The Crown and the Cross

Sermon preached for Christ the King Sunday at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church. 

Christ the King Sunday is the New Year’s Eve of the liturgical year. It is a good time to take the long view of Christ’s story, which gets chopped up into so many little stories each Sunday. Our scriptures this morning are bookends from the Gospel of Luke; the first from just before Christ’s birth, the second, which we’ll come to later, from just before his death.

We begin with Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, singing his prophecy of what God has promised. Listen for the word of the Lord.

 Luke 1:68-79

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Prophecies are heavy mantles for children.

Before Jesus was even born, he was almost smothered in them. Zechariah’s prophecy was merely the last in a long line of expectations for the infant. Mighty counselor, Prince of Peace, son of David. The one to save his people from their Roman overlords. The one to solve all their problems. The one to lead their path to victory, so that things would be like they used to be, in the good old days. The one to restore power to the line of David.

We don’t know much about Jesus’ childhood—whether these prophecies weighed on him or not. We do know that apart from a bit of preteen precociousness in the temple, nothing much was worth writing down. You have to wonder if the grown-ups started to worry, as he grew, that nothing more remarkable was happening with their teenage messiah.

You can’t escape destiny, though. Perhaps they thought he was just biding his time. And eventually things began to happen, he began to come into his own, break out of his shell. It started in the temple. He announced that he was the messiah and then the crowds began to gather, when he healed, when he taught, and his name began to be known throughout the Galilee. People began to say, oh Jesus? I’ve heard of him—not Jesus the carpenter’s son, not Jesus, Mary’s boy, but Jesus—I’ve heard of him, the teacher, the healer, and the crowds grew bigger, 4000, 5000 people. He was a big name, he had a devoted group of disciples, men who abandoned their families, and that says something even more, someone who can draw the crowds but also inspire that kind of fanatical following, to get a person to leave everything behind. That kind of charisma, it has to be going somewhere.

And so here he is at last, on the ascension, on his way to stardom, on his way to Kingdom, and surely, eventually, this following, these devoted disciples must become the foundation for his operation, surely is the beginning of rebellion, of revolt, surely, as Zechariah had said, now Israel would be saved from its enemies and from the hand of all who hate them. The mighty savior has arrived at last.

Jesus’ star is rising, and everyone is eager to ride it all the way to the top.

The crown seems within his reach. The crown seems fitted for him.

But then things begin to turn sour. Things begin to fall apart. Jesus’ name is known, but not everyone is happy about it. His cousin John is killed. The religious elite begin to infiltrate Jesus’ rallies, prepped with questions to trick him, trap him, bring him down. He has become too big for his britches. Who is this man who claims to be the Messiah? He’s nothing but a rabble-rouser. He’s got a silver tongue and some neat parlor tricks, but he’s just a man. And they know what to do with men who step out of line.

And all those prophecies seem to crumble in on themselves.

Jesus is arrested. He ends up in the court of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, who asks Jesus if he has claimed to be King of the Jews. This seems to be the sticking point. There are other issues at play, of course—Jesus has said he’s the messiah and surely that’s heresy; they accuse him of encouraging people not to pay their taxes and it’s always easy to nail folks on tax evasion, just ask Al Capone. But the big issue seems to be the kingship, the crown, that he would aspire to the crown—the crown that now answers to Rome.

Jesus won’t say he’s the king. “You say that I am,” is what he answers. He won’t claim the crown, and that, to me, is a pivotal moment in knowing who Christ is, a man who doesn’t claim the crown everyone else has been busy polishing for him.

It doesn’t really matter to Pilate. The crowd wants him dead and they get their way. And so we come to our second reading for the day, now from the end of Luke, chapter 23.

Luke 23:33-43

“When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing.

And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

How the mighty have fallen.

So Jesus ends up on the cross, with a crown not of gold but of thorns, to make a mockery of him and to make him hurt just a little bit more, make him bleed just a little more.

This is what he chooses. Not the crown but the cross.

I am constantly amazed by this. Constantly amazed by this part of the story. I’ve known it all my life and yet every time, when it comes down to it, I’m shocked. Shocked because I could have rationalized it the other way. Christ could have done so much good with a crown, been such a good king of Israel, could have brought peace, done all those things Zechariah sang about, things the people so badly wanted, so badly needed. I would have urged Christ to go after that crown. And I would have been wrong for doing so.

Jesus chooses the cross. It is not glamorous. It is not even particularly special. He’s one of three men scheduled for execution that day, and that’s probably a light day on the executioner’s schedule. Friday, you know.

He chooses the cross. With its agony.

He chooses the cross. The end of his ministry, the end of his ability to heal with so many still sick, the end of his ability to teach with so many still unreached.

He chooses the cross. Thirty-two, thirty-three years old, no family, no children to bear his legacy.

He chooses the cross, and I am amazed.

And theologically, I know the cross is our salvation, and I know it was God’s plan, and I know it’s how we come to have eternal life. I know the cross lasts longer than the crown ever would. Had Jesus reigned 60 years in Israel and brought peace to that small dot on the globe, it would not have had the impact the cross did.

And yet still every time, in that moment, when I get to this part of the story, I am shocked—shocked that a human being—even a human being who is also God—would ever choose pain over power. Would ever choose scorn over popularity, death over wealth. Would ever choose us over himself.

And I am shocked because I am a human being who is not also God, and I know when I am faced with a choice between power and pain it is a no-brainer which path my instincts lead me down. I watch people seek power every day, sometimes for good or evil but always power, always jostling to put themselves in just a little stronger of a position. We know most of us would rather have a crown than a cross. And there are scriptures that promise us a crown—but not until we have gone through the cross.

Just as Christ did not regain his crown until he went through the cross.

We prefer the power of the crown. We will spend the next month preparing for a child-king, singing about his power. You’ll notice the world is comfortable with those songs, comfortable enough to play them on the radio at Wal-mart. Comfortable with power, especially power wearing the face of an inoffensive baby. You will also notice that the songs of the cross never make it to Wal-mart. The world is much less comfortable with the cross.

But it has a power too.

An indescribable power, although I’ve read lots of theology textbooks full of theories and schemas about how and why the cross works. The Bible offers us several answers. Any one of them might do any day of the week. I don’t know that a textbook definition will ever do justice to the mystery of salvation. But I do know that in my life the power of the cross has been knowing that the God of the cosmos, the God who created the supernovas and the galaxies, the God who built life from mitochondria and painted it with the most amazing colors, the God who is beyond space and beyond time, the God who could make anything happen—that when it came down to it, that God chose the cross. That God chose to die, out of love, of all things, out of love for me, for you, for us, love for the world, to show us that love does not mean dominance, love does not mean ruling over something, love does not mean having power over someone, love does not control the one it loves, but love gives, gives entirely of itself, love is not afraid of pain if need be. Love is not afraid to be mocked. Love is not afraid to be unpopular. Love will make any sacrifice for its beloved.

The power of the cross is love so strong, love so amazingly strong that not even death could stop it. The power of the cross—it amazes me every time. Every time I come to a fork of the road and know I could make the choice of the crown, the safe choice, the easy choice, the choice that would get me pats on the back and facebook likes and a pluses and atta girls and whatever other marks of power I might have in my life, or the choice of the cross, the choice that is lonelier, less popular, that may even be painful, that causes me to give of myself for others—every time I come to that fork in the road, the crown or the cross, I try to remember that if I am to call myself a Christian, if I am to call myself a Christ follower, than I know which path he took, and which path I should follow. I confess I don’t always go; and that’s why I need the cross so badly. Because the one on it is more loving than I could ever be.

And so it is that Zechariah’s song comes true. Not in the way that he or anyone else would have expected. Christ’s might is not in an earthly army or a palace in Jerusalem. Christ’s might lies in each and every one of his followers over the eons who have looked at the choice of crown or cross and chosen the cross, who have looked at the choice between power and love, and chosen love. And so the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high breaks upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday. Today we celebrate Christ’s power: the power of a crown and the power of a cross.

Christ is my King. Not because he rules over me, although he does; not because he holds my life in his hand, although he does. This is what Christ’s kingship looks like: self-sacrificing love. For us, who do not deserve it, and yet need it so very badly.

This is the King that I worship and adore. The One powerful enough to make me do anything for him, and the One loving enough to have done everything for me.

To that king be all honor and glory, now and forever.

Amen.

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