(a sermon for November 26, 2017, the 25th Sunday after Pentecost and “Reign of Christ” Sunday; based on John 18:33-37 and Revelation 1:4-8)
Here’s a question for you on which to ponder this morning: when you think of Christ, what kind of image comes to mind? How do you “see” Jesus in your own mind’s eye?
I suspect that many of us, for instance, would see Jesus as a brother or a friend, as one who walks the journey of life with us; sometimes beside us, other times walking ahead, but always talking with us and giving us counsel as we go (that’s always been the kind of image that comes to my mind). But then again, there are those among us who will always turn to the biblical picture of the good shepherd: Jesus as the gentle savior who seeks out the lost and the injured sheep, carrying the wounded and the lame to safety upon his own shoulders. I also know quite a few who prefer the image of Jesus as divine rebel, challenging the authorities of his and every time; who turns the world upside down with his righteous anger and redeeming love, and who calls us to follow him he does so.
There’s Jesus the teacher; Jesus the healer; Jesus who sits with little children gathered around him; and Jesus who himself was this tiny babe wrapped in rags and is sleeping in a manger: so many “personas” of Christ, if you will; so many pictures that help define our relationship with him.
But I wonder… when we think about Jesus, how many of us will come up with the image of a King? It’s not that we’re unfamiliar with the image – after all, before long we’ll all be singing of herald angels giving “glory to the newborn King” – it’s just that given our modern sensibilities, this is one persona with which we might feel a bit uncomfortable. These days, the word “king” conjures up images of childhood fairy tales, on the one hand; or the latest gossip surrounding latter day “royals,” on the other! Moreover, in modern parlance the word “king” often suggests a patriarchal kind of absolute rule: a man of immense power who is unafraid of issuing orders and compelling obedience, which is most definitely not the picture we have of Jesus!
Yet, here it is, a day on the Christian calendar in which we celebrate the Christian confession that Christ is King! Granted, these days we tend toward the more inclusive label of “Reign of Christ” Sunday, but historically and traditionally, this has always been “Christ the King Sunday,” in which the image of Jesus as king is front and center; and not simply king, either, but Jesus as King of the church, King of the nations, “ruler of the kings of the earth,” the name that is above every name: King of Kings and Lord of Lords! Make no mistake here, friends; scripture takes this idea of kingship very seriously; in fact, it can well be argued that a large part of the Biblical story tells of how God answered the cries of his people Israel for a King who would rule them with justice and wisdom, and who would lead them from exile to all glory. But more than just a bit of ancient history, this is about how God answered those cries, and that in the end makes the difference, and it’s why we celebrate. For when the Gospels announce to us that God finally did give Israel, and us, a King, it turns out that this was not the King they expected or wanted, but it was the King they needed.
Jesus, you see, was a different kind of king. This king, writes Roy Berkenbosch, was born of peasant stock and held no claims to a royal pedigree or a legacy of social or military power; but in fact lived with an affection for and an identification with the poor, the least and the lost. “He teaches people to love their enemies, not destroy them,” says Berkenbosch, “to seek endless forgiveness, not endless vengeance. He introduces the law of unconditional love [and] he redefines power by humbly washing the feet of his followers.” He is Jesus the Christ, “and he comes with the announcement that in him, the Kingdom of God has come near, in the midst of us to be received as a gift.”
I will say it again: Jesus comes to us as a King of another kind; the ruler not of a territory, nor of a particular race of people, but a ruler, a sovereign of truth. He is Christ the King, the Messiah, given authority, glory and sovereign power through the God of the Universe; in the eloquent words of Revelation, He “is the Alpha and the Omega,” the beginning and the end, the one “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty,” the one who will reign forever and ever; the one in whom all divided hearts will one day see the truth of the One true and living God.
Or, to put it still another way, Christ rules!
Our gospel reading for this morning, I realize, might feel a little bit out of place this time of year. The passion narrative, from which this passage from John is drawn, seems to be better suited for Lent or Holy Week than right now when we’re just about to embark on the journey of Advent and Christmas! But in fact, this little exchange between Pontius Pilate and Jesus strikes to the very heart of what we’re talking about today. As we pick up today’s passage Jesus, of course, has already been despised and rejected by the authorities, betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter, and abandoned by his disciples; and now he stands before Pilate, whose job as a regional governor for Caesar is to keep the peace in the area and figure out what to do about this man Jesus. The truth, however, is that Pilate couldn’t really find any grounds for the charges made against Jesus; so he starts asking questions, perhaps to find a legitimate reason for a death sentence, or perhaps at the very least to find a loophole to get himself neatly out of this situation!
And so he asks, “Are you King of the Jews?” In other words, who are you really, Jesus? Are you a threat? Are you the leader of some kind of movement that’s going to overthrow our government and mess up the status quo? One thing that I find wonderful about this passage is that Jesus responds to Pilate while not ever really answering his questions: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me… my kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” And then Pilate, no doubt exasperated by a conversation that was seemingly going nowhere, asks, “So you are a king?” To which Jesus says again, “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.” And even then, you’ll notice, Pilate doesn’t get what Jesus is saying to him: in the verse that immediately follows where we read today, Pilate can only respond by saying, “But what is truth?”
What Pilate could not understand, and truly, what we so often fail to see is that Jesus’ kingship can’t be judged by worldly standards; on the contrary, the standards and practices of the world end up being judged by the truth of love that Jesus brings! Everything about our lives – our loyalties and allegiances, our set priorities and the choices we make for ourselves, all the many “empires” of life and the world of which we are a part – all end up coming under the intense scrutiny of this one who is the King of kings! As such he the Lord of life; each and every day of it, with all of its mystery, its wonder and its challenge. His kingdom is one of justice, even when that justice is costly; it is one of love, even and especially when that love is sacrificial; it is one of peace, always and ever standing in opposition usual patterns of power in this world; and it is one of true servanthood, in which taking up the cross is the means to real leadership. It is radical, upside-down, inside out thinking, to be sure, but that’s who Christ is: and he is Christ the King of our present reality, yours and mine.
So the only question that remains, beloved, is this: does Christ rule? Or, let me make this more personal, when it’s all said and done, when it all comes down for you and me, who’s really in charge? Is Jesus Christ the Lord of our lives?
It’s a good and valid question for us to ask; because the truth is that so many of us make the claim that Christ has dominion over our lives even as it’s very clear that our allegiance, not to mention our attention, is somewhere else altogether! I recently read of a Gallup poll done a few years back that reported that while 86% of all Americans consider themselves to be Christian, less than half of those knew who preached the Sermon on the Mount. Likewise, it was reported that while 60% of the country was in church on Easter Sunday that particular year, one out of four people who were in church were unable to say what Easter actually celebrates! Amazing! Have that many of us really let our faith so fade into the background of our lives to have it become little more than yearly tradition and the occasional pomp and circumstance? Is it true that we are so divided by all the many allegiances of daily lives – social, political, economic, even spiritual – that we’ve ignored the one allegiance that really matters?
I pray that we not allow this to happen! The Rev. Wiley Stephens, a Methodist pastor and writer, says that the true challenge of the kingdom is “to let God be God… in you; to let God be God… in your church; to let God be God… in your neighborhood; to let God be God… in your job, in your family, and… in your world.” For our lives to have true meaning and purpose; indeed, for our world to garner the love and peace that it so hungers for, we need to acknowledge just exactly who’s really in charge; who truly and wholly rules our lives! We need to be asking ourselves what God wants us to do – with our days, with our lives, with our families, with our community, with our church, with our world – and we need to be listening to Jesus, who the Lord of our very lives, for the answers. For it is in the power of his rule that we experience his kingdom in our midst.
Friends, this seems to me to be of particular importance now as we come to the close of this year’s celebration of Thanksgiving Day and run headlong into the Advent and Christmas seasons. After all, what does this time of the year seek to bring to us if not an increased awareness of God’s abundance through the ages, a sense of his power and presence in this moment, and the declaration that God will also be with us in the future that has yet to unfold. Holiday traditions and family gatherings make us nostalgic about past blessings, but, ideally they should also raise in us a great sense expectation of God’s loving activity in what’s to come. Pontius Pilate, for all his power and prestige, could not begin to see that; even as God’s greatest activity, the gift of his Son and our Savior, stood helplessly before him, Pilate could he could not see the greater truth of God’s plan.
My prayer for all of us today in the busy season that’s unfolding before us is that we not miss that truth – God’s truth – and that in all the comings and goings of our lives, in and through the celebrations and the sorrows, today and in all of our tomorrows, we will recognize and affirm by our very lives that Christ rules over us and over all.
Rejoice, dear friends! The Lord is King!
And for this and so much more, thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry