Today I have a confession. I am tired. After the election two weeks ago, and struggling to understand how vastly different the kingdom of God is from the kingdom of man, I found myself not emboldened, but just tired. As our country and the world has tried to absorb what America’s decision means, as sides seem to dig in their heels – identifying all sorts of ways in which their side has been right, and as uncertainty, instead of peace, seem to rise, I find myself, quite simply, tired. I was certainly given some opportunities for redemption. Our Celebration of a New Ministry filled with me such joy that the evening felt like a redemptive group hug. While reading the psalms appointed for evening prayer this week, I found several verses full of righteous indignation and a call against enemies. The words felt cathartic, but later, left me feeling empty, as I know vengeance is not the answer. Even at our Clergy Conference this week, we took some time to talk about how to navigate the results of the election as leaders of churches. Though I appreciated the gift of that time from the Bishop, I could tell that most of us were filled with the same uncertainty that everyone else is feeling. And, like a dutiful priest, I keep trying to stay tuned in to the news so that I am sure we are being relevant – but that, too, makes me tired.
As I turned to our gospel lesson for today, I was hoping for some bit of encouragement – some promise that everything would be okay. Knowing today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday in the liturgical year whose text should bring into focus the point of a year of journeying with Christ, I had hoped that there would be some sort of rallying text that would invigorate me and shake me out of my emotional and spiritual exhaustion. But instead, on this day when we honor Christ our King, what is the image we are given? A beaten, humiliated, ridiculed, discredited, shameful shell of a man, hanging on a cross, defeated in the approaching death. We do not get Christ risen from the grave today – the ultimate Easter message. No, today we get Good Friday – our hoped-for Messiah, seemingly defeated on the cross. Of course, he dies with great dignity, forgiving sinners until the very end, welcoming the repentant even on their last breath, resisting every urge strike back or at least refute the charges against him. He dies with dignity, but he dies nonetheless.
As we close out this liturgical year and prepare to begin a new year with the season of Advent, I have been thinking a lot about the other version of Christ we will soon be talking about – the Christ Child. As I meditated on Christ the King, imagining his battered body, whose mother is not far away, I wondered if she too is thinking back to those early days with her infant. I imagine every mother has some hopes and dreams for whom her child might become. Maybe they have specific hopes of power and influence for their child. Certainly, at the very least, they hope their child will be a decent, respectful human being. But Mary could be tempted to dream much more for her child – shepherds, angels, and wise men told her to expect great things. I wonder how she sits at that cross, devastated at what had come of her son’s journey. Of course, her son never really had an overwhelmingly positive journey. He was run out of towns; people were constantly trying to trick him into saying something incriminating; though those who were healed were often happy, more often, people were upset about Jesus’ healing ministry; and although they had that parade just a few days ago for her son, how quickly they had turned against him. As she sits at the foot of that cross, I wonder if she is, at the root of her being, just plain tired.
I have often thought it is strange how the cross, and not the empty tomb is our primary Christian symbol. That we use an instrument of death as our sign for victory is rather odd. But today we do not just honor Christ’s death on the cross; we honor how he died on the cross. Even in death Christ our King managed to love his neighbor – even the really bad neighbors. Even in death, Christ managed to love God – inviting God to forgive even the most hateful behavior. Even on the cross, Jesus never loses his focus. Jesus never gets tired.
Just like the kingdom of God is different, so is the king of God. 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 any 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 bit of a mess. But Jesus is not like foreign kings or the kings of Israel. Jesus’ kingship is different. He loves the poor and cares for the sick, he sees through the pretenses of the temple and calls for authenticity, he loves deeply and forgives infinitely.[i] And he never tires of being this kind of king.
For most of us, looking to Jesus as an example of how to rally out of our fatigue and weariness may feel overwhelming to our tired selves. Instead, I found looking at the repentant thief to be helpful. You see, the thief was probably tired too. Anyone who is a thief has been hustling long before he gets caught. He may have even been caught several times before for more minor offenses. His arrest this time is different. There will be no escape. He will hang on that cross until he dies. With the cruelty of the cross, and the pain of his body, also shining forth is an overwhelming sense of fatigue. He too is tired. Tired of running, tired of hustling, tired of the life that leads one to become a thief. But even in his deep fatigue, he does something extraordinary. When the other thief taunts Jesus, the repentant thief lets the other thief have it. Hanging in agony, he looks outside himself, and refuses to stand for the hypocrisy of the other thief. He decries the injustice of Jesus’ sentence, he wisely points out his own, as well as the other’s, culpability in sin, and then, without shame looks right at Jesus and asks Jesus to remember him.
Even at our most weary, tired states, when we feel like there is no hope, or when death feels ever present, Jesus invites us to keep shining our light for all to see.[ii] Our gospel this week is full of people doing just that: taking their world of hurt, pain, sadness, sorrow, defeat, seeming hopelessness, and turning toward the light.[iii] Mary and the other women eventually find their light despite their fatigue. The thief hanging in humiliation and death finds his light. And Jesus, defeated in the eyes of all but the thief today, keeps shining his light until the bitter end. Christ our King invites us to do likewise. Of all people, Jesus understood being tired. His cry out to God in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is a prayer of a tired man. But Jesus stood up that night, all the way to the cross on Calvary and refused to let fatigue be an excuse for a world without love, hope, and forgiveness. Our king may not look like other kings. His story may be strange and full of contradictions. But our king has the power to pull you out of darkness and drag you into the light. But along the way, he is going to need you to shine your light too. Amen.
[i] David Lose, “Christ the King C: What Kind of King Do You Want?” November 14, 2016, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2016/11/christ-the-king-c-what-kind-of-king-do-you-want/ on November 16, 2016.
[ii] Caroline Lewis, “Who and What is Your King?” November 13, 2016, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4754 on November 17, 2016.
[iii] Patrick J. Willson, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 337.