gospels, Jesus refused to acknowledge the accusation that he had made himself a king. John’s gospel has the longest account:
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”
Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him.” [John 18:33-38].
In today’s readings, we hear more about sheep and shepherds than we do about kings, and that tells us more about the kingship of Jesus than the shouts of the crowds on Palm Sunday and, not to be forgotten, Good Friday. For Jesus came preaching the Kingdom of God, the reign of God, a reign of truth, peace, love, and freedom, as the liturgy proclaims. As the human face of God, Jesus came to inaugurate that Kingdom, and he started it by preaching salvation to the poor, reconciling sinners, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, curing the blind, and welcoming outcasts, the wretched of the earth, and all the lost and lonely. Today’s gospel reading, the complement to the Beatitudes that Matthew places at the beginning of his gospel, tell us what our role must be to take our place in that kingdom.
Christ the President, or Christ the Prime Minister, Christ the Chairman, or even Christ the Queen hardly has the same impact as Christ the King. As Lord and sovereign, the human face of God for us, Jesus is likely to remain the King, but as always not the King of Infinite Space, but the King of Hearts. And so, in the weeks ahead, let’s get ready to meet the King by making sure our hearts are in the right place, not only at Christmas, but at all times. And let us pray that our actions will express our allegiance as they should so that at his coming we will hear “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world [Matt 25:34]…