Reflection: King Jesus

November 21, 2021

The first Hebrew Bible reading for today takes us back to this summer, when we were working our way through stories about King David.  It makes an interesting cap to the year past – looking at the ideal of what Biblical kingship was meant to be and the reality of what it actually ended up being.  (It’s a bit like talking about “Biblical family values” and forgetting that most of the family relationships we see in the Bible are pretty dysfunctional by today’s standards.)  In theory, the ruler in Biblical Israel and Judah was meant to be the instrument of God on earth: caring for those most vulnerable in that society, protecting the people from harm, leading the people in the ways of God as described in the books of the Law given to Moses. Instead, the people got a succession of rulers – even well-intentioned ones! – who exploited the poor, murdered those who got in their way, took their daughters for slaves and their sons for soldiers in a seemingly endless succession of wars great and small…in other words, not at all like the God we have learned about through the stories of Jesus.  How could such leaders ever claim to represent the One we know in Jesus?

That’s why this day at the end of the year, Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday, is always a good time to check in on just what we mean when we say, “Christ is Lord” or refer to him as “Master” or “King of Kings”.  We don’t mean Jesus is anything like those Biblical kings with their corruption, conquest, conflicts and search for power and wealth.  We don’t mean Jesus is like even our own contemporary kings and queens, who are very wealthy, very pampered figureheads for the most part. (The best work very hard, and truly see themselves as servants of their people – but their way of life doesn’t quite fit the pattern we see in Jesus.)  The worst sorts of kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, are like the ones feared by the Jews of Daniel’s time and later under the Greek and Roman empires,  as well as the Christians of the early church: rulers who were unstable, narcissistic, often cruel, and incredibly powerful.  Such rulers often claim to be on God’s side, and cultivate religious figures as allies to prop up their power; some even claim to be gods or Christ-figures themselves!  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Instead of these leaders who either take their power for granted or misuse their power in the search for more, we have a very different picture in Jesus.  Jesus could have avoided everything that happened to him after that Last Supper with his disciples.  He could have gone into hiding, or called on his supporters in the rural areas to fight on his behalf. He could have led a rebellion against Rome like the Macabees did, and holed up in desert caves fighting a resistance movement as the modern-day Afghan guerillas have done for decades.  But Jesus did not use force. He did not use his power to influence people to violence or to grab for more power.  He did not grasp the opportunities given him to be crowned a king in a worldly sense.  What power he had, he relinquished, because he knew that there was a different kind of power – a power of compassion, vulnerability, self-giving, that was a truer way of living for God.

One of the reasons I thought that song, En Prière, would be appropriate for today is because it is a vignette of a humble person at prayer – and not just anyone, but someone who calls themselves God’s child, and who is willing to journey to the cross if that’s what it takes to show the people how much God loves them.  Interpreters I read disagreed over whether this was the child Jesus at prayer in the temple when he visited with his parents on his 12th birthday, or whether this is the adult Jesus at prayer later in life.  Either way, it’s a portrait of someone who does not grasp and cling to power, but who seeks to speak truth that will heal, comfort the broken and sorrowful, and point the way to the One God.  This is the Servant King.

Like some other parts of our language attached to God, many prefer to just not use this KINGSHIP language anymore, because it is so loaded with the weight of centuries of hierarchical societies.  In such places power is exercised to keep people in their place rather than lift them up,  wealth is hoarded by the few while the rest suffer, and some people are seen as more deserving of status than others – while those others become simply cogs or tools in a great machine that keeps the few at the top and the rest at the bottom.  I absolutely see the problems with these images, and so I’m pretty careful about how much or how I use that language. You’ll see that sometimes words have been changed in our hymns as well, or alternate words given, to reflect how problematic these images can be.

However, the use of the language of kingship, lordship, master – can also be subversive.  You might remember, that’s how it was used in the early Christian community.  Every time a Christian said, “Jesus is Lord” they were saying, “Ceasar isn’t” “Herod isn’t” “the Roman governor isn’t”. It was a statement that could get you arrested or worse!  In a contemporary era in which Christianity is being coopted to support so-called Christian nationalism and white supremacy, perhaps it’s time to say, “Jesus is Lord, and no politician or party has a higher claim on my life”.  “Jesus is my Boss, and no economic system, organization or workplace has a greater hold on me”.  “Jesus is my Master, and no-one else will ever be – I don’t care what your race or gender or orientation or claim to fame is.”  “The only one who I will give my life to is Jesus”. Period.  The End.

This is what it means to refer to Jesus as King and Lord.  Despite all this, what fascinates me is that we are still looking for someone powerful to save us.  We still want that warrior leader to come in, scatter our enemies and make everything right. We want someone to force the evil out of power and end all that is wrong with our world – as is imagined in that vivid vision from the Book of Daniel.  Our hymns, our prayers, our Scriptures all express that yearning – and that is natural, because it reflects a genuine awareness that we have messed things up, and we don’t know how to fix the damage humans just keep doing.

Yet the subtle message of this Sunday is that God generally doesn’t work that way. [I won’t say never, because God is mystery, and I’m not going to dictate what God can and cannot do!] God lures, rather than coercing.  God inspires, rather than forcing. God urges, rather than pushing.  God serves, rather than ruling.  Because we have the freedom to choose our own paths, God does not know what the outcome of life on this planet will be any more than we do – but God holds the vision for us, that Reign of God Jesus spoke of so often – and gives us what we need to make choices that will bring us to that vision.  We are given strength, hope, courage, guidance, forgiveness, compassion, knowledge, gifts, a path to show us the way.  We have what we need.

If we are to walk this earth in the steps of Jesus, then any power we gather must be in the service of others; any wealth we have must be used to lift others up; any strength to defend must defend others; any authority or mantle that we wear must be used for God’s dream of justice, compassion and peace.  If any of this should get in the way of following Jesus, then we have to let it go, sacrifice it, open our hands and let it slip through our grasp.  That’s what it is to walk in the steps of a Servant King.

 

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