The Feast of Christ the King brings the Christian church year to a close. And so, as we now stand at the threshold of a new church year, we take a moment to remember the first coming of Christ, as a meager child at Christmas. But this next church season isn’t merely about the coming of Christmas. No—it’s also and more importantly for us to remember the future, to remember the promised return of Christ in glory, when Jesus comes with a cloud, and all peoples, nations, and languages finally confess him ruler of all— “♫King of kings and Lord of lords,” as Georg Fredric Händel so vauntingly set to music in his Hallelujah Chorus. We live now in the joy and hope that Christ’s return is imminent—joy and hope because we know that his return will set right all that God first intended for creation.
And yet we nonetheless find ourselves in this interesting paradoxical time when we know that Jesus returning is right about to happen, but still hasn’t happened. What’s more, we believe that Jesus has already transformed our lives and we already experience, in the present, here and now, a foretaste of the glory that is to come. What do we make of that? How do live in anticipation while at the same time fully enjoying the blessings of God’s promised kingdom now? What does it mean to claim Christ as king even as we live in a world with so much that demands our allegiance—from people, to things, to circumstances? How does it all fit together? Ponder these things as we go into the sermon today.
Would you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
On April 19, 1775, around five o’clock in the morning, just as the sun was rising, not far from this very place on the Lexington Common, the first shots of the American Revolution were fired. The battle continued onward, culminating at North Bridge in Concord, and today we call this first engagement of the war the Battle of Lexington and Concord—although by all accounts, it was really little more than a skirmish. It nonetheless was a pivotal moment in the history of not only this country, but also the world. Ralph Waldo Emerson, over one hundred years later, described the first shot fired by the American patriots at the North Bridge in his “Concord Hymn” as the “shot heard round the world,” for its historic, global significance.
A little over a year after this decisive, strategic colonial victory, the Second Continental Congress—so named in opposition to the British Parliament situated in London—met in Philadelphia, where delegates from all thirteen colonies met, drafted, and affixed their signatures to the Declaration of Independence. In that now revered, almost sacrosanct document, our country’s founders listed their grievances with George III, the King of England. The document begins with a lofty preamble—“When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another,” and ends with words just as profound, stating that the colonies do “solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain.” Speaking of the action of the delegates, our own John Adams of Massachusetts wrote, “this Day the Congress has passed the most important Resolution, that ever was taken in America.” In some ways, those words are likely still true. That declaration of our independence from Great Britain and the monarchy so intimately tied to it still shapes the way that we as people in this country understand and approach not only the rest of the world, but the very fundamental nature of our lives.
Since July 4, 1776, this country, hasn’t had a king. And so, when we say that Christ is our king, it can be difficult for us as Americans to identify with the sentiment. We don’t have a king, and we’re not looking to get one anytime soon. We have an independent streak in us, and having a monarchy might well mean we’d have to give it up. Giving up control of our own destinies isn’t something we Americans are too keen about.
This control of our own lives is something for us to consider today. When we look around, we see many different ways that we try to control our world, and we see many different ways that our world is controlled for us. Control is paramount to the American way of life. Having control is good, losing control is bad. Being in control is good, being controlled is bad. Control, control, control. In a sense, you might say that control…controls our lives. When we look around our world today, we see that those things we think we control, are in fact just illusions. We control very little, if anything, but rather are controlled.
We are controlled by our jobs, by homes, by obligations to other people. When we look around, we see how society controls us and other people, and we realize our uselessness in the face of systemic injustice. We see and experience racial stereotyping, sex-based discrimination, and inequality based on sexuality. We see people told by society where they belong based on the color of our skin. We see and experience those in positions of power dictating what jobs are appropriate for us and others based on the anatomical makeup of our bodies. We see and experience ourselves how the ravages of disease or chronic illness can upend our lives. We see and experience the cruelty of death, wrenching people from our lives, never to share time with those we love until we ourselves meet our own death and leave others who love us in the same place we find ourselves.
Events that are our out of control dictate our lives in ways that we are helpless to deal with other than to simply respond as best we are able. We find ourselves stressed. We lash out at those close to us. Or we distance ourselves from folks who long to give us their love and compassion, to fortify us in our need. Simply put, we are ruled, we are controlled by forces, matters, and concerns that are simply out of our control. As much as we might like to think it, we don’t define our own destiny.
In these ways, we are controlled. We’re pushed down. We’re boxed in. We’re kept out. Being controlled by the arbitrary caprice of life and outside forces is not how God intended for us to lead our lives. In the beginning, when God created humankind, we were given dominion over the earth—“over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” This dominion was meant to mirror the freedom and character of God, our creator.
But of course, we know that this freedom was corrupted, and that’s why we find ourselves in the mess we’re in now—if seemingly through no fault of our own. We are at once bound by our own thirst to control and at the same time controlled by mechanisms far greater than we are, far more powerful than we alone will ever be.
This obsession with control reigns over this world. Control is the order of things in this world. This system of oppression and injustice is the way things work in this world. Sickness, poverty, hunger, vagrancy, death…the list goes on and on. And how it is in this world isn’t how God created it to be. It isn’t how God designed it to be…
In today’s texts, both from the prophet Ezekiel and from Matthew, we see an example how God turns the order of this world on its head. The prophet Ezekiel speaks of shepherds for God’s flocks. Suffice it to say that the kings of Israel were also understood to be shepherds—because the first true king of Israel, the beloved king of Israel, was David, the shepherd boy who became king. Subsequent kings were judged according to his standard, and it’s not without reason that we call Jesus the King of kings and the Good Shepherd, all the while recognizing that he is the fulfillment of God’s promise in Psalm 89—“I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to my servant David: ‘I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.’”
And so in the gospel, we see Jesus, the king foretold by the prophet Ezekiel, tending the flock—of sheep and goats. The King of kings, the God Shepherd, passes judgement over those who have done the will of God and those who flout the will of God. Those who do justice, who love kindness, who walk humbly with your God experience the blessedness of God’s reign, the compassion of the Good Shepherd. Those who are unfair and unreasonable toward their neighbor, who are greedy and disloyal with conceit in their hearts, who look out for themselves before all else—these won’t experience the blessedness of God’s reign or the compassion of the Good Shepherd, but rather will find themselves in the cold, outsiders to grace and wondering what happened. And it’s not because they’ve done it to themselves, but rather because they don’t comprehend what it means to be a sheep of the flock of God, a citizen in the kingdom of Heaven. For as Christ says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”
The kingdom of God, where Christ reigns as King of kings and Lord of lords for ever and ever, is a kingdom where the least, the last, and the lost—the ones despised, rejected, scorned, pushed down and to the side, ignored or forgotten—in the Kingdom of God these are the ones who take center stage. And this is good news for us. Because at the end of the day, we are all beggars—even those held in high esteem among us or who hold themselves in high esteem. We are controlled by forces, matters, and concerns that are simply out of our control. We are all in captive and cannot free ourselves—and yet, by the mercy of Almighty God, our God Shepherd, the King of kings, lays down his life for us, the sheep, and hanging from a cross of shame and death, anoints our heads with the crown of everlasting glory.
For us and for our sake, Christ gave up all control and became subject sin and death, so that we who are powerless might know the power of Christ and be freed for abundant life in unending communion with God. The cross, intended to subject the love of God under the power of death, became the throne from which Jesus’ love and mercy triumphant once and for all over a thirst for selfish, personal control and murderous domination.
From the cross, from his throne, Christ demands justice, harmony, and equity for everyone—for you, for me, for those like us, for those different from us, for those we know, those we don’t know, those we like, those we despise. On the cross, Christ turns the expectations of this world upside down. He gives up control in order to win independence, not for himself, but for us over all the machinations that draw us away from full and abundant relationship with him. Christ our king doesn’t lord it over us, but rather serves us—a shepherd willingly laying down his life that we, the sheep of his hand, might not die but live.
And so, we look for the return of Jesus. We look expectantly. We look hopefully. We look longingly. We know that his return ushers in the reign of God, the promised commonwealth of love and mercy where the lion lays down with the lamb, where mourning and crying and pain will be no more, where the tears of sorrow and anguish will be no more, where death will be no more.
We look now toward that great revolution, the Christian Revolution, that time when the final battle will be won by God’s goodness, and the longing of our hearts for independence is satisfied. Even now, as we await his coming again in glory, we remember God’s mighty acts of the past, we give thanks for his continuing faithfulness in the present, and we stand strong in the hope of his promise to remain devotedly with us into the future.
For Christ has died. Christ is risen. And Christ will come again.
Long live Christ the King!
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.