Confounding King

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On the far-away Island of Sala-ma-Sond,
Yertle the Turtle was king of the pond.
A nice little pond. It was clean. It was neat.
The water was warm. There was plenty to eat.
The turtles had everything turtles might need.
And they were all happy. Quite happy indeed.
They were until Yertle, the king of them all,
Decided the kingdom he ruled was too small.

So Yertle, the Turtle King, lifted his hand.
And Yertle, the Turtle King, gave a command.
He ordered nine turtles to swim to his stone.
And, using these turtles, he built a new throne.
He made each turtle stand on another one's back
And he piled them all up in a nine-turtle stack.
And then Yertle climbed up. He sat down on the pile.
What a wonderful view! He could see 'most a mile!
"All mine!" Yertle cried. "Oh, the things I now rule!
I'm king of a cow! And I'm king of a mule!
I'm king of a house! And, what's more, beyond that,
I'm king of a blueberry bush and a cat!
I'm Yertle the Turtle! Oh, marvelous me!
For I am the ruler of all that I see!"

For the 19 of you in the world who have never read Dr. Seuss' masterpiece, Yertle decides that his perch is not high enough. So, he orders more turtles, at least 200 more. And, now his throne allows him to see for 40 miles. Still not enough. More turtles. He needs 5,607, he says, stacked all the way up to heaven. Because even kids know that's what a king does. A king orders people around and sits on a throne and rules. A king is high and exalted. The king is the most important person. And everybody serves the king, does what the king wants, tries to make the king happy. If the king's not happy, nobody's happy. Because the king is powerful and mighty. A king, the dictionary says, is one that is supreme or preeminent. If you're not the king, you're subservient to the king. The king serves no one. The king is served. Even kids know that.

On this day of Christ the King, we Christians celebrate the supremacy of Jesus Christ. We recognize his reign and his rule over creation. Listen to the writer of the Letter to the Colossians.

"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers - all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…"(Colossians 1:15-19). I'd say that's pretty important, wouldn't you? I'd say that's a pretty exalted ruler.

For years, long years, God's people had prayed for that kind of ruler, for a king, for someone who would sit on the throne of God's power and might. The Old Testament lesson for today lets us in on that ancient hope. "The days are surely coming," Jeremiah hears the Lord say, "when I will raise up a righteous branch, and he shall reign as king and execute justice and righteousness in the land" (Jeremiah 23:5).

Yes, we know about kings. From Yertle to Solomon, the king is the one in charge, and the king is the one who lives in a palace where he enjoys all the benefits of royalty.

Today, the church confesses Jesus Christ to be king. And on this day, we are given the remarkable opportunity to enter his palace, to see him high and lifted up, seated on his throne.

It is a palace called The Skull. And as we approach this palace, we see three men. They have been nailed to crosses. And on those crosses, they will suffer and die. Two of those men are criminals. They hang on either side of the other man. And as the man in the middle hangs there, he asks his God, whom he calls "Daddy," to forgive the people who have done this to him. Because he's not a criminal, though he is being treated like one. And he is not resisting. He does not return the evil that is being done to him, because he knows that evil begets evil, that violence begets violence. And you'll notice above the cross on which he hangs is his title, inscribed there: "This is the King of the Jews."

Look at his loyal subjects. Some are gambling for his clothing. "I hope to get his cloak. As much hell as this man has raised, I can probably fetch a pretty penny for that." The religious people, the leaders of the faith, who had conspired to put him on that cross, scoff at him. "He saved others. Let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God!" The Roman soldiers mocked him. "Some king. What a joke. You pathetic, ridiculous, fool. Here, have some sour wine to drink."

Even one of the criminals, as he hangs dying, summons enough energy to join in the revolt. "You said you were the messiah. Well, then, do something. Get us down from here." Some king indeed. On this day, when the church gathers around the throne of the one who is our ruler, this is where we gather. We gather at a place called The Skull, and we watch a man die.

To say that the crucifixion of Jesus is a profound event is an understatement of grand proportions. But the crucifixion of Jesus is made all the more numinous for us by its location in the Christian year. The context in which we hear this reading today makes it all the more difficult to grasp. We are accustomed to visiting The Skull during Holy Week. In my church, I even preach on the crucifixion of Jesus on Easter, just so we will know that the one who was raised on Sunday is the one who died on Friday. But for us to visit this palace, this place of death, on the day when we ponder Christ's supremacy as the ruler of the universe strikes us yet again with the confounding, upside down, inside out way that Jesus does business.

But by this time in Luke's Gospel, we shouldn't be surprised at reversals of this kind. If we've been following the story with any kind of care, we've seen this coming all along. Luke has been getting us ready ever since Jesus' mother sang a song when she learned she was going to have a baby. You remember what she sang about her boy who would become king. He will scatter the proud. He will bring down the powerful from their thrones. The lowly he will lift up. He will fill those who are hungry, and he will empty those who are full.

And when he launched his ministry by preaching in his home church, he let it be known that he was more interested in the poor than in the rich. He let it be known that he was more interested in freeing those who are in bondage than sucking up to those who are in power.

And in the days following that sermon that rocked the world of all who were in attendance, he did everything backwards. He didn't fast when he was supposed to fast. He worked when he wasn't supposed to work. He hung around with the wrong crowd. He blessed those who were poor and hungry and weeping, and he had only words of woe for those who were rich and full and self-satisfied and laughing. He believed in forgiving those who have wronged you, even when you are justified in refusing to forgive. And he had the gall to teach that a nasty tax collector, who is aware of his need for God, is closer to salvation than the most hyper-zealous church type who is impressed with his own religion. He tried to teach his disciples more than once that his kingship was going to take him to a cross, that his throne was going to be a place of ignominy. And he tried to teach his disciples that the way of service is the way of life, that the way up is down.

And, so, when he hung there that day and forgave those whom he would have been justified in never forgiving, when he hung there that day and extended love to a common criminal, a lost man, dying with him, when he hung there that day and dared to believe that the path he was following, hanging there to die, was the path to paradise, he was doing the same thing in the same way he had all along. He was confounding the world's notions of what it means to be a king, of what it means to have power, of what it means to be a human being, of what religion is really supposed to be about.

This king rules by suffering, vulnerable love, not by domination. This king teaches us to the very end that God's power is made perfect in weakness. This king teaches us that God chooses what is foolish to shame what the world thinks is wise. This king teaches us that God chooses what is weak to shame what the world thinks is strong. You and I are pointed today to the truth that, as far as God is concerned, what happened that day at the place called The Skull is what is really powerful, what is really wise, what is really strong. Jesus had tried to let his disciples in on that the first time he told them about his death. "If you want to save your life, you will lose it. If you lose your life for my sake, you will save it."

No, we shouldn't be surprised that the Christian year ends up here, that the Christian year comes to its consummation here; because it is here, at the place called The Skull, that we Christians foolishly believe that we see the most supreme instantiation of the divine will for human life. We Christians foolishly believe that it is at The Skull that the very fullness of God dwells most clearly. And the Church's confession has always been that if Jesus reigns today as head of all that is, he does so because he died one day, faithfully showing us that the one who humbles the self will be exalted, and the one who exalts the self will be humbled.
Truth is, you and I experience the crucifixion of Jesus with some trepidation because we know that at The Skull we see the reflection of what our lives are to be. And if we're honest, there's a part of us, maybe even a large part, that wants Jesus to be a different kind of king. Truth is, you and I are just as bumfuzzled at a king like this as any of those who scoffed at him were. Truth is, we are confounded by his kingship, because we are enamored with unforgiveness, impressed with our religiosity, seduced by power, deluded by our self-importance, smitten by our wisdom, infatuated with our strength. Do we really want Jesus to be the kind of king he is? To say "yes" to that question is an expensive response indeed because if Jesus is that kind of king, then you and I are that kind of subject.

He came into this world with his mama singing a song about his confounding ways. He left this world with people scratching their heads at his confounding ways. He rules this world with the same confounding ways. And the most difficult and the most life-giving journey you and I can make is the journey from being confounded by him to joining him in confounding the world.

Let us pray.

God we thank and praise you for confounding the world in the life and death of Jesus. We thank you that in his resurrection you have made his way to be the way of life. We pray that we may follow him faithfully as his subjects so that we may know the paradise he promises. In His name we pray. Amen.

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