If this is a king, why would we follow him? If this is a kingdom, who would want to be a citizen?
Jesus hung on the cross, one of three so executed on that day on that hill. After all the excitement, after all the hope, not even a week since his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, it had come to this: execution on a cross, shared with two common thieves.
It’s no surprise that those who walked by laughed and jeered. Whatever Jesus had claimed for himself, the crowds had called him Messiah, the Son of David. The crowds had proclaimed him the one to save Israel – and now here he was. It’s no wonder they ridiculed him, even to one of the thieves hanging with him. Some kingdom! Some king!
We have always been uncomfortable with kings, we human beings. We cheer them when times are good, and things seem safely under control. We laugh at their failings, at least when we think it safe. We fear them when they get too close – all that power, and no way we can resist. For all the cheers for the leader who brings home the spoils, we fear lest he ask too much, take too much from us. Remember that most of our own founding fathers weren’t so concerned about democracy when King George was far away. It was when he came close, in the taxes that were enforced, and in the barracks of soldiers that enforced them, that they began to think perhaps they could do it better themselves. Remember in “Fiddler on the Roof” the rabbi’s prayer for the czar: “May God bless and keep the czar – far away from us!”
What kind of king was this, then? The sign above him said, “This is the king of the Jews.” The hooting spectators, and even the cynical thief, called on him to prove it, and most of them simply laughed when he did not. Some kingdom! Some king!
Oddly enough, in the history of the people of God the image of the king isn’t someone so powerful, so dangerous, so far away. Instead, the image was of the shepherd – from the call of David from the pasture ,to Jeremiah’s proclamation in the last days of the Judah. “Woe,” he says. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD. You have not attended to my sheep; but now I will attend to you! Then I myself will gather my flock; and I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, says the LORD.”
But, shepherds are so very unlike kings, aren’t they? Kings live in castles and palaces, surrounded by courtiers. Shepherds live in the fields, surrounded by sheep. Kings do battle with other kings, and calculate their results in victories and defeats and acceptable losses. Shepherds do battle with wolves and bears and jackals, and are concerned for every sheep. Indeed, shepherds often enough work for someone else, to whom they are accountable for every sheep. Kings are, as often as not, laws unto themselves – and so often that seems the very definition of what it means to be king.
And yet through the history of God’s people, the model for the king was the shepherd, and not the law unto himself. The model was of one who lived among his people, accountable for every single one – accountable to God.
That was not the model of those who jeered. Even among the leaders of the Jewish people, that was not the model they held. They had seen ruler after ruler come through – from Assyria to Babylon to Alexander to Rome. They had seen those men, powerful, dangerous, and far away. They did not see on the cross the Shepherd of Israel.
But someone did. One thief – one thief who hung with Jesus saw, not with the eyes of the world, but with the eyes of faith. He saw, and proclaimed, “We’re getting our just deserts. This man has done nothing wrong!” And then, he prayed: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And it was he who heard this promise: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
But, what did he see? Clearly, he saw beyond the man on a cross, beyond the mocking, ironic sign over his head. Perhaps he saw the shepherd: the one who lived, not far away, but in the midst of the flock. Perhaps he saw the one who had called on the flock to stand together and to gather the lost. Perhaps he saw the one who battled the wolves and bears and jackals of the soul, for whom there were no acceptable losses. Perhaps he saw the one accountable to God – indeed, the one making God present in the midst of the flock. And seeing God in Jesus, he could see the promise of God’s kingdom, of all things reordered the way they God meant them to be. He could seek his place in that kingdom; and he could trust Jesus when it was granted.
This is what we celebrate when we observe this feast of Christ the King. We celebrate the one who is God among us, even to this day: the one so committed to life among us that he shared in our death, and then overcame death and the grave, not only for himself, but for all of us. We celebrate the king who falls in the eyes of this world and yet rises as the Shepherd of Israel, and rising, lifts us with him. We celebrate the one who see us, even in the midst of our failings, and offers us citizenship in the Kingdom of God – the one who sees us in the midst of our just deserts, and promises us Paradise.
This is the King we proclaim! Some kingdom! Some king!