November 24, 2019, On the Eve of Battle, Luke 23:33-43 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000164
Shakespeare, in his play Henry V, takes us to the French and English camps on the night before the battle of Agincourt. The night is quiet, watch fires are burning throughout the camps. In the French camp, the officers are already deciding how to divide up the spoils, because they outnumber the English by five to one. They have no doubt they’ll win the battle. In the English camp, the soldiers are all sure they’re going to lose. They’re waiting patiently for sunrise, and for death.
The English King, Henry, borrows an old cloak from a friend and goes to sit by the fire, talking with whoever wanders by like an ordinary soldier. One man speaks highly of the King. Two others are so deep in conversation that they don’t even see Henry, but he listens, admiring their wisdom and judgment. Three more soldiers come and get into an argument with Henry, questioning the King’s motives, and his courage. All that night, King Henry goes among his men, visiting each one of them, calling them brothers, cheering them up. But in his old, worn, dirty cloak, no one recognizes him.
Today, we come to the very last week of the Church year. Next week we begin a brand new liturgical year with the first week of Advent. But we end the year with the Feast of Christ the King. You might think that Christ the King would be one of the ancient Feasts of the Church, because the Kingship of Jesus Christ was recognized right from the beginning – even while he still walked among us on the earth. When the Magi arrived in Palestine, they asked King Herod, “Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose. We’ve come to worship him.” When Nathanael, who was to be one of the Twelve, first met Jesus, he exclaimed, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” And when Jesus rode into Jerusalem in his last days on earth, Matthew tells us it was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”
Jesus himself was proclaiming his Kingship, after his Resurrection, when he told his disciples, “All power, in heaven and on earth, has been given to me.” And maybe most clearly of all, Jesus was revealed as King of Kings and Lord of Lords in the Revelation to John. Among the many, many references to the Kingship of Jesus Christ in Revelation, John writes, “There were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.” The Church has always proclaimed the eternal majesty and authority of Jesus Christ, who rules over every government, every ruler, every power in heaven and on earth.
So it might seem strange that it wasn’t until the relatively recent year of 1925 that the Feast of Christ the King became a part of our liturgical calendar. It was Pope Pius XI who first instituted the feast. In 1925 the world was still reeling from the devastation of the Great War. Communism was gaining a foothold in Russia after the revolution, and secularism was gaining ground everywhere among the weary, wounded nations of the world. Increasingly, the wisdom of mankind declared that religion was all very well in its place, but that in reality the highest authority of men was the human intellect, and the highest allegiance men owed was to their government. And several wars and almost a century later things haven’t changed a great deal.
The King of Kings and Lord of Lords has come to dwell among us, but after 2000 years the world still sits huddled in the darkness, warming itself by the feeble campfires of human wisdom and power….waiting for the morning….expecting death. The light has come into the world, but most of the world doesn’t recognize him yet. And as we read the passage in Luke today, it’s no wonder, because like Henry, Jesus came in disguise. The King of the Universe moved into our neighborhood, but in a form that no one expected.
Today, in the reading from Luke’s gospel, we see Christ the King naked and bleeding, almost beyond recognition. The Roman soldiers have beaten and tortured him; they make jokes at his expense. They casually gable for his clothes, which seem to be the only thing he owned. His fellow Jews are crushed to see all their hopes fall to pieces yet again; in despair and rage they have voiced their approval for his execution. “Crucify him!” His closest friends have run away in bewilderment and fear, blindsided by this unexpected collapse of – well, pretty much everything. There was a time when the multitudes had crowded around Jesus by the thousands, hanging on his every word. But on this day, only a handful of women stay near him in his agony and humiliation. Even the man hanging beside him, a criminal under sentence of death himself, is mocking him. Who could recognize such a king?
Isaiah had written these words about the Christ, “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” But no one really expected the long-awaited King to arrive, cloaked in humility and suffering instead of majesty and glory.
Here, on the hill they call the Skull, we come to the greatest battle in all of human history. The enemy is already gloating over its impending victory, already haggling over the spoils. Night comes on early; darkness falls over all. Death looks like the clear winner.
But then, from the cross, the King speaks, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” Suddenly, there is forgiveness for the religious leaders who orchestrated this whole event, looking on and taunting him, “He saved others, let him save himself.” There is forgiveness for the soldiers, standing by with his own blood still on their hands, calling out, “If you’re really the King, save yourself!” There is forgiveness for the thief on his right, who asks in humility, “Jesus, remember me.” But there is also forgiveness for the thief on his left, crying out in a mixture of mockery and desperation, “Why don’t you save yourself – and us?” There is forgiveness for his friends, wherever they are, hiding away in shame and fear behind closed doors. There is forgiveness for Peter, and, if they will only receive it, there is forgiveness for Herod and for Pilate and for Judas. There is forgiveness for all of us. In that moment, the entire world of men, condemned to die, is granted a new judgment – a sentence of life. There on that hill, in the twilight of that day, the true King is revealed, reconciling all things to himself, making peace by the blood of his Cross.
In a science fiction trilogy that C.S. Lewis wrote, the main character, a man called Ransom, encounters a heavenly being, something like what we would call an angel. And whenever Ransom finds himself in the presence of this being, he has a strange sensation. The being appears as a column of light that stands at a strange angle, and yet Ransom senses at once that the being itself is straight and balanced, and that it is actually the whole world that is off-kilter and unstable. The Cross of Christ is like that, a place of radical new perspective, the revelation of a whole different geometry. Having lived our whole lives within the world’s geometry of power and competition, judgment and self-righteousness – just think of high school, or your old workplace – suddenly, at the Cross, we enter a divine geometry of forgiveness and compassion, of servanthood and humility. Of grace. Of the Father’s love.
Paul described this new way of seeing and being in his letter to the Philippians when he wrote: “The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had: He always had the nature of God, but he didn’t think that he should hang onto his equality with God. Instead, of his own free will he gave up everything he had, and took the nature of a servant, being born as a human being. In human form, he humbled himself and walked the path of obedience all the way to death—even death on the Cross. And for that very reason God raised him to the highest place and gave him the name that is greater than any other name. And so, in honor of the name of Jesus all beings in heaven, on earth, and in the world below will fall on their knees, and all will openly proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” On the Cross, Christ the King was revealed to the world in humility and in suffering and in weakness – bearing the authority of forgiveness, wielding the power of grace. And victory belongs to him.
I’d like to close by praying again, altogether, the Collect for this day, the Feast of Christ our King:
Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.