Luke 23:33-43 NRSV
Today is the last Sunday of the Christian Year. It is called “Christ the King Sunday” or “The Reign of Christ Sunday.” It signifies that at the end of it all, Jesus Christ has the last and final word. And in this world of so much suffering and pain, oh how we need a day like today! Oh how we need to be reminded that when it all boils down, when it all pans out, Jesus Christ is our ruler and our king. When it is all said and done, Jesus the Christ is ultimately in charge. Today is the day that we reassure ourselves that no matter how bad life gets, no matter how distressed, fragmented and chaotic life becomes, Christ is always in complete control. “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” as we all like to sing.
Now, in this world of heart ache and heart break, the truth that Christ is the king and ruler of it all is always supposed to bring us great assurance and peace. However; although none of us good God-fearing, church-going folks like to admit it, this truth of God’s complete reign over this world usually brings us the exact opposite.
Think about those times you were reminded by someone, albeit with good intentions, that “God is in control.” When Lori and I lost our first child two months before the due date, people came up to us and said, “Don’t let this get you down. Just remember that God doesn’t make any mistakes.”
After the doctor gave you the news that the tumor was malignant, people came up to you and said, “Don’t worry, God knows what God is doing.”
When people learned that you were going to lose your job, they reminded you, “It is going to be alright, for God is in control.”
At the graveside of a loved one, your friends and family lined up between you and the casket and whispered: “God has a reason for this.”
And very politely, we nodded. We even thanked them for their words with a hug or a handshake. But then, a short time later, after we dried our tears, after we came to our senses, while we were sitting quietly at home or while we were out on a long drive, or maybe sitting in church, we began to reflect and to ponder those well-intended words. We began to think to ourselves: “If God is really sitting on some providential throne in complete control of this fragmented fiasco called life, this disastrous debacle called the world, then what type of ruler is this God? What type of king sits back and allows so much evil to occur in their kingdom?
Christ the King—what is supposed to bring us great strength, peace and comfort, instead brings us frustration, anger and doubt. Christ the King—what is supposed to bring us assurance and hope brings us utter misery and despair. And we are very much tempted to join all those who laughed and ridiculed Jesus: “Umphh! King of the Jews! Some King!”
I have said it before, and I do not mind saying it again—If God is the one who willed our first baby’s death, causes tumors to be malignant, gets us fired from our jobs, and takes our loved ones from us, then I really do not believe I want anything to do with a god like that! I think I would rather join the millions of people who have chosen not to be in church on this Sunday before Thanksgiving.
The good news is that I am here. And I am here to thank God that God is not the type of King who decrees the death of babies, pronounces malignancies, commands layoffs and orders our loved ones to be suddenly taken from us. There is no doubt about it, Christ is King. But thank God, Christ does not reign the way the kings of this world reign.
The reason I believe we allow ourselves to be tempted to give up on God in the face of evil is because we often forget that our God reigns not from some heavenly throne in some blissful castle in the sky. Our God reigns from an old rugged cross, on a hill outside of Jerusalem, between sinners like you and me. I believe we oftentimes become despairing and cynical about God, because we forget that our God does not rule like the rulers of this world.
The rulers of this world rule with violence and coercion and force. Earthly rulers rule with an iron fist: militarily and legislatively and with executive orders. The kings of the world rule with raw power: controlling, dominating, taking, and imposing.
But Christ is a King who rules through suffering, self-giving, self-expending, sacrificial love. Christ the King rules, not from a distance at the capital city, not from the halls of power and prestige, but in little, insignificant, out-of-the-way places like Bethlehem and Nazareth, and Fountain and Farmville.
Christ the King doesn’t rule with an iron fist, but rules instead with outstretched arms. Christ the King doesn’t cause human suffering from a far, but is right here beside us sharing in our suffering.
God possess what the late theologian Arthur McGill called a “peculiar” kind of power.
God’s power is not a power that takes, but is a power that gives.
God’s power is not a power that rules, but is a power that serves.
God’s power is not a power that imposes, but is a power that loves.
God’s power is not a power that dominates, but a power that dies.
And as Arthur McGill has written, this is the reason that it is “no accident that Jesus undertakes his mission to the poor and to the weak and not to the strong, to the dying and not to those full of life. For with these vessels of need God most decisively vindicates his peculiar kind of power, [a] power of service whereby the poor are fed, the sinful are forgiven, the weak are strengthened, and the dying are made alive.”[i]
Christ the King did not take our first child. The day our baby died, God cried with us in that hospital room.
God did not cause the tumor. The day the doctor said the word “cancer” was a day of anguish for God as it was for us.
God did not create the layoff. The day you were told that your job was ending, God stayed up with you and worried with you all night long.
And God did not take your loved one. When they died, something inside of God died too.
What we all need to learn are very different definitions of “king,” “rule,” “reign” and “power”—very different because they define the ways of the only true and living God rather than defining our false gods and their ways.
So when life gets us down (and if we live any length of time at all in this world, it most certainly will), we need to remember the great truth of this day—Christ is the King. And this King is reigning, suffering, sacrificing and giving all that God has to give from the cross.
God does not make mistakes. God knows what God is doing. God is in control. But God’s throne is not made of silver and gold. God’s throne is made of wood and nails. God wears not a crown of jewels but a crown of thorns.
This past week I visited a lovely lady in the hospital who is dying with cancer. Doctors have given her about three months to live. With great faith and assurance and peace, she told me that everything was going to be all right. No, she is not delusional. Her mind is not clouded with morphine. She is at peace because her King reigns from a cross. Her King is not far away from her sitting a throne removed from her agony. Her King is at her side suffering with her. Her King is not above her pain. Her King is experiencing her every pain. Her King is not slowly taking her life away from her. Her King is giving the King’s very life to her, pouring out the King’s very self into her, and promises her every minute of every day to see her through.
Because of this, she told me that she has never known a time in her life when she more close to her Lord. All of her despair has been transformed into hope. And she is absolutely convinced that her death will be transformed into life everlasting.
After she described the intensified intimacy she now shares with her Lord, she then said something miraculous. With a hopeful joy in her smile and eternity in her eyes, she told me that she is really looking forward to celebrating Thanksgiving this year. Think about that for a moment.
A woman, dying with cancer, told me that she has a lot for which to be thankful.
Don’t we all?
[i] Arthur McGill, Suffering: A Test of Theological Method, 61-63.