Sunday, November 20, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Reign of Christ Sunday
Preacher: Pastor Day Hefner
watch this service online (readings start around 32:06; sermon starts around 38:32)
What comes to your mind when you hear a word like “power”? What is power? What does power look like? What does it look like to be powerful?
When we think about being powerful, most of us probably think about power in terms of authority and money, control and strength. We think about people who have the ability to impose their will on others, perhaps by persuasion, but usually by force – in the same vein, we probably think immediately of military might, people who have access to the nuclear codes. We see the leaders of nations as powerful: presidents and prime ministers, kings and queens and so on.
Power is a major theme for us this morning, because today is the Sunday we celebrate the Reign of Christ – the last Sunday of the liturgical year. We celebrate that Christ is the king of all creation – now that’s some serious power! That’s a heavy business card right there. And our texts all reflect this power in various ways:
In our first reading, the prophet Jeremiah writes, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in all the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. Powerful stuff – you could practically imagine this on a campaign poster!
The author of Psalm 46 then kicks the power up to 11, writing: “The nations rage and the kingdoms shake; God speaks, and the earth melts away… Come now, regard the works of the Lord, what desolations God has brought upon the earth; behold the one who makes war to cease in all the world; who breaks the bow, and shatters the spear, and burns the shields with fire.”
Our second reading, from the book of Colossians, immediately starts off: “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from Christ’s glorious power,” and he continues, “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 [the “potentate of time!!!”], and in him all things hold together.” That’s a lot of things! All things – thrones, kingdoms, presidents, powers – all things were created through and for Christ. That is mind-bending power, far beyond our ability to imagine or understand.
And then… we have this gospel reading. At first glance, it feels like a bit of an outlier among these other texts. There seems to be no display of divine power at work here. There’s no breaking of weapons, no melting of the earth. There’s no justice or safety. There aren’t even any of the trappings of power – no crowns or robes or thrones. Sure, the people in this story call Jesus the King of the Jews and even the Messiah, but they don’t give him any respect or authority. Instead, they strip him and beat him and mock him as he is forced to die the slow, torturous death of a criminal.
This seems like a bizarre choice of text to read on Christ the King Sunday. Far from the power and authority and might we’d associate with a king, this gospel reading shows Jesus at his weakest, stripped of any sign of power or authority. Even to his followers, it must have appeared that Jesus has utterly failed to bring in the kingdom that he had promised. He hasn’t righteously crushed the oppressive power of the Roman Empire under his heel. He hasn’t triumphantly reconquered the promised land for the people of Israel. The crowds of thousands upon thousands of people who followed him adoringly all over Judea could not keep him from being handed over. The one who miraculously healed the sick and multiplied bread for the multitudes couldn’t even stop himself from dying.
But, from the cross, Jesus says something that gives us a hint that his kind of power is totally unlike what we often think of as power in this world. With iron spikes freshly driven through his limbs, with his skin still raw and bleeding from the thorns and the whipping, with the mocking shouts of the crowd filling the air, with only a few last breaths left in his lungs, Jesus simply prays: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
The incredible power that Jesus shows from the cross is compassion – the profound, unconquerable power of divine compassion. Jesus looks at these people who are actively killing him and he chooses to see them with love – with such immense love. And instead of cursing them, or swearing his revenge, he prays for them – he prays that they may be forgiven, that they may be reconciled to God after the terrible things that they have done.
And this prayer he prays actually symbolizes something much larger. It points us directly toward Christ’s ultimate plan for victory. You see, Jesus isn’t out to triumph over this world through violence, by stomping all his enemies or even by sending them to hell. Christ’s path to victory is through reconciliation. Jesus is out to defeat his enemies *by making them his friends*. Jesus is out to win this world through the power of compassion and love – reconciling all things to God through the blood of his cross, as written in our reading from Colossians.
This is one of those Sundays I kind of wish that we had enough younger people to justify doing a children’s sermon – because I happen to know a children’s game that perfectly illustrates this contrast between the reconciling power of Jesus and the competing powers of this world. Back when I worked at Camp Carol Joy Holling, we used to play this great game called “Insanity” – anyone ever played it? The way it works is you have people divided up into a few different teams, and each team gets a hula hoop. In the middle of the playing area, there is a crate full of tennis balls. Each team puts its hula hoop on the ground, anywhere they like in the playing area. The whole goal of the game is to get all of the tennis balls – not most, but all of the tennis balls – into your team’s hoop.
I’m sure you can imagine the chaos that ensues once the game begins! Players can only carry one tennis ball at a time, and theoretically they’re supposed to walk and not run, but that goes out the window pretty quickly. After the crate has been emptied of tennis balls, teams are allowed to start stealing balls from each other. Some teams try moving their hula hoop far away from everyone else’s to avoid this. Some try moving their hoop super close so that they can steal balls even faster. Some teams form human chains to pass balls along or come up with all kinds of other creative methods to try to get all the balls into their hoop before anyone else can. But the game is impossible to win like this. As soon as you drop a ball into your own hoop, someone from another team is there snatching another ball out. You can see why it’s called Insanity!
But there is a way to win the game. Has anyone guessed what it is? (The kids rarely do, haha.) Eventually the teams figure out (usually after some massive hints) that instead of competing with each other and having their hula hoops all over the place, they can stack all their hula hoops in the same place. They can pool their resources together and work toward their common goal for the benefit of everyone. That way, everybody wins. At the end of the game, there basically are no more teams – in the end, everyone ends up being on the same side.
This world struggles to understand the power of Christ – because most of the ways we understand power are ways in which power comes at someone else’s expense. This world understands competition and zero-sum; it understands violence and humiliation and subjugation. But Christ’s power is love – powerful love that leads everyone it touches to flourish, without needing to make anyone else suffer. Christ’s power doesn’t help us conquer the people on the other side of the many lines we draw – Christ’s powerful love erases the lines. Christ doesn’t destroy our enemies – he comes to destroy enmity itself. Christ breaks down the divisions between us until we finally see that we are all one people – God’s people – and God calls us all to be on the same side: on God’s side.
This is the glorious power of Christ that makes us strong. We are so much more powerful than we even realize. The same power of divine love that Christ showed on the cross is the power that flows on through us. We have been given a capacity for compassion that can powerfully transform a world that sorely lacks it. Our compassion is powerful! In Christ, we are empowered to forgive one another, to choose to see even the people we might consider our enemies with Christlike love.
Christ our King is the one who has reconciled us to God – and he has given us the power to go into the world to be reconcilers ourselves. May the compassion of Christ work in us to erase the divisions between us. And may his powerful love keep our hearts fixed always on the promise of his kingdom. Praise be to Christ our King, now and forevermore!