What Kind of King? (A Sermon for Christ the King Sunday)

"Christ the King" (Image courtesy of a google search by that title"
“Christ the King”
(Image courtesy of a Google search by that title and “labeled for commercial reuse with modification”)

Yesterday we observed and celebrated “Christ the King Sunday.”  It is the last Sunday of the church year, and the day the church honors Christ who reigns as King from the cross.  The lectionary appointed texts yesterday were Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 46; Colossians 1:11-20; and Luke 23:33-43.  As has been a custom on this blog, I include the sermons I preach here as posts.  So I share the following with you, which is a sermon based on the Gospel of Luke 23:33-43.  I entitled the sermon, “What Kind of King?”  For context’s sake, I have removed a few congregational contextual identification pieces, but more or less what follows is what was preached.

What Kind of King?

And so today is Christ the King Sunday.  It marks the end of the church year.  And in some ways, it’s kind of awesome for me because I preached at the opening of this church year too, back last year on the first Sunday in Advent. Because of this I get to provide the book ends for this church year, our year spent largely with the gospel of Luke.  We journeyed together in worship this year hearing the repeated theme that the “last will be first and the first will be last.”  We have also been in the midst of the challenges, emotions, hard work, but also hopeful future of the transition process as a congregation.  All of this is important.  And I think today, perhaps better than any other day of the church year allows us to remember, to name, to grieve and to trust and hope.

Today’s gospel message is in many ways all about death and new life.  This raises a great question. Do you fear death?  I know I fear death, to some extent, but do you?  Ernest Becker, back in the 1970’s wrote a book called The Denial of Death, and we Americans perhaps more than most cultures have built up all of this fantasy around or even ignoring death in order for us to not have to face it.[1]  The problem with not facing it is that by refusing to see it for what it is, we give it power.  Our fear overtakes us, and we lose sight of the hope and healing that can come in spite of death.

About six years ago, this week, my Grandpa Tengesdal passed away.  He passed away the night before Thanksgiving, but he was able to hold on until all of his kids and grand-kids were able to see and talk with him one more time in person.  In his last days, he went in and out of consciousness as he was ending his long chapters of cancer and diabetes.  Grandpa lived 86 years of abundant life.  But the end was certainly not easy.  Here was a child of God, who served faithfully as a pastor for more than 50 years, a beloved husband, father, and grandfather. But he like most everyone else had to endure the trials and tribulations that come with human life.  In his last days though, a few remarkable things happened. The bishop of the synod came and visited with him. Current and retired pastors visited with him.  Longtime friends came and spoke with him.  I think some people thought they were going perhaps to provide some pastoral care to the family, but deep down they all knew they were going to get some last earthly pastoral advice from my grandpa.  He may not have spoken the advice clearly, but the way he lived and the way he died, I would say he did both well.

What gave me the greatest hope is not that he was comfortable and ready to go. I had long known that when death would come for grandpa, all would be well because not only did he believe that, he always lived life like that.  What gave me greatest hope was that in his last few days he was able to provide a measure of comfort and relief to those around him.  He told of a vision he had, that he was late to a party. This was odd given that Grandpa was never late for anything in life.  At that party, he said that he saw my other grandpa who passed away a year earlier. He also saw my Uncle Danny, his son who died far too young in life.  He also saw my first pet, our beloved dog Tasha at the party.  When my mom asked, “did you see Jesus?”  Grandpa was kind of cute about it, preserving the sacred mystery of it, but even though he may not have verbally affirmed it, his face and eyes said, “yes, indeed.”

There is much more to this story, and perhaps I will share some of it on Thanksgiving Eve.  But I wanted to start here, because this story is really only made possible by today’s gospel.

Today’s gospel passage, which is part of the passion narrative that takes place on Good Friday, is really the gospel in a nutshell.  Jesus Christ, proclaimed by the people as, “King of the Jews,” lived and died for us.  In his last moments on the cross, Jesus provides his last words of peace, hope, and trust.[2]

Jesus says, “You will be with me in Paradise.”[3]  He is referring to the man at his one side, also on a cross, but he might as well be referring to us. This is the assurance of the kingdom yet to come.  It is the assurance of being restored and in community with God.  It is the reminder from the Good Shepherd that he will not abandon his sheep, nor has he ever really abandoned his sheep.

A few moments earlier on the cross, Jesus tells God in heaven, “to forgive them.”[4] Again, he is asking for forgiveness for those in the community, but also I would argue based on Luke’s claims about the reversal of the last becoming the first, this is Jesus asking for the forgiveness of the people of all time and places. This is Jesus’ last plea that God hear Jesus’ request to love and redeem the people, us.  For this, Jesus goes to the cross even with his own doubts in the process.

This life of Jesus:  his provocative, social, and counter-cultural ministry; the threat to power and the way things were which led to the cross; his ultimate death on a cross and burial in a tomb; and the resurrection and good news of Easter… all of this is for you, for us.  All that he does, he does because God in Christ chooses to be in relationship with us.

Sometimes I feel like we know this story very well.  But other times I wonder if we are afraid to really admit this.  We live in fear of death.  But Jesus died, and we’ll die.  Death is a part of life.  It’s only through death that we really can have life.  But because of what God has done with the cross and overcoming it, death has lost its sting.  Because of the turning of the most heinous way to die on a tree to a means of hope and salvation, we can find hope even in the darkest moments of seeing someone succumb to cancer and being bed-ridden.  Because of what happened before, on and after the cross, we can trust that God is not done acting for us and for all people.

Death doesn’t have the last say to us or over us.  Put another way, we are an Easter people who live in a Good Friday world.  We live in the hope and promise of the resurrection that comes on Easter, but we also live in a world where there is sin and pain.  The reality is, we can’t have one without the other.  It’s together and in combination with the life and ministry of Jesus that Good Friday and Easter have their power and significance. It’s because of all these combined that we can truly claim Christ as king.

So what does this kingship mean anyway?  Does it mean a monarchy like popular culture loves to embrace?  Do we see Christ as King like we envision that Charles or William will one day be King of England?  No, of course not!

Does it mean a hierarchy of us bowing down before God as lowly people or “stinking maggot fodder” like Luther occasionally calls himself and people in some of his writings?[5] This would be perhaps the most appropriate thing for us to do.  But no, I don’t believe it’s quite this idea either.

Rather, it means that we are in relationship with God.  It means that God has claimed us as God’s people.  It means that through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection we are redeemed and reconciled. We are redeemed because we are forgiven through the saving acts of God, and particularly Christ’s saving action for us.  We are redeemed because as Christ is king, he has the ability to pardon.[6]  He pardons our sins, and saves us from them.  As Jeremiah proclaims, “The Lord is our Righteousness!”[7]  We are reconciled because through the redemption of God, we are made right with God and restored not only as God’s people, but as God’s children and heirs.

To be reconciled is really to be made right together and between each other.  It’s like when people who have been fighting or struggling to get along, are brought back together and are now able to not only get along, but who actually might enjoy each other’s company.  (On a side note, this might be something important to remember as many of us with gather with extended family and friends for Thanksgiving this week….)  And maybe that is the key to reconciliation that they can again, simply be in each other’s company.

Colossians reminds “God was pleased to reconcile himself to all things.”[8]  Since God chose to make reconciliation, we are reconciled.  We aren’t reconciled because of ourselves, but because of God.  Because of this reconciliation, we can trust that in death, like my grandpa’s death, God is there both in the process and struggle of the end of life but also as the host who is graciously welcoming the saints home and to the eternal party.

In daily life, it’s this reconciliation piece which really allows us to come together as the Body of Christ.  Without being reconciled to God, we would have no hope of being able to come here weekly and confess together our sins to God and one another.  Without this, we would really have no hope of being able to be together as the people of God, in community with each other and forgiving each other.

This seems like an important reminder for us.  The past year has been a challenge.  The transitions and on-going transitions have not been easy.  With them, have come  fear, anxiety, and stress.  There has been at times a feeling like some things have even died or passed away.  In this process, we haven’t always been kind to one another because our fears and stress have gotten the better of us.  I say this all, because it’s important to name it for what it is.  But also, to allow the message and truth of hope that comes in the gospel to shine through.   It’s important to remember the Psalmist’s call to “be still.”[9]  It’s important to remember that God is our stronghold and refuge[10] at all times in life- especially those difficult times of change and struggle in the wilderness, and when we feel like something might be dying around us.

As we close this church year and move into the next, there will be some more transition.  This means there may be a little more pain to endure- but there is also great hope, and rightfully so.  Through a sort of death, comes new life.  This new life is renewal.  This congregation may look differently when all is said and done, but God is most certainly not done using and calling this congregation.  This congregation is indeed being made new.  And this is what it means that we testify to Christ as King.  Christ is the kind of King who is there in the midst of the pain and uncertainty. He is the kind of leader who rolls up their sleeves when the tough get going.  He does this all for us, because he loves us.  He calls us all by name as God in Christ claimed us when we were in our mother’s wombs and for all time when Christ was raised upon that cross. We are reconciled to one another through Christ so that we can love one another. And our response to all of this gospel news is that we love each other, spread the joy of the good news, and join Christ by rolling up our sleeves in the hard work of ministry.

Christ is the kind of King who calls us to join him.  He isn’t the dictator type king, but a king who chooses to be with us because he loves us.  He is the King who is always there and who calls us to the party, like what Grandpa hinted at when he was spending his last days in hospice care.  And this, my friends is good news indeed.  Amen. Come Lord, Jesus.

[1] Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, (Simon & Schuster, 1973).

[2] Luke 23:37-38, NRSV.

[3] Luke 23:43, NRSV.

[4] Luke 23:34, NRSV.  Admittedly, some ancient authorities lack this sentence about forgiveness in Luke 23:34.  However, a helpful discussion on this can be found at:  http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke23x33.htm. The verse seems consistent with Luke’s general theme throughout the gospel, and so it seems most likely that this was originally included but then removed from some later manuscripts before being returned in the current versions we have today.

[5] Martin Luther, “A Sincere Admonition to All Christians to Guard Against Insurrection and Rebellion,” (1522), Luther’s Works, Vol. 45, 70.

[6] Brian Stoffregen, (Yuma, AZ:  Faith Lutheran Church), http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke23x33.htm.

[7] Jeremiah 23:6, NRSV.

[8] Colossians 1:20, NRSV.

[9] Psalm 46:10, NRSV.

[10] This is a repeated theme throughout Psalm 46, NRSV.

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