Scripture: John 18:33-37, 19:12-15
Today is Christ The King Sunday in the church. But we don’t really observe it much. We celebrate it as the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Sometimes we talk about it being the last Sunday of the Christian year. Sometimes we even use this Sunday to get the jump on Advent. But we don’t really understand Jesus as King. Savior, Lord, friend – yes. But King? It’s ironic isn’t it, that the Roman governor Pontius Pilate recognized Jesus as the King of the Jews, but the Jews recognized Caesar as their king. One writer comments, Whatever Pilate’s intent— to rile the chief priests, to provide political cover for his sentence, to mock Jesus— Pilate probably doesn’t realize that this label makes him a prophet. “We have no king but Caesar”, some Jews chanted, which not only left out Jesus but also Herod, who was the “official” king of the Jews. But, you see, Jesus just didn’t fit their understanding of what a king was supposed to look like and act like. Even the crazy Herod was more “kingly” then Jesus was. But, if we stop and think about that, it makes sense. Because centuries of history had shaped the Jews understanding of a King, and in time that understanding became a part of the anticipation of the Messiah. The Messiah would be a King. And Jesus was no king. He didn’t fit the mold. The Jews knew Kings to be powerful tyrants. The pantheon of kings that ruled the holy land boasted now legendary names. Nebuchanezzer and Tiglath Pileaser and now Augustus Caesar. They were the Kings of the Babylonians and Assyrians and Egyptians and the Greeks and now the Romans. Ruthless, powerful conquerors who pillaged the land and carried the people into exile or held them captive in their own land. Kings did not care about people. They cared about power and glory and they gained that by sacrificing the poor and weak. Before the first Gulf war began more than two decades ago now, George Bush gave Sadaam Hussein a deadline of January 15th to pull his troops out of Kuwait and avoid war. For several months, the world had watched as a coalition of nations assembled a great fighting force against Iraq. The belief was that Hussein would back down, but to the surprise of most, he did not. Military strategists could not figure out why Hussein would sacrifice his troops in Kuwait until they moved into that country and discovered that the troops there consisted of the poor and malnourished. The outcasts of society. Hussein cared nothing for them. He was willing to sacrifice them to remain in power. You see, that’s what ancient Israel knew about Kings. For centuries they asked God for a King because they said, “all of the other nations have kings and they attack us. We’ll never be strong without a King”. “I am your King” God replied, but the people were not satisfied. And so finally God relented and gave them a King. And their great King David fought many wars and unified the nation but he didn’t always care for the people and so when Bathsheba’s husband stood in the way of their adulteress relationship, David ordered him killed. Then when David’s son Solomon became King, he embarked on a great building program. He built the Temple in Jerusalem. In its time it was one of the most magnificent structures in the world. It stood twenty feet high and was plated in gold. But Solomon enslaved his own people to build his monuments. Because Kings ruled by might. After Solomon, there were many bad kings in Israel, and in the end they could not protect Israel from the mighty kings of neighboring lands. In Jesus day, the Romans installed Herod as a puppet king and Herod set out to rebuild the Temple. Only his temple was ten times the size of Solomon’s temple and was built by Jewish laborers, many of whom died in the process. But Herod didn’t care about that. He also built many palaces all over Judea, that were monuments to the King. And many of the poor of Israel died in their construction, but that was somehow okay. Because Herod was a king. And the Caesar that the Jews before Pilate claimed as their king rather than Jesus, enslaved people from all over the empire to build his roads and coliseums and the great buildings of Rome. That’s what kings did. The Messiah would come in strength and drive out the foreign oppressors. That’s why the prophecies of the Messiah usually came from those times when the Jews were suffering at the hands of foreign kings. And so, they said, how could Jesus be a king? For a moment he had stirred their hope that He was going to Jerusalem to reclaim the throne of David, but rather than ride in triumph, he had ridden on the back of a baby donkey. He had no army. He had none of the trappings of royalty. He had no power. In fact He, Himself, was one of the powerless, was one of the poor and outcast. What kind of a king is that?
But perhaps, had they really been listening to Him, they would have understood that Jesus was talking about a different kind of King, they would have noticed that when Jesus told parables He often began “And the Kingdom of God is like” and then He taught about a Kingdom that was just the opposite of the kind of Kingdom the people had sought for all those centuries and rather than a mighty King, He taught about what they would consider foolish king who did the opposite of what the people expected a King to do. Herod, Caesar, right or wrong, they were real Kings. The idea that Jesus was a King. How foolish was that.
For instance, one day Jesus gathered His disciples and He said, What do you think about a King who is like a farmer who planted his field to wheat. But after he had sowed the wheat, an enemy came and sowed darnel seeds among the wheat seeds? You see, darnel is a weed that looks just like wheat when it first comes up. It is very hard to tell the difference. But the difference is that the darnel plants roots are much deeper then those of the wheat and so by the time you can tell the difference, it is nearly impossible to pull up the darnel plant without also uprooting much of the wheat. And so the servants came with what seemed like a very wise plan. “There appears to be darnel growing among the wheat. We’ll go out and pull up the darnel before it ruins the whole harvest.” Isn’t that what we would do? But this foolish farmer said, “no, we’ll wait until the harvest because if you pull up the darnel now, you will destroy some of the wheat also.” For the servants, losing some of the wheat was ok but for this foolish farmer (and remember Jesus says God is like this foolish farmer) it is better to risk the whole crop, then to destroy one single grain of wheat. Every grain of wheat is precious to this foolish farmer. What kind of foolish king cares so much for the individual that he would go to such lengths to protect even those who are late bloomers? This foolish king is a patient king who gives us time to sink in our own roots, no matter what weeds may grow in our lives. What do you think about this foolish King? How foolish He must have looked standing before Pilate, wearing a crown of thorns and a tattered purple robe to cover the marks of his beating. “You would have me put to death such a pathetic, foolish king,” Pilate says. And the people cry out, “He’s not our king. Caesar is our King.”
And then one day Jesus said to the crowd, What do you think about a king in the Kingdom of God who is like a gardener who sowed mustard seed in his garden and allowed it to grow. And it got so big that birds came and roosted in its branches? Now there’s a couple of things we need to know to understand just how foolish this gardener was. First of all Jesus tells us that the mustard is sown, what kind of a gardener would intentionally sow mustard seeds, and not in a field, but a garden. So this would have been a small plot in the courtyard of the home where vegetables would be grown, enough only to feed the man’s family. Some of you have gardens like that. And the second thing we need to know is that mustard is really a weed that grows to be about the size of a small tree. Big enough, Jesus says that the birds could roost in its branches. How foolish to deliberately sow such a weed in such a small area in the first place. What kind of a gardener sows weeds? Or even tolerates them? A foolish one. Everyone knew that there were two enemies of the garden — weeds and pests. And this foolish gardener was inviting both into his garden. But mustard is also a beautiful plant. It has pretty flowers and berries. So where most people pictured an overbearing weed, this gardener saw beauty. Kings build beautiful monuments to glorify themselves, but the foolish king sees beauty in everything of creation that glorifies God. Kings are those who surround themselves with beauty and splendor. But the foolish king sees beauty in all things. How ugly and grotesque the foolish King must have looked standing before Pilate. The flesh ripped from his back by the whip, bloody and dirty and beaten down. “You want me to crucify your king.” “He’s not our King. The glorious Caesar who dwells in splendid palaces and rides in golden chariots. He’s our king. Herod who built the Temple and lives in palaces. He’s our king.” They just could not conceive of a king standing humiliated and dying before their enemy. Because they had not listened when He had said, “The Kingdom of God is like a shepherd who has charge of 100 sheep and one wanders off and becomes lost. And then instead of protecting the remaining 99, this foolish shepherd leaves them and goes off to search for the one who is lost. No King would do that. What kind of a foolish Kingdom is this. In pure economic terms, the people knew how foolish this was. Shepherds did not own the sheep. They were hired to tend them. And so if some were lost or killed, the value of that sheep would be deducted from the shepherd’s pay. And if they could not pay, then they would be imprisoned, or sometimes even put to death. That’s how serious was their responsibility. Now, it was estimated one sheep was worth approximately a months wages. And so a flock of 100 would be worth more than the average shepherd would earn in a lifetime. So if you lost a flock, essentially your life would be over. And yet this foolish shepherd was so concerned about the one sheep, he was willing to leave the flock, to sacrifice his own livelihood, for the one that was lost. What kind of Kingdom is that. What kind of a foolish king would lay down his life for one of the least and the lost sheep? Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Behold your king. How he must have looked like the lost sheep who had been attacked by predators and fallen into the thicket as he stood before Pilate. Given up for dead. “You would have me slaughter your King?” “But Caesar is our king. He knows that the lost ones must be sacrificed for the good of the whole flock. Crucify Him.” Crucify the foolish King.
But there was more. In the Kingdom of Heaven the King is like a man who went to the town square to hire workers for his vineyard. Several times during the day he returned to hire more. But yet when the day was over he paid the ones who had worked just an hour a full days wages because their needs were just as great as the ones who had worked all day.
Or what about this foolishness? In the Kingdom of Heaven, the King invites honored guests to a great banquet in his palace but they refuse to come. They have too many other commitments to tend to, and so rather than reschedule the banquet for a more convenient time, he sends his servants out to bring in the homeless and the poor and outcast to the banquet instead. That’s not how Kings act. How foolish this King must have looked when from the Cross as He neared death, He forgave all of those who had rejected His invitation and instead had placed Him on the Cross. If He was a real king, he would have had armies of angels that would have come to rescue him.
Or in the Kingdom of Heaven the King is like a father whose son wishes him dead and when he can wait no longer for his inheritance, goes and says, Father, let’s pretend your dead now and give me my share of the inheritance so I can really start living. But when the boy has lost everything and turns for home, the father runs to greet him and showers him with his love and gives him the best of what is left. How foolish this King must have looked when He said to the prodigal hanging on the Cross next to his, “I’ve been looking for you. Welcome home to paradise. To the Kingdom of God.”
What a foolish King! Born in a lowly stable rather than a grand palace. What a foolish king! Whose entourage was made up of the poor and the cast offs, instead of generals and centurions. What a foolish king! Whose crown was made of thorns, and who died for us, rather than us die for him. What a foolish King, whose kingdom is not of power and might, but is of love and forgiveness. What a foolish king, who welcomes everyone regardless of the weeds that grow in our midst, no matter what our station in life, or the color of our skin, or the faith of our fathers, into his kingdom. What a foolish king, who was willing to give his life on a cross rather than lose one lost sheep like me. What a foolish king whose kingdom is made up of prodigals like us.
A pastor writes:
One day as I sat in my office a man came in and introduced himself as a Lutheran pastor from another state. His children were moving to our small town and he had looked but had not found a Lutheran church for them to attend. I told him that he was correct. There was no Lutheran church in our county. So he asked if his children would be welcome at our church. I assured him they would be. As he got up to leave, he turned to me and said, “You should know that my son in law played football for the University of Kansas. He is black. Will that make any difference in your decision to welcome them?”“No, “ I said, “but it will be exciting.” Two Sundays later the pastor’s daughter, her husband and their two children joined our formerly all-white church. I invited her father to baptize their youngest child that day. It was truly a great day in Jesus’ kingdom, though not everyone thought so. Most of the Men’s Bible class stayed home the next week. People talked, but most of them stretched their love to include our newest family. I visited the Men’s Bible class leader who was 84 years old and said to him, “you are way too close to meeting Jesus to be acting like this.” Eventually things settled down and most of the class came back. I thought we had passed some sort of test.And then one day, one of our long term members came to me and said her daughter was moving home with her three children. I had been her pastor for several years and did not know that she even had a daughter. “What daughter?” I inquired. “Our daughter who met and married a football player from Florida State University. The one we disowned because her husband was black. But when she called last week and said they wanted to come home, I knew that I needed to welcome her and her family home, because of that new family that the church has embraced.”
Oh, what a foolish king whose kingdom is made up of prodigals, and lost sheep, and dirty fishermen, and prostitutes and tax collectors, and zealots — all sinners, outcasts, perhaps like you and I. Behold the foolish King, whose Kingdom will endure long after earthly Kings and Caesars pass away. Behold the foolish King, whose Kingdom is in our hearts and our souls forever and ever and ever.
Behold the foolish king who is running to meet you and welcome you into His kingdom this very day. That’s what we celebrate on Christ The King Sunday. That even the most foolish of us has a place in God’s Kingdom. And I don’t know about you, but at least in my life, that makes this a great day to celebrate.