Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
November 25, 2018
from a stump of a tree;
so a new king will come
from the family of Jesse.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest upon that king.
The Spirit will give him wisdom and understanding, guidance and power.
The Spirit will teach him to know and respect the Lord.
This king will be glad to obey the Lord.
He will not judge by the way things look
or decide by what he hears.
But he will judge the poor honestly;
he will be equitable in his decisions for the poor people of the land.
At his command evil people will be punished,
and by his words wickedness will die.
Goodness and fairness will give him strength,
like a belt around his waist.
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the religious authorities. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’
Today is Reign of Christ Sunday, also known as Christ the King Sunday, an odd little holiday tucked in at the very end of the liturgical year. Usually falling around Thanksgiving when we have lots of travel or family obligations taking up our attention, Reign of Christ Sunday is probably best known in the Protestant church as “that Sunday right before Advent starts.”
But as such, it’s got an interesting message for us to ponder. Because it means that right before we spend an entire month anticipating and celebrating Jesus coming to us as a tiny, helpless baby, we celebrate Jesus as the king of the universe (the Feast of Jesus Christ our Lord, King of the Universe, is the official original name). It’s a reminder that as much as we might be tempted to put Jesus in a box – a sweet, innocent-looking box that makes it easy to dote on and sing lullabies about him – he is also the embodiment of the greatest power in the cosmos.
Lest we confuse this greatest power with the kind of temporal power we associate with human monarchs, though, let’s revisit this morning’s scripture, where Jesus himself refuses to take on the title of “king”: when Pilate questions Jesus about the charge that he’s been referring to himself as king, Jesus replies with a question – “who gave you that impression?” – then tells Pilate “well, if you say so.”
Jesus’ definition of himself is quite different from what Pilate must be thinking as he reads the charges that this man is trying to take over Judea: “My kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus says. “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the religious authorities. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here…I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
I imagine that if you were to look up a list of job duties for a monarch, either historical or modern, “Testifying to the truth” is not going to be in the top 100. And you certainly won’t find a monarch excited to rule over a kingdom “not of this world,” without any kind of temporal might or wealth.
And though he enters Jerusalem in triumph, greeted by a “cheering, chanting, dizzying crowd,” it’s only days later that he ends of mocked and scorned, crucified on a cross, the most shameful – even cursed – form of death in his time. He’s not the first nor the last monarch to be put to death, of course, but most doomed kings and queens manage to pull off a less ignoble way to go.
So what’s going on here?
As so often happens with Jesus, his answer to Pilate turns our notions of power and influence inside out. He is here not to direct armies or levy taxes or wield political power or lead an uprising, but to witness to the truth – in Greek, aletheia, a word used not so much to refer to facts or even orthodox belief as “reality.” He has come, essentially, to teach those who would listen about the way the world really is – the way God really operates, and how we as humans should respond.
Rather than issuing battle cries and dethroning dubious rulers as King David did or even handing down wise judgments like King Solomon did, Jesus is much more likely to tell his “subject” how to treat their neighbors; whom to include rather than exclude; what to do with their worldly possessions; and how to let go of the things that plague them and embrace healing and wholeness. In other words, he’s much more likely to tell them about how love, the real greatest power on earth, works.
This novel interpretation of traditional power is well illustrated by Chinese artist He Qi in his painting Crucifixion 3, featured on the front of this morning’s bulletin. While most monarchs are depicted robed in the trappings of earthly power and wealth, Jesus is nailed to a cross, flanked not by courtiers but by the sick, the dying, the grieving, the naked, and the imprisoned. The message is that God is to be found not only enthroned in heavenly splendor but in the very depths of human despair, and that the humans nearest and dearest to God’s heart are not those who enjoy worldly status or comfort but those on the very edges of society, indeed on the very brink of life and death.
Many of you will remember the photograph of Princess Diana at the opening of the UK’s first dedicated HIV/AIDS unit in 1987. Dressed in a designer suit, a smiling Princess Di shook the hand of a man infected with HIV, wielding her considerable visibility and influence as the biggest celebrity of the British royal family not to enhance her own status but to shatter the brutalizing stigma attached to those who had contracted the virus.
“There was a lot of AIDS-phobia, a lot of homophobia,” said nurse John O’Reilly, who worked on the unit Princess Diana opened. “[A]ll that misinformation and hysteria. The headlines were scaremongering, ignorant, misleading… I didn’t tell anybody what I did. I didn’t even tell fellow nurses or doctors. …We couldn’t attract staff because people were frightened.
It was Diana, the Princess of Wales, coming in, gloveless, and shaking our patients’ hands as well as ours… demonstrat[ing] that she cared because she took everybody’s hand. That was…very moving,” O’Reilly said, but it also changed the reality on the ground in a large-scale way. “You know, if a royal is allowed to go in and shake a patient’s hands,” O’Reilly observed, “somebody at the bus stop or the supermarket could do the same.”
The Princess of Wales would go on to use the global spotlight trained on her to highlight other issues touching those far from the centers of power, including those affected by landmine injuries, leprosy, homelessness, and childhood cancers. Her prominent involvement pointed people to the facts of the matter – that you could touch an HIV or leprosy patient without contracting their diseases, for example, or that landmines were a scourge inflicting disfigurement and disability on the world’s most vulnerable populations – but more importantly, her engaged presence communicated the reality of the matter, the aletheia: that those affected by such diseases and injuries were people, just as deserving of love, dignity, affection, and inclusion as everyone else.
Like many Americans, this weekend most of us will finally admit defeat in the face of the onslaught of Christmas decor that began the day after Halloween. But as we put up lights or go out to buy a tree, as we turn up the Christmas carols and turn our hearts to preparing for the arrival of the Christ child, I encourage us to pause for a moment and consider how we might follow the example of the Child who is also a ruler – a different kind of ruler, one who encourages us to use whatever power and influence we might have to testify to the way things really are – not the way the world lulls us into seeing them, but the way God desires them to be.
Perhaps that will mean taking your children, as Princess Di did, to a shelter to serve a meal and show them, by example, that someone experiencing homelessness is worth a conversation and a hug. Perhaps that will mean encouraging your family to skip material gifts and instead give to causes that lift up and care for those on the edges. Perhaps it will mean noticing when someone at work or at school is being bullied or harassed and using your own position to step in and stop it. Perhaps it will mean visiting a lonely neighbor, or bridging a family rift.
Whatever it looks like, I invite you to keep an ear attuned this Advent not just to the sweet sounds of the newborn Child, but to the commanding voice of the King, the one who testifies to a truth far more subversive and surprising than that of a typical monarch.
“Everyone who belongs to the truth – the way things really are – listens to my voice.” May we all belong to that truth this year in a way that carries far beyond Christmas. Amen.