As it says on the front page of our pew sheet this week, this is the last Sunday of our liturgical year. It is Christ the King Sunday. Next week we will begin the Advent journey towards Bethlehem to seek out the Christ child. Perhaps there came a sense of bewilderment as you listened to the Gospel reading today. It is almost Christmas, why are we reading about the crucifixion of Jesus? Why does this day take us to the cross?
Before we consider that in more depth, let’s pause and reflect for a while on where we stand. We are here in the Peace Hall, almost a year since we closed the doors of the Cathedral. That was a hard thing to do, but here we are, almost a year on.
And then this week our lives were brought to a bit of a halt, with that shaking that woke us just after midnight on Monday morning, a rolling type of earthquake which we felt even though we were miles away from the epicentre. And we have watched images of the Kaikoura coast line, the homes in small rural towns destroyed, the buildings in Wellington have been damaged, photos of the ruptured rural landscape and the broken roads. And at the same time we are mindful of the city of Christchurch – still not fixed and almost 6 years have passed. And we watch the brokenness of it all, and wonder at the magnitude of it. And our own sense of powerlessness.
And there are the elections in the USA which have us wondering at the outcome, and perhaps with a level of fear about the implications for the world.
And on a personal level, for some of us there has been bereavement as we have walked beside family or friends who have died over this year. Or perhaps there are health issues, either personally or for those we love.
There will have been joys too. New life in wee babies. New opportunities. New experiences. New people. Precious relationships.
But it is a sense of the other: that which is really hard: ill health, bereavement, brokenness of land and in buildings, and in people.
How does Christ the King speak to us in all of this? In the gospel reading set down for today, we find ourselves standing under the cross, on the Hill called Golgotha. There are three crosses with men nailed there to die. And as we look up we see a cross with the inscription “This is the king of the Jews”, above the tortured body of Jesus. These are the very same words the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary when she was invited to bear the Christ child. I wonder if she remembered as she gazed at her first born hanging there. Was she wondering how this could possibly be so?
It is a challenge : What kind of king do we have? What kind of kingdom does this king bring with him? We read of him on the cross, dying along with two common criminals. What kind of king is that? Where is his power?
Jesus, our Redeemer, chose to come as one of us. What a risk. God in human form, born in an animal pen, to unmarried parents. Then he became a refugee fleeing for his life. We don’t see power in all of that. And yet in it all God was there in the form of Jesus, amidst all that was hard. As an adult, Jesus was tempted in the wilderness to use power for his own ends but he refused. In his ministry he walked with simple sandals on his feet, talked with women and beggars and Samaritans. He travelled from place to place relying others for accommodation, perhaps even sleeping rough, for it is said that he had nowhere to lay his head. We don’t read of him even having any property or possessions. Eventually on a borrowed donkey, he went to a room in someone else’s home where he shared a meal which included bread and wine, and which we mirror in our Eucharist here each Sunday morning, and even there taking a towel and kneeling before his disciples, he washed the feet of those he loved. Then when he was arrested, he was beaten and jeered at. A crown of thorns was placed on his head, and carrying his own cross as he was led out to Golgotha and crucified. And in all that was his humanity, as he hung on the cross he cried out: My God, my God why have you forsaken me. He felt abandoned by God. Rejected. He was thirsty – a very human response. Even there he welcomed a stranger, a criminal in fact. He prayed for forgiveness for those who crucified him. He surrendered his spirit to God, the creator and he died. Jesus the King of Kings died on a cross. This man was radically different, from any other leader or King that the world had known.
Yet this king is one who came to bring peace. The one who stretched out his arms as they were nailed to the cross, for you and for me. This is a king who invites us into relationship. The king who responds to each one of us as precious individuals deeply loved and valued. This king is one of grace and mercy and forgiveness. We sing of him as the Lamb upon the throne. The sacrificial lamb that will forever bear the scars on his body of taking the place of me and of you on the cross. There is no need now for us to make any sacrifices to atone for our sin, for God himself has done it for us. That is the King we worship. And our worship is a response to this sacrificial love, a love that was poured out. For Jesus will draw near to each one of us. He accepts us just as we are, he is the Shepherd King. And the Shepherd cares for his sheep.
Jesus once, speaking to his disciples said, Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am gentle and humble in heart. And you will find rest for your soul. The invitation is to come, and find rest in all that burdens us.
Going back again to the Gospel reading today, we watch the scene at the cross. Those on the ground having completed the three crucifixions, then drawing lots to divide up the bloodstained clothing. The leaders and the soldiers scoffing and jeering at Jesus demanding that he prove he was the Messiah, the king of the Jews by saving himself. Then those other two men who had also been crucified speak out. “Hey Jesus, one yells – no doubt the agony of such a cruel death tearing at his body, “if you really are the Messiah, save us and yourself”. demanding Jesus use his power if in deed he had any, to save them all. The other, recognising there had to be a consequence for the crime which he had done, reminds the one who was making those demands of Jesus, that they deserve to be there, whereas Jesus didn’t for he had not committed any crime. . And then this man, his eyes fix on Jesus and with a thread in hope in his voice, speaks, Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. His words acknowledging that indeed Jesus was a king with a kingdom that was to come. Did he see enough compassion to dare to ask? Had somehow he grasped that Jesus truly was the King of the Jews? As their eyes met, Jesus responded, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” What a sense of hope for that man. Even in all he was going through as he hung there dying, he would be with Jesus. In a place of peace. What hope and what forgiveness was offered even then. What release from all he carried.
We are so deeply loved by God the Father, that he would send Jesus to come and live among us, to experience what it was to be human, and then to take the sin of the world upon himself, so that we could have a deep relationship with God. So that we could know God the Creator, God the Redeemer and God the Lifegiver. To discover that we can never be outside of that deep love. We will never be separated from God. We find in Jesus Christ, the king of Kings, one who knows what it is to be broken. Who walks beside us, because he knows what it is be human. And that is the deep expression of God’s love.
St Paul wrote, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, - we might add earthquakes or building closures, scary leadership or our own frailty - will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
We stand today on tiptoes ready to move into our Advent journey, but we do so knowing that the baby we journey to see, is this same man who has been to the cross. Today we worship him, the King of Kings. King of peace and of hope and of love. We do so with hearts that respond to his love. With eyes that see the love of the Good Shepherd. Conscious as we do so that indeed this Kingdom is not restricted to a geographical space, but is a kingdom that reigns is both here and throughout eternity.
And so with the whole company of heaven we can sing: All praise and glory be to our God, who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour and glory and power forever and ever. Amen.