Christ the King

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Matthew 25:31-46

Within the cycling of the church year,
next Sunday, as the first Sunday of Advent
(can you believe it?!)—
next Sunday, as the first Sunday of Advent
constitutes the first Sunday of a new church year.
We move from year A with its focus on the gospel of Matthew
to year B with its focus on the gospel of Mark.
And if next Sunday is the first Sunday of the new church year,
that makes today the last Sunday of this church year,
and as the last Sunday of the church year,
we celebrate Christ the King Sunday—
some call it Reign of Christ Sunday.
I used to—
as late as earlier this week when the bulletin was run.
I think from now on though,
I’m going to go with Christ the King Sunday.
This sermon is why.

You notice the progression, don’t you?
Over the course of the church year,
we move from anticipating the birth of Jesus
to affirming the sovereignty of Jesus.

And now, apropos of nothing I’ve said,
on this Christ the King Sunday,
over the course of the sermon,
I thought we’d try our hand at writing a fairy tale.
As we all know, the typical fairy tale
begins with four words that immediately identify
what’s heard as a fairy tale:
“Once upon a time ….”
Excellent.
Once upon a time, Christ the King.

You see, I kind of think, as we celebrate Christ the King Sunday,
that theologically, we think of kings like fairy tales do.
The good king makes everything in the kingdom all right—
for everyone—the servants, the villagers—
the kitchen flatware—
and that includes the animals—
the livestock and the wild animals in the forests—
the forests,
and, I don’t know—the weather—everything.

A bad king may do fine for himself and for his friends,
but ruins everything anyway
precisely because the kingdom as a whole is not happy.
A good king is known by the state of the servants and villagers,
the kitchen flatware, the animals, forests, and the weather—
not just the royal court.

So once upon a time, Jesus is named king,
and he’s the good kind of king—
the one in whom proper order is restored and maintained
for the benefit of all, particularly the least of these,
who get left out of just about any other kind of ordering.

And even though this is the beginning of our fairy tale,
it feels kind of like the end, doesn’t it?
The end of a fairy tale consisting of the familiar six words?:
and they lived happily ever after.
Of course.

So theologically, we think of Jesus as king like fairy tales portray kings.
But scripturally …, well, when we think of kings in the Bible,
it’s not too encouraging.
It is, in fact, downright discouraging!
There just aren’t that many good kings,
and there are a whole passel of bad kings
(you don’t get to say passel that much,
so you have to take the opportunities that arise!)
There are a whole passel of bad kings,
and even the few good kings mess up in spectacularly messy ways.

If, in fact, you go back to before Israel had a king—
if you go back to their first request for a king—
wanting to be like the other nations,
God warned them what a king would do—
what a king would mean—
what a king would represent.
Let me read you that (this is from 1 Samuel):

“So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord
to the people who were asking him for a king.
He said, ‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you:
he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots
and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots;
and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands
and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground
and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war
and the equipment of his chariots.
He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.
He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards
and give them to his courtiers.
He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards
and give it to his officers and his courtiers.
He will take your male and female slaves,
and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work.
He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.
And in that day you will cry out because of your king,
whom you have chosen for yourselves;
but the Lord will not answer you in that day'”
(1 Samuel 8:10-18).

They wanted one anyway.
And God explicitly said,
“This is the people’s rejection of me” (1 Samuel 8:7).

And yet, once upon a time, on a fine Sunday morning,
Jesus was named … King—
King of kings, in fact.
And hymns were sung—”Crown Him with Many Crowns,”
“All Creatures of our God and King,”
“Oh Worship the King”—
praise offered.
And there was much celebrating.
All was right with the world.
Everything had been put in its proper order.

Once upon a time, Jesus was named King.
He was given a crown to wear and fine robes—
a signet ring.
He was given a scepter to hold.
He was given a throne on which to sit—
a palace in which to live.
And the fatted calf was handed over to the royal cooks,
and in the royal courtyard and the royal gardens,
there was the party to end all parties—
the feast to transcend all feasts.
A veritable showcase for the royal caterers,
the royal landscapers and royal gardeners
the royal dancers and jugglers, and musicians.
And everyone was there—everyone who was anyone—
including people from the highways and hedges
the ones never included—the ones never invited—
the ones too often made to feel like they weren’t anyone.

And as the royal fireworks lit up the night sky,
there was laughter and there was relief and there was wonder
and hope and excitement
and disbelief in what was now believed (can you believe it?!).
And everyone stayed up way too late
because everyone was just too wired to go to sleep—
wondering just how good things were going to be.
You know that kind of night?

The next day,
King Jesus was nowhere to be found.

Some of you may remember, I’ve referred to this before—
Bruno Bettelheim’s book on fairy tales:
The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.
And specifically the importance of fairy tales for children—
the importance of parents reading their children fairy tales—
and not Disney fairy tales—sanitized, brightened up,
put to a pop princess soundtrack,
but the original, dark, grim fairy tales
in which terribly scary horrible things happen.

Children within their development, claims Bettelheim,
an Austrian-born American child psychologist,
need the assurance of a trusted, beloved authority
offering them a known structure—a familiar framework—
like starting with “once upon a time,”
and with “and they all lived happily ever after” expected at the end,
so that the darkest things that happen—
the most tragic most terrible of events,
are always contained within this frame—
always placed within this bigger structure—
this bigger story.
And so they are (bad as they are) never definitive.
They are temporary.

The day after the coronation—
the day after once upon a time,
when it seemed like we were into our happy ever after,
King Jesus was no where to be found.

Now this is classic fairy tale, right?
Everything seemed to be great …,
so of course something bad had to happen.
We’re at the beginning of the story.
So what do you think happen?
Was Jesus in some enchanted sleep?
Had he fallen under an evil spell?
Been kidnapped and held captive?
And so we have to wonder about the villain—the dastardly villain.
Who was it?
A disgruntled relative?
A foreign prince?
An offended partisan?
A jealous member of the royal court?

Or maybe some who had discovered that to crown Jesus King
is to realize that he will want even more from us
than God warned us a king would want—
that he will want all of our sons and all of our daughters.
Oh, not for his war machine—
not for his economy—
not for his agriculture.
But to live love, not to live safe.
He will want all of our sons and daughters—
the fullness of who they are.
He’ll want way more than just 10 percent of some things.
He’ll want all of who we all are dedicated to his service—to his way.

“And in that day you will cry out because of your king,
whom you have chosen for yourselves;
but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
Jesus is nowhere to be found.

So the villain might be someone with the clearest understanding
the fullest understanding of just what Jesus as king means.

But no matter no matter who—no matter what,
there will now have to be an inversion that restores order—
maybe a hero.

In one telling of the story,
it was a spell
that reversed time,
and Jesus is born again—born to grow up again—
to live the story all over again—
discovering the truth—proclaiming the truth—teaching the truth,
until he is acknowledged again—celebrated again—
crowned king again maybe a year from today.
But right now, the king we look for is yet to be born—yet to grow up.
We’re still waiting for the king we’ve been waiting for—
the king we thought we had found.

Another important thing that happens in fairy tales
is that things and people you thought you knew
turn out to be other than you thought they were, right?
Like a king who turns into a baby yet to be born.
People you thought you could trust, turns out you can’t.
People you never in a million years would have ever trusted,
turn out to be the ones on whom you can rely.
Fairy tales reveal the masks,
and what’s under the masks.
The truth beyond and behind appearance.

We have two Scripture texts
that I’m really not doing that much with this morning
other than to note they’re both about sheep—
both about God as shepherd.
And it’s so interesting to me—I think we’ve noted this before—
how Moses was a shepherd—David—
these great leaders in the faith heritage,
and then how God is named shepherd.

Jesus called the fishermen to be his disciples
and named them fishers of people
and gave us the image of God as one fishing.
As if God takes in our imagery—
that with which we’re most familiar—
this is how you spend your life? Okay.
And my guess is the invitation into insight is always personal.
My guess is Jesus probably didn’t go up to Matthew, the tax collector,
and say follow me and become a fisher of people,
but maybe follow me into accounting for what’s most important.
God takes in our imagery—
that with which we’re most familiar—
this is how you spend your life?
and gives it back to us
offering insight into the mystery of God.
And it’s always it’s always our imagery redefined—
enlarged—deepened.
Spend your life this way!

What do I mean by that—enlarging—enriching?
Let’s take shepherd.
In the so called real world,
the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to go look for one
is one fired shepherd.
But that’s precisely the insight offered into God.

So once upon a time, Jesus was crowned King.
There was the big party—
the biggest party there had ever been.
Then the next day, Jesus disappeared—
left the palace—
the crown and scepter lying in the throne room—
the signet ring.

In one telling of the story,
it was that spell reversing time,
and Jesus is born again.

In another telling though,
at some point in the midst of the celebrations,
with everyone believing everything was going to be alright now—
the good King was in charge,
King Jesus disappears
leaving behind all the trappings of royalty.
Because yes, something bad did happen.
Something bad did happen at that party that night.
But it wasn’t a villain.
No evil curse.
No diabolical plan.
It was just that amidst the celebrating,
Jesus realized that everyone was not there.
The party and the story were incomplete.
And until all can be a part of the celebrating—
until those celebrating are aware that they can’t celebrate
until those that aren’t there are—
until all can live happily ever after,
this story—the story of God—keeps going.
It’s that big.
It’s that wonderful.

But, here’s the thing
(it’s what would get the shepherd fired),
as long as there are people not present—
people excluded—people left out,
King Jesus will not be satisfied.
So Jesus shows up once a year to remind us of our assurance
that all is in the right order within the truth of God,
but then turns right back to the highways and hedges—
back to the fields and farms and pastures—
back to the sick and the left out—
back to the hurting and the grieving—
back to the hated and the reviled—
back to the poor,
and goes back to them not as king,
but as one of them.

That’s the heroic defined in our fairytale.
That’s what inverts the story.

Now that’s absolutely no way to run a kingdom.
It is an utterly absurd, crazy way to run a kingdom.
It is. It is.
But they will in the end all live happily ever after.

So you notice the progression, don’t you?
We move from anticipating the birth of Jesus
to affirming the sovereignty of Jesus.
But as soon as we’ve affirmed the sovereignty of Jesus,
we’re back to anticipating his birth
in not so much a progression,
but as part of a circle—a cycle.
We don’t progress from coronation
into rule—or reign.
Remember I said at the beginning no more reign of Christ?
There is no reign!
No sooner is Jesus coronated,
than we start looking for Jesus all over again.
No sooner is he named King—
acknowledged by all—
crowned at the center of everything,
than we anticipate the birth of the baby
born unknown in the middle of nowhere
who will grow up itinerant prophet, teacher, storyteller, healer—
to be utterly rejected and put to death.

Which makes what of today’s affirmation?
Christ the King not really?
No. Not at all.

Fairy tales afford us the opportunity
to reconsider what we take for granted—
that in the deepest part of the dark woods,
there is light and there is opportunity—
that someone can fall in love with a beast—
that a beast might be lovable—
that we can be awakened from our sleep—
that enchantment lies around the very next corner—
that what we think represents the end doesn’t—
that help comes from the most unexpected places
in the most unexpected ways.

And so today we get to reconsider the kind of king
who as soon as he’s coronated, disappears.
And while it’s true, next week,
we’ll have to start looking for Jesus all over again,
it’s because he’s out looking for us—
as one of us.

Our affirmation
is of a shepherd fisher king God who leaves the ninety-nine—
even the ninety nine at the coronation,
to look for the missing one accounted so vital.

Advent locates us once upon a time.
Christ the King Sunday
assures us of a happy ever after.
Life is the in between,
Jesus in our midst.

And while “and they all lived happily ever after”
may seem iffy to us—
may seem like it promises too much.
It’s God who’s promising.
It’s the story of God offering us this reassurance.

I don’t know what all it means.
I don’t know how we’re going to get there.
I don’t know what it’s going to look like.
The world calls it into question every single day.
I believe it.
And I believe it can’t be what it will be
until everyone is included—
until everyone is welcomed—
until everyone is a part of it.
I believe that’s Jesus.
That’s who Jesus is.
That’s what Jesus does.
So that in the end, happily ever after—
they all lived happily ever after.

Then and only then,
the end.

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