Fifty-one years ago, Mister Rogers Neighborhood debuted on public television. Many people criticized the show, saying the show was too slow and too boring to keep children engaged. For critics, children’s programming needed to be loud, action-packed, full of silly gimmicks, perhaps with a few characters that were made fun of or teased. Knowing how frenetic young children can be, television producers had decided to mirror young children’s behavior in their television programming. But not Mr. Rogers. In the midst of frenetic behavior, Mr. Rogers sought a different environment for his show – something slower and more thoughtful, something kind and engaging, something simple and attentive. Critics said the show would never last, that Mister Rogers Neighborhood was not what children wanted.
On this Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of the Church year, this Sunday of jubilant triumph, we find a similar conundrum. As we read from Luke’s gospel, we do not find Christ the King on a throne – we find him on a cross, leaders scoffing at him, soldiers mocking him, a criminal deriding him, and a crowd of people just standing there watching. Nothing about today’s lesson connotes victory or royalty. Jesus’ critics put a sign over his head that read, “This is the King of the Jews.” The inscription is written as a declarative statement, but I wonder if there should have been a question mark at the end of that sentence. This is the King of the Jews? This is what royalty looks like? This is what a savior is to you?
Of course, I am not sure the people of God were any surer about what having a king should be like. The people of God never really had a king until they reached the Promised Land. They saw the neighboring countries with their armies and their admirable kings, and they wanted one for themselves. That was their first mistake. God granted them a king to rule over them, but inevitably, the kings, like all humans, were flawed – some more than others. Hence, there are four books in the Hebrew Scriptures about the kings who ruled and the judges who tried to correct their behavior. Most of the kings were corrupted by power, money, and greed. Many abused the people. Even the most revered king, King David, was a mess. He was the one who coveted Bathsheba, slept with her, and then killed her husband when he got her pregnant and realized he would not be able to get away with it.
Having been through a horrible patch of awful kings, the prophets predicted the coming of a Messiah – the king of kings and Lord of lords. This king would be triumphant and would make the people of Israel dominant at last. You can imagine that with such a great promise, the people of Israel are not too pleased with the man who finally claimed be the Messiah. Nothing about Jesus says “king.” He is nonviolent, hangs out with sinners of all sorts, and travels with a sorry band of misfits. Even his grand entrance into Jerusalem where he is heralded as a king is not so grand – he rides in on a donkey, for goodness sake! This could not possibly be the king Yahweh had promised them.
And yet, this is exactly the king God sends. The Lord, who never wanted God’s people to have an earthly king anyway, makes a king that represents everything that is kingly: a man who loves the poor and cares for the sick, a man who sees through the pretenses of the temple and calls for authenticity, a man who loves deeply and forgives infinitely. So why are the people of God not excited about this king? Why can they not love this countercultural king as much as the king they think they need?
In talking to a William & Mary student a couple of weeks ago, I was reminded of one of the first Political Science classes I took in college called Political Theory. When we started reading the first book in our Political Theory class, I knew I was in trouble. We read John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. In the book, he presents the best way to create a just political system. He imagines gathering a random, diverse group of people who are essentially blindfolded about what their lot in life will be. They have no guarantees about whether they will be old or young, rich or poor, male or female, member of a minority group or not. In the midst of this blindness, the people gathered are given the task to create a set of rules to govern society. Rawls’ basic argument is that if those people are truly blind about what their lot in life will be, they will be more likely to come up with a system of governance that is the fairest for all – since no one would want to take a chance on being the one victimized by an unfair system. Although I appreciated what Rawls was saying, I was immediately annoyed at his argument. How could we ever recreate a system of justice from scratch, and truly blind anyone enough to create such a system? The entire premise seemed impossible, and thoroughly frustrating. Needless to say, my focus in Political Science did not become Political Theory!
That being said, many years later, I think I may finally understand what Rawls was trying to communicate. Our political system, or even this earthly life in general, is governed by a set of human-made standards that do not look out for the poor, create injustices, and benefit very few. This is why so many of us get frustrated when we talk about justice or trying to make a difference – we see the system of injustice that fights against us and we can end up feeling helpless. This is the very injustice that our king – Jesus – comes to fight. Maybe Rawls saw this too. Perhaps this world we can only achieve through blindness is the same world Jesus could see through God’s eyes.
In Rawls’ argument, when the blinded people make the rules, and then have their blindfolds removed, some are relieved to be well-off and others are dismayed to see themselves in poverty or at a disadvantage. But all have some sense of acceptance because the rules they made do not make rich-life as advantageous and do not make poor-life as unbearable. This is the kind of fairness into which Jesus invites us. Jesus shows us a world where a humiliated man can look at his persecutors and forgive them. Jesus shows a world where a man is willing to suffer for the salvation of others. Jesus shows us a world where even a criminal can see truth in the last hour, can admit his guilt, and turn to Christ for leniency.
This is why we celebrate Christ as King today: not because he is victorious in putting us in control over others, but because he invites us into a life that evens the playing field – the life of the kingdom of God. There are certainly going to be days when we wish Jesus would just mount a mighty horse and triumph over evil. Lord knows, in these days of political strife, of country-wide division and derision, of a time in our country where we say nasty things to one another, and the actions of the other side (whichever side we see as “the other”) are seen as the cause of all our troubles, we could use a Messiah, a king to come in and just “fix it” – to be a decisive, strong, powerful king to clean the slate. But what Christ the King Sunday invites us to remember is we do not need a king on a throne; we need a king on a cross who enables us to create a world of fairness here and now – a world that is much more similar to the kingdom of God than the kingdom of humankind.
So why do we honor this not-so-kingly king today on the last day of the liturgical year? I think the very best reason we close one year and prepare to start another with today’s gospel lesson is so that as we can more humbly approach the Christ Child. If we can imagine ourselves gathered around that manger on that most holy of nights, not eager for vindication, but instead humbled by the path we will all walk with this king, then we enter into Advent with more reverence, less arrogance, and a healthy dose of gratitude. This king – Christ the King – is the most sobering, challenging, merciful, joyous, steadying king for which we could hope. He is not the king we always want, but he is certainly the king we always need. Today we celebrate the wise gift by God of a true King – a king who makes us all better versions of ourselves, who helps us see there are no easy solutions, and who encourages us to embrace justice as fairness, not justice as vindication. Our invitation today is to take a seat at the foot of the cross, to prepare our place in the hay surrounding the manger, to change out our shoes, to take off our jackets and zip up our cardigans, and to make a calm, quieter space for ourselves to hear how a real king can help us create not the kingdom we may want, but certainly the kingdom we need. Amen.