Becoming the King
In the Bible, kingship is a profound theological metaphor. It is also a bit problematic (and certainly sexist). We might better say kingship or “queenship”—or let’s just stick with “monarchy”. Monarchy represents power, wisdom, and justice. A king or queen is more than a person: they are a symbol and force of culture and civilization.
As an American, I like to pretend we don’t care about kings and queens or princesses and princes. But we actually do. We certainly go nuts about the celebrity lifestyle of the British royal family. When I grew up I could read all about the drama around Princess Diana in People magazine. Today Americans seem even more excited that one of our own has married into the family (it’s our master plan to take over!). And if we are being honest, in America we still have something similar to a monarch—though it is a position held in far less esteem: we call him—and hopefully someday “her”—the President. And certainly some Presidents like to pretend they are kings.
We can agree that there is something special about a king or queen. In one of my favorite Westerns, Unforgiven, an English hired gun played by Richard Harris comments on the recent assassination of President James Garfield. He makes a point that that is something that simply could never happen to an English monarch, saying: “If you were to try to assassinate a king, sir, the — how shall I say it? — the aura of royalty would cause you to miss. But, a president— [chuckles] I mean, why not shoot a president?”
Even those of us Christians who—for better or worse—believe in absolute democracy, we still revere God as our king. I think this gets to the fact that all human beings find something appealing in the idea of a strong leader, elevated above all, who has been granted, by God, the intelligence, morality, and strength needed to lead the rest of humanity. It is a major theme in the Old Testament, where kings are held up as defenders of the Hebrew faith and community. As we have read over the previous weeks, King David was far from a perfect person or leader (I don’t think that exists). But while his words at the end of 2nd Samuel are a bit too self-congratulatory, they do reveal an understanding of what is wanted in a monarch: A God-fearing person who rules justly, bringing prosperity and happiness to their lands. For the most part, David did that, and he is held up not only as an example of a great King, but also an important ancestor of Jesus Christ.
But monarchy is ambiguous: it can be corrupted into tyranny, ignorance, and injustice. In the Hebrew Bible, Kings are both judges and the judged. When a king doesn’t deliver, well, we all know what happens: “Off with their heads!” Today’s Gospel challenges the metaphor of kingship as the highest ideal of humanity. Pilate asks Jesus what ought to be a very simple question: Are you the King of the Jews? But Jesus replies with another, rhetorical question. He asks “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Basically, he’s asking, “who is it who says I am a King” and this is an important clarification to make. The answer to Pilate’s question depends on who is asking the question, and what they mean by “king.”
Throughout the rest of their conversation, Jesus continues being coy. He tells Pilate: “you say that I am a king.” This has been Christ’s rhetorical technique throughout the Gospel. Rarely, if ever, does he directly claim to be a teacher, king, or messiah. It is only others who give him these titles, and to our frustration he never fully accepts or rejects them.
On the one hand, he seems to say: “no, I am not Lord or King”, but on the other he claims an authority of a different sort. He says that his kingdom is not of this world. So he is a ruler, but not in the sense that Pilate or anybody else is talking about. If he was truly a king—an earthly king—then his loyal supporters would never have let him be arrested and brought before Pilate in the first place. They would have broken him out of his chains, begun an insurrection, purged the Sanhedrin of corrupt priests, and overthrown Israel’s Roman oppressors. From the point of view of political science, a king is whoever the people say is the king, and whoever has the power to back those claims up.
But Jesus does not claim this kind of power. In fact, it seems quite the opposite. In the previous chapter, Jesus’ closest friend and disciple, Peter, denied that he knew him not once, but three times. Instead of asking for Jesus to be released, the people of Jerusalem ask for Barabbas. You have to admit that, as a political leader, Jesus the son of Joseph was pretty bad at rallying his supporters.
But Jesus Christ rejects the political power of kingship. Any king can be dethroned. Any leader can be corrupted and voted out of office. Jesus knows the weakness and temporariness of earthly kingship. He has been well-informed of the disasters that befell Israel and Judah in the centuries following David and Solomon. He has witnessed the Jewish peoples’ humiliation under the Romans. And more tragically, he dies for his people’s continue ignorance and acceptance of injustice.
Christ’s kingdom is a spiritual one. But is this some new kingdom that just replaces the old, weak and corrupt one? That sounds like the same old promise that is never fulfilled. The hope for new leadership, for a new, better society has always been around, and it is a hope that is consistently dashed against reality. We are ever more anxious for the next monarchy or the next presidency. We think “surely justice will be done the next time around”, though we secretly fear it could get much, much worse.
This anxious hope is very present in the Book of Revelation, which paints a vivid, frightening, but ultimately hopeful picture of the utopian Kingdom to come, when Christ finally returns. But behind these apocalyptic brush strokes is a more sobering picture that we’ve all seen before: it is a picture of broken promises. When he wrote this revelation, John the Revelator—not John the Gospel writer—had probably fled to the Greek island of Patmos to escape persecution. Like many Christians, he hoped and expected that Christ would return in only a matter of years—that’s how bad things had gotten for the faithful. But here we are, today, still waiting for the “return of the King.”
However, when Jesus Christ talks about kingship He doesn’t mean there is going to be just another succession, where we get to say one last time, “The King is Dead, Long Live the King.” The truth is that God does not operate on our human timescale: Christ is already reigning. He is the alpha and the omega: He was there at the beginning, He is here now, and He will be there at the end. We recognize and celebrate this fact about Christ today. We are proclaiming Him King on the last Sunday before Advent. This is just before we are about to, once again, begin preparing for His birth as the man Jesus.
Jesus’ says explicitly that he is “come to bear witness to the Truth”, and that his kingdom is a truly just world. This is a world in which the poor and persecuted are uplifted, where the last become first, and where the peacemakers, not the warmongers, are blessed.
That kingdom is already here, but only if we choose to see it and act upon it. With Christ there is a dynamic tension between the “right now” and “not yet.” We cannot accept the world as it is, but nor can we just wait for things to be better. Rather, Christ is always in a state of coming, constantly breaking into our world and transforming it. It is easy to forget this amid all the cynicism, lies, and talk about “fake news”, but as Christians we still have an idea of what the Truth really is. For example, we know that wealth is unfairly distributed in society, and that we have to correct this. We know that the Earth is growing hotter, and that we must take responsibility for it. Christ is constantly reminding us that Truth is compassion and justice, and this Truth becomes reality when we, his followers, commit ourselves to just and compassionate actions. Christ’s kingship is not one of being King. It is one of always becoming King. As Christians we must constantly, in each and every moment, name Him as our Lord and our Savior. This is why, when Jesus was crucified and seemed to fail, He was simultaneously elevated once more as Christ the King.
And so whenever we fall into sin or fail in our goals, we simply need to remember, once again, that Christ is King. We must remember that He becomes King again and again, for us and for the rest of our world. That is a monarch who cannot be dethroned.