Thy Kingdom Come (Christ the King Sunday)
Our scripture begins as a typical synagogue meeting. Synagogue custom then was any adult could preach on the weekly scripture reading. Since Jesus was visiting his hometown, it was only natural he preach. The assigned scripture was Isaiah 61, a messianic prophecy of the coming of God’s kingdom, of redemption and restoration for the Jewish people and the defeat of their enemies. And the start and general thrust of Jesus’ message on Isaiah’s prophecy is: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This scripture vowing justice for the oppressed, freedom for the imprisoned, healing for the sick, relief to the poor… today this scripture promising God will one day put everything back to rights… today that promise is fulfilled.
Close your eyes and picture—if you will—anyone you ever saw grow up from child into full adulthood. Remember the tantrums they threw as a toddler. Recall the moody adolescent years. Think back to those times they totally overhauled their personality or wardrobe as they sorted out what kind of adult they’d be. Remember the communal pride over that young person becoming an adult and striking out on their own. Now imagine that newly-minted adult coming back to your church after a few years away… and declaring they are the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, here to bring about end times and Judgment Day. How would you respond? Alright, open your eyes. If you’re anything like me, and any kid who grew up before your eyes started talking like that… you’d think they were delusional, mentally ill or arrogant. You certainly wouldn’t follow the kid, hailing them as God’s chosen leader for humanity. You changed this kid’s diapers for crying out loud, and now they act all high and holy? No thanks. But strangely enough… when Jesus Christ comes home in scripture today, his hometown believes he’s the messiah-king.
We’re not told all the details of Jesus’ sermon, only how it began. Undoubtedly some hoped the little Jesus they saw grow up had returned to Nazareth to start a messianic revolution to kick out the Romans and reestablish a free Jewish kingdom. Others maybe thought Jesus was rather declaring a jubilee year to forgive debts and serve the needy. Still others perhaps thought Jesus was metaphorical, speaking of them being free already from a certain point of view. We don’t have Christ’s full sermon. But the reaction is fantastic. The people love it. They’re amazed at his gracious words. They ask each other: “Isn’t this Joseph’s boy? How’d the carpenter’s kid get like this? What’s his secret to parenting success?” This congregation hears Jesus’ sermon, and somehow or other, they believe him. They believe Jesus has the divine authority to proclaim God’s kingdom has at last arrived. Yet by the end of this scripture, Jesus is nearly murdered by that same crowd. At this midpoint, this congregation believes in him more than I ever would in their shoes. I could never imagine the Second Coming being a kid I saw grow up, yet these are open to the First Coming being exactly that. Their openness to God… far exceeds my own. Yet in a few verses they’ll try to throw Jesus off a cliff to his death. Why?
Jesus responds to their openness and willingness to believe his messianic claims… with three preemptive rebukes and rebuttals. First Jesus says, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself.” That’s a popular saying of the day that basically means: “Take care of yourself before you preach at me.” So Jesus predicts that—though they’re on his side for now—this crowd may be quick to trivialize his teachings, to brush aside his miracles, to not take him seriously. Jesus’ second rebuke is similar: “And you will say, ‘Do here in your hometown the things we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” Which is to say, Jesus knows this friendly crowd will soon doubt and demand miracles to keep their belief going. But he knows that too would stop satisfying one day and calls them on it. So far, Jesus is just rebutting counter-arguments, which was common in preaching then. So far the congregation is on-board and, if a bit humbled, none too upset or worried. Jesus’ first sermon is great so far.
Which leads to Jesus’ third and final rebuke, the one that nearly gets him killed: “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” Now Jesus is not merely saying you can’t go home again, that you’re always a child in your parents’ eyes. It’s far worse.
Elijah and Elisha—two of Israel’s greatest prophets—didn’t do those famous miracles for the Israelites… but for foreigners. That’s how the Bible tells it, and that’s fine on its own. But Jesus brings up that fact—our greatest prophets did miracles and work among the folks we’d normally hate—in a sermon on God’s kingdom, as he’s announcing that he’s the messiah come to bring about God’s reign. To his synagogue audience, this would be such a slap in the face, such an insult, I find it easiest to explain by re-reading the scripture Jesus preached on, inserting that twist into every line. Here’s that Isaiah 61 scripture Jesus read, with his last rebuke inserted: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me—so far so good—to bring good news to the poor you ignore. God sent me to proclaim release to the captives you’re abusing and recovery of sight to the blind foreigners in our midst. To let the non-believers around you, the pagans who’ve abused our people for centuries… to let those oppressed folk go free. And to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, not only for Israel but for all nations and peoples… even the ones we have good reason to hate.” Jesus took a scripture of messianic hope… and applied it to his listeners’ enemies just as much as to them, said it was good news for the Roman soldiers desecrating their homeland just as much as for them, that Isaiah wasn’t saying that God would smite Israel’s foreign enemies dead but instead make them no longer enemies but friends. The congregation—who again up until this moment were on-board with Jesus’ whole ‘I’m the messiah’ sermon—hears this… and in a rare moment of unity, everyone agrees… to try to throw Jesus off a cliff to his death. Jesus does get away, but still: tough crowd.
Sisters and brothers… there are lessons within lessons in this scripture for us. First, Isaiah reminds us that God’s kingdom is not one where powerful exploit weak but where God’s majesty and might rescue and restore the broken and downtrodden. And Isaiah calls us to live that way, not looking to amass power or favors but to use what we have to build up our neighbors. When you pray the Lord’s Prayer and say “thy kingdom come,” you ask God to free prisoners, heal the sick, bring justice to the poor and oppressed. Because that’s what Isaiah says God’s kingdom is like. Second, Jesus takes that Isaiah scripture and tells his Jewish synagogue audience that the Kingdom of God… is not exclusive to Israel but open to all the world. It opens up the good news of the Bible so that everyone—whether Jewish or Gentile, woman or man, young or old—all may know they are cared for in God’s kingdom. For Christ is not king over some or only for some… but over all and for all’s sakes. All are welcome in God’s kingdom.
But finally, it’s a sobering reminder we too often are that congregation who turned on Jesus. We hear Isaiah’s words, used by Jesus as the rallying cry his messianic mission… and assume they are only for us, for the respectable and likeable people, for the well-behaved and respectable, and turn away the rest. But Jesus points out we cannot contain God’s kingdom, that it’s far more open than we expect. The folks we judge for improper church clothes today may yet be placed ahead of us in God’s kingdom eternally. And Christ frees us from oppression, yes… but he’s also come to free the people we oppress. God’s kingdom is good news for us in our distress or isolation, yes… but it’s also good news for those whom we distress, whom we push aside, whom we reject. Because God’s kingdom is bigger than us and our limits. Because Christ truly came to save and rule over all, not just Israel, not just me and you, but everyone. Amen.
 Among the best modern illustrations of the surprising openness of Christ’s reign is Flannery O’Connor’s Revelation. O’Connor was a southern Catholic novelist who wrote primarily from the 1940s to the 1960s, and while free copies of O’Connor’s Revelation exist online, Wikipedia offers a quick summary here. At the climax of the short story, the protagonist—a well-to-do but deeply prejudiced and prideful southern Christian woman—receives a vision of souls marching into heaven. In that vision, “whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of [slur for black people] in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs” lead the parade into heaven, while “respectable and common-sense” people like herself bring up the rear with shocked and surprised faces. The story ends with the protagonist enraged but ultimately humbled by the realization that Christianity isn’t only for the polite and dignified and that many of those she looks down on will be placed ahead of her in the Kingdom of God.