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Behold Our King: Lent Message 2017

This is the story of Our King. It’s the story of a King unlike any other King. This is the story of King Jesus.

This is the story of how his kingdom came in. It was a coronation, an ascent, unlike any before or since. It was harrowing, confusing, bewildering. In Jesus, all that those who loved him expected seemed to be was working, somehow, in reverse. Those 18 hours in Jerusalem taught us that everything that we thought we knew about kingship was wrong.

This is the story of Our King.

Part I: The Table – Mark 14:12-26

The feast of the Blessed Sacrament is the feast of love. Oh, what great love! What immense charity! The moth is drawn to the light, and burns itself in it. May your soul likewise draw near to the divine light! May it be reduced to ashes in that sacred flame.
St. Paul of the Cross

That night, the King gathered them to his table. Those he loved most joined for a final fellowship.

The guest-list was a different one than most would have expected. The Passover meal, after all, was supposed to be about the family. It was supposed to be about moms and aunts scurrying about with eggs and unleavened bread. Passover was for Papas telling the story of Egypt and the plagues and deliverance through the sea. But blood didn’t bind those at the table.

Think about it: even though Mary was present that night in the city, neither she nor Joseph attended this meal.

Instead, this was a gathering of friends. The Disciples. Jesus and his Twelve. They’d been through so much together; is it possible that this was the King’s new family, his new community?

After they had eaten, Jesus reached back once more for the bread. Bread. The staple of life. Throughout the people’s history, bread had served as a sign of God’s providence for his people. A marker of his faithfulness. Bread was provided for the obedient. The prophet Isaiah had said…

Those who walk righteously, and speak what is right, who reject gain from extortion and keep their hands from accepting bribes, who stop their ears against plots of murder and shut their eyes against contemplating evil—Their bread will be supplied, and water will not fail them.

Bread came for the faithful from the hand of the Father. Remember: there was manna for Israel in the wilderness. There was bread for Elijah when the widow’s oil and flour was miraculously sustained. Jesus himself had multiplied loaves for those who sought his teaching.

Kings partook of bread too. 15 centuries before – but remarkably only a few yards away – a king called Melchizedek brought out bread to celebrate a great military victory with Abraham. For King Melchizedek, bread was about abundance and provision – about the favor of God seen in the outcome of the battle.

It was different for Our King. Jesus said – this bread is my body, broken for you. This bread, on this night, was a bread of affliction. When Jesus spoke of bread, he was not drawing attention so much to a divine blessing as to a curse for sin that would fall upon his very flesh.

Our King didn’t simply eat this bread. Our King became the bread. On this night, God was making his favored one to be bread for the others that they might survive.

After the bread, Our King lifted his cup. The wine. And he connected it to his blood:

“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. “Truly I tell you, I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

In a sense, this meal was already about blood. Passover was only really “passing over” because the blood of a sacrificed lamb was placed on the doorframes of the Hebrews’ houses. That ancient lamb – the innocent one – was given over to death so that others might live.

Here was the revolution at the meal: Jesus didn’t spread the lamb’s blood. Our King bled the lamb’s blood.

And then the King said something else. He said that he would not drink from the cup again until he drank it in the kingdom of God. To the disciples listening there, this would have sounded very much like an oath. In the ancient world, people would make vows not to eat or drink until they had avenged their enemies. Someone else had to die before dinner. Saul made an oath that none of his soldiers could eat until he had attacked the Philistines. A group of men in Ephesus made an oath not to eat until they had killed the apostle Paul.

But Jesus said – I will not eat it until I die! I’ll drink it again, but only after I taste death first.

And then, at that meal, Our King gave his followers a commandment. A new royal decree was issued. To love one another as he has loved us. And how has he loved us? John 13:1 says he loves us to the end, to the uttermost. Jesus loves you to the very end of who you are. To the full force of your sin. To the depths of your despair. To the far side of your anger or bitterness, to the complete measure of your pain.

Jesus loves. And he calls his people to love in the same way. Those who are different, those who are on the other side of our boundaries. Those who we cannot understand. To love past the point of no return. Love one another.

This is Our King. This is our commandment. Let us celebrate in, this, his feast.

Part II: The Garden – Mark 15:32-42

Nowhere [more than Gethsemane] do I marvel so much at His piety and majesty… He who had no reason to grieve for himself grieved for me, and having set aside the delight in Eternal Divinity, he is afflicted by the weariness of my infirmity. For He took my sadness in order to bestow on me His joy.
St. Ambrose of Milan

It’s beautiful, tranquil. It’s growing, refreshing. The garden is filled with life.

Most kings had gardens. Those of Babylon’s mighty ruler Nebuchadnezzar were one of the wonders of the ancient world. In his search for the meaning of life, Solomon afforded himself great gardens in and around his capital.

After his meal, King Jesus retired to the garden near an oil press called Gethsemane. Maybe that should have tipped us off that something was afoot. Because in the pages of scripture,  gardens also often become locations for intrigue. It was to the garden that the serpent entered in order to undermine God’s good world. It was in the garden that the conspiracies of Haman became clear to Esther’s husband Xerxes.

And there was another gardener, too. About 800 years before Jesus. He was a simple man, this gardener. His name was Naboth. His garden, bearing the fruit of the vine, he had received as inheritance from his ancestors. And he was convicted that God wanted it to stay in the family.

That conviction was put to the test when the king of Israel, a man named Ahab, strolled by. No sooner had Ahab set eyes on Naboth’s garden than he was convinced the he needed it for his own vegetable plot.

Ahab offered whatever Naboth wanted. He could name his price, even swap out for a better garden of his choosing. But Naboth said no.

Well, the king, scripture tells us, went into his bedroom, put his face in his pillow, and moped about it. Only when his wife Jezebel told him to man up and act like a king did Ahab get up. He was getting that garden.

With her help, a kangaroo court was drawn up, false charges were made up, and Naboth was set up. The simple gardener, now target of royal rage – was falsely accused of blaspheming God and challenging the King. The case, as artificial and unjust as it was, was nevertheless open and closed. Naboth was taken out of the city and stoned to death to make an example of the fact that might makes right. The king gets what the king wants.

But this isn’t how it goes with Our King. In the Garden, Jesus plays the part not of the King who got what he wanted, but of Naboth, the one who was torn from his garden. Taken away, falsely accused of blaspheming God and challenging the Caesar, then brought out of the city to be executed. A point had to be made.

But before they came for Him, Gethsemane was a tranquil place. A place of prayer. A place where the King’s servants are called to watch with him and pray. Though the hour is late and the eyes get heavy, we are called to stand with our leader. To stand guard for what is just and right. To be with the Naboths of our world, the victims of injustice and power run off the rails.

This world will not allow the King to stay in his garden. Eminent domain says something else belongs here. Jesus has to leave this place. The conflict is inevitable. It will be hard. Our flesh is weak – it will always be. But is your spirit willing?

Part III: The Skull – Mark 15:16-37

Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work. The kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

And then, Our King was brought to the place of death. Some called it Calvary, others called it Golgotha. It was the place of the Skull. The place where the living were delivered into over to the realm of the dead.

Our King went to the Skull. Alone but for his enemies. Jesus went first.

This isn’t supposed to happen with kings. Kings are supposed to be protected. Uriah is sent to the front of the battle, David stays in the palace. Saul stays in the tent, the sons of Jesse must look on Goliath. Despots and emperors stay safely in friendly territory. But not Our King.

Around the world and across history, the brave have died for their rulers. The soldier falls for the Queen. The secret service takes the bullets for the leader. But in the case of Our King, the leader died for the subjects.

It ended at the Skull, but the crucifixion was only the final indignity slapped upon Our King.

Before the lusty soldiers and cruel crowds, Our King had been given the trappings of royalty. But rather than bestow honor upon him, they were emblems of shame. Instead of demonstrate the scope of his rule, these inverted totems mocked and magnified his utter weakness.

His crown – a brutal ring of thorns like those which, in Genesis 3, signified God’s curse upon the world – brought him searing pain rather than prestige. The scepter he was given, a thin reed or a crude staff, did not grant him authority. It was employed to deliver blows to his head. The robe – probably more like a cape or scarf – only highlighted Jesus’ nakedness and shame.

The kingdom was coming. And the King was passing away.

Historically, the announcement of kingship hailed hope for the nation. Around the land, people would celebrate the tidings. But not for Our King. The message of his reign was different. A sign was posted above him, a declaration of his ascension. But this was no victory banner. It did not say “Long live the king!” It said “Here dies the king.”

And then, finally – perhaps mercifully – the King was seated on his throne. It was no ivory chair or iron bench. For his throne Our King was given a blood-stained, dirt-marred cross. The ultimate symbol of Roman power. Vindictive power. Never-to-be-questioned power.

Surely, this wasn’t the first time that Jesus’ eyes had beheld a cross. In fact, some years earlier, another would-be Messiah, a man named Judas the Galilean – was crucified near Nazareth for rising up against Rome. And not just the rebel himself, but 2000 followers with him. The beautiful green hills overlooking the sea would have been littered with the dead. 2000 gallows, declaring the shame of the accused and the control of their overlords. No doubt Jesus saw those crosses as a boy. The message would have gotten through.

Yes, Jesus knew the black fright of crucifixion – he knew its dark power to embarrass, to torment, to destroy. And yet this King went to the front lines himself. And there at the Skull, the King was hoisted up, above his domain.

It was such a scandal, this cross. We can be sure that as the earliest Christians told the story of Jesus, may people would have been drawn in to the story: The worship of foreign dignitaries when he was an infant. The instruction of teachers when he was a child. The stilling of storms, the raising of the dead, the healing of the sick.

But then came the part about cross. This stumbling block, this offense. It was the ultimate symbol of humiliation. Your leader died where? On a Roman cross?

And yet, the story was told – from Galatia to Ephesus, from Colossae to Corinth. From Philippi to Bithynia. To the ends of the world. Yes, Our King was mocked. Yes, he was beaten. Yes, he was tortured. And yes, in all of this, he was coming to reign. He was victorious!

The declaration mattered in each of those places. For even though the sign read “King of the Jews” – it did so in the languages of the world. In Greek, the language of Alexander and Plato, it declared – Jesus is King!  In Latin, the tongue of Cicero and Caesar, it cried – Jesus is King!

The King is dead. Long live the King!

My friends, in all of this, we are being cued, called. We’re being shown what we must be and where we must be. Among our enemies. Testifying to the powers. Humbling our egos. Speaking words of forgiveness and grace to those who do not even know what they do. The cross is a spear; it pierces our ambitions and shatters our pride. The cross is a scaffold; it must be the foundation upon which we build our dreams, our hopes, our communities.

And we do so as loyal to Our King. There he died, between heaven and earth, the only one who could join them together. There he died, his arms stretched to embrace, to reconcile, every person, nation, race, family… every single thing that has been torn apart.

This is Our King. Behold his reign, receive his embrace.

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