Signs of the King

By Brown, Rosalind | The Christian Century, November 11, 1998 | Go to article overview

Signs of the King


Brown, Rosalind, The Christian Century


Psalm 46; Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:35-43

WE ALL HAVE our own ideas of what royalty is. When I was about eight, the queen visited the town in the south of England where I lived. Thousands of people packed into a sports stadium and children sang and danced for her. I came away certain that the queen was a special person who liked children. If I say "king" to an American and ask for a definition, most reply, "male ruler," whereas a British person nearly `always answers, "monarch." The difference lies in experience--Britain has had female monarchs for most of the past 160 years.

We also know what royalty should look like. Princess Anne's work with the Save the Children Fund takes her around the world. There was a problem in one place in Africa: the children did not believe she was a princess because she wasn't dressed properly. Once she put on a tiara and a long dress they were sure they had a proper princess in their midst.

In fact, none of our ideas reflect God's concept of kingship (human or divine) completely. We are not alone in this. In Jeremiah's time the people's understanding of kingship was tainted by human kings who had led them to the point of imminent destruction and deportation. God spoke of the kings as shepherds who had failed to care for their people. Would a nation scattered and destroyed, left uncared for and afraid, even want God to raise up another shepherd or king for it? Could the people welcome a righteous king?

When we come to Christ the King Sunday, we have to acknowledge that we bring cultural baggage with us. But what happens if we lay our preconceptions to one side and let the readings tell us what a king is?

Things begin well. Psalm 46 is not one of the royal psalms that exalt in a human king. Instead, our model for kingship is God. The psalm exhorts us to praise the God who is our refuge and strength, our very present help, our stronghold. God rules creation, and nothing the world, the nations, the warriors or politicians do will unseat or unsettle this Lord of Hosts and God of Jacob--ruler of both heaven and earth. These are kingly words of power and might, authority and action. This is a king as we imagine a king should be.

But this image jars with the scene of shame and powerlessness in Luke, who describes the death of the Son of God, the King of the Jews. Luke gives us a lexicon of abuse and humiliation: criminals, condemnation, emcifixion, nakedness, scoffing, mocking, taunting, deriding, reviling, sneering ... Hardly the stuff of kingship, and no crowns here except one of thorns. The jubilation of Psalm 46 is gone, and we are face to face with agony and grief, and a cacophony of insults instead of songs and praise. …

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