I missed you guys last week! But on Christ the King Sunday, I know you had a wonderful message from a wonderful pastor and friend, Rev. Jim Cummings. I rather envy that he got to preach on that particular Sunday, for of all the Sundays there is no ambiguity about it at all. The main point, the one point, the most important point is that Christ reigns as King. This Sunday as we enter the advent season, the point is the same – Christ reigns as king. Christ who entered our world in such a surprising way, who lived in an ordinary family, who taught and healed and ministered for three short years, who died a criminal’s death, who broke the bonds of death and rose from the grave, and who ascended into heaven, rules and reigns as our king forever. And one day every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
But you have to admit –that at first, things just don’t appear all that royal in the birth and life of this king. This kingdom isn’t what we expect of royalty. Baby Jesus and his parents are not chauffeured around in black Cadillac Escalades, there is not secret service guarding this king, no paparazzi hovering around, no palace or mansion. No, you might say this is the upside-down kingdom. But, make no mistake, the kingdom is real, the lordship of Christ is real, the majesty and glory are real. Christ reigns forever as king. But that is not how it first seems.Everything is upside down. The king is a tiny baby, born under inauspicious circumstances, forced to flee as a refugee – born, lived, died, and resurrected into a kingdom that at first doesn’t even appear to be a kingdom.
Yet the birth of Christ occurs in a time dominated by the Roman Empire, with its coercive military presence and its equally coercive tax system under the royal power of “Caesar.”The hope of Israel is that the Messiah will establish an earthly kingdom to defeat the power of Rome. In our Christmas songs, and in scripture we hear a lot of royal language used to describe this kingdom. And in the larger drama of the Gospel, King Jesus takes issue with the royal power of Rome and subsequently with every regime of power (including ours) that imagines it is ultimate and absolute. But, the earthly reign of King Jesus is upside down; it fits no conventional royal expectation. At its most basic it is revolutionary and subversive against every repressive regime. It is a kingdom in which the first, Jesus said, will be last. Those who lose their life will find it.
Does anyone here like pineapple upside down cake? You put all the good stuff in the bottom of the skillet – the butter and brown sugar, the pineapple rings and the maraschino cherries and then you cover it all up with cake batter. As it bakes it doesn’t look like much – just plain old cake. You don’t see all of the good stuff,because it’s upside down, all of the richness is out of sight. But when it’s all done and you take it out of the oven and flip it over onto a cake plate,you have this beautiful, and amazingly rich unexpected delight.
And so the kingdom Christ reigns over is a bit like a pineapple upside down cake kingdom. It is so very different from the expected; it doesn’t look like any other kingdom. It seems quite plain, simple even, until you dig deeper and find it is incredibly rich and full of goodness.
Our passage today from Isaiah is probably familiar to most of you. It’s interesting to know a little something about the passage itself. In the 8th century BCE when these words were written, they most likely were meant to herald the birth of a new royal prince, or coronation of a new king in Judah, probably Hezekiah. Either case, would be an occasion for celebration and anticipation of the possibility of better things to come –well-being, peace, and prosperity – and hope. The intent of the passage is later seen to point to the expected Messiah. The early church heard the promise and saw it fulfilled in Jesus. We hear these words as a proclamation of Jesus Christ. The passage features prominently in Handel’s Messiah, that great soaring work that is most known for the Hallelujah chorus. In each case, the proclaimed birth is a reason for celebration and for hope.
When I hear this passage, it brings forward a deep emotion – it is like my inner self has known all along about this child born as a light shining in deep darkness. This baby with the great big names –Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace – and my soul responds with a deep sense of joy and wonder. I want this to all be true –the greatness and peace of this government – that knows no end. The truth of this upside-down kingdom, gives me hope.
So what we learn from Jesus as our Wonderful Counselor goes beyond our conventional assumptions. Even as a child, Jesus astonishes everyone by his wisdom. Luke 2 tells us this, “the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him…And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. (Luke 2:40,52) And as an adult, people asked: “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!” (Mark 6:2) Jesus is extraordinary in his discernment. But then, the notion of his wisdom is seen by some as foolishness; particularly those who are challenged by him. Yet, we know that “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.” (1 Cor 1:25a)
Jesus is also, extraordinary or wonderful in his teaching because he exhibits an authority unlike others of his time. Again, as a child it was said of him, “All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished.” (Luke 2:47-48)But his teaching contradicts all usual assumptions. It is against ancient and modern day patterns of abuse and exploitation. It is subversive. Those who hear him are astounded. What he has to say is unusual and it often represents a threat to conventional learning and power. Take for example, the story of the Good Samaritan in which the good guys are bad guys and the bad guys are the good guys. (Luke 10:25-37) Or the story of the workers who came late and received equal pay (Matt 20:1-16). Or the story of the prodigal son. (Luke 15:11-32) Each of these contradicts our conventional understandings. His teaching opens new possibilities. And no earthly regime wants this for it overrides and displaces all present power arrangements.
The world today is still in turmoil. There is still oppression and political maneuvering. Those in power continue to fight tooth and nail to stay in power. There are political regimes that use their power to wipe out anyone who seems to be defiant, rebellious, or different. There are wars and rumors of war. Things are not all that different. Yet, Jesus as Wonderful Counselor gives us so much hope. This past week our youth group boys did a project of packing food bags for the homeless, which were then given to the Samaritan Project to distribute. Thank you to Doug and Sarah Dorgan for purchasing supplies and organizing the project. We set everything out and they filled the bags assembly line style – 50 bags for 50 hungry people. Then we read on of Jesus’ revolutionary teachings. The one that says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink…” to which the righteous answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?…And the king answers them,“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family , you did it to me.” We talked about how doing kindness or caring for others, especially the down-hearted, is the same thing as doing it for Jesus.One of the students wisely said, “I think there is some of Jesus in each of us.” What a hopeful thing to say!
For Jesus is our Wonderful Counselor, our savior. He is a promise of hope to the nations. He is the light bringer, he is the chainbreaker, he is the one we long for. And he is the one who calls us. For Jesus invites his followers then and now to continue his revolutionary mission. He invites us to become a part of his upside-down kingdom; the one where hope lives. And as we recognize the Christ in each of us, we realize that we can follow Christ and that we can share the hope we have been given in him. We share it when we pack a bag of food for someone, we share it when we come together as a congregation to feed the community, we share it when we notice someone else’s humanity, when we listen to someone’s story, when we pray for our world, and in countless other ways
Something meaningful happens. Something greater,something that touches a deep need in all of us. It might look plain on the top but then we dig deep we find it is rich beyond belief – this upside-down kingdom. And the richest part of all is our Wonderful Counselor, Jesus, our Lord, our Savior, our King!