King of the Universe

cross vs iron throneChrist the King Sunday Year A   Matthew 25:31-46

Baruch ata adoni elohenu, melek ha olam. Blessed are you o Lord our God, King of the Universe. Let us rejoice this day, for today is Christ the King Sunday. It is the day when we celebrate and commemorate the one true king, the king of the universe, Jesus the Christ, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Son of God, Our Savior, Our Redeemer and the One through whom all things were made.

So again, I say Baruch ata adoni elohenu melek ha olam! Blessed are you o Lord our God, King of the Universe!

This is a common prayer in Hebrew worship and it would have been a prayer Jesus and all his followers would have been familiar with. Kings and their job description were common knowledge to the hearers of all of today’s scriptures. Perhaps it is less so for us these days. It is possible that what we picture first in our minds are the kings of fairytales and legends. King Arthur, Richard the Lionheart or Henry the VIII, kings of England, or perhaps King Charles III, the king of Great Brittan during the American Revolution.

But here today we find Jesus not in any throne room we have seen on television, in any movie, or in any fairy tale book. He’s not dressed in robes of purple (at least, not yet) with bejeweled crown on a cushion, ready to adorn his head, scepter ready for his hand. No, in today’s text on this Christ the King Sunday, we find him in the dusty streets of the Holy Land, walking and talking, leading and teaching a whole gang of fishermen, tax collectors and eating with people we wouldn’t open the door to greet. We find him not with royal scepter in hand making decrees and counting his money. We find him, instead, with ordinary people, teaching them about who he really is. Instead of handing out rewards to his loyal subjects for obedience to his majesty, he is showing his obvious connection to the poorest and lowest of society.

This is our King.

It’s not the place you’d look for a king, but then again, nothing is ever quite what we expect with Jesus.

It is on this day each year we are called not to see opulence and courtly majesty, but to see the starkness of a king on a cross; to see what a real king does to change the world. We are invited to see our king as the one who is dying so that all of creation might live.

So who is this king? In our world of elected officials and government by the people, the notion of a king seems foreign to us. We may reject the image out of hand. After all, in no small way was our nation founded on ideas that rejected royal authority. However, unlike the human kings and queens we think of, this king is God. And, in fact, this king will eventually put all other kings and empires out of business, turning the world upside down and lifting up the lowly.

While Jesus’ entire ministry teaches us about who our king truly is, today’s gospel reading gives us an interesting twist on things. Jesus is teaching the disciples, his inner 12 closest followers: those fishermen and a tax collector and perhaps a couple of other less than stellar people. This alone shows us that our king cares about what everyone thinks and believes. He is not concerned only with the scholars or the high ranking officials or the wealthy but with even the average person. This king’s wisdom is shared with all; we are all worthy of his teaching. We are all worthy of his time, attention and care.

Jesus is teaching about what it is like to live under the leadership of the Son of Man. He uses the phrase: ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is like’ as introductions to a whole assortment of images, metaphors, and allegorical stories designed to give us impressions of what the reign of God is like. The interesting twist revealed in his story today about the sheep and the goats is what is truly valued by the king. It isn’t someone paying taxes on time, being a law abiding citizen, accumulating wealth, or showing some profound loyalty to the ruling class. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

The king in his story tells one group of people “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Those with whom the king is not pleased are those who did not give food, drink, welcome, clothing, care, or companionship. Interestingly, both those who did and those who did not do these things are equally stunned. Both say, “When did we see you this way?”

After all, who wouldn’t feed the king? Who wouldn’t welcome or help the king? But at the end, everything is made clear. Just as you did or did not do to the least, you did or did not do to me.

Let’s stop and think about that for a moment. We often get wrapped up in the part of this text that talks about sheep going one way and goats going another and, while that may be important to think about, what is of greater importance, particularly because Jesus spends a great deal more time and uses more words on it, is the caring for those who lack and his direct alignment with them. More than that even, this king is so close to those who suffer that he equates himself with one who suffers. Our king, Jesus, cares tremendously for those who are hungry, thirsty, vulnerable, sick and lonely. This care is shown in other places in scripture, too, but here we see that he cares so much for them that he says when you care for them, you’re really caring for me. When we care for those who are hungry, thirsty, vulnerable, sick and lonely (or, as I often describe it: the lost, lonely, broken, and afraid) we are caring for Jesus.

There is an interesting thing that happens to many people when they encounter significant poverty in some way, like going on mission trips to the third world or meeting people with momentous suffering and struggle. We often think that we’re bringing Jesus to them, bringing Christian compassion and care, food, clothing, tools for shelter and all kinds of things. But most who encounter these kinds of situations discover that is not the case. We may indeed be bringing things that are greatly needed and we are hopefully doing it in Jesus’ name and from his great storehouse of love he gives each of us. But we are not bringing them a Jesus they do not know. Our king, Jesus, has made it clear that he is already with them. He’ll meet us there and when we do meet those who are suffering by sharing our food, our clothing, by helping to build homes for those who have none, welcoming someone who is different from us, giving care and compassion to those who are ill and being a friend to those who are imprisoned by all manner of things, both by choices and not, it is there we are meeting Jesus. We are meeting our king not in a grand throne room but in the least likely places in the world.

Our king’s life is very different from other kings and so is his death. Jesus’ coronation day is not a grand ceremony filled with pomp and circumstance, prestige and parties. His coronation day is when he is crowned not with jewels but with a wreath of thorns jammed onto his head; not by royal subjects but by those who are taunting him. His throne room is the hill of the skull and his throne is the cross.

A king’s throne is very important. It is the seat of power. The popular fiction book and tv series, Game of Thrones, has something called the Iron Throne, the seat of the king that is made from a thousand swords of the vanquished enemies. This kind of throne is symbolic of cruelty and power through total domination and forced submission.

Jesus’ throne is the cross. The seat of power for the king of the universe is the cross. A place not of victory and might but of pain, loss, suffering, sacrifice and apparent defeat is a place of power? In fact, the place of the ultimate power? Yes, it is. Like we said, this is not the place you’d look for a king, but then again, nothing is ever quite what we expect with Jesus.

It is as Jesus hangs on the cross and faces death that his kingship is revealed to the world. Christ is King, not because of a crown or jewels or grand throne; not because of the swords of armies taken at the point of another sword, not great power or because he saves himself but because of his self sacrificing love, his love that goes beyond fear, is willing to be weak in order to be the center of healing and life for all the universe, and restores and redeems the whole of creation and even us!

Jesus was not just a king in the history books for the people of a different time. He is king for us too. And much as it might be difficult for us to understand, Jesus isn’t just a king for people who follow the rules and live what we would judge to be a clean, upstanding life. He is king for the best of the best and for the worst of the worst and everyone in between. He isn’t just the king of all the people we like or all the ones who are acceptable in polite company. He is the king of everyone. That is good news after all, since, hard as we may try, we often do not fall into the “good” categories as we might wish we could. We might want to be sheep, as Jesus describes them in the Gospel text, try to be sheep, even succeed at being sheep sometimes but the truth is we are not either sheep OR goat, we are each sheep AND goat.

Jesus isn’t just the king of the living. He is king of the living and the dead. He isn’t just a king of things on this side of the grave. His kingship goes beyond the grave. In fact, that is the very reason his throne was the cross in the first place. His life and his kingdom doesn’t end there. It does not stop where our gospel text for the day ends, it does not stop at the end of this entire gospel. Actually, it doesn’t end even on the last page of the bible. It continues from his earthly ministry to the cross to Easter morning when the tomb is empty and Jesus had been raised from the dead and is now at large in the world with each of us and waiting to meet us with those who are lost, lonely, broken, and afraid and in great need. Our king is the one who by his death has destroyed death. There is no stopping this king because not even death itself could put an end to him. Jesus did not come to reign triumphant as a sovereign in the way the world is accustomed. In the way in which we’d expect. He came to triumphant over the grave and to give new life to all of creation.

Sometimes, it is difficult to look at the world around us and know that Jesus is the one who reigns. There is much in this world that looks like someone else altogether is in charge. But the same was true at Jesus’ crucifixion. His coronation sure looked like defeat, didn’t it? It is fairly certain that the only one dancing at Jesus’ coronation was the devil himself. But while evil rejoiced at what looked like the death of the so-called king, God turned the world upside down and inside out. God turned this humiliation into triumph. God turned this death into life. So when we look around at things that seem painful, wrong, unjust, when we feel lost, lonely, broken, and afraid, when we feel that all those who need are too much for us, we can remember this moment—the coronation of our King—and know that every moment of our lives Jesus is working to transform them, too. Every moment, the King of Kings is working on turning thorns into crowns, turning death into life for us all.

Baruch ata adoni elohenu, melek ha olam. Blessed are you o Lord our God, King of the Universe

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