What makes a good king? A people who are oppressed, occupied by a foreign power, or exiled far from home would seek a king who was strong, capable of battling it out through military prowess. A king who would win. A king who would defeat anyone who stood in his way, and raise his own people up to the status they deserve. The people of God in the Old Testament and of Jesus’ own day wanted such a king – their history had been one of oppression and occupation, of suffering, and exile, subjugated by one foreign power after another. If it wasn’t the Egyptians, it was Assyrians, if it wasn’t the Assyrians it was the Philistines, if it wasn’t the Philistines it was the Babylonians, then the Persians then the Greeks, then the Romans…. What was the point in believing your God was mighty if he let you get beaten up all the time? And how are you supposed to defend a God who seems to spend most of his time failing to defend his own chosen people?
Jesus came as Messiah among a people who had had enough. They had hope, still, that God’s Messiah would finally come, and vindicate his people, that the harsh rule of the Romans would come to an end at last and the chosen people could once again inherit the promise that God made to Abraham, and renewed to his descendants. Jesus came as Messiah, and his miracles hinted at God’s immense power. But it became clearer and clearer that he was not the sort of Messiah that would raise an army and do away with the Romans; in fact, at his own trial he refused to defend himself, and chose instead to live out Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering servant – embracing the suffering of God’s people rather than ending it.
It is no accident that the hilt end of a sword, when turned upside down, resembles a cross. On the cross, Jesus turned upside down all the hopes that had been placed in the Messiah, rejecting the might of the sword, and embracing the suffering of the cross. Even Jesus’ friends found this to be unthinkable, unbearable – Peter denied that any suffering should befall his Lord, while Judas, in all probability colluded with the religious authorities in order that Jesus’ hand might be forced, and he would finally show his true power. Could Judas have ever imagined that Jesus would let his betrayal go so far as death? ‘Save yourself and us,’ the criminal cries, and still Jesus refuses to take cheap and easy fixes, remaining on the cross and sharing with the other criminal a glimpse of a greater victory in the eternal ‘today’ of paradise.
So is it wrong to look to Jesus for salvation in this present age? When we see injustice, and peoples oppressed, is it wrong to urge God to come among us and act on behalf of the downtrodden, the poor, the prisoner? Are we still looking for the wrong kind of salvation?
The answer is both yes and no.
It is ‘yes’, because we can look on Jesus on the cross and see that the salvation he offers is ultimate, it is about eternity, and is not limited to some earthly kind of victory – the sort that Pontius Pilate would have recognised and respected. For us, too, there is a dimension to salvation that is eternal, and we recognise that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. We may place much of our hope, as we watch the news and wonder at the suffering of the world, in the promise of an ultimate redemption, a new heaven and a new earth.
But it is ‘no’, because the here and now also matters. Creation matters. Each and every one (and everything) that God made matters, and where there is injustice and oppression in this world, then this is contrary to God’s will. We pray that God’s kingdom will come, and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven, and that means not only at the end of time but now as well. This world matters, and Jesus’ death and resurrection didn’t just give us hope that when this life is all over things will be better in heaven; rather, in his life and in his death he showed us a way of being fully ‘nailed to the world’ – sowing seeds of the kingdom so that we are not only ready for heaven as individuals when we die, but so that we also make the world more heaven-ready in the process.
The Kingdom of heaven has come near – and it gets nearer all the time when we live as if we belong in it – the values of the kingdom of justice, peace, mercy, love, and the rest are not just for heaven, they are for here and now. And Christ the King isn’t some heavenly Jesus on a throne wearing a golden crown, for Jesus was most clearly revealed as the king as he died on the cross with a crown of thorns on his head – in his death and resurrection, heaven and earth were brought closer than they had ever been, and when we do Christ’s work of standing alongside those who are suffering, heaven and earth meet there again.