What King Is This?

The days are getting shorter, and it’s like somebody flipped a switch. The colors around us are changing from jack-o-lantern orange and the yellow of corn and straw to the richer tones of cranberry red, spruce green, and candlelight gold. It’s been only days since we celebrated the return of the pumpkin spice latte at the coffee shop, and now allspice, nutmeg, and cinnamon are dancing through recipes for cider and pie, sweet potato casserole and ginger bread.

The days are getting shorter, and we start dreaming in the middle of the afternoon about being at home, cozy and warm, with the people we love and the music we have known forever. We want to send cards and wrap presents and deck the halls with boughs of holly.

We look forward to the long night when shepherds hear the angels sing and say, “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” We look forward to finding the child lying in the manger, wrapped in swaddling cloths. We look forward to wondering out loud, “What child is this who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping? Whom angels greet with anthems sweet, while shepherds watch are keeping?” And we look forward to singing with hushed wonder, “This, this is Christ the King…”[1]

What a joy it is to look at a little child and hear the words of promise of a savior and to sing that this, this is the one, Christ the King, God’s Messiah. Today, though, the gospel reading takes us to the last day of this child’s life, to a different place, a place called The Skull, a place of torture, torment and death. It is a place without color, a place of sour wine and bitter tears and frightening darkness.

What king is this? On the night of his birth, the angels sang and we were glad to join their heavenly anthems. But on the day of his death human voices come together in a cacophony of scorn, “Hey, Savior, show us some salvation!”

“He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God!” the leaders are laughing.

“If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” the soldiers keep deriding him. They represent the real power in the land, and their contempt is big enough to ridicule this “king” along with everyone else. The cross is the unmistakable sign of Rome’s sovereignty, and the troops feel strong in their open disdain for a weak, conquered people and its “savior.”

One of the two men, sentenced to death and hanged there like him, joins them in taunting Jesus, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

The whole scene looks like an obscene joke, and the punchline is written on a sign and nailed over Jesus’ head, “This is the King of the Jews.” What king is this, so impotent he can’t save himself?

When Jesus was about to begin his work of proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God, he spent time in the wilderness. It was a time of learning to trust and follow the path of God rather than any other path. After forty days of fasting, Jesus was famished, and the devil said, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Not an unreasonable proposal: save yourself from the pangs of hunger and weakness. But Jesus refused.

Then the devil promised him all the kingdoms of the world, but Jesus refused. Finally the devil took him to Jerusalem and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here; God’s angels will protect you.”[2] If you are the Son of God, if you are God’s Messiah, if you are the agent of God’s salvation – save yourself.

The devil’s rhetoric is amplified multiple times around the cross: show your power, do something, come down, save yourself. But Jesus refuses. What king is this?

Amid the abuse and the clamor he remains silent. Once he opens his lips and he prays, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Forgive whom – the soldiers who, as always, were only following orders? Forgive those who gave the orders? Forgive the leaders who always act with the best interest of the state or the temple or the church or the nation in mind? Forgive those who put their trust in power? Forgive all of us who are trapped in sinful modes of relating, thinking, speaking, and acting?

For a moment, the waves of ridicule and abuse subside, and we hear the king who lives up to nobody’s expectations pray for forgiveness. We have been in his company long enough to know that he wouldn’t ask for armies of angels to sweep in and smite the enemy. We have been in his company long enough to know that his kingdom is not a new and improved version of the kingdoms of the world.

In the gospel of Luke, only three characters say the word kingdom. The first is an angel. Gabriel comes to Mary and says, “You will bear a son and you will name him Jesus. He will reign forever and of his kingdom there will be no end.”[3]

And after the angel, it is Jesus who says the word kingdom again and again. And he doesn’t just say it, he embodies it with every healing gesture and touch, with every teaching and every meal, with every refusal to follow a different path.

The third character who says the word is a dying convict who, at the end of Jesus’s earthly life and work, chides, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

And the other man rebukes him, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” He reminds us that Jesus is innocent in every respect, condemned solely for disturbing and disrupting the orderliness of religion and custom and law.

And then the man turns to Jesus and says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He speaks of a kingdom hidden in the improbable future of a crucified man, and in this kingdom he wants to be remembered. He doesn’t know any better than you and I what it might look like, this kingdom. All he knows is that it is Jesus’ kingdom. All he knows is what we all see in the life and ministry of Jesus: the end of exclusion and condemnation, and the reign of mercy – and he trusts that this mercy has no end. All he knows is what we all see in Jesus’ final refusal to save himself or shock the enemy into submission: the end of the ancient cycle of violence and vengeance, and the reign of forgiveness – and he trusts that this forgiveness has no end. He entrusts himself to the reality to which mercy and forgiveness point, the reality which Jesus embodied and proclaimed, and in the face of death this man finds himself closer to life than he has ever been.

As requests go, “Remember me…” is modest; but Jesus responds with royal extravagance.  “Today, he says to him, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” Like one of the kings in his parables, Jesus generously lavishes gifts on the humble petitioner, granting him life in the lush garden of God.

This kingdom is not a new and improved version of the kingdoms of the world. It is a new way of relating, thinking, speaking, and acting in the name of Jesus. Jesus turns our royal ideology on its head. The reign of Christ the King is an assault on any earthly royal aspiration, any ambition for dominance, and you and I live in this reign when we shed the flawed perceptions of power evident in the scoffing leaders, the mocking soldiers, and the scornful criminal; we live in the kingdom when we turn to Jesus.

Robert Capon wrote in a meditation on the American Messiah,

We crucified Jesus, not because he was God, but because he (…) claimed to be God and then failed to come up to our standards for assessing the claim. It’s not that we weren’t looking for the Messiah; it’s just that he wasn’t what we were looking for.[4]

He wasn’t what we were looking for. We speak of Jesus as God’s Messiah and we sing of the child in the manger and the man on the cross, “this, this is Christ the King;” and we always wrestle with the fact that it is Jesus who gives meaning to these titles, and not the other way round: it is not our understanding of these titles that determine the meaning of Jesus.

Many say, and with good reason, that we shouldn’t continue to call Jesus “the King,” because our imagination is already overstuffed with white men sitting on thrones or riding on white horses. Today, though, the gospel didn’t take us to the royal throne halls of our disneyfied imagination but to that place called The Skull, and there we heard two prayers: Jesus praying for us, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing;” and an unnamed criminal, inviting us to pray with him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

The relationship that gives rise to these prayers is the reign of Christ, and everything about it is defined not by the poverty of our hearts, but by the riches of God’s mercy. The reign of Christ the King gets its color and fragrance, its melody and story from the love of God in Jesus. Everything else are our attempts to find words for that love.

The days are getting shorter, and we are dreaming dreams about the whole world being at home with God and God being at home in the world. May it be so soon, very soon.


[1] What Child Is This, Chalice Hymnal #162, words by William C. Dix

[2] See Luke 4:1-13

[3] See Luke 2:30-33

[4] Robert F. Capon, Hunting the Divine Fox (New York: Seabury Press, 1974) p. 91