Jer 23.1-6, Luke 23.33-43
Today is the last Sunday of the Christian year, the end of that long story which encompasses Christ’s birth, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension. It is the feast of Christ the king, when we think about the reign of God in our lives now and in the world to come, when we ask ourselves what a good ruler should look like, what it means to have power and use it well.
It’s a good week, as it happens, to be thinking about kingship. In fact it’s been hard to escape all things royal, what with a certain engagement dominating the news. Whatever we think of all the hysteria that seems to surround royal weddings – and I’m fed up with it already – we can’t fail to be happy on a human level for two people who have found love and want to make a commitment to each other. But mixed in with that happiness, I think many people – myself included – feel an undercurrent of anxiety for this particular couple because of all the expectations which will inevitably be thrust upon them. One newspaper article I saw this week was headed, “Does Kate know what she’s doing?” Marriage is always a journey into the unknown, of course, but we all know this one will have more challenges than most.
Ancient Celtic and Germanic tribes sometimes had what was called a Tannist king, who was appointed for a fixed period – usually a year – and then killed off by his subjects as a human sacrifice to the gods; they believed the giving of his life force strengthened the tribe. It seems horrendously barbaric and wasteful to us, but when I look at the way the Royal family is sometimes treated, I wonder whether that urge to set someone up on a pedestal so that you can later knock them off again has really ever gone away. There’s a sense in which we still sacrifice our monarchs; it’s just that now we do so to the gods of public opinion instead.
Power is a strange thing. People will manoeuvre and scheme to climb to the top of the heap, but when they get there, the reality is often not as attractive as it looked. It brings with it responsibilities that can soon start to feel burdensome; all eyes are on you, the buck stops with you, you are the one everyone blames when things go wrong. No wonder so many leaders try to ignore those responsibilities and just take the power on its own. Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Hitler – the list is endless of those who ruled by stamping the life out of those beneath them.
The complicated nature of power featured in both our readings tonight. Jeremiah denounces the leaders of Israel, who have cared only for themselves. They have scattered the sheep and left them vulnerable, and the result has been disaster. Jeremiah was writing around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, and the exile of its people –he knew whereof he spoke. But God, their true king, hadn’t forsaken them. He promised to raise up a new leader, one worthy of the name. That was a promise which the people cherished and dreamed of, not only through the exile, but long afterwards too. Though they came back to their own land, they were still ruled by foreign powers, subject to the whims of tyrants, and they longed for the arrival of a Messiah who would deliver them.
Christians believe that Jesus fulfilled that promise, but you have to admit that, from tonight’s reading at least, you wouldn’t pick him out as Messiah material. He hangs on the cross under a sign which proclaims him the “king of the Jews”, but it is an ironic title, a reminder from Pilate that anyone who thinks they can rival the rule of Rome will be brutally set right. It is hard for anyone to see in this battered, dying man, anything that resembles a king, someone who will enable his people to “live in safety” as Jeremiah put it. He can’t even protect himself, something which the bystanders take cruel delight in pointing out.
And yet , there is one man – even here - who recognises his power and authority. The thief who hangs beside him realises that here is someone – the only one – who loves him enough to come to the place where he is, not because he must but because he chooses to. He exercises his power by laying it down for the sake of others. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” – says the thief. To have a kingdom, you have to be a king, and that is who Jesus is for him. Jesus’ love has transformed his life, enabled him to see himself truly, even at this late hour, given him hope for the future. The power to heal the human heart is surely a far greater power than that of any despot, no matter how many armies he has at his disposal. You can conquer by force, but you can only really change someone for the better by love.
Tonight in the silence, then, let’s think of rulers, the burdens they bear and the temptations they face. Let’s think of our own power and how we use it. And let’s remember Christ, the king of love, who laid down his life that we might fully live.