Michael W. Spangler is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Muscatine, Iowa.
This article appeared in the Christian Century magazine, November 11, 1998, p. 1051. Used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org.
None of our ideas reflect God’s concept of kingship (human or divine) completely.
We all have our own ideas of what royalty is. When I was about eight, the queen visited the town in the south of England where I lived. Thousands of people packed into a sports stadium and children sang and danced for her. I came away certain that the queen was a special person who liked children. If I say "king" to an American and ask for a definition, most reply, "male ruler," whereas a British person nearly always answers, "monarch." The difference lies in experience—Britain has had female monarchs for most of the past 160 years.
We also know what royalty should look like. Princess Anne’s work with the Save the Children Fund takes her around the world. There was a problem in one place in Africa: the children did not believe she was a princess because she wasn’t dressed properly. Once she put on a tiara and a long dress they were sure they had a proper princess in their midst.
In fact, none of our ideas reflect God’s concept of kingship (human or divine) completely. We are not alone in this. In Jeremiah’s time the people’s understanding of kingship was tainted by human kings who had led them to the point of imminent destruction and deportation. God spoke of the kings as shepherds who had failed to care for their people. Would a nation scattered and destroyed, left uncared for and afraid, even want God to raise up another shepherd or king for it? Could the people welcome a righteous king?
When we come to Christ the King Sunday, we have to acknowledge that we bring cultural baggage with us. But what happens if we lay our preconceptions to one side and let the readings tell us what a king is?
Things begin well. Psalm 46 is not one of the royal psalms that exalt in a human king. Instead, our model for kingship is God. The psalm exhorts us to praise the God who is our refuge and strength, our very present help, our stronghold. God rules creation, and nothing the world, the nations, the warriors or politicians do will unseat or unsettle this Lord of Hosts and God of Jacob—ruler of both heaven and earth. These are kingly words of power and might, authority and action. This is a king as we imagine a king should be.
But this image jars with the scene of shame and powerlessness in Luke, who describes the death of the Son of God, the King of the Jews. Luke gives us a lexicon of abuse and humiliation: criminals, condemnation, crucifixion, nakedness, scoffing, mocking, taunting, deriding, reviling, sneering. . . Hardly the stuff of kingship, and no crowns here except one of thorns. The jubilation of Psalm 46 is gone, and we are face to face with agony and grief, and a cacophony of insults instead of songs and praise.
When George VI died the cry went out, "The King is dead, long live the Queen." With a death, the monarchy passes to another person. It is different with God’s kingship: that cry is "the King is dead, the King is raised from death and reigns." That is what the criminal on the cross with Jesus partly grasped. He asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom. He was looking to a future reign, but Jesus handed out the royal pardon immediately. Jesus was king even on the cross, welcoming people into his kingdom and not waiting until he was throned in glory. This was simply the culmination of the way Jesus lived: he never dressed as we think a king should, or did things properly by our standards. If we can get over over-shock, we will rejoice in this, because this is where the good news lies for people like those of Jeremiah’s time, who have known the pain of abandonment and betrayal by their rulers. Kingship, when Cod is involved, does not ask people to ignore the failures but embraces those experiences and redeems them.
God’s promise to the people was a king who is righteous, deals wisely, executes justice and righteousness in the land, and enables the people to live securely. In Jesus, God has fulfilled that promise. Justice and righteousness, themes that will recur in Advent, are the hallmarks of God’s king. In the story of Jesus, kingship is recast. The miracle lies in the fact that God shares the potential hopelessness of the human situation, but does so as king, as the source of our hope and life. Jesus took his wounds to heaven, and there is a place in heaven for our wounds because our king bears his in glory.
Sing of the King who was born as an outcast,
mother unmarried, his birth far from home,
born in a stable in occupied country,
toddler in exile for fear of the throne.
Sing of the King who mixed with life’s rejects,
cared for them, talked with them, welcomed them in;
hope for the hopeless and love for the loveless,
moved with compassion when faced with our sin.
Sing of the King whose crown of thorns wounds him,
whose throne is a cross, his scepter a reed,
robed in his torn flesh, without human beauty,
dying with convicts, abandoned in need.
Sing of the King, now raised from the dark tomb,
in heaven still bearing the scars of his love,
reigning, yet still the servant and lover,
raising our frailty to glory above.