A King's Last Words

Scripture can be found here and here

Several years ago, without exactly deciding to do so, I found that I was watching only TV series and movies about 16th century Tudor royalty. Kings and queens and their courts. I started with Henry VIII, and watched everything I could find about him and his six wives, and then moved onto his daughter, Elizabeth I, and her sister, Mary I, and their cousin and rival, Mary Queen of Scots. And just when I was about to move onto other subject matter, PBS gave us “Victoria,” and Netflix gave us “The Crown,” and I was hooked again, this time on more contemporary monarchs such as Elizabeth II, her father George VI, and his brother, Edward VIII.

 I just couldn’t get enough of the history, but also—let’s be honest—of the scandal, the foibles, the treachery, and also—less frequently for some monarchs and more frequently for others—of the virtues and strengths of these people in power. And more than once during this time, my thoughts went to a particular passage in 1 Samuel. It described a time when God’s covenant people, tired of the tribal conflicts that kept them embroiled in wars with one another as well as other nations, began to demand that Samuel, the prophet, anoint a king for them. Samuel was not pleased. But when he prayed to God about it, this is how God answered:

 “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them…. only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” ~ 1 Sam. 8:7, 9

And he did. Here are the words of God that Samuel shared with the people:

 These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots.  He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers.  He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work.  He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.

 ~ 1 Samuel 8:11-17

And even after this dire warning—a warning that the costs of having a king would far outweigh the benefits—the people continued to clamor, and so God gave them a king.

The kings and queens whose stories flickered across my computer screen surely played according to type as outlined by God, even those of relatively good character. Here’s the problem: the kind of power traditionally given to royalty could corrode the morals of even those who started out promisingly. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”[i] At her best Queen Elizabeth I was smart and decisive; she gave a rousing speech to her troops, and went among them on horseback, in battle armor, as they awaited the arrival of the Spanish Armada. There she told them that she was determined ‘to live and die amongst them; to lay down for her God, and for her kingdom, and her people, her honour and her blood, even in the dust.’ And at her worst? Elizabeth was vain and petty and favored those courtiers who flattered her most prettily. She condoned torture to try to find out whether her cousin was coming for her crown. At her worst, Elizabeth never paid the sailors of the English fleet that met the Armada. After their victory, typhus swept through their ranks, and most of them died, destitute, without the aid the royal treasury could have provided.

Today is the last Sunday of the church year for many Christians around the world. This day is known for them—and for us—as either “Christ the King” or “Reign of Christ” Sunday, highlighting the idea that our Lord Jesus Christ is “King,” not just for Christians, not just of the world, but over all the universe. And so the lectionary offers us readings to highlight Jesus’ kingship.

In this morning’s first reading, David, the second king of God’s covenant people, is lying on his deathbed. Here, he describes with his final breaths what he views as good kingship. The one who wrote so many beautiful psalms is still a spinner of lovely images, and here his thoughts fly on the wings of nature metaphors.

The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me: One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land. ~ 2 Samuel 23:3-4 

And then, poignantly, hopefully, he adds, “Is not my house like this with God?” That’s me, right? Who wants to contradict an elderly king, as he lies dying? And there is no question that David’s reign is a highlight of the Hebrew Scriptures, and that he stands as the greatest of the kings of old, biblically speaking. At his best, David is a uniter of fragmented and warring tribes, and an encourager of overmatched armies; overwhelmed by his love for God, he dances before the Ark of the Covenant, and for God he composes and sings and plays songs of such beauty that we still have many of their lyrics thousands of years later.  At his worst? He is an abuser of his power as king; he’s a murderer; he ignores a heinous crime by one son against his sister, and watches as a legacy of bloodshed spreads throughout his family. Despite his talents and his legendary charisma, despite his having the blessing of God on his endeavors, despite being “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14) David was still the kind of king God warned the people against. 

And Jesus? What kind of king his he? I have to tell you the truth: when I read the gospels, I don’t know that Jesus is at all interested in the language of “king” and “kingship.” Any images we have of him as king are just that—images, pictures painted by John of Patmos in the book of Revelation, or by the Christian faithful throughout the ages. But the way Jesus moves through the world and conducts his ministry are far from “kinglike.”  

Here’s one example. I was watching “Victoria and Abdul” this weekend. There is a scene when Abdul touches the Queen’s knee, to help her pronunciation of a word in Urdu, and as the audience, we are shocked—we know, even we 21st century Americans totally get it, that it is taboo to touch the queen!

Now, think of Jesus…standing waist deep in the muddy Jordan so that John can take him in his arms and dunk him down into that water of baptism. Remember him, surrounded by people who are sick, or possessed with demons, and healing them. Recall him taking Peter’s mother-in-law by the hand and healing her of her fever, so that she can get up and join in his ministry. Think of Jesus, walking along dusty roads, making a paste of his dirt and spit and rubbing it into a blind man’s eyes, taking bread and breaking it so that it can be shared with hungry strangers or friends. Think of Jesus, who is so utterly un-king-like, in his willingness to be near people, to touch people, to heal people, to eat with them, to welcome them, no matter who they are or where they come from.

Now, think of Jesus as we see him today, in our passage from the gospel of John. You know what’s happening here without me telling you. Jesus has been arrested on specious claims. The idea that he might be angling to be king is making the rounds, and no one wants Jesus to be king less than the Roman Empire or its representative, the irritated governor, Pontius Pilate. Jesus is on trial for his life. His closest friends have abandoned him, denied even knowing him, and he has already been brutalized by law enforcement. He stands, with no witness or defense to his name, before this highest local (civil) authority.

Pilate asks Jesus, Are you a king? Are you the king of the Judean people?

Jesus replies:

“Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”

“My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to [those for whom you imagine I am king]. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

“You say that I am a king.”

Jesus doesn’t exactly embrace the title. He speaks vaguely of another world, a claim the Roman governor has no way of verifying. This is the nature of Jesus’ kingship, if he is indeed a king. It can never be recognized by other kings, because the moment they do recognize it, their own authority vanishes. It is a title that sits uneasily on this man who has roamed the Judean countryside and Jerusalem’s city streets, engaging in verbal skirmishes with religious and civil authorities alike, but, more than that, shown so vividly that he belongs with the people, in the flesh and blood. ‘King’ is a title that is either too grand for him or too impossibly small. It’s hard to tell.

But then, Jesus says something else:

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37)

For Jesus, and for us, the truth is this: Our God is one who comes among us, not as a king, not lording power or grandeur over us, but, instead, as living and breathing compassion. The truth comes as the light of the world, as Jesus tells us we, too can be light. The truth comes as the one who brings healing to those who are hurting, and who shows us we, too, can be wounded healers. The truth comes as Jesus’ willingness to undergo pain so that we can know our pain has been seen, our struggle has been joined. The truth comes as one willing to lay down his life with us and for us.

And this is exactly why Jesus is the one we are willing to call king. Before him those who believe they have all the power fall silent, are put to shame, and have no defense for their dishonesty and pretensions to glory but to try as they can to extinguish him.  Jesus is the one in whom we can put our trust, the one who tells us the truth, the one who is not grasping after the title “king,” but who will accept it—the glory and the burden—if that is God’s will for him and for humanity.

Earlier this morning we recited a “Prayer for New Life” together; we spoke of God’s will to restore all things in God’s beloved, Jesus, our Lord and King. We prayed: Grant, O Lord, that all your people may be freed and brought together under the gentle and loving rule of Jesus.  

Jesus, the living one. Jesus, the gentle one. Jesus, the loving one.

If we must have a king, by all means: let it be Jesus.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton, in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, 1887.