Messiah and Monarchy
The text from Luke which we have read may sound out of place today. On the week that we are all anticipating Thanksgiving, this text sounds like we have jumped ahead to Good Friday. The reason this was chosen was for the ironic inscription that Pilate had nailed to Jesus’ cross. Thinking that he was mocking a failed revolutionary, he wrote for all to see, “the king of the Jews.” He had no idea how true that sign was, and today, at the end of the church year, we joyfully celebrate the Sunday of Christ the King.
Israel’s Demand to become a Monarchy
Those of you who come to Bible Study or my Sunday School class know that I have a strong interest in the ancient Israelite monarchy – specifically about how bad it was. I make a big deal out of the fact that the biblical story tells us that the Israelites came out of Egypt as a collection of tribes – a tribal confederacy. Later on they demanded a king so that they could be like all the other nations. They went to the prophet Samuel, and he was displeased with the idea, but God consoled him saying, “Don’t take it personally Samuel, they are not rejecting you, they are rejecting me as their king.” The monarchy was a rejection of God as king, in favor of a human king (1 Sam 8).
That’s a huge statement. If the very idea of having a human king is the rejection of God from being king, then the dozens and dozens of chapters that follow from 1 Samuel all the way to the end of 2 Kings is the story of a tragic mistake.
The move from tribal confederacy to monarchy changed everything. The whole nation was re-structured from a land of equals who were bound together by covenant to a kingdom which now had opulent state buildings to build and maintain and a lavish court to support. Of course, the man at the top, the king, would make sure he had a huge palace and temple, and would start acting like all the other kings did – as its chief priest (which is exactly what Solomon did).
Remember the story: the Israelites had come out of slavery in Egypt ready to stop being
slaves. Moses gave them a design for being a community connected by covenant relationships and obligations. In that great vision, everyone was supposed to have his own land, his “inheritance” on which to be a responsible, productive member of the community, producing enough for his family after he had given his first fruits and tithes to God. A portion of his tithe was designated for support for the poor, for widows and orphans. In this covenantal community there was to be justice in the courts, no special treatment for wealthy persons, no neglect of the rights of the powerless.
There is this odd paragraph in the Torah, in Deuteronomy, that seems to make allowance for having a king (Deut 17). In it Moses says that if, in the future, they want a king, they can have one, but that he cannot be above anybody else, or become wealthy or have a harem, and that he should have the Torah read to him every day to let him know who is the boss. Of course a king like that would not be a king at all; it’s meant to be ironic.
The Covenanted Community with God as King
Israel as a covenant community was supposed to have God as her king. God was the one who created each person, male and female, in his image. He was not like the nature gods of the surrounding nations who acted on their whims to be good or bad or completely indifferent. The nature gods did not care at all who you lied to, stole from or cavorted with, as long as you kept them fed and honored correctly.
By stark contrast, Yahweh, the God of Israel, as described in torah, was morally good, and cared about everything. Israel’s God cared about stealing, lying, murder, adultery corruption, and favoritism. He was personally concerned about justice, especially for the weak and powerless. God was Israel’s king – that is until he got rejected in favor of a human king.
So Israel became a monarchy and it did not take long for them to literally become like all the nations around them. Things went from bad to worse, the nation split in two, and each part was eventually conquered by a neighboring empire, Israel, the Northern 10 tribes by Assyria in 721 BC, and Judah, the Southern 2 tribes by Babylon in 586 BC. Along the way they lost sight of their covenantal bonds and mutual obligations. The rich got richer, the poor got poorer, family land was permanently lost, and the king and his court lived off the rest (see especially the book of Amos).
Israel in Exile: re-thinking it all
So when it had finally come to an inglorious end and the survivors were sitting in Babylon, some of them began to reflect on what had happened. How did we get here? What went wrong? Is there any hope for us now? If there is hope, if somehow God would allow us to start over back in our land again, how should we live as a people? What about the monarchy?
During that time, most of the books that we now call the Old Testament were organized into the form that we are familiar with today. Israel collected and re-told their collected stories of the past – starting with the story Creation; of the One God, the Creator who made the world, and people and blessed them.
Letting the Psalms sing
As they were collecting and editing the documents of their past, they included a huge collection of poetry that we call the Psalms. They organized the Psalms methodically to help answer those questions: what kind of people were we made to be? If we ever go back home from Babylon, what kind of a people should we be?
At the center of their perspective was the assertion that Yahweh is Israel’s rightful king! We translate it into English “The LORD is King!” Repeatedly that refrain rings out: “The Lord is King; let the earth rejoice” (97:1), “God is king over the nations; God sits on his holy throne.” (47:8)
The Prophetic Imagination
The prophets who spoke the Word of the Lord to the people in that time of exile in Babylon helped them to imagine a future day in which God would return to Zion as King. He would return in and through his anointed Messiah who would come in the Spirit of the Lord to proclaim that their time of exile had finally come to an end. He would come to announce that the Kingdom of God had come!
The Upside-down Kingdom
What would this kingdom of God look like? Well compared to the rest of the world, it would
look upside down. The blessed people would not be the rich, the famous, and the powerful, but the blessed would be the peacemakers, the pure in heart, the meek. In the upside down kingdom, the first would be last and the last first. In the Kingdom of God, instead of seeking vengeance, people would seek and give forgiveness, even 70X7 times a day. In the kingdom of God, people would not run around like mad seeking material wealth and power, but rather they would seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, being confident that if they did, the God of the lilies of the field and the birds of the air would take care of them (Matthew 7).
In this kingdom, every act of kindness would be highly valued – in fact every compassionate action would be taken as an act done directly to the Lord, the King. Every time you fed the hungry, every time you provided clothing, even a cup of water given to a person in need would, in the Kingdom of God, be taken as an act done directly for the King himself (Matt. 25).
In this kingdom, you may still hear it said “you shall love your friends and hate your enemies” but that was the past. Now the rule is “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt 5:44)
In this kingdom, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’” but the rule now is “Do not resist an evildoer… if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Matt 5:38-39)
Jesus and the Kingdom of God
This is exactly what Jesus understood was happening. He knew that God had given him the vocation, the calling, to be his Messiah, his anointed one, the new king, to announce that God’s kingdom had come. He came to throw open the doors of the kingdom to everyone – to sinners and to the unclean, to lepers and to Samaritans, to tax collectors and prostitutes, to Roman soldiers and Canaanite women. All were invited to leave behind the old way of living and to put their faith and trust in God who makes all things new, who forgives sins, and who gives life in abundance, as it was meant to be from the beginning.
This is exactly what led Jesus to the cross as he accepted that he was taking on himself the suffering due the nation. It was on that cross that he announced forgiveness to the people who put him there saying “Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” Maybe looking up at the sign that read “the King of the Jews” on Jesus’ cross, the criminal next to him said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Lk 22:42) Jesus assured him “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (v. 43)
Christ is King!
Today we celebrate Christ the King. We pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth” (here and now) “as it is in heaven.” The only question that remains to us is where we find ourselves in relation to the king and His kingdom. Today we ask ourselves, am I seeking first “the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” or am I seeking the kingdom of self, or wealth or power or pleasure?
Today is the day we re-assert that it is not the kingdom of God, but the world that is upside down in relation to God. We will be citizens of the Christ’s Kingdom. We will join him in extending the welcome of God to everyone in Jesus’ name. Christ is King! Amen.