(Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 46, Colossians 1:11-20)
(watch here: https://youtu.be/dL5R7Sgk_oU)
33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Each year we start the Advent season by celebrating the kingship of our Lord, Jesus. It is a day commonly referred to as “Christ the King Sunday.” Like the Backwards King from our children’s message, it can seem a little strange that we would be celebrating the kingship of Jesus before he was even born. Indeed, it IS a little strange! But at the same time, it is also perfectly appropriate. Jesus IS a king so remembering this only adds to the anticipation of the Advent season. We aren’t awaiting the birth of just a normal boy—we’re awaiting the birth of our KING! This is exciting news! This is good news! This is hopeful news!
Now I realize that for most of us here this morning the idea of awaiting the birth of a king has little to no appeal. We don’t live in a society that is governed by a king anymore. We live in a society that is governed by elected representatives of the people. We live in a society that is run by the people, for the people. We live in a society that is no longer in need of a king…that no longer wants a king! Recall our Pilgrim ancestors who fled the unjust and unwarranted persecution of England’s king. It is in our societal and cultural DNA to despise the rule of kings. So it is no wonder that celebrating the kingship of our Lord can seem a little foreign to many of us.
But Jesus is a king unlike other kings as was illustrated by the children’s message earlier. Jesus didn’t act like a king. Jesus certainly wasn’t treated like a king by many of the people around him. Jesus didn’t rule like a king. Jesus didn’t enjoy all the riches and wealth of a king. Jesus didn’t have a clearly defined kingdom. No, Jesus was not like other kings! Yet we continue to celebrate his kingship year after year. Why? Perhaps because he was, and IS, such an unusual king. Because he doesn’t act like a king, because he isn’t treated like a king, because he doesn’t rule like a king, because he doesn’t enjoy the lavish lifestyle of a king, and because his kingdom isn’t clearly defined…perhaps these are the very reasons why we continue to celebrate his kingship in our lives. Jesus IS a king like no other king and because of this we allow him to be the king of our lives.
To help illustrate just how unusual a king Jesus is, allow me to lift up a story about a king that I imagine is similar to many kings: Once upon a time, there was a foolish King who believed that he was the cleverest of all the people in his kingdom. He was convinced that nobody could trick him. Every day he displayed his wisdom in his palace, and predictably, his minsters applauded every word he spoke. Not satisfied, the King decided to find out if there was anybody in the world who was smarter than he was. He ordered his ministers, “Find a person smarter than me. A person who is clever and can outsmart me. Search the world and bring a person before me. I will test him and if I beat him he has to be my slave.”
The King’s ministers set out to find such a person who could take on the King. They met several wise men but even they were smart enough to know that if you competed with the King, you might end up being the king’s slave. Nobody was ready to take up the challenge. Worried over the prospect of returning to the King without any challenger, the ministers reached the very border of the kingdom. They decided to spend the night in the nearby village. The villagers here were poor because the farmlands belonged to the king. Besides, he charged the villagers a hefty tax for using it. The villagers were left with nothing, even if they toiled throughout the year.
Despite their hardship, they treated the king’s men well. They gave them a hearty meal, and entertained them around a campfire lit in the village center with stories, poems, and riddles. During the course of the evening, one fellow caught the attention of the ministers. He was very quick with his answers and clever in his ways. His name was Vonik. They approached him and suggested that he travel with them to the King’s palace and compete with him. Although reluctant at first, Vonik agreed to go with them. He said, “I won’t take my coat or my hat. I will come with you if you agree to take me to King just like this.” The King’s men agreed and they took him to the king.
“So you think that you are very clever,” the King asked Vonik, when he was presented before the King. He then commanded, “I challenge you to trick me. But I am warning you, I am a very tricky customer, and you will not be able to beat me,” the King added. Vonik replied, “I am afraid of just that, your majesty. I would not have come if I had time to think. I left in such a hurry that I forgot to take my coat and hat, and even my tools to trick people.” “You use tools for tricking people?” the King was intrigued. “Yes, your majesty,” Vonik replied. “I would like to see the tools that you use. Why don’t you go home and return with them?” the King ordered. “But I need 100 horse-pulled carts to bring them all. And it will take at least six months to load them,” Vonik replied. “Take whatever you need from my stables, but come back as soon as you can,” the King was becoming impatient.
So Vonik took the 100 finest horses from the Kings stables, 100 carts and set out towards his village. Just before leaving he asked the King again, “If I lose to you, I will become your slave, but what if I win?” “That won’t happen. However, for the sake of the contest, I can make a promise. What do you want?” asked the King. “I want something that you never use,” Vonik was quick in his reply. “Okay,” the King said, and Vonik left for his village.
Once in the village, Vonik split the 100 horses between the villagers and with their help completed one season of cultivation. All the grain was cut and filled into the granaries within the stipulated six months. At the end of six months, Vonik filled his carts with empty wine containers, and left for the palace. The King welcomed him and demanded to see the tools that he brought. Vonik started unpacking them, and the King’s dog came into the room. Seeing a stranger, the dog went up to Vonik and sniffed him. “There is another problem, your majesty,” Vonik told the King. “This dog just told me that my wife is seriously ill, your majesty. I have to go. Please lend me your best horse, so I can reach their fast,” requested Vonik. The King relented on the condition that he will return as early as possible.
Vonik reached his village and sold the black horse given to him and bought a black donkey instead. He came back sitting on the black donkey. “What is this? What took you so long and where is my horse?” the King exclaimed. “The horse turned into a donkey on the way and that’s why it took me so long to reach home and return. Why did you give me such a horse?” he asked the King. “Sorry, I didn’t know that. He was fine all the years I rode him.” The King sounded almost apologetic. “Now forget all that, have a seat. And when are you going to try and trick me?” the King asked. “Sit down your majesty. Let me ask some questions. Did you ever use any tools for outsmarting people?” asked Vonik. “No,” said the King. “Then how did you believe that I use some tools to do that. If you focus, you will realize that I already tricked you once,” said Vonik. The King had no alternative but to accept. “Now did your dog ever talk to you? How did you ever believe that it talked to me?” asked Vonik. The King was beginning to see the light. “Now did the black horse ever turn into a donkey all these years? You believed that as well. If you notice, I tricked you three times already,” Vonik said triumphantly.
The King realized he had lost the duel. As per the agreement, he asked, “Now I have to give you something I don’t use. What do you want?” “Your head,” came Vonik’s reply. The foolish King got scared and began trembling. Vonik took pity on him and said, “But you can give me something else instead. The farmlands and forests should be returned to the villagers to earn their livelihood.” The King readily agreed and gave them back to the villagers. Vonik returned to his village and lived a long and happy life. The foolish King never tried to ascertain his smartness again.
Our Lord, Jesus, is not unlike the clever Vonik. Jesus goes up against the evil forces of this world and continuously outmaneuvers and outthinks them. And never for selfish gain or popularity either. Jesus serves those who serve him. Jesus gathers those who have scattered in disbelief and brings them back to his fold so that “they shall be fruitful and multiply,” as alluded to by the prophet Jeremiah in our first lesson. Both Vonik and Jesus use their wits to provide for those they serve. They create new life and new opportunities in despairing situations. As Paul writes to the congregation at Colossae, Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for 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.” Jesus is love and out of him all things were created. All things are born from love. All things are nurtured by love. All things find purpose in love. Love is the source of all goodness in this world and the next. Without love, we have nothing. A king who rules out of love is a mighty king indeed!
So as we await the birth of our king, let us celebrate just how unusual a king he is. Jesus is not like other kings. His reign’s most distinguishing characteristic is that he rules out of and through love. Other kings have ruled through fear or power or glory or honor or doubt. But Jesus has and will always rule through love. There are few rewards for love other than love in return. Jesus will never be materially rich like other kings. Jesus’ kingdom is of both this world and the next world so it isn’t really clearly defined. Rooted in nothing but love, Jesus’ behavior and actions can seem confusing for many who don’t understand love itself. Let us celebrate and give thanks for Jesus…an unlikely king.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.