A sermon delivered by Jim Somerville, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va., on November 25, 2012.
Christ the King Sunday
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “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.” Pilate asked him, “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” (NRSV).
The Christian calendar is a little different than the regular calendar. Instead of the new year starting on January 1 it starts on the First Sunday of Advent. That Sunday is next Sunday, which means that this Sunday is the last one on the Christian calendar. We call it, “Christ the King Sunday.” How do we celebrate? We look back over the past year as if we were looking through the pages of a photo album. We remember the hanging the green in this sanctuary and lighting the candles on the Advent wreath one by one as we waited for the coming of Christ. We remember celebrating his birth at the Christmas Eve service, holding up our lit candles and singing “Silent Night.” We remember the story of the Wise Men, and Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, and his preaching, teaching, and healing in Galilee. We remember his long, slow journey to the cross and the pain he suffered there. But we also remember Easter Sunday, singing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today!” at the top of our lungs. And in the months that follow we talk about how the ministry of the risen Lord goes on. So when we get to this last Sunday of the Christian year it seems only appropriate to put Jesus on a throne, to crown him with many crowns, to sing the Hallelujah Chorus and say, “If we ever had any doubts before those doubts have disappeared! This really is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords!” Here, at the end of the Christian year, we crown Christ king, which seems entirely appropriate, and this year, more than some, entirely necessary.
You see, we’ve just come through the election season, which was preceded by more than a year of intense political campaigning. As we approached Election Day the rhetoric became more heated, the accusations more pointed. The two candidates for president were trying to convince us that this was the most important election ever, and that if we didn’t vote for them the country would be lost. They said so over and over again in their television ads, in the debates, and in the unsolicited phone calls that kept coming to my house. But theirs weren’t the only phone calls. In those last few weeks before the election some of our own members were calling me at the office, begging me to say something about the election from the pulpit. One voicemail from a woman who didn’t identify herself was especially insistent: “Please, Dr. Somerville! You’ve got to say something about this election!” People I didn’t even know were writing letters, sending email. They were convinced that if we didn’t get out there on November 6 and vote for the right man things the results could be disastrous.
I have a hunch some of those people were listening to “Christian radio,” because I did some of that in the days before the election and I was shocked by what I heard. Shocked by some of the some of the language, the anger, but most of all I was shocked because this was Christian radio, right? By Christians, for Christians. And yet, all I was hearing was talk about this election and about how important it was. If I turned it on in the morning they were talking about the election. If I turned it on in the afternoon they were still talking about it. In fact, one day, on my way to visit someone in the hospital I tried to keep track of how many times I heard the names Romney, Obama, and Jesus. By the time I got to the hospital I had lost count of how many times Romney and Obama’s names had been mentioned, but I do remember this: I hadn’t heard the name of Jesus even once. Which made me think the Christians on this particular station must have given up on him.
They didn’t seem to be trusting Jesus to set things right in the world, or even in this nation. They seemed to be trusting Romney or Obama for that. Well, actually, on this station, they were only trusting Romney. And to me, as a Christian, it felt like a great betrayal. Please don’t misunderstand. I believe that Mitt Romney is a good and decent man. I believe that if he had been elected he would have led this country to the very best of his ability. But in the end he is Mitt Romney, and not Jesus Christ, and that’s where I felt betrayed. This was a Christian radio station, owned and operated by people who have professed their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord, and yet here they were, all in a twitter because we were having a presidential election, as if the outcome would mean everything. No. The outcome would not mean everything. The outcome would mean something. The outcome did mean something. But it didn’t mean everything, not by a long shot. When I spoke to our homeless neighbors at Community Missions the next morning I said, “Here’s the good news: Jesus was Lord when I went to bed last night and Jesus was Lord when I woke up this morning.” And here on Christ the King Sunday, less than three weeks after the election, that’s an important thing to remember.
In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus is on trial before Pontius Pilate. He’s there because the religious authorities in Jerusalem have accused him of insurrection. They’ve told Pilate: “This man claims to be a king!” And that’s a serious charge. Pilate represents the Roman Emperor, Tiberius Caesar. Throughout the whole of the Roman Empire he is the one and only king. If Jesus is trying to take Caesar’s place somebody needs to do something to stop him, and that somebody is Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea. “So, what about it?” he says to Jesus. “Are you a king?” And Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world.” In her commentary on this passage New Testament scholar Gail O’Day writes: “When Jesus says that his kingship is “not of this world,” or “not from here,” he is referring to its origin, not its location.” In other words, he is not saying that his kingdom doesn’t exist on earth, but only that it didn’t come from there. It reminds me of that old gospel song that says, “The world didn’t give it to me and the world can’t take it away.” That’s what Jesus might have said to Pilate: “Nobody elected me king. I didn’t have to run for office. The world didn’t give me my kingship. My father in heaven gave it to me. And no power on earth can take it away.”
But that’s not what you would have heard if you had listened to Christian radio on the day after the election. I did, and there wasn’t any of that good news I shared with the men and women at Community missions. Nobody said, “It’s OK, friends! Jesus was Lord when we went to bed last night and Jesus was Lord when we woke up this morning.” At least, not on the station I was listening to. It didn’t sound like Easter Sunday; it sounded like Good Friday. You would have thought they had just nailed Jesus to the cross. In yesterday’s newspaper guest columnist Jim Wright said, “On November 7 many Christians woke up to a disaster. As Al Mohler, head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, put it, it was a ‘catastrophe,’ especially for evangelical Christians. With the rejection of a candidate backed by evangelical leaders…this election may be seen as the first time a conservative Christian influence not only failed to help, but actually became a political liability. For many Christians, then, Wednesday morning’s wakeup call came with a new and unpleasant sensation: powerlessness. And this is a good thing.”
Jim Wright is a physician and theologian who lives in Richmond and works in the area of long-term care. He goes on to say,
There’s nothing wrong with Christians being interested in politics, of course. Where we can go wrong, though, is when politics becomes our main focus, the means to an end and the business of Christianity. Instead of trying to legislate our religion, Christians are better engaged in the business of telling the story, of promoting a personal encounter with Christ and of living in response to this encounter. Granted, this is kind of messy, because it’s not the kind of thing that brings with it the tangibility of law and enforcement, but it possesses a power that is inexorable and irresistible all the same, and most importantly, it possesses a power that is out of human control. This could be an exciting new time for Christianity, because in losing political power, we lose faith in our political parties, our candidates and ourselves. Giving up political power brings Christians around to a realization that they are not the saviors after all, that someone else already took care of that.[i]
That’s what I was wishing for in those weeks before the election, when everybody was calling me in a state of panic, asking me to say something about the election. I was wishing that more Christians had faith in a God who “made the world, called it good, and has everything in his hands, despite changing demographics, declining church attendance and election outcomes.” A God who might say to them, as Jim Wright suggests: “I’ve got this thing people, so everyone just chill out.” I was wishing that we could put all of this in perspective, to remember that we serve a God who has watched over the rise and fall of empires for millennia. And finally, I was wishing that those people talking on Christian radio would stop talking so much about Romney and Obama, as if the election were the most important thing in the world, and instead start talking about Jesus, who, in fact, is.
Have I told you about living in Washington during the election in 2000? Three weeks after we had voted, we still didn’t know if Al Gore or George W. Bush had been elected. The Supreme Court was trying to figure it out, and the plaza in front of the building had become a zoo. I can’t remember if there were any elephants there but I did see at least one donkey on the premises. People from both parties were dressed in costumes, holding signs, chanting slogans—half of them wanting Bush to win, the other half pulling for Gore. The Gospel lesson on Christ the King Sunday was the same one we’ve looked at today, where Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey and most of the city has hailed him as the Messiah, pulling the branches off palm trees, throwing their coats in the road, and shouting, ‘Hosanna to the King!’ But here is the problem: Israel already has a king. Caesar, who is king of the whole Roman Empire, is also king over Israel. In my sermon on that day I said, “Jerusalem was in an uproar. Half the city was shouting for Jesus, the other half was shouting for Caesar, and Pilate—like some Supreme Court judge—had to figure out what to do when there are two people who want to be king of the same nation. Sound familiar?”
A few weeks earlier I had been invited to a Washington Redskins game on Halloween night. There were people there at FedEx Field who had come in costume, so that when I looked around I saw not only all those people wearing official Redskins jackets, but some wearing brightly colored wigs, and Halloween masks, and wild costumes. Even before the opening kickoff there were fireworks and skydivers parachuting into the stadium. When the game started I got into it. When the Redskins scored I yelled. When the fight song was played over the loudspeakers I sang along. And when they said, “Who let the dogs out?” I . . . well, I did what everyone else was doing at that stadium: I acted like an idiot. I got caught up in the event to the point that I lost touch with all other reality. For me there was nothing but that football game, those players, that crowd, that band, those crazy costumes, and then one of our boys went left when he should have gone right and got dragged down behind the line of scrimmage and the guy behind me said, “Jesus Christ!” And those two words brought me crashing back to reality. I thought, “Oh, right…Jesus Christ. What would he think of all this?” I tilted my head back and looked up at the night sky above the stadium. There was so much ambient light you couldn’t see much of it, but there, right at the zenith, was a single, bright star. For a full minute I looked at it and remembered that above all the noise we were making in that stadium, above the spectacle of a football game on Halloween night, Jesus Christ was king.
Can we remember that the next time an election rolls around? Can we hear Jesus say, “My kingdom is not from this world”? Can we be reminded that it is not only from a different place, but of a different kind? It is a kingdom which makes so many of our fears seem foolish and futile. And yet it has a king who cares about each of our concerns. This king was never worried about how the election would turn out. The world didn’t give him his kingdom and the world couldn’t take it away. God himself put the crown on Christ’s head, and he shall reign forever and ever.
[i] You can read Jim Wright’s comments from Saturday, November 24, 2012, on his blog: godlifedementia.blogspot.com.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.