“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.”
What is the first thing that you think of when you think of a king? The first image that pops into your head? Do you think of a flowing, velvet robe? Maybe a priceless crown and a jewel-encrusted scepter? Do you think of wealth and abundance and power? Of castles and land stretching on for miles….Of authority, aristocracy, and politics. Yes, when we think of a king, we think of a rich ruler lording power over everyone and everything.
But we find no velvet robes here….no jewels or scepters….no castle, no land….no priceless crown. Yes, Christ comes to his Kingship looking nothing like the king we imagine.
It feels somewhat out of place, doesn’t it? To be celebrating Christ the King Sunday, as we are today, before Advent has even begun? To mark this last Sunday of the liturgical year when we are so preoccupied, our focus distracted by Thanksgiving preparations and the secular world’s obsession with gifts and festivities. We are moving in a million different directions in these busy days, when all of a sudden, this celebration pops up in our ordinary time, surprising and re-focusing us.
There is no long and storied history to the celebration of Christ the King Sunday. It saw its first observances under Pope Pius XI in the early 1900s, when he saw what he feared as the rise of secularism beginning to creep in and distract people from what was most important. He wanted to create a feast day whereby people would pause and reflect and remember that Christ is King and Lord of all. Pius XI wrote, “When once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace, and harmony.”
It would be easy to let this day get lost in the shuffle. When our minds are preoccupied with family travels and food preparations, and everywhere around us, the constant reminder that this is a time of celebration and excess. The message of the world is the message of the kings we know from fairytales….but the message of the church is the message of the King we know from the Book of Truth.
Kings seem other-worldly, locked away in towers of power and privilege, and often seeming out-of-touch with the people over whom they rule. And yet, our passage today is quite the opposite, about the long-prophesied King who would come to dwell among us. To live with us and as us….to be as fully human as he is divine. Our text today is the prophecy of Zacharias, better known, perhaps, as the father of John the Baptist, and what he foretold of the coming Messiah. Remember, Zacharias and Elizabeth had been told by God that they would have a son, but Zacharias could not believe the Lord. In his confusion and doubt, he was unable to speak until John was born, and then he was filled with the Spirit and able to foretell Jesus’ coming. But he didn’t just tell it, he sang it—this passage is Zacharias’ Benedictus, so filled with the amazing power of the Spirit was he that his voice returned so that he could joyfully share the Good News of God’s great plan.
Luke loves to tell us about God’s visitation—God is going to do what he has long promised, and the birth of John the Baptist is going to herald in this marvelous plan. What was prophesied long ago is finally getting ready to take place. Jesus is coming, not to be served, but to serve. Zacharias knows that John is coming to tell the people of salvation….and Jesus is going to take them to it. The entire Gospel is encapsulated in Zacharias song—“…he has looked favorably upon his people….and redeemed them…”
Zacharias had been silent for nine long months. He had not said a word. And so, as he stood there next to Elizabeth at the birth of John, you might think any number of things may have been on his mind. But what were the first things he shared? The first things he sang about? God’s plan and God’s provision.
It’s a theme we know well, we’ve seen it before, but here we see it in glorious detail—in Jesus Christ, God was keeping the ancient covenant he made with our ancestors. We are reminded that everything God has done and is doing in the whole of history is to bring about this moment—the coming of the Christ child. The covenant with Abraham and with David and the voices of all the prophets are going to be realized in the very one that John is coming to prophecy! Can you imagine being Father Zacharias in that moment?? Standing on that pinnacle of mercy and grace, looking back over the whole of history to watch how the Messiah was prophesied, and then knowing, even as you looked down at your own tiny baby—one whom you could never have imagined given your old age—that he would be the one to tell the world of the Glory that was to come? It’s no wonder he sang! Tracing the covenant promise from prophecy to manger to Cross to Throne is an awe-evoking and amazing gift.
As Zacharias sings of God’s plan, he is singing also of God’s provision, foretelling a world of redemption, renewal, and peace. He is bursting with good news! “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,” he sings, “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” The darkness of spiritual ignorance is about to end—the light of life is coming! Wholeness, fullness….peace. It’s all coming, in a tiny baby, in a manger stall. God’s plan, God’s provision—-everything that has been foretold is coming to fruition right before his very eyes. It’s all happening. Everything that God said would be, is going to be.
It’s interesting to braid all these things together….Zacharias’ song, and Christ the King Sunday, and the goings-on of our distracted world. We often look outside our doors and struggle to see the “liberty, discipline, peace, and harmony” of which Pope Pius XI spoke when he created today’s observance. We run the risk of letting it make us feel frustrated and cynical, angry and upset over all the ways the world seems to have fallen short of those goals. But then we remember Zacharias song, and we are renewed and refreshed by the promise that God’s plan has and always is, in motion, bringing about redemption even when we are too short-sighted to see it. It would be easy for us to look out on a world fractured by inequality, political disagreements, wars, and poverty and wonder to ourselves, just who is king?
To be certain, Jesus does not look like any king we could possibly imagine. He does not use power or wealth to accomplish his goals; he does not have a political or administrative agenda….his authority is not in power-OVER, but in power-WITH. Power-WITH the poor and outcast; the sick and the sinners; the lost and the incarcerated. Power-WITH those helpless and alone. Power-WITH those who have nothing to offer him—no jewels, no castle, no wealth, no authority. Jesus’ Kingly reign begins, not with pomp and circumstance, but first as a vulnerable and needy infant born in a stable.
The King Zacharias prophesies looks nothing like the King we expect, but everything like the King we need. Jesus as King looks like forgiveness in the face of conviction; refuge in the face of abandonment; asylum in the face of fear; justice in the face of corruption. Jesus as King looks like a present and offering grace, calling his people to be sent out to be his reconciling presence in the world. Jesus as King looks like love, and sounds like peace, and feels like hope. He is coming….this King, this “mighty savior for us in the house of his servant, David.”
I imagine you came here this morning, not thinking much about Zacharias or kings or any of that. I imagine you came here this morning worrying about someone who is sick; or mourning someone who is gone. I imagine you came here this morning preoccupied with thoughts of Thanksgiving shopping or looming holiday bills and responsibilities. I imagine you came here this morning anxious over the things you see on the news, or see in your own communities. I imagine you came here this morning with thoughts drifting to conflicts that are unresolved, relationships that are unrequited, hurts that remain unhealed. Yes, I imagine you didn’t come here this morning thinking much of Zacharias or of kings. But I hope that you will leave here thinking of both. Of Zacharias’ unyielding joy in the Gospel truth and in God’s redemptive plan. And of the King, born a Babe in a manger, but come to fulfill the plan of God. Jesus sees us in our distraction and our pain. He knows us in our mourning and in our weakness. Don’t give anxiety and worry more power than you give hope. Remember—who has power-WITH you? The King crowned Lord of all. The one who comes to be a light shining in the darkness calls of us, the same. To show God’s transforming, all-encompassing, all-empowering hope to the world. In our darkness, the dawn will break, and our feet will bring peace. As this year draws to a close and the newness of Advent awaits us, may we live into the waiting, the hoping, the anticipating, the expecting…the love, peace, hope, and joy of a once, now, and forever King. Amen.