WORSHIP SERVICE November 21, 2021 “Not the King You Would Expect”

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John 18:33-37    Not the King You Would Expect

Today in our liturgical church year it is Christ the King Sunday. This made me think of the question, what is your image of a king? Is it of a big, strong man sitting on a throne? Is it more of the medieval kind of king who might have some knights working for him?

Is it a king from a fantasy movie or novel that might even have magical capabilities?

Is more of a Henry VII kind of picture that comes to your mind? Do you think about a ruthless dictator or more of a benevolent ruler who is kind to his subjects?

In any image that might come into our heads when we hear the word king, I think there is an assumption of power. Whether it’s physical, military or political power or all of the above, a king is someone who has power, and that power is often used to dominate others.  It is often used to exploit people so that the king and his associates can keep clinging to power and pass it on only to those to those who are heirs or to whom they approve of.

This is why it is hard for me sometimes to connect Jesus with the image of a king.  It is hard for me to picture Jesus up on a throne looking down at his lowly subjects who are bowing at his every command.  Jesus himself never wanted to be king or even claimed to be king.  That was a title that was thrust upon him by those religious leaders who were trying to get him into trouble with the Romans.  This is why we hear Pilate charging Jesus with this accusation the reading from the Book of John.  He asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?”   Pilate wants to know if Jesus is really claiming royal authority or not.  Is he after political power?  Is he looking to start a rebellion?  How many followers could Jesus summon up?  Is he really a threat to Rome?

Jesus makes it clear in his response that if he was a king he was not the kind of king that most people would expect him to be.   He was not the kind of king who was going to take up arms in a violent struggle against the ruling authority of the Empire.  He was not going to rally people to fight for him using the tactics of fear and intimidation that the Romans used.  Jesus makes this clear as he responds to Pilate’s question and tells him, “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 religious authorities. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

It sounds like Jesus is a king of some place in the way he responds, but perhaps he is not talking so much about a place, but rather a way of ruling.  Behind the Greek word for kingdom (basileia) lies the Aramaic term malkut, which Jesus may have used. Malkut refers primarily not to a geographical area or realm nor to the people inhabiting the realm but, rather, to the activity of the king himself, his exercise of soverign power. The idea might better be conveyed in English by an expression such as kingship, rule, or sovereignty.

In other words, Jesus could be saying to Pilate, “I do not rule as you rule.  I do not exercise my authority the way you exercise your authority.  The reign of God is not like the reign of Caesar.”  Jesus is talking about a different way of being in the world other than the way of fear and violence.

Thinking of the reign of God versus the reign of earthly rulers may have been what motivated Pope Pius the 11th to establish Christ the King Sunday in 1925.  Historians say the Pope declared this new Holy festival day to counter what he regarded as the destructive forces of the modern world: secularism in the west and the rise of communism in Russia and fascism in Italy and Spain, harbingers of the Nazism soon to seize Germany. Pope Pius intended to hold up the rule of Christ over and above the authoritarian claims of these different ideologies.  He wanted to show there was a different way than the oppressive secular and political structures of much of the world.  In the 1970s the Lutheran church adopted this festival into its liturgical church year, which is why we celebrate Christ the King Sunday today.

Jesus did not associate himself with the earthly kind of kings, but the king image gets attached to Jesus after he has resurrected from the dead and his followers come to see him as having conquered death and ruling over all in a spiritual sense.  Several of these references come from the Book of Revelation that we heard from today.

The angel in John’s vision tells him to Look! And he will see Jesus coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.  Here the Reign of Jesus is portrayed as covering the beginning and the end of time.  Later on, the kingly imagery is even more explicit. In Revelation chapter fifteen we hear about a heavenly chorus singing the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb, saying, “Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God almighty!  Just and true are your ways, King of the nations!”  Then in Revelation chapter seventeen we hear that, “…they will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of Lords and king of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.”

In each passage, Jesus is referred to as king of kings and king of the nations, but notice the image that is also used for Jesus in each passage. It is a lamb.

The Scripture describes the ruler of all time as a lamb.  Not exactly the image you would expect for a king.  A lamb seems like an animal that is weak and vulnerable.

Not strong and powerful like you would normally think for a mighty ruler.

We see in the reading from John today, how Jesus might appear like a lamb as he is standing before Pilate waiting to be judged.  Jesus seems helpless before the might of Rome, yet he is also defiant, refusing to give Pilate an answer that would condemn himself.  In this scene, Jesus exposes the possibility of a different kind of peace than the law and order imposed by Rome.  He proposes a kind of peace predicated on vulnerability rather than strength, and that paradox confronts Pilate with his own weakness: he is beholden to the political machine that gave him his power, and now he must follow the dictates, whether or not he believes that Jesus should really be condemned.

Are we caught up in systems that keep us locked in place, that encourage us to turn our attention away from the way things could be and settle for what is?

The power of vulnerability has been used to call attention to issues of injustice by different groups throughout history.  One area of the world where we have seen this recently is in the country of Belarus.  A country that borders Poland in modern day Europe, Belarus has been ruled by a harsh leader name Lukachenko since 1994.   Mr. Lukashenko’s eagerness to use repression against his people and his unwillingness to give up power have already earned him a reputation as Europe’s last dictator. In August 2020, the autocrat rigged an election and cracked down on the huge protests that followed.  Riot police had detained more than 6,700 people since the vote, often subjecting demonstrators to beatings, stun grenades and rubber bullets.

But then the protests took a turn when the “ladies in white” began to show up. Women in white clothes carried flowers and formed chains in different cities to protest against unlawful detentions and state-sponsored violence.  Such protests presented a challenge to the brutal riot-police—beating women would be shameful and undermine the legitimacy of the Lukashenko regime.  Fascinating photos began to emerge where women were hugging the guards who lowered their shields.

“We are here to stop the violence. We will never be violent, we do not want a revolution, we just need Lukashenko to leave,” said Daria, 27, a pharmacist, who was waving a bunch of flowers among a crowd.

The protests of the “ladies in white” were later joined by factory workers as well as other Belarusians and they proved to have an impact. Although it is still far to victory and Lukashenko is still not fulfilling the demands of the protesters, the fact that many riot police officers did become loyal to protesters or even joined the protests was inspiring and it gave people hope that change could be possible.

Jesus says today, “My kingdom is not of this world. My rule is not like the fear and violence invoked by so many who would seek to rule in this world.”  His way is the way of the cross, God being vulnerable in the flesh.  It is the image of nations bowing down to a lamb, putting aside weapons to join in humble unity.  It is like the “ladies in white”, standing with nothing but flowers for protection reaching out to try and awaken the humanity of guards in riot gear.

Christ the king is not about gold or thrones or castles and empires, it is about the hope that the Reign of God will keep breaking into our lives until that time when love will truly conquer all and peace can be fully known.  It is about a vision of the future that brings courage for today so that change can happen in the here and now.  Amen.

-Pastor Erik Goehner

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