Hope everyone had a nice Thanksgiving. I was sick this Thanksgiving—I’m sick every Thanksgiving. Every time, my immune system goes on vacation and a virus comes in and throws a house party. It’s like the best food of the entire year and I can’t taste anything. Don’t worry, I’m not bitter. Why would I be bitter? My mom said to me, “At least you didn’t feel terrible alone.”
I love Thanksgiving because this is one of the few days out of the year that we choose to sit around with our families with nothing on the agenda—bar eating. I think this is why, with Danielle’s family, we always play board games. In my family, you play board games only when there’s absolutely nothing else to do. It’s a last resort, a last ditch effort, for some kind of entertainment. When you can’t eat another turkey sandwich and the Detroit Lions are getting beat—then (and only then) you get out the board game. We’re so competitive and there’s been too many Monopoly boards that have been flipped over in a Boardwalk rage. Danielle’s family will make a game out of a piece of cardboard, a couple of action figures, and a dice. I give them a hard time, but it’s actually a nice thing; we put the screens away and look each other in the face for a few hours. We don’t often pass the time away with laughter nearly enough.
I travelled to Israel a few years ago and our tour guide showed us the board games played by Roman soldiers. Board games have been used to pass the time for a long time. One of the games played is pictured there on the screen—the Game of Kings. The object of the game was simple: soldiers rolled dice made out of sheep’s knuckles in order to push two game pieces, kings, forward along a pathway with long reeds. The king who made it to the center first won. The king who didn’t was toppled in a mock execution.
One tradition holds that this game, “The Game of the King,” is etched in stone at the place that Jesus was likely tortured before the crucifixion. There’s the board game on the stone and then, there’s Jesus “The King of the Jews” as their life-size game piece. The Roman soldiers dress Jesus in a robe and a crown of thorns. The soldiers struck Jesus with a reed, mocking him with taunts: “Hail, King of the Jews!” The Roman soldiers, tired of playing with symbols, transform Jesus into a life-size game piece.
The first century was like a ‘game of thrones’ full of kings, emperors, and pharaohs with competing kingdoms. Jesus was not coming to be just one more king (or ruler or president or whatever), but rather came to be the last King in an entirely new reign that would last throughout eternity. That’s a bold claim. No surprise that it landed him in front of Pontius Pilate. Pilate asks, “So, you are a King?” The question is about politics, “Are you a threat to Rome?” Or, in other words, “Exactly, what kind of King are you?
They put the King on a cross.
We call this irony. Or, paradox. Or, absurdity. Psychologists call it cognitive dissonance. King Jesus crucified doesn’t compute. This is why Soren Kierkegaard says that Jesus is inherently disruptive; he’s a ‘no’ to all of our ‘yeses;’ he shatters everything we think we know about the way the world works. Christianity takes competing principles and makes us hold them together in tension: life in this world and life in the next. Faith alone, but also good works. The greatest of all, yet the servant of all. Born a child and yet a King. You get the picture?
It’s certainly not what anyone expected. The first century Jews were looking for a Messiah who would fit in their mold as the anointed one—he would be a great Prophet and Priest. Maybe more so, the Messiah would be a king in the likes of King David, who led the Jews into Jerusalem and took the city. The Messiah would be called ‘Messiah ben David,’ which means “Messiah, son of David.” The Jews expected a charismatic leader who would unify the nation and usher in an age of Messianic peace through the Temple.
Jesus arrived on the scene as a bit of a loser king. Our politicians would call him a snowflake. His palace was a manger. And the citizens of his kingdom were peasants, lepers, and those twelve homeless men who followed him around like lost puppies. He paraded into Jerusalem on a donkey, which is not exactly a war stallion. Here comes this Jew, who is the precursor to the destruction of their Temple. Are you looking for his kingdom? Don’t blink, you might miss it. It’s as small as a mustard seed. You’re getting the picture.
The King is put on a cross in between two criminals. It wasn’t supposed to end this way. No golden crown; it’s thorns. Robes? They stripped him naked. His cross is his throne and his weapons are a towel and basin. Above him there is a sign that says, “This is the King of the Jews.” It’s worth reminding you that getting “glorified on a cross” makes as much sense as being “enthroned on an electric chair.” The soldiers and bystanders gaze up from the foot of the cross and shouts up, “Save yourself!” That’s what we want—a real King. Have a little self-respect. If you are the King, then show us real power. Rip the arms off the cross, send some fireballs from heaven, or armies of angels. At the very least, instigate a riot. Jesus’ kingdom? He says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
This is all embarrassingly lowly; there is no way around it. This Kingdom looks so different from any other kingdom that the world has seen. The powerful are the ones with the biggest bank accounts, the sharpest swords, the most followers on Twitter. Not in this reign.
I think this is why, throughout the years, we have ignored this portrait of Jesus’ reign and dressed him up according to our tastes and preferences. Here, Jesus wear this golden crown. Hold this sword. Have a little self respect. Now, you have a chance against the kingdoms of the world. And we’ve confused the Kingdom of God with the kingdoms of the world. Early Christians fought crusades, shed blood for that King Jesus. Christians picked up arms and fought with Hitler for the ‘kingdom of God.’ And today, politicians use him to justify their own political agendas. We dress him up and move him around our board games. Ironically, Jesus is pro-life and pro-choice. He’s pro-same-sex unions and also against them. Jesus wants a bigger army; Jesus is a pacifist; Jesus is a just-war theorist. The greatest critique of Christianity that I know, is that Jesus looks remarkably like us. We still play ‘The Game of the King.’
Christ the King Sunday asks us to pause and stop playing games. This is a relatively new feast in the traditions of the church. Remember how it started? In 1925 Pope Pius the 11th wrote a letter calling for a celebration of the sovereign rule of Christ as King. 1925 was a time of deep darkness in Europe. Hitler had been out of jail a year and was organizing the national socialist party. The great depression that we felt in 1929 was already beginning to settle over parts of Europe. And in the middle of that encroaching darkness, the church said, “No. We will not bow before Lenin or Hitler or Mao.” Our allegiance is not to human sovereignty but to Christ alone. In the midst of all the worldly anxiety, and there is a lot of worldly anxiety, we pause and remember that we live in a different kingdom.
Christ the King Sunday is important because it reminds us that Jesus is the kind of King no one expected; maybe one that no one would choose. Christ is all powerful, but it’s not the kind of power that makes headline news. This is a King who would rather die than resort to violence—would rather be killed than to kill. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. The greatest, must be the servant. The ruler of this kingdom does not help the one percent, but those in need. He doesn’t destroy his enemies; he makes them friends. He shatters our divisions in the waters of baptism. I mean if this is true, that Jesus is King, then it’s incumbent upon us to act like citizens of that kingdom. Or, how should I say it: the kingdoms of the world must fall in line behind Christ’s.
Sometimes the church gets it right. I love thinking about Martin Luther King Jr.—he’s one of the few who got it right. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was preaching in front of the Ebenezer Baptist congregation and he told them–just two months before his death–how he would like to be remembered, and in doing so, he zeroed in on that ultimate question: If Christ is King, what does that mean? If Christ is ruler over our lives, Dr. King told them, then my Nobel Peace Prize is less important than my trying to feed the hungry. If Christ is King, then my invitations to the White House are less important than the times I visited the prison. If Christ is Lord, then my being TIME magazine’s “Man of the Year” is less important than that I tried to love extravagantly, dangerously, with all my being. MLK lived in the kingdom of the United States, but he didn’t always play by their rules.
Jesus says that this reign begins today, now. It’s here, pushing up against the kingdoms of our world—kingdoms like Apple or Amazon, or maybe the United States of America. Sometimes it’s hard to spot. Turn on the evening news and it seems so often like violence and hatred rule the world. But God’s kingdom is here, even though it can be subtle—like the treasure hidden in a field or a whisper in the middle of a tornado. We, the church, are a glimpse and foretaste of that kingdom, if we can resist getting caught up in the kingdoms of the world. Those other kingdoms will fade; they always do (even ours). And one day Jesus will reign fully and everyone will be a citizen of his kingdom.
We’d do well to remember God’s reign as we approach Advent and wait for the birth of our King. Let’s not look for truth in status, wealth, and consumerism. Don’t look for truth in presents, parties, and planning. Jesus will not be found there. We live in an upside-down kingdom where the greatest wealth is found in giving, the greatest status is being the least, and the greatest power is found in the cross.
Before we journey into Advent, listen to this poem by Gian Carlo Menotti. Will you bow your heads in prayer?
“The child we seek doesn’t need our gold
On love, love alone he will build his kingdom
His pierced hand will hold no scepter
His haloed head will wear no crown
His might will not be built on your toil
Swifter than lightning He will soon walk among us.
He will bring new life and receive our death,
And the keys to his city belong to the poor.”