A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on November 25, 2012.
4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. 8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
On Christ the King Sunday we celebrate the all-inclusive authority of Jesus Christ as Lord and King of the universe. Within the liturgical Christian calendar, Christ the King Sunday occurs on the last Sunday of Ordinary Time, the Sunday before Advent.
The Christian perspective affirms that God’s messiah has been sent to deliver the entire universe (“cosmos”) from the oppressive power of sin and death. We recognize Jesus Christ as God’s designated Lord and King of the universe. Christ the King Sunday is set aside on the liturgical calendar to reaffirm the conviction among Christians that Jesus is our absolute ruler, our monarch, our King.
That presents several challenges. Chief among them is that most people nowadays aren’t familiar with the idea of monarchy. Bahrain and Cambodia, Denmark, Japan, and Jordan, Norway, Spain, and Saudi Arabia, Swaziland, Thailand, and the United Kingdom are some of the twenty-six nations currently being ruled by monarchs. Few among us can name the people who rule them, let alone accurately characterize how they are ruling.
Most educated people in western societies can name Queen Elizabeth as monarch of the United Kingdom. But aside from tabloid reporting about the royal family, few people know very much about that monarchy.
Most people recognize the wealth and influence of Saudi Arabia. But few among us can name its ruler—King Abdullah. We are even less familiar with other monarchs around the world.
Furthermore, over the centuries, humans learned to distrust concentrated power in one person. Public reaction to the decree last Thursday by President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt claiming broad powers above any courts is the latest example of this distrust. The prevailing preference for democratic government reflects that distrust of the idea that anyone is trustworthy to be absolute ruler of even a city, let alone the whole creation. Even if history has shown we aren’t good at it, we’re more comfortable believing we can govern ourselves.
And among people who consider themselves religious conservatives, the idea of Jesus as Lord and King is often given more lip service than anything else. Each of the Gospel accounts of the ministry of Jesus document his concern for suffering people. Despite that record, people who self-identify as Bible-believing “evangelical Christians” are some of the most outspoken opponents of publicly-funded services for people who are needy, elderly, disabled, immigrants, and otherwise oppressed.
We shouldn’t be surprised that the secular world questions the authority of Jesus when people who publicly claim to be his devoted followers openly denounce paying taxes to provide education for children, care for the sick and elderly, food for the hungry, and welcome for strangers. This is why Christians need at least one Sunday to reflect on what Jesus as “Christ” means for us and for our living in the world.
Christ is a royal title, not a surname. Belief in a Deliverer who will liberate people from oppression and rule them with justice and mercy is found throughout the Old Testament, beginning with God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis and continuing with Moses in the story of the Exodus. The prophet Samuel warned the Hebrews about demanding a king and reminded them that God alone deserved that authority. His counsel and warnings were rejected. The Hebrews eventually learned the sad lesson that people who share your history can be oppressive in the same ways that oppression is inflicted by people from different backgrounds and cultures.
But that didn’t stop the prophets from talking about a messiah—an anointed Deliverer from God—to deliver them from political oppression. If anything, the prophetic message that God would provide a messiah became the enduring hope for Hebrew people whether they lived under Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, or Roman rulers. The prophets preached about and the people hoped and waited for the messiah, the anointed Deliverer from God. The Greek equivalent for the Hebrew word mashiah (meaning anointed) is Christos.
Jesus was born son of Joseph and Mary. He was called Jesus, son of Joseph, from birth to adulthood. Christ was not his surname. As news of his preaching and healing ministry spread throughout the Palestinian regions of Judea and Galilee, people began contemplating whether Jesus might be the messiah—God’s promised Deliverer. After John the Baptist publicly proclaimed him to be sent from God, some of John’s followers began following Jesus. Peter eventually acknowledged Jesus as “the Christ” in the passage we find at Matthew 16:13-20.
But even some of his closest followers thought Jesus would be a political deliverer who would overthrow the Romans and return Palestine to its former glory as a nation-state. After he began talking about being crucified, some of those followers left Jesus. The rest scattered as soon as Jesus was arrested. Their concept of the Christ didn’t contemplate him being lynched by the Romans.
Despite this history, Christians recognize Christ as the royal title ascribed to Jesus as God’s anointed Ruler. To be a follower of Jesus as the Christ means more than paying lip service to his teachings or acknowledging him as a noble character in human history. It means we believe that God has provided the world and universe with a Ruler who deserves our absolute loyalty.
Today’s passage from Revelations is centered on the authority of Jesus the Christ. Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. Being a follower of Jesus Christ involves accepting Jesus as Lord, King, and Ruler.
That’s what we mean when we sing “He is Lord.” We profess that the authority of Jesus trumps that of every other potentate and power except that God. We hold that the kingdoms of this world must someday defer to the kingdom of God ruled by Jesus Christ. Until that time, we deliberately and unapologetically follow the authority of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is our Lord, King, and Ruler. We are his faithful subjects. That is what we mean by calling ourselves “Christians.”
Jesus is our incomparably subversive Ruler. The Biblical image of God’s Deliverer is fundamentally subversive, whether one considers it from the secular or religious perspective. Jesus shows up in Scripture born to impoverished parents who eventually are forced to seek exile in Egypt. Jesus led no army, sought no political office, and even refused to allow his closest followers to tell anyone he was God’s Deliverer. That alone was subversive, as every ruler in human history has craved public acclaim.
Although his early followers viewed him as God’s Deliverer and Ruler, Jesus always ordered them not to reveal that to anyone else. When Joseph Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, asked Jesus “if you are the Messiah, the Son of God,” before the Sanhedrin Council the night before Jesus was crucified by the Romans, Jesus gave an evasive answer, saying “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” [Matthew 26:63-64]. Jesus knew who he was, but didn’t go around advertising his title.
Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea who later questioned Jesus, had no interest in Jewish theology. His question to Jesus was, “Are you the King of the Jews?” [Matthew 27:11; John 18:33]. Jesus responded, “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.” [John 18:36]. Pilate then asked, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “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.” [John 18:37] Then Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” [John 18:38].
Pilate wasn’t concerned about the theological debate surrounding Jesus. As the governor, his only concern was whether Jesus posed a threat to the Roman Empire and rule of the Caesar. So when Jesus was crucified, the charge that Pilate ordered to be inscribed on his cross read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” [John 19:19].
Jesus was crucified by the Romans for being a political subversive, a threat to Roman rule. He was handed over to the Romans by his fellow Hebrews, religious authorities who considered him a moral and religious subversive.
However, Jesus is more than stylistically subversive. The kingdom Jesus came to rule isn’t defined by ethnic, geographic, tribal, or linguistic borders. Jesus came to rule the other-worldly kingdom of our hearts. He came to deliver us from being slaves to our own desires and the self-centered desires of other people and make us servants to the will of God. He is the incomparably subversive King of the most subversive Kingdom in history.
And as the passage from Revelations declares, Jesus even holds the authority of rule in an incomparably subversive way. Every other human ruler depends on some type of force as the basis for exercising authority over others. But we are reminded that Jesus Christ, the “ruler of the kings of the earth,” claims authority in a much different way. “To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.
I dare you to find a more subversive basis for authority than love. Search the histories of the world, but you won’t find a ruler who is content to be the friend to the people being ruled. You will find rulers who sacrificed the lives of others to gain power, but you won’t find another ruler who laid down his own life to become king.
This incomparably subversive quality of our king is why Christians sing:
There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus. No, not one! No, not one! None else could heal all our soul’s diseases. No, not one! No, not one!”
No friend like him is so high and holy, No, not one! No, not one!
And yet no friend is so meek and lowly, No, not one! No, not one!
There’s not an hour that He is not near us, No, not one! No, not one!
No night so dark but his love can cheer us, No, not one! No, not one!
Did ever saint find this friend forsake him? No, not one! No, not one!
Or sinner find that He would not take him? No, not one! No, not one!
Was ever a gift like the Savior given? No, not one! No, not one!
Will he refuse us a home in heaven? No, not one! No, not one!
Jesus knows all about our struggles, He will guide till the day is done;
There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus, No, not one! No, not one!
Because he loves us, Jesus is Lord and King. Because he died to deliver us from our addiction to ourselves, Jesus is Lord and King. Because God raised him from the grave, Jesus is Lord and King. Kings and kingdoms will all pass away. Presidents and their administrations will come and go. But not so for our King and Lord!
A King must rule. Thus, the King of Kings rules us. A King must lead. So, the King of Love leads us in the life of divine love. The Prince of Peace directs us. The Lord of Life has given us new life as God’s people. The Name above every other Name has called us to be his people. As servants of Christ, we live to love God with all our hearts and love one another as we love ourselves. We acknowledge Jesus as the King of peace, love, joy, patience, kindness, gentleness, justice, and hope because he is God’s Christ.
He is God’s Christ. Call his name. Jesus! Jesus is Lord! Jesus He is God’s King for us. Jesus is God’s Deliverer who came to free us from every vestige of sin and death! Jesus is God’s King to us and for us!
What about us, you say? We obedient and thankful servants of the King of King and Lord of Lords. We are the subversive agents of the grace God has revealed through him. Following Jesus the Christ, we love. Following Jesus the Christ, we hope. Following Jesus the Christ, we are agents of divine liberation so people oppressed by sin and death everywhere will be delivered from that oppression to live as holy instruments of God’s glory.
As servants of King Jesus, we face the trials and struggles of life from the liberation perspective that that God delivers. God brings people out. God overthrows the powerful and brings down the proud. God lifts the oppressed. God does make a way. And so we live out that spiritual. Ride on, King Jesus, no man can a-hinder me. Ride on, King Jesus, ride on. No man can a-hinder me, no man can a-hinder me, no man can a-hinder me. Ride on, King Jesus. Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.