We have no King but the Emperor

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Good Friday
April 14, 2017
The Rev. Austin Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls

They are perhaps the saddest lines in scripture, and hit me like a shockwave every time I hear them.

“We have no king but the Emperor.”

The utter rejection of Jesus’ way, the ultimate renunciation of the true light and embrace of the darkness that pretends to be light is now complete.

When I imagine Jesus’ face as those words were spoken, I see a staid and resolute face—eyes welling with emotion.

Everything about him, from his heavenly origin story in John’s prologue, to his miraculous works and illuminating teaching throughout Galilee, to his claims that God’s kingdom could be made real on this earth through intentional acts of love and sacrifice, are rejected in one fell swoop.

Even with his foresight of what was coming, such a response from his people must have stung.

Perhaps more than the whip across his back, and the points of those thorns that pierced his temple and spilled his blood.

Our cry and clamor for the Emperor, instead of for God, is what sends us on a journey not to paradise, but toward a world of crucifixion.

Idolatry.

The great fear of the Hebrew Scriptures.

People loved darkness instead of the light.

John’s central claim at the beginning of his account of the good news.

Whether due to ignorance, or fear, or weakness, or lust for power, we humans have always struggled with the way of God.

We squandered a garden paradise because God’s light wasn’t enough.

We were led out of slavery, and then put our faith in a golden calf of our own making.

We resided in the promised land, and longed for a king to fight our battles so that we would “fit in” with the other nations.

The story of our collective rejection of God is a long one, and one that aligns with this final one in the passion most clearly in 1 Samuel.

Hear these words in light of the Passion:

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah,  and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.”  But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord,  and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you.  Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king.  He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots.  He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.  He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers.  He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers.  He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work.  He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord.  The Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to their voice and set a king over them.”

Israel had its share of bad kings and good kings, Sauls and Ahazes to Davids and Hezekiahs.

But trusting in monarchy and nation, and eventually the Occupying Empire, was always a mistaken choice…tolerated by God at best, but certainly a far cry from what was envisioned at Creation’s outset.

The Empire brings torches and lanterns and weapons into a darkened Garden in order to arrest the Light of the world.

The Empire speaks words that carry the force of the law, while the Son speaks the name of God and sends a shockwave through the crowd.

The Empire deals in violence, betrayal, and intimidation while the Lamb becomes silent and is led to slaughter.

We have no king but the Emperor.

Good Friday is a day we come face to face with just how low we can sink as human beings created in the image of God.

We are forced to acknowledge all the ways we gravitate to the lures of the darkness and the Empire, instead of claiming our place as children of the light.

All the broken places of our world—feuds over political sovereignty, torture and terrorism, the daily dismissals of the poor, the sick, the lame, the unworthy—on this day, we witness that the path of the Empire ends in the crucifixion of the innocent.

Even when the victim today is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

What can be Good about any day in which God is lifted up, mocked, and then murdered?

We have no king but the Emperor.

On that day 2000 years ago, we did all we could to make that claim a final one by crucifying the Light upon the Empire’s altar.

And our tears fall today for that ancient mistake, but more so, for all the many ways in which we still take up the sword, the thorny crown, the nails, and the hammer, and wound the Light in our preference for the ways of the Empire.

The darkness has its say today, and reveals the full extent of its temptations and false promises.

Goodness must be found in the hope that there is something stronger than its pull…something more enduring than its violence…something that even the Empire cannot conquer or crucify.

If there is goodness on this Friday, perhaps it can be found in those brimming eyes of Jesus’, whose only weapon in the face of “We have no king but the Emperor” is love.

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