The Rev. Ronald F. Marshall
November 20, 2016
Grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (+) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the end of the Church Year. Every year at this time we proclaim that Christ is King. This is the last word of the year that the Church wants you to hold on to. It is a great one and an important word and we are to embrace it with our whole heart and mind.
No President Polk
But what does it mean? Christ had no bejeweled throne and crown. He didn’t command any huge armies to secure the boarders of his kingdom. He didn’t have a large retinue waiting on him for his every pleasure. No, Jesus in fact had nowhere to lay his head (Luke 9:58). He is a very unkingly king, to say the very least.
Think of President James K. Polk (1795–1849) – the only American president to keep all of his campaign promises, including not to run for re-election. He promised to stretch the American boarder all the way west to the Pacific Ocean and he did it with his military might (Steve Raymond, “The Sweeping Influence of an Obscure President,” The Seattle Times, December 27, 2009, p. H4). How unlike King Jesus!
So just as Christian peace is unlike anything the world can give (John 14:27); and joy is not grounded in individual happiness but in our life with Christ our Lord himself (Philippians 4:4) – just so Christ’s regal rule is way out of the ordinary.
Trust Only Jesus
But how so? In Colossians 1:18 we’re told that Christ is King by being the head of the body, which is the church. This is something like Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hallow (1820) in reverse – no headless horseman here, but a king, with his head intact alright, but in this case, with no body! That would be us, the body, which is his church.
As our head Christ rules the church. Many of us would like to rule the church instead. But Christ prohibits that. He rules all alone. He rules by doing what no one else can do. Luther explains:
The King [Jesus]…. rules and has power where the authority, power, and wisdom of men stop. He can… help where no man… can help – against sin, that we may not be damned by it; against death, that it may not devour us; against the devil, that he may not keep us captive (Luther’s Works 13:239)
This is how Jesus rules as king and head of the church. He doesn’t rule politically, economically or culturally. He doesn’t work to bring about the best political regime, or the strongest economy; or the fairest social structure. No, he has bigger fish to fry, namely, sin, death and the devil. For those who worry over these, he is a great king. For those who don’t, Jesus is much ado about nothing, and his kingship is a waste of time.
But for us, Christ is king and eminently trustworthy. This is so, even though as Luther says, no other human being “can be trusted, no matter how wise, holy, or great he may be” (LW 45:121). Luther gets this skepticism from Jeremiah 17:5 and Psalm 146:3 where we’re told point-blank not to trust anyone. People are fickle. We know this from our relationships, both distant and intimate. Think about. A wife runs off after 40 years of marriage and the husband says, “I guess I never knew her.” Or the child that goes awry – to the surprise of her parents. And so they say in dismay of her, “This is not the child we raised.” But not with Christ – though we are faithless he remains faithful (2 Timothy 2:13).
I saw this point in one of my favorite cartoons last week – Hilary Price’s “Rhymes With Orange” (November 15, 2016). It’s a veiled criticism of Buddhist meditation – which I’m not against as therapy, but only as a way of salvation. The cartoon says: “Mindfulness would be a lot easier if I didn’t have mindfulmess.” Mindfulmess – exactly! That is our predicament. That is our fickleness. That is our mental mess – no focus and steadfastness in us! We drift and wander. But none of that plagues Christ our King – the head of the church, which is his body. And having this steadfast one makes us fearless. Luther again explains:
If you fear [God] and trust him then you need fear no one and trust no one except God…. You learn from this that to fear God is not merely to fall upon your knees (LW 51:139).
Great contrast here – fearing God contrasted with fearing no one else. This sure makes it clear what fearing God is like. Just as in the Third Reich. The church could say Jesus is Lord and no one cared. But when the preachers said Christ was Lord and Hitler wasn’t, they were arrested and the churches closed down [Arthur C. Cochrane, The Church’s Confession Under Hitler (1976) p. 211]. It is this same sort of contrast that Luther has in mind (per contentionem, LW 33:287). Fear God and you won’t fear others! Unbelievable, yet it remains our abiding promise.
Are you ready then to trust in Christ your king? Are you ready to fear God and no one else? Are you ready to follow Christ the head of the church, and not your own interests and opinions?
Well, you may say you are, but none of us will get very far with this. We’ll cave in. And so we need the miraculous words from Colossians 1:13–14 that Christ has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into his own kingdom. Astounding, indeed. It’s the miraculous Gospel “shift” that Luther speaks of – away “from us to Christ” (LW 17:99). Christ walks into the room and changes everything. He doesn’t wait for us to come to him and ask for his blessings. He reaches out and rescues us and transfers us. This builds on John 15:16 – you did not choose me but I chose you. It follows Paul’s conversion in Acts 9:1–22 where Christ doesn’t wait for Paul to change his ways, but stops him, knocks him down, blinds him, and leads him away to Damascus.
Without Christ taking charge, we would be without hope. We would languish in despair, being tied to the vagaries of life – being blown about by waves of good and bad worldly fortune.
And how does Christ do this? How does he rescue us? He does this by his cross. There he draws us to himself (John 12:32). You might think that his suffering, death and horrible shame on the cross would push us away, but it doesn’t. It instead captivates us – sweetly disposing us toward God (LW 44:38). Luther further explains how this happens:
There is so much evil in my nature that the world and all creation would not suffice to placate God, but that the Son of God Himself had to be given up for it. But consider this price carefully, and look at… the Son of God. You will see then that He is greater and more excellent than all creation (LW 26:175).
That’s why in our altar window we have Christ crucified and not a beautiful picture of Mt. Rainer (David Buerge, “Ancient Legends of Mount Rainer,” Seattle Weekly, September 12 and 19, 1984). Hiking in the mountains will not bring you closer to salvation. Neither will days lounging on ocean beaches in Hawaii. Weekend camping trips won’t do it either. Mind you, these exertions aren’t bad. It’s just that they aren’t good enough to save us.
What we need instead is God being placated. Only Christ can do this. Only Christ can save us from his wrath by dying for us (Romans 5:9; John 3:36) – being punished in our place so that our punishment is set aside. Many Christians today think God is only love and doesn’t need any placating. But the Bible disagrees. God indeed hates sinners and wants to kill them (Jeremiah 12:8; Isaiah 13:9). Christ changes that on his cross – making peace between God and sinners (Colossians 1:20).
Therefore we rejoice in Christ. We thank God for his pleasing sacrifice (Ephesians 5:2). We pray in his name and receive him resurrected from the dead in the Lord’s Supper, that we might know we’re forgiven.
Tear Yourselves Away
And when you leave church today, pursue good works by the grace of God and to his glory. Know that Christ kingship is not of this world (John 18:36). Remember that Jesus would not save himself from the cross by getting down from it (Luke 23:37). And so with Luther work to “tear [yourselves] away from the world” (LW 30:326)! Heaven is your home (Philippians 3:20). Do not let the catastrophes of life frustrate you to the point of despairing and giving up – or even something worse.
That’s what happened to many in 1929 when the stock market crashed. We have films of people jumping to their deaths from the upper floors of their office buildings when they heard they had lost all of their money [Maury Klein, Rainbow’s End: The Crash of 1929 (2001) p. 81]. But that wasn't right! Life still was meaningful even with that sadness. They should have instead said: “Wow! that was a bad day. Help me learn from this sadness, Lord. Give me strength to help others in pain because of these terrible times.” That’s the Christian way – not taking your own life.
So rise above these vagaries by tearing yourself away from the world. Fix your eyes on things that are above (Colossians 3:2). But work in this world, too. That’s the key. Help the homeless ("Number of Homeless in State Up 7.3 Percent," The Seattle Times, November 18, 2016; "Homes for the Homeless: Ultra-Conservative Utah Has All But Wiped Out Chronic Homelessness. Why Can't We?" Seattle Weekly, September 9-15, 2015) So work hard, and if you fail, do not lose heart, for God is your savior. Make that distinction, then you'll be in the world but not of it (John 17:14–19). Then you'll be following Christ righteously. Amen.
(printed as preached but with some changes)