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Christ the King: Against the Odds

Did you know that today’s feast is one of the newest ones in our liturgical calendar?

The Feast of Christ the King was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925. Since then, this celebration has also been adopted by the Anglican Communion and many Protestant traditions as well. Today is the last Sunday of the year. Next Sunday we begin a new Church year with the First Sunday of Advent.

Advent, of course, is not the Christmas season, as we so often hear it called by secular society. The Christmas season begins on Christmas Day and goes through Epiphany. But one benefit of this wrong-headed view of “the Christmas season” is that we get to her performances of Händel’s “Messiah.” While often associated with Christmas, Händel’s wonderful “Hallelujah Chorus” is well-suited to our celebration today:

for the Lord omnipotent reigneth.
The kingdom of this world
is become the kingdom of our Lord
and of his Christ.
And he shall reign for ever and ever.
King of kings and Lord of lords
forever and ever. Hallelujah!

King of kings and Lord of lords.

There’s a story told that once while serving as ambassador to France Benjamin Franklin was invited to play a game of chess. He sat down and immediately removed the two king pieces from the board, saying, “In America we have no need of kings.”

Maybe we are at a bit of a disadvantage in the United States to talk about kings. But if you think about it, in many respects kings, with their wide-ranging power, share some things in common with presidents. If you think back on what you learned about various kings in history class, certain things come to mind.

They tended to accumulate wealth for themselves, their family and friends at the expense of others. They thought it noble and honorable to send young people to their death in wars. They sought to increase their power through conquest of other lands. They had little regard for the ordinary citizens or the poor. They imprisoned people without trials and had people tortured. Of course there were many good kings and queens as well, some of them we honor as saints.

Certainly one could make a case that leaders of democracies are not so different from kings in these things.

And it was precisely because of the wanton disregard for life, peace and justice among national leaders that Pius XI initiated the Feast of Christ the King. Pius wanted to emphasize that not even the highest secular leaders can exempt themselves from the laws of God.

So when we talk of Jesus being King of kings and Lord of lords, it doesn’t mean Jesus is the most royal of all royals. It means the kingship of Jesus is fundamentally different from earthly kingship. His reign is diametrically opposed to the usual way nation-states are run. And this stark difference is laid out for us in all its drama in today’s Gospel reading. The highest and deepest way for us to picture Jesus as a true king is to picture him on the cross.

To the world, this seems like the most unlikely image of a king, because it appears to be an image of failure. Kings and presidents, after all, are supposed to be winners.

They are war leaders, conquerors, builders of magnificent palaces, hosts of elaborate state dinners. They talk tough, beat their opposition. They get things done.

In the musical “Evita,” one song refers to politics as “the art of the possible.” Couldn’t Jesus have been more political?

A campaign consultant would have advised him to tone things down and not anger so many people. “You won’t achieve anything if they wind up killing you,” a consultant would have said. You’ll be a loser. Better to build support and gradually implement your program. If you say too much, the odds of winning go down.

Can you imagine Jesus running for president? What would his commercials look like? What would his campaign promises be?

Our presidential election is a year away, and I don’t know about you, but I’m already sick of all the people running.

Vast amounts of time and resources are spent trying to figure out what these folks actually believe, or what they would do if elected. And it’s frustrating because candidates want to be vague, hedging their bets so as to appeal to as many people as possible, keeping their options open.

Jesus didn’t hedge his bets. He knew what he was saying was dangerous, but he said it anyway. The Gospels tell us Jesus predicted that he would be killed, but do you think he needed divine foreknowledge to make that prediction? Common sense would tell him that if he kept on doing and saying what he was doing and saying, there would be a heavy price to pay. And Jesus wasn’t stupid.

This is the common sense that tells us when to shut up. You know the feeling.

“If I speak up about this corrupt business practice, I could be fired.”

“If I tell my friends I go to Mass, they might think I’m weird.”

“If I stand up for the person at work who’s being discriminated against, I may not get that promotion.”

We play the odds in the art of the possible.

Besides, we’re told, the odds are against the Gospel. You don’t really believe that’s a way to solve problems, do you? If you do, you must be an idiot. That’s not the way the world works. Listening to the teachings of Jesus is fine for an hour on Sunday, but that’s no way to run a business. Or a country. Might makes right!

And here is Jesus on the cross, with a sign above him: “King of the Jews.” Pilate put it there to mock him and to serve up a warning against any others who might be a threat to the established order, the way things are done.

Truth be told, the odds are against establishing a just society. How much can we really do as individuals? We see what happens to those who rock the boat. Why not just go with the flow?

But here’s when we think of Jesus on that cross, and why that makes him a true king. He tells us to go against the odds, to practice the art of the impossible.

The odds are against you and I being able to put an end to war, but do what you can anyway.

The odds are against you and I ending the AIDS crisis, but do what you can anyway.

The odds are against you and I ending discrimination, but do what you can anyway.

Because playing the odds and living by the art of the possible robs us of something: hope. I guess that’s what turns me off on elections. The constant platitudes and evasions give me no hope, even as they try to sell me hope. You can’t sell hope, you can only give it away.

There is Jesus on the cross, giving hope. He gives hope to the good thief. He gives us hope for a better world. He gives us hope for a fuller life. He gives us hope for eternal joy.

Jesus knew what the Book of Proverbs says:

“Without a vision the people perish.”

If we give up the art of the possible and try to live the teachings of Jesus in our own lives, and believe they hold the key to solving the problems of the world, will we wind up scorned and abused like Jesus?

Probably. The odds are against us.

But we’ll have something business-as-usual can’t give: hope.

Oh, the powerful will still try to sell you false hope. But there’s Jesus on the cross again, offering real hope. “Play against the odds,” he whispers.

No wonder he’s King of kings and Lord of lords.

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