One of my more entertaining church memories comes from a time many years ago when I was a member of a very small congregation. Being few in number, we were engaged in an intergenerational education program during Advent, during which the vicar was leading us through a discussion of the catechism. At one point in a discussion about Jesus something was said that caused a very precocious six year old in the group to exclaim, “Wait, Jesus was Jewish?” “Well, yes,” answered the vicar. “Huh,” gasped an astonished Christopher, “I always thought he was British.” “Spoken like a true Anglican,” replied the vicar.
I trust we are all clear that Bethlehem, the City of David, is not located in Great Britain. Still, Christopher’s confusion is related I sense to a mindset that is fairly pervasive throughout Christendom. We’ve all been taught since we were children that we are created in the image of God, and that Jesus of Nazareth was the human face of God. Indeed, in today’s epistle Paul refers to Jesus as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” So it’s not surprising that as one travels from place to place around the world, images of Jesus tend to resemble the people of a given area, regardless of whether they in turn look at all like someone born in what we know today as the Holy Land. Hence, in the Coptic Churches of North Africa Jesus is often portrayed as black. In Mexico I encountered images of a dark haired, very warm hearted looking man, quite different from those images of what I call the Scandinavian Jesus with which I grew up. You know the image I mean, the fellow with the hazel eyes and the sandy colored hair in a flowing page boy. The bottom line is it often helps people feel closer to Jesus if they imagine that Jesus looked like they do.
In a move that likewise was intended to make Christ more relevant by tying him to something familiar to many people, Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King in 1925, in response to the rise of secularism, atheism, and communism that followed World War I. Reeling from the devastation and carnage of what has always been known in Europe as the Great War, many Christians were doubting not merely Christ’s authority but very existence, a perspective encouraged by the several non-Christian dictators who came to power around that time. Pius instituted this new feast with several goals in mind. First, he hoped nations would acknowledge anew that the Church actually has not merely the right to exist but also the right to immunity from the state. Moreover, he dared to hope leaders and nations would regain a seemingly lost sense of respect for Christ. Finally, he hoped individual Christians would gain personal strength and courage from the celebration of the feast, being reminded that Christ the King reigns in their hearts, minds, wills, and bodies. Now, as citizens of a country that got its start by rebelling against a king, living at a time when individualism has been embraced to such an extreme that for many the only authority they’re wiling to acknowledge is the individual self, this image of Christ as King doesn’t necessarily work particularly well, for some of the same reasons, actually, that the Scandinavian Jesus doesn’t either.
Becoming a bit too convinced that Jesus looked like us, means by extension that Jesus didn’t look like anyone who is different from us. That makes it awfully easy to slip into the mindset that we’re somehow better than “they” are, whoever they happen to be, which in turn makes it dangerously easy to exclude or put down those who differ from us, because after all, we’re the ones who are really like Jesus. Adding to this the notion of Jesus as king, with all the antiquated and often oppressive baggage that goes along with the concept of human monarchs definitely doesn’t help. Jesus himself addressed this concern, as we read in Mark, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” If we also remember that in John we are told that “when Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself,” we have further reason to ask just what we’re doing celebrating the Feast of Christ the King. The beginning of our answer we find in the passages I just quoted to you. Jesus clearly understood the oppressive nature of secular kings, and fled when he sensed the people wanted to make him one. Unlike those worldly rulers, however, his version of being a king was to be a servant, to be not the one for or to whom sacrifices were made, but to be the one who was willing to be sacrificed. It is no accident that the Gospel reading for the Feast of Christ the King is taken from Luke’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion.
The notion of a servant king is exceedingly counterintuitive. The opening line of today’s recessional, “Crown him with may crowns, the lamb upon his throne” is a long way from Richard the Lion-hearted, with or without crowns. Jesus didn’t want to be a king in the traditional sense, though if our Bible translations are accurate, he spoke on more than one occasion of his kingdom. But his wasn’t the sort of kingdom his listeners were used to or over which some of them wanted him to rule. His wasn’t a kingdom with territory and borders, focused on the autonomy of one people or nation at the expense of others, but rather a kingdom that by existing in the hearts of his followers, would transcend worldly distinctions of language, ethnicity, or nationality. Like heaven itself, Jesus’ kingdom wasn’t so much a place as a state of being. So why talk about Jesus as a king in the first place?
Our problem, I think, isn’t as much with kings as it is with words, with images. We communicate primarily with words. We think in words. Words are what allow me to read a book and conjure up images as I go along of the scenes and events described on the page before me. Yes, some of us can paint, or sculpt or take extraordinary photographs, but even then one person observes such a work of art and then describes it to someone else with words. I was privileged many years ago, for example, to see the Mona Lisa. Unable to paint a painting of the Mona Lisa, however, I have to fall back on words to tell someone else how magnificent it is. Still, this all works quite well for us when we’re focused on earthly matters, but not so well when the subject of our conversation is God.
The very act of using words to describe God limits God. It’s a bit like talking about the universe. Now I spent most of my career teaching chemistry, that is, about the behavior of atoms and molecules. I have no problem at all picturing those particles in my minds eye. Invisibly tiny as they are, I can clearly picture their structure as well as their interactions. Going the other direction though, as astronomers do, I have trouble. I’m fine with the place of earth in our solar system, and that our solar system is part of the Milky Way galaxy, but then it begins to get away from me. I understand the Milky Way is one of the 100 billion galaxies that have been discovered so far with the Hubble telescope, a number expected to double as telescopic technology improves. Think about that - 200 billion galaxies! Just how big is the universe? Scientists believe it’s 13.8 billion years old, so that would mean the radius has to be at least 13.8 light years wide, except astronomers tell us the universe is expanding so the edges are supposed to be nearly 46 billion light-years away which makes the diameter 91 billion light-years across. Most mind boggling of all, though, and the point of this exhausting scientific digression, is that I believe God created all of it!!! How big, how powerful, how timeless does that make God?
When you think of God in those terms it makes it seem rather petty to become overly concerned with the physical characteristics, the facial features of Jesus of Nazareth. Yes, as the human manifestation of God Jesus was the aspect of God most like us. But we believe that all three persons of the Trinity have existed from the beginning, so the thirty-three years Jesus spent on earth, while a key part, are only a small part of Jesus’ existence. Moreover, focusing too closely on the various roles he played - teacher, healer, son, brother, friend, political activist, makes it harder I fear to focus on who Jesus really was and why he came among us in the first place. We don’t encounter this problem in the Book of Exodus, which though it doesn’t appear first is the oldest book in the Bible. When Moses, desperately trying to get out of leading the Israelites out of Egypt, a job he really did not want, asked Yahweh of the burning bush, so what am I supposed to say if the people ask who sent me, Yahweh replies, “I Am who I Am. Tell them I Am sent you.” That was it, just the simple statement that Moses was being sent by the God who IS. That’s really all we need to know about God. For that matter, it’s all we really need to know about each other. Age, sex, skin color, nation of origin, economic status, profession, family structure, all may be very interesting, but the only thing that should really matter to you about me is that I am here, I am real, I am a beloved child of God, and that is all I really need to know about you as well.
Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, our four week season of preparation for Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of a baby whose name was Jesus, but whose other appellations - among them Emmanuel, Redeemer, Messiah, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Prince of Peace, Son of God would fill a church directory. And I haven’t even started on all the ways we have for referring to the other two persons of the trinity. Names. It never occurred to me to ask her, since she died when I was only ten years old, but I suspect my maternal grandmother never intended to be called Mema, but I’m told that’s what my eldest cousin called her, and it stuck. Mema didn’t care. We were her grandchildren and she loved us. God loves the entire human family and I am sure, cares not at all by what name we address the source of our very being. God knows that in order to matter to us God has to be real to us. How each of us nurtures that relationship between ourselves and our triune God is very personal. Perhaps you relate best to Christ the King, while the person sitting next to you may prefer Jesus the Good Shepherd. Shepherd or lamb, servant or king - it really doesn’t matter to God. What does matter is that you know beyond any doubt, that you are loved by the God to whom I prayed at the beginning of this sermon, the God who was, and is, and always shall be. Amen.