Sunday Next Before Advent, 2022 – Sermon

Audio recording of this sermon

What do people need from their leaders?  We need them to maintain a world where we’re safe, right?  We need them to make a world where we can live our lives, make our families, earn our livings.  We need them to keep the peace.

Over the centuries and throughout the world, humans have tried a lot of different kinds of leadership.  We’ve had the elders who kept the stories and the wisdom of the past alive.  We’ve had the strong warriors who protect their tribe from the dangers of the physical world. We’ve had kings and queens, presidents, tyrants, and dictators.  

The world has seen a lot of leaders who believed that the only way to keep their people safe was to put their boot on the necks of their neighbours.

And we’ve seen a lot of leaders who don’t actually care a finger-snap for their people at all.  What they crave is power and glory for themselves.  That’s the kind of leaders Jeremiah condemns in our Old Testament lesson today.  “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord.”

Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday is a fairly recent addition to our lectionary calendar.  This day with its lessons that focus on the Kingship of Jesus was added to the lectionary by order of Pope Pius XI in 1925, so only about 100 years ago.  Pope Pius XI declared the need for a day in which the whole church acknowledges our Divine King in the wake of the utter failures of leadership that led to the disaster of the first World War.  The devastation of that failure of leadership was without parallel in history at the time.  Pope Pius XI felt that Christians needed to be reminded that we follow a King who is not only human, but also Divine.  Our King will not fail us as all human leaders must in the end.

Last night, I went to the theatre with Lyndon and Katherine, and we watched the new Black Panther movie, Wakanda Forever.  It’s all about what it means to be a king, or a queen.  It’s about the struggle every leader must go through between what is best for the people they lead, and what is best for themselves.  What are you prepared to sacrifice for the people you lead?  What sacrifices will you accept from them as they choose to follow you?  To trust you?  It’s a movie about leaders who’ve looked around the world and seen predators everywhere who are after their sheep.  They have a choice.  Do they retreat within their walls, and keep their people safe from the outside world by removing themselves from it?  Do they go on the attack, and strike the first blow?  Or do they trust that the world isn’t black and white, and while there is danger in the world, there is good as well.  And the good is worth fighting for.

In the movie, the leaders face these questions on behalf of their people while they deal with their own grief and loss and anger.  They all face the opportunity to use their power for personal vengeance.  They all make the choice – do I do what’s best for me, or what’s best for my people?  What struck me as I watched the movie and at the same time had today’s Scriptures at the front of my mind was that for each of the leaders in the story, it was a given that they would put the good of their own people ahead of that of all the rest of the world.  None of them had the inclination, or the capacity, to take responsibility for the good of all people.  They were human, and they were limited in who they could care for, who they could feel responsible for.  That’s understandable, of course, but it’s at the heart of the problem of human leadership.  None of us has the capacity to hold all people in the world equally in our minds and hearts.  But our King does.

Pope Pius set this feast day originally as the last Sunday in October, the Sunday before All Saints, but it was later moved to the last Sunday of the liturgical year, so that we would finish our church year, and begin the new year, with the declaration of the Kingship of Jesus ringing in our ears.  We enter into Advent full of the knowledge that our King is unlike any other this world will ever know.

The Kingship of Jesus throws out all the rules of leadership we learn from human institutions.  Jesus’ Kingship over all creation bears no resemblance to the way in which Charles is King of England (and Canada!), or the way Putin is President of Russia, Biden is President of America, or Trudeau is Prime Minister of Canada.  Jesus’ Kingship doesn’t resemble the robber barons of Wall Street or the tech bros of Silicon Valley.  Jesus never built a rocket ship simply because he had a few spare billions lying around.

At the Bath Abbey in England, they have on display a brochure that offers an answer to this central question of faith – “What kind of king is Jesus?”

It says, “Jesus was born in an obscure Middle Eastern town over 2000 years ago. During his first 30 years, he shared the daily life and work of an ordinary home. For the next three years, he went about teaching people about God and healing sick people by the shores of Lake Galilee. He called 12 ordinary men to be his helpers.

“He had no money. He wrote no books. He commanded no army. He wielded no political power. During his life, he never travelled more than 200 miles in any direction. He was executed by being nailed to a cross at the age of 33.

“Today, nearly 2 billion people throughout the world worship Jesus as divine – the Son of God. Their experience has convinced them that in the wonders of nature we see God as our loving Father; in the person of Jesus, we discover God as Son; and in our daily lives, we encounter this same God as Spirit. Jesus is our way to finding God: we learn about Jesus by reading the Bible, particularly the New Testament and we meet him directly in our spiritual experience.”

The lessons we read this morning reinforce this essential contrast between “successful” human leadership and the upside-down nature of Jesus’ Kingship.  Our King was tortured and killed on trumped-up charges.  As he hung bleeding on that cross and gasping for breath, his accusers and his torturers stood around him and mocked him.  They hung a sign above his head that was meant to be the ultimate ironic insult: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.

Even the criminal who was dying beside him used his last tortured breaths to mock our King.  What is wrong with you?  If you are God, then do something!  Save yourself, and while you’re at it, save me too!  Here is a lesson in being careful with your words, because you never know which will be your last ones.  This thief, literally in the process of dying, was not yet reconciled to the fact that his life was ending.  Imagine using your last breaths to spew hatred and mockery.  What a waste.  The other thief was, perhaps, reconciled to his fate.  At the very least, he was more pragmatic.  You and I deserve this, he tells the first thief.  But he doesn’t.  Jesus, I really hope you are the Son of God.  If you are, please save my soul, if not my body.

And what was Jesus using his final breaths to do?  He was not calling down angels from heaven to help him down off the cross.  He wasn’t calling down fire and brimstone to incinerate his mockers, either.  As the King of the Universe, he could have done either or both of those things.  No, our King used his last breaths to say, “Father, forgive them.  They don’t understand.”

This Jesus – carpenter, itinerant preacher, falsely accused and tortured to death at 33 – is the same Jesus Paul describes in Colossians: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him.  He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

There’s this famous sermon that was preached in 1970 in San Diego by the Rev. Dr. S.M. Lockridge.  I first encountered this sermon as a remix on a Christian rock album when I was a teenager.  I bet at least some of you have heard it.  To me, this is the mike-drop of sermons on Jesus Christ the King, and the best possible end to our liturgical year I can imagine.  I tell you, if this doesn’t fire you up, you better check your pulse because you might already have one foot in the grave.