Monday, November 26, 2007

If Christ is King . . .

[I preached at my church this weekend, for Christ the King Saturday/Sunday. Here's an excerpt.]

This is Christ the King weekend, the end of the liturgical year. Once again we’ve come through the whole cycle, from Advent through Christmas, into Epiphany and then Lent, Holy Week and Easter, and Pentecost and Ordinary Time. And at the end of it all, the liturgical year makes this single, capstone declaration: Christ is King. We sing it in our liturgy: Alleluia, alleluia, Jesus is our King.

Over the last few weeks we’ve considered the Lord’s Prayer and looked at what it means that thy kingdom come, they will be done. For thine is the kingdom. Jesus’ prayer acknowledges that God our Father is our true king. But now we make a shift. It’s not just that God is king. Now the church proclaims that Jesus is king. Christ is King. And this move is absolutely astonishing. It’s one thing to proclaim the kingship of God, the creator, the Almighty. But to declare the kingship of this Galilean rabbi, executed on a Roman cross, it’s mindboggling. It’s counterintuitive. It’s radically countercultural. So what does it mean? If Christ is King, so what?

It’s unusual that the people of God would proclaim that they even have a king. What made the Israelites distinct for much of their history was that they had no king. Other nations had kings. There are references in Genesis to the king of Sodom or the king of Gomorrah, the king of the Philistines or the king of Edom. But Israel had no king. In fact, the most common reference to a king in Genesis and Exodus is the king of Egypt, otherwise known as Pharaoh. Not the best experience the Hebrew people had with a king.

At first Israel didn’t have a human king because the Lord God, Yahweh, was their true king. So Israel had judges instead of kings, and that was a mixed bag. Some were good, some were bad. The last of the judges was the prophet Samuel. And the people came to Samuel and said, “Give us a king.” This is in 1 Samuel chapter 8. They say, “Appoint for us a king to govern us, like other nations.” Here’s the geopolitical peer pressure. Everybody else has a king. Why don’t we have a king? Give us a king. We want a king.

Samuel consults with God, and God basically tells Samuel, “Don’t take it personally; it isn’t about you. They aren’t rejecting you. They’re rejecting me as their true king.” Just as they rejected God to serve other gods, the people rejected Samuel as judge and wanted to have a human king like other kings.

Samuel comes back to the people and says, “You think you want a king? You don’t want a king. Here’s what gonna happen if you get a king. He’ll take your sons as his soldiers. He’ll take your daughters as his servants (or worse). He’ll confiscate your land, your fields and vineyards. He’ll take your property, your livestock, your livelihoods. You want a king? You really don’t want a king.”

But the people refuse to listen, and they want a king anyway. If you’re a literature professor or an English major, this will jump out at you as Act 1 of the tragedy. At the beginning of every classical tragedy, there’s a prophecy, an oracle. The soothsayer tells Julius Caesar, “Beware the ides of March.” The ghost in Hamlet, the witches in Macbeth, the oracle in Oedipus. That’s what this scene with Samuel and the people is like. We want a king. You don’t want a king. If you get a king, this is what’s going to happen. And of course, it happens. Not just with the rise and fall of King Saul (whose story fits perfectly the literary archetype of tragedy). But also with King David. And King Solomon. And every king to follow, good or bad, mostly bad.

You would think that Israel would have learned. But it’s no different from the time in the wilderness when they wanted to go back to Egypt. This is how ironic their request for a king is. Imagine if they had said, “Give us a Pharaoh! We want a Pharaoh, like Egypt.” Samuel’s thinking, “Yeah, how’d that work out for you?”

So in light of all of this, why does God concede and let them have a king? Because the notion of a king, however corrupted and imperfect in human practice, still points to God’s own identity as king. God is sovereign. God is ruler. God takes a fallen human concept of king and purifies it and says, here’s what a king ought to be like.

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