To Follow a Different King.
Brook started watching Game of Thrones this week.
We’d finished Ozark. She caught up on Stranger Things.
The Royals aren’t on,
We don’t watch much football
so Game of Thrones it is.
Now, I’ve watched it twice so far, once as it came out
Season by aching season
And then once again, to catch myself up for season seven that aired earlier this year.
Mainly so I can make “You know nothing, Landon Whitsitt” jokes
With comedic precision.
The show isn’t for everyone.
Its rough and violent, crass and misogynistic
And I get it if you think that this world
is plenty rough and violent and crass and misogynistic enough as it is
so as to not need any more of it in your life.
You’d probably be right.
But as a case study for the ruthless pursuit of power, Game of Thrones is spot on.
It may be set in a fictional realm,
modeled in a way off of the English Wars of the Roses
But its not that hard to follow, or to understand for its modern implications.
The show describes powerful, wealthy families
fighting to rule the fictional continent of Westeros.
“Who will be king?” is the unspoken question that drives the plot.
The families have names: Baratheon, Lannister, Stark, Targaryen, Grayjoy
Other families take sides, by oath or because they’re poor pawns and have no choice.
Battles ensue, and it feels as if you’re watching an epic drama from medieval history
Knights on horseback fighting it out in the mud
Only with dragons and white walkers and strange plot twists too.
The show has grown so popular in our modern imagination that,
Not too long ago, the Royals themselves used the show
As its theme for in-game presentations on the jumbo tron
Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, and Salvador Perez
All sitting on their own-game-of-thrones-like royal seat
But made out of baseball bats, not swords.
It was a baseball wide promotion,
So I won’t show you the picture of Evan Langoria in a similar pose
But it fits the Royals particularly well, don’t you think?
Who will be King?
In The Game of Thrones, the show argues that
The King is the one who rules without qualification
Who controls through strength and fear and ruthlessness, when necessary.
The King is the one who is in charge. Limitless power.
Sure, some of those aspiring to be King, or Queen,
Do so out of a conviction that they will be a kinder, gentler ruler,
But most of them don’t.
To a one, these claimants to the throne strike fear through strength
And often wreck havoc on their way to try to empower their rule.
It works, as a television show, because we understand all of this.
We can look at human history and see it for ourselves.
And It’s the kind of ruthlessness that led,
in our own history, giving it the best reading
That led our American ancestors to try out a different sort of government
With powers separated and checked
And rooted in the power of a well-educated and informed citizenry
(We can look away, for the time being
that this meant wealthy land-owning white male citizens at the time,
and just make mention, for now, that in our better moments,
our nation has constantly expanded that sense of who participates, who has a say
not just to those who own a bundle of dollars,
but to those who work
and to women, and to people of color,
to people of varied faiths and traditions,
to all citizens who call this nation home.)
We’ve been blessed to be free from much of this nonsense in the modern era.
Can you imagine if we had to rally off to fight because the king of Missouri
Wanted to invade into Kansas
and half of Kansas was off trying to conquer Colorado?
We’ve been fortunate to rally, at most, behind the proxy of our favorite sports teams
And not the bannermen of a lethal struggle for someone else’s power.
Rock Chalk, or Go Mizzou. Take your pick.
But this question: Who will be King still matters for us.
For a long time,
I’ve not appreciated this Sunday on the Church Calendar as much as I might have.
Today is Christ the King Sunday,
or the Reign of Christ for some who don’t like the patriarchal overtones.
It fits, quite well, theologically.
The scriptures have many names for Jesus:
Prince of Peace.
Lamb of God.
Son of Man.
Lord of Lords.
One way to read the Gospels is to see them answering the question
Who will be King?
The most popular title for Jesus is Messiah, or The Anointed One,
Which literally refers to the act of coronation, when someone becomes King
When ceremonial oil is poured on the head of the one crowned.
That word Christ is the Greek word for the Hebrew word Messiah
So Jesus Christ means Jesus the anointed one.
The word “Christian,” itself, means quite literally “someone who follows the King.”
Its not that hard to see why the people Jesus interacted with
Why the disciples sometimes forgot
That the work Jesus was pursuing wasn’t a common effort
Like all the rest.
After centuries of occupation by foreign rulers
After toil and struggle, crushing daily violence
and sending son after son to fight a losing fight
the people of ancient Israel were seeking freedom from this sort of reign
and could only assume that it would take another power to give it to them
for another force to grab power back.
And its not all that hard to see why
That longing of the people would be seen as a threat
To the roman emperor or to his proxies, like Pontius Pilate.
In the reading Don offered today
From the Gospel according to John
We find Jesus toward the end of his ministry.
–He has been gathering his disciples
And teaching them about God
–He has offered healing to those who are sick and troubled
Food for those who are hungry
Welcome for the castaways and the nobodies.
–Jesus has been showing everyone who would have eyes to see
that God’s reign isn’t going to be like any other reign
but its going to be different
found not in crushing power but, instead, in the power of love and reconciliation.
And for this, Jesus is betrayed and flogged
And brought before the Emperor’s provincial governor Pilate
To answer for all of this.
Are you The King of the Jews? Pilate asks…
Do you really want to know? Jesus replies.
Is this your question, or did someone tell you that you should care to ask it?
How would I know to ask?
I’m not one of your people.
What have you done?
My kingdom isn’t of THIS world.
Its not the sort of Kingdom you’re running here…
So you ARE a King?
As you say. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world
To testify to the truth….
And with that Jesus’ fate is all but sealed, it seemed.
Up on a cross with a sign that read
Jesus the Anointed One, King of the Jews.
Meant to mock the very idea
That THIS man, this so-called Messiah,
The one dying before your very eyes
Could possibly be King….
Who is your King?
Scholars argue that the question has lost some meaning for many of us
who live under the more peaceful system of liberal democracy.
We have presidents, or prime ministers,
(Don’t tell that to Zimbabwe, or any of the other countries
whose presidents and prime ministers act like Kings
and rule with a ruthless iron fist).
But I think that, even for us,
This question still has lingering importance, and it always will.
Who is it that you give your allegiance to?
Who guides you, has power over you?
What has the last word?
During this season of enduring consumerism
Black Friday sales and holiday party after holiday party after holiday party
Who is your King when you shop
Or when you choose what to do with your time, or your money?
During these days of rising enmity and racism
With special elections and constitutional crises
and accusations of unconscionable behavior for those seeking to lead us
Who is your King when you vote
And decide, in your good conscious, whom to pull the lever for?
Who is your King
When you think about whom you will break bread with?
Or whom you decide to hang out with?
Or how you will engage with those people of good faith
whom nevertheless disagree with you about how to solve the problems of the day?
Or how you will engage those of bad faith
Who seek to tear down rather than to build up?
Who is your King?
Is it going to be this King or that King
That can only resolve our pressing conflicts via violence or cunning or dominion?
There’s a reason we observe Christ the King Sunday at the end of the Christian year.
Next Sunday is Advent, the start of a new season for us
As we begin to prepare for the coming of the birth of Jesus on Christmas day.
Brian Erickson, who is a Methodist pastor in Alabama,
was reflecting a bit about the significance of Christ the King[i]
Being the last thing we do in the Christian year
He said this:
I am fascinated by people’s last words,
The thing they choose to leave with us.
In some ways, our first words
as a child
and our last words
are some of the most important.
John Wesley, who founded Methodism,
Spent his dying breath
Saying “Best of all, God is with us.”
Henry Ward Beecher, the great evangelist
Used his last breath to say,
“Now comes the mystery!”
And Jesus, according to Luke,
Said from the Cross
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
We have a lifetime of words that we don’t pay much attention to.
We send emails. We text.
We exchange casual small talk,
But we have only one chance to say our last word.
Our final reflection on this life and what it was all about.
What we remember, and the way we want to be remembered.
Christ the King Sunday is the last word of the Christian year.
This Sunday was first celebrated in 1925,
When the world was still reeling from World War I
And dictators were laying the foundations for World War II.
In Europe and Mexico, there were great forces
doing all they could do to gain ultimate allegiance of their people
To weaken the influence of religion, particularly Christianity
That would check the power of despots.
So the church sent a bold statement
On the last Sunday of the Christian year, saying
“Do what you will, but Jesus Christ will have the final word.”
Back to our texts for the day:
In the opening verses of the passage from Ephesians we read this morning
We hear this refrain loud and clear.
This is a different sort of King, a unique sort of Lord:
In the midst of chaos, fear, illness, and even death
We who follow Jesus hold fast to the image of Christ enthroned above all—
Above every name, above every earthly power, above every authority.
Christ gets the final word.
These are spiritual words,
But they are also deeply practical ones.
Paul does not intend for us to relegate Jesus to a heavenly throne
That has no weight on earth.
Jesus’ kingship transforms every allegiance,
Even our understanding of life and death.
Christ’s place in eternity demands our attention in the here and now.
The work of faith is to live in the confidence
Of God’s final word in Christ.
Today we proclaim to the world that Christ is the firstborn of all creation,
The one for whom angels sang,
The one through whom all that is, came to be.
But in giving Christ the last word,
We declare that in the here and now, Jesus is our King.
Jesus is our king as we sit in the waiting room,
As the test results come back
As we weep over the grave
As we watch the wars escalate and the darkness deepen.
Jesus is our King when hope seems lost,
That voice we will listen to when promises seem shattered
When our lives have no direction
And when we can’t imagine anything tomorrow could bring
That might fill this hole within us.
Jesus is our King when we extend love and friendship to another
And feel it in return
Noting that Love will win, and that nothing in heaven or on earth
Can separate us from God’s love.
This is the great now-and-not-yet of Christian life,
That we celebrate a victory the world cannot see
A hope that defies every instinct
A king enthroned on a cross.
Therefore we need not be afraid of any power this world can wrangle,
For Christ gets the last word.
Who is your King?
Not any king, but the newborn king
Who was not born in palace finery
But in a stable lowly.
Who is your King?
Not any king, but the king who shows what love is.
Not any king, but the king who died for you to show us all
How to build a world where a different sort of Power can sway hearts and minds
And build a better life for the hurting and the lost and the outcast
A better life for us all.
Not any king. Christ the king. A different sort of king.
The King of Love. The Hope of the World.
On this day, my friends
My prayer is that we celebrate what a wonderful gift we’ve been given
In Jesus Christ, the different sort of King we follow.
And long may he reign.
May it be so.
[i] From A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series, compiled by Jessica Miller Kelley (Louisville, Kentucky; Westminster John Knox Press, 2016) pp. 79-80.
Image Credit: From Painting of the Foot Washing at the Basilica Santa Maria del Mar, Barcelona. Found at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Painting_of_the_Foot_Washing_-_Santa_Maria_del_Mar_-_Barcelona_2014_(crop).JPG