When I was a small child, I was very fond of fairy tales and deeply regretted the fact that I lived in a country led by a president rather than a king.  Kings and queens sounded so much more glamorous than senators and representatives and presidents.  And since “princess” was right up there with “ballerina” in terms of my juvenile career aspirations, I was deeply disappointed by the lack of young royals in America who could pluck me out of my status as a commoner and elevate me to life in a palace.

As you might guess, my childish understanding of the monarchy was long on fantasy and short on reality. While I knew that kings (at least in the old days) had unlimited power of life and death over their subjects, in my imaginary world, all kings were benevolent, always looking out for their subjects’ welfare and making sure everyone in their kingdom was happy.

Now, it is easy to chuckle at my naïveté, and yet, my understanding of what a  king should be was not all that far from the vision of a good monarch that King David describes in this morning’s reading from Second Samuel, Chapter 23:

The spirit of the LORD speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue.  The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me: One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.

In ancient times, it was not uncommon for people to equate the sun with the divine.  So, comparing an earthly king to the sun imparted to the king the blessing of the gods (or, in the case of ancient Israel, the Lord God), acknowledging a king’s glory and power. Just as the sun brings light and warmth to the earth, causing new life to spring forth at planting time and ripening those shoots into a fruitful harvest, so a good king uses his power to help his people flourish.

And David obviously feels he has been a good king since he asks, Is not my house like this with God? For he has made me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure.  Will he not cause to prosper all my help and my desire? Surely the author of 2 Samuel feels that David has been a good king when he describes him as the man who God exalted, the anointed of the God of Jacob, the favorite of the Strong One of Israel.

Of course, the irony in these words of David is that they seem to be a classic case of “Do as I say, not as I do” for David’s reign had certainly not been just and benevolent at all times. Even though David wanted God to be faithful to his promise that there would always be a descendant of David on the throne of Israel, David had not always been faithful to his God or to his people.  And so when David asks, Is not my house like this with God,” the answer is “Not always.”

David’s reign included adultery, murder and a deadly conflict with a rebellious son.  And while David may have hoped that his words would serve as an inspiration for those kings who would follow him, his own son – Solomon – was far more interested in using his people as servants than he was in serving his people.  In fact, as the books of First Samuel through Second Kings relate the story of Ancient Israel’s monarchy, there is constant tension between the ideal of the Lord’s everlasting covenant with the house of David, who would rule in justice and mercy, and the reality of what actually happened during the reign of most of the kings of Israel and Judah.

But then, that has been the way of kings throughout most of history.  Human beings have always had a tough time exercising power wisely, justly, and mercifully.  Because we tend to see power as something that has to be grasped, our tendency is to do whatever is necessary to hold onto whatever power we have.  This was certainly the case for Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea during the time of Jesus’ ministry.  As Rome’s representative in the region, Pilate had only one goal: to keep Judea firmly under Rome’s control so that the income stream from the area would continue flowing to Rome.

So, when the Jewish religious authorities – Jesus’ opponents – came to him and asked him to charge Jesus with treason, Pilate took notice.  Pilate was fine with the Jews having their own king, as long as that king was like Herod up in Galilee, someone who was not even truly Jewish and who was eager to dance to whatever tune Rome piped. But Judea was always a challenge for Rome – that was why it was ruled directly by Rome, rather than through a puppet Jewish king – and if this upstart Jew truly thought he could mount a rebellion and overthrow Pilate, then he needed to be stopped in his tracks.

So, Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews,” and Jesus answers, ‘”Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”  And at this answer, Pilate becomes exasperated.  He could not care less about internal squabbles in the Jewish community, but this seems to be more than a typical in-house conflict.  We can just imagine Pilate throwing up his hands as he snaps, I’m not a Jew, am I?  Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me.  What have you done?

Jesus answers that his kingdom is not from this world and that Pilate should realize this by the fact that Jesus’ followers are not fighting for his release.  But Pilate can only hear that word “kingdom” and so asks again, So, you are a king? And Jesus says, You say that I am a king.  For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

Now, this may seem like a strange story to read on the final Sunday of the Church Year. Doesn’t the story of Jesus before Pilate make more sense during Lent?  In fact, we read it on Good Friday, so why does it show up in the assigned readings for today? We read this story today because this is the Sunday that is designated as Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday, and we need to read this story to remind ourselves of what kind of King Christ is – and what kind of king Christ is not.

In Pilate’s world, kingdoms grew through conquest, the skilled application of  military might, and were ruled by men who used those armies to keep their subjects firmly under control.  Oppression and exploitation were prime political tools, and no nation who had been conquered by another expected anything else.  Thinking of Christ as this kind of king is what eventually led the Church to forced conversions and Christian imperialism.  This was the mindset behind the horrors of the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition.  And, unfortunately, this is still the mindset of too many Christians today who want to impose Christianity on the broader culture. But this is not how Christ described his kingship.

When I think of Christ as king, the description that immediately comes to mind is the words sung by Melchior, one of the characters in the lovely Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors. This opera, originally written for children, tells the story of a poor widow and her young son, who is disabled. The wise men, who are portrayed as three kings, stop overnight at the widow’s home and in a moment of desperation and worry over her child, the mother tries to steal some of the gold that the wise men are taking to the Christ child.  She is caught in the act, but instead of punishing her, King Melchior sings:

Oh woman, you can keep the gold.

The Child we seek doesn’t need our gold.

On love, on love alone

He will build his kingdom.

His pierced hand will hold no scepter.

His haloed head will wear no crown.

His might will not be built on your toil.

Swifter than lightning

He will soon walk among us.

He will bring us new life

and receive our death.

And the keys to his City

belong to the poor.

After interviewing Jesus, Pilate concluded that he had nothing to fear from this man, and only agreed to his crucifixion since it seemed like the easiest way to keep the peace with the religious leaders in Judea.  But while Jesus did not pose any threat of insurrection to Pilate, he was actually more dangerous to Pilate’s world than Pilate could ever have imagined.  Because the kingdom of God has one purpose: to transform this world and restore God’s good creation.

Brutal rulers control their people through fear. But God’s kingdom is not like earthly reigns since it is built not on fear but on love, and Jesus was telling people that, ultimately, they belonged not to Rome, not to Pilate, not to Herod but to God – whom they were to love with all their heart, all their mind, all their soul, and all their strength.

Now, you may have noticed that in today’s worship service, only one of the hymns has to do with Christ the King – the others are hymns of Thanksgiving.  This choice was partly because some of you may not be able to attend the Thanksgiving Eve service on Wednesday, but also because I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about Christ the King Sunday.

Unlike Christmas or Easter or Pentecost, which have been around for centuries, Christ the King Sunday is less than one hundred years old.  Pope Pius XI instituted Christ the King Sunday in 1925 in response to the rise of secularism in the West and of Communism in Russia and fascism in Germany and Italy.  He wanted to make the point that for Christians, there is only one true ruler: Christ, the King.

Originally, Christ the King Sunday took place on the last Sunday in October, which for Protestants is Reformation Sunday. But during the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, the date of Christ the King was changed to the final Sunday after Pentecost, the last Sunday of the church year. So, this is not an ancient church observance, but it is not only its lack of ancient roots that bothers me, but how easily we misunderstand what is meant by Christ as King.  For centuries, Christians have been more likely to remake Christ in the image of earthly kings than to remake monarchies in the image of Christ.

And the reading from Philippians that is serving as our Affirmation of Faith today could seem to reinforce that idea, when it says that “every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Christ is Lord.” But we need to recognize that these words describe not a theocracy where everyone has been forced to become a Christian, but God’s realm announced by Jesus which transcends all political entities – a realm that is so just and compassionate that people will willingly fall to their knees in gratitude.  And we also to remember that this passage ends by saying “to the glory of God the Father,” which reminds us that even Christ, whom we call King, constantly pointed beyond himself to God, whom he called Father.

In fact, since Jesus consistently refers to God as Father, I wonder if we might be more accurate in describing God’s beloved community less as a kingdom than as a kindom. Jesus called God “Father” not to say that God is male, but to affirm our relationship with the Creator and with each other. For Christ the King is also Christ the Son and Christ our Brother.  As we say each time we conduct a baptism, “In Jesus Christ, God… has joined us together in the family of faith which is his church.

He has delivered us from darkness and has transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.  In Jesus Christ, God has promised to be our Father, and to welcome us as brothers and sisters in Christ.” If we are Christ’s brothers and sisters, then we are not simply God’s subjects, or even citizens of God’s kingdom, we are God’s family and God’s heirs – heirs of love and grace and mercy.

Because we have not had a king in this country for almost 250 years, it is easy on Christ the King Sunday to fall into the same kind of idealized, sentimental approach to monarchy that I indulged in as a child, the same fantasy that ancient Israel held when they begged the Lord to give them a king who would fight their battles for them and take care of them.  But worldly kings are seldom like Good King Wenceslas, and worldly kings have never been the model for Christ as King.

And yet, Christ modeled perfectly, fulfilled in all respects, the king that David described in his last words: one whose reign is indeed like the sun, shining forth into the darkest of corners, and bringing light and life to all it encounters.  And this is the kind of king we can trust with our hearts and with our lives.  Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.  Amen.