Jesus: A Different Kind of King

This sermon is based on the gospel reading, John 18:33-37.  Pastor Jim Kniseley presented this sermon on Christ the King Sunday, November 22, 2009, at Resurrection.

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen!

Christ the King is the theme for this last Sunday in the church year.  Today we remember the biblical image of kingship and do our best to understand what it really has to do with Jesus and with our relationship to Jesus.  Christ the King is a pretty new festival in the church year, actually.  Its roots go back just to the late 1800’s when the world’s great empires were vying for power: British, American, Spanish, French, German, Russian, and Japanese.  Do you remember your history?  All were either at war or about to go to war.  The pope at the time wrote a letter in which he dedicated the world to Christ the King.  In the letter he reminded the empires that God is present with the whole human race, even with those who do not know God.  After World War I, another pope designated the last Sunday in October as Christ the King Sunday, a day to remember that Christ received power and honor from God and was thereby made ruler of the universe.  Eventually Roman Catholics moved Christ the King Sunday to the last Sunday of the church year, a time they were already accustomed to reflecting on Christ’s return at the end of time to rule over creation.  We Lutherans and numerous other denominations have followed the lead of our Catholic brothers and sisters.

Did you know that Jesus never called himself a king?  Others called him that.  The closest he comes is speaking about “his kingdom” or “the kingdom of God.”  Mostly Jesus presented himself as a servant and a teacher.  And he expected those that those who follow him would be of the same mind.

In our gospel reading today, we heard Pilate’s question:  “Are you the King of the Jews?”  We also heard Jesus answer:  “My kingdom is not from this world.”  What do you understand Jesus means by his answer?

Picture the scene: Pilate in regal attire, with trappings of imperial Rome about him, possessing the power of life and death over these subjected people; and Jesus, under arrest, having been tortured, probably with the crown of thorns still on his head.  Now we begin to understand something about the difference between the kingship power of Pilate and the kingship power of Jesus.  One is about earthly force, another is about heavenly love.

What prompted Pilate’s question “are you the king of the Jews?’’  It was the charge from the Jewish High Council.  This is what they said was the chief reason he had to be put to death.  This was heresy.  This was blasphemy.  He was claiming to be divine, and they said he was just a man.  The expectation of the Jews was that God would send them a King who would restore the nation of Israel to the glory they had known under King David.  The Jewish title “Messiah” had been bestowed upon every King of Israel and Judah in hopes they would be this long-awaited king.  Prophets like Isaiah and Micah said God has promised to send a Messiah to save His people…Matthew tells us that at the birth of Jesus, Wise Men brought gifts to the baby Jesus, gifts fit for a King.  When Jesus was hanging on the cross, the charge written on the board over his head read, “King of the Jews.”  Christ the King Sunday is a good time to ponder this truth: God often confounds the expectations of people.  The Bible gives us evidence over and over again that God does it His way.  If Jesus is to be a king, it is God who will decider what kind of king.

Here’s a story from the 1940’s.  When Hitler’s forces occupied Denmark,  the order came that all Jews in Denmark were to identify themselves by wearing armbands with yellow stars of David.  The Danes had seen the extermination of Jews in other countries and guessed that this was the first step in that process in their countries.  The King did not defy the orders.  He had every Jew wear the star and he myself wore the Star of David.  He told his people that he expected every loyal Dane to do the same.  The King said, “We are all Danes.  One Danish person is the same as the next.”  He wore his yellow star when going into Copenhagen every day in order to encourage his people.  The King of Denmark identified with his people, even to the point of putting his own life on the line.

Isn’t this a wonderful story with a powerful point?  The only problem is: it isn’t true.  It’s an urban legend.  It’s been around for a long time and told thousands of times over.  And now with the internet we are getting a lot of these legendary stories retold.  Too bad!  What an image for a king, identifying with his people.

Then we think of Jesus.  We don’t have to go to other examples.  This is what he actually did, identifying with us and taking on our pain and suffering and be willing to give his life.

Have you ever heard the term “joyful exchange”?  It comes out of the Book of Concord and was coined in the 16th century by Martin Luther and his fellow reformers.  If you had to name the most sinful person who ever lived on the earth, who would you name?  Hitler?  Osama bin Laden?  The most sinful person who ever lived is Jesus Christ.  Not that Jesus ever sinned at all.  Rather, according to God’s plan, Jesus makes an exchange with us.  By faith in Jesus, Jesus hands to us all his goodness and righteousness and we hand to Jesus all our sin and rebelliousness.

So, when God looks upon people who have received this exchange, He sees only goodness and righteousness.  The joy comes to us because it’s such good news.  Jesus has done for us what we could never do for ourselves.

Professor Timothy Wengert helps us understand this idea even more by using the terms “up religion” and “down religion.”  “Up religion” insists that our relationship to God depends on what we do to get up to God.  When we practice this form of religion, we put God on a pedestal and insist that God give us strict rules in order that we measure up and get up to God.  “Up religion” figures that we are separated from God, but we can overcome this if we just work hard enough.

“Down religion” (which I think is true Christianity) insists that God comes down to us wherever we are.  The Christian message opposes “up religion” at every turn.  First, we do not put God on a pedestal.  Instead God comes down to earth on the cross.  God is not just a rule maker and judge, but also acts as our “gracious parent,”  our “loving Savior,” and our “Friend.”  In “down religion” we no longer have to try to impress God with what we have done in order to stay on God’s good side.  God comes down to us in promises that create faith in us.  As St. Paul writes in Philippians 3: “I regard (all my credentials) as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”

Now, if all that good theology has made your eyes glaze over, let me put it to you in a practical way.  The story is told of a pastor who went to the hospital to visit an older man.  They had never met before, and the old man told her the cancer that had been in remission for 3 years had returned.  He thought he was going to die.  He concluded tearfully, “I’ve always tried to live a good life.  But I just don’t know if I’ve done enough.”

Dear Friend in Christ, how would you have responded to this man?  “Up religion” would want to see to see how he measured up.  Was his understanding precise enough, did his good works outweigh his sinful deeds?   “Down religion” would remind her that Jesus Christ came down to earth to do an exchange.  “I have paid the price.  All your sins are forgiven. Believe in me.” 

It’s not how good and righteous we have been.  It’s how good and righteous Jesus is. This is the good news of the gospel for this Christ the King Sunday.  Amen!