Sunday, November 25, 2007

Christ the King: Back to Basics

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 25, 2007
Year C, Proper 29 RCL: The Last Sunday after Pentecost
Christ the King

Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

Christ the King: Back to Basics

Wow, this is an exciting time of year isn’t it? I hope you all had a happy Thanksgiving. I know here at church we had a wonderful service and a delicious brunch. I was so full I was glad that Thanksgiving dinner at my aunt’s house was delayed.

And now with Thanksgiving behind us whether the Church likes it or not society is moving into what it calls “the Christmas season.” Stores and some homes are already decorated. You probably know that some stores opened as early as 4:00AM on Friday to attract bargain-hungry shoppers. Here in Madison, Main Street is beautifully decorated and Santa arrived on Friday evening. In Friday’s mail Sue and I even received our first Christmas card!

Yep, it sure is an exciting time. And here in church we mark the last Sunday of the church year with a feast that sounds pretty grand and exciting – the feast of Christ the King. When I hear that grand title, Christ the King, I think of many of the paintings and statues that show Jesus wearing beautiful clothes and a golden crown on his head. So, all in all it feels like a time to celebrate – Christmas is coming in just a few weeks and today it’s the feast of Christ the King!

And, sure enough, today’s first lesson seems to fit this grand spirit very well. Listen again to the language used to describe Jesus in 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 and powers – all things have been created through him and for him.”

Wow! I don’t know about you, but after hearing that grand description of Jesus I’m ready to burst into “Crown him with many crowns.” But, Dr. Anne, I guess we have to wait until the recessional, huh?

And then we come to the Gospel lesson. When I first looked ahead to today’s lesson I sort of expected to find something grand and exciting like maybe… the transfiguration – Jesus glowing on the mountain with Moses and Elijah. Or I expected to hear about Jesus gloriously ascending into heaven. I expected to hear another story that would make me burst into “Crown him with many crowns.”

But, instead, what Gospel does the church offer us on Christ the King Sunday? What Gospel does the Church offer us on the last Sunday of the church year? What Gospel does the Church offer us as we all look ahead to Christmas?

The Church offers us the stark, horrifying image of Jesus hanging on the cross, the last hours of his life. The Church offers us this image of fragile Jesus, broken and bloody, being mocked, wearing a crown of thorns. What kind of king is this? What kind of celebration is this?
“Crown him with many crowns” takes on a very different sense now.

The Church says, here, this is Christ the King – here’s our king – our king Jesus dying on the cross.

Somehow things suddenly seem a lot less festive.

So what’s going on here? Why isn’t the Church with the program? Why isn’t the Church offering us a grand and exciting message this morning to match the excitement out there in the world?

In thinking about today’s sermon, I’ve been reflecting on a clergy discussion we had here on Tuesday. The issue of the day was how the church can get its message out into the modern world. Mother Lauren and I and a few others focused on some simple questions. Of course, it’s the simple questions that are always the toughest to answer!

These supposedly simple questions boiled down to: Who is Jesus? Who is this Christ the King? What does it mean?

How can the Church have a message for the world unless we know who Jesus is?

It was a great discussion – being clergy types we threw around some heavy-duty theological terms like redemption and atonement. We talked about the grammatical structure of Aramaic versus the structure of Greek. We talked about all sorts of things, and, of course, we never did quite come up with answers to these seemingly simple questions.

Who is Jesus? Who is Christ the King? What does it mean?

Basic stuff. Many of us are in church a lot, but it’s easy for us to forget the basics. It’s easy to forget what it all means. Who is Jesus? Who is Christ the King?

Now I suppose we could always fall back on the Nicene Creed. After all, every Sunday we stand and say the creed, which was crafted in part as an attempt to answer these questions, but if we pay attention to what we’re saying, the creed may in fact raise more questions than it answers. When I have taught about Christianity and Islam in my history courses I’ve always contrasted the creed of Islam – one simple, easy to remember sentence, with the Nicene Creed – which, let’s face it, is not so easy to remember. For fun I would ask if any of the regular church-goers in class could say the Nicene Creed from memory. Not one student was able to do it. Until my last year as a teacher when amazingly a kid recited it flawlessly from memory! (I took that as a sign that it was time to go…)

Anyway, it’s one thing not to remember it, but what does it mean? What does it mean? Who is Jesus? Who is Christ the King? What does the creed say about Jesus? You know it… “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made.” (scratch, scratch.)

What does it mean? Who is Jesus? Who is Christ the King?

Maybe because of the season, I’m reminded of the movie The Nightmare before Christmas. Have you seen it? A bunch of us watched it during movie night here at church a few weeks ago.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, this synopsis may sound a little bizarre, but bear with me. The movie imagines that Halloweentown – a place filled with vampires and ghouls that is responsible for producing Halloween each year – is ruled by a king, a skeleton king, named Jack. Jack’s been in the Halloween business for a while and he has gotten bored. After Halloween, feeling depressed, he goes for a walk wondering what to do with the rest of his life. During this sad walk, Jack the king of Halloweentown happens to stumble on Christmastown – the place, ruled by Santa Claus, that is responsible for producing Christmas every year.

OK, are you still with me? Well, Jack the king of Halloweentown is amazed by Christmastown. Santa’s elves are busily preparing toys for the big day, there’s good cheer everywhere, the snow, the ornaments, the twinkling lights are all so beautiful.

So when Jack sees Christmastown, he thinks he’s found the answer to his problem – this year he and the vampires and ghouls over at Halloweentown will be in charge of Christmas. Bad idea.

To get ready for Christmas, Jack tries to figure out what makes Christmas tick. “What does it mean?” he asks. “What does it mean?” So he scientifically conducts a series of experiments, analyzing the chemical properties of Christmas tree ornaments, examining the contents of stuffed animals, trying to cut out paper snowflakes, and even getting his own Santa suit. “What does it mean?” Jack asks.

If you haven’t see the movie I won’t spoil what happens next, except to say that Jack learns the hard way what Christmas means – he learns it’s not about the ornaments, the stuffed animals, or even the Santa suit.

Jack, the skeleton king, learns that Christmas is about love.

And today, on the feast of Christ the King, today as the church year comes to an end, today as we look ahead to Advent, today as the world enters what it calls the Christmas season, today the Church takes us back to the Cross to remind us what it all means.

With so much going on in and out of the church we can easily lose sight of the basics. We can lose sight of what it all means. We can lose sight of who Jesus is. We can lose sight of Christ the King.

By recalling the Cross on this festive day the Church offers us the grandest, most exciting message of them all. In Jesus God says this is who I am. In Jesus’ life of self-giving love God says this is who I am. In Jesus God shows us the way.

As it says on our youth group t-shirts, “Love is a verb.” The whole sweep of Christ’s life is an act of love. From the manger in Bethlehem to the cross at Calvary to the empty tomb on Easter Sunday – the whole sweep of his life reveals to us that it’s all about love. But, like Jack Skellington, we Christians can get focused on the things that aren’t so important and miss what it’s all about. Like Jack we ask “What does it mean?” Like Jack, we can miss that it’s all about love.

Christ is king because he gives of himself – freely and fully. Christ is king because he lives a life of perfect love, even dying on the cross.

As we begin a new church year, as all the excitement around Christmas begins, let’s not forget the basics. Let’s not forget that in Jesus we see who God really is. Let’s not forget that in Jesus we see that it’s all about love. And let’s not forget that Christ is king.