Earlier this year Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her diamond jubilee. I remember seeing her on the television, her tiny figure standing at the front of a boat as it made its way down the Thames, with thousands of people waving and cheering. I lived in England for the first 44 years of my life, and every day of my life I must have seen her face, on the coins, the bills, the stamps. Her presence was everywhere. It was ‘her majesty’s government’,’ her majesty’s prisons’, her majesty’s army, navy, air force ‘and even, every April, the dreaded envelope would land on the mat, bearing the words, ‘from her majesty’s inspector of taxes’!
One of the reasons she has remained so popular over the years is because England is a constitutional monarchy, which means that essentially she has no power. She is a symbol and figurehead. She never really ‘says’ anything, never really expresses her opinions in public, and when she does make a speech it’s written for her by the government.
But once you give a king or queen ‘power’ there is trouble! Kings with power can become despotic, corrupt, cruel and unjust. In this country, the memory of our last king – George III – is not a happy one! But despite all this, Israel wanted a king. They were terrified of the Philistines, and they looked around and saw that all the other nations around them had kings; to look after them and lead them into battle and fight for them. In the First Book of Samuel the elders of Israel asked Samuel the prophet to anoint a king to rule over them. But Samuel is not happy and reminds them that they already have a king, the Lord God. He will fight for them and protest them. But they insisted. So Samuel spoke to God, and God warned the Israelites about what human kings are like. If you have a king, he will take the best of your crops, and your horses and flocks. You will lose your freedom, and you will find the yoke exceedingly heavy. But the people refused to listen, and insisted that they be given a king, just like the other nations. So finally, and reluctantly, God agreed, and Samuel anointed Saul as king. Over the following centuries their experience of kings was just as the lord had predicted. Many of their kings grasped after power and riches, and the people suffered cruelty and injustice, and loss of freedom.
The one king who stood out, and whom the people loved, was King David, and over the centuries which followed his reign, and woven through the pages of the Hebrew scriptures, was the growing sense of hope that one day God would send them another king like David, who would fight for them, and save them from their enemies.
‘And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin named Mary. He said to her, “You will conceive and bear a Son, and you will call him Jesus. The Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there will be no end.”’
Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city of David. But from the time of his birth his identity as ‘king’ would be a source of confusion, conflict, and violence. The model that the people had for kings was of kings who were unjust and grasping for power. So when King Herod heard from the wise men that they were seeking the child born ‘King of the Jews’, he feared a rival for power, and became inflamed with jealousy, which culminated in an orgy of infanticide.
When Jesus grew up and began his ministry his disciples also misunderstood the nature of his kingship. They hoped he would be a fighter, that he would lead them in battle against their Roman oppressors. It was only when they got to Jerusalem for that final Holy Week that they would understand Jesus’ mysterious words, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’. Their understanding of kingship would be turned upside down. And it began with Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, mounted not on a war horse, but on a donkey.
Our Gospel reading today takes up the same theme. Jesus is brought before Pilate, and Pilate asks him at once, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ Pilate is confused. This Jesus certainly doesn’t look like a king – no pomp and circumstance. And yet… Pilate recognizes some innate power and authority emanating from Jesus. But this power does not come from conventional sources. He’s got nothing. He’s poor. He’s a prisoner. Pilate gets more and more agitated and says, ‘Where are you from?’ Where does this power and authority come from? Come on, why don’t you speak to me? ‘Are you a king?’ Don’t you realize I can have you killed? But Jesus gave no answer.
But for the disciples, slowly, so slowly, they were beginning, finally, to understand. At the Last act done usually only by slaves. In this powerful act Jesus was showing them at last, that in his kingdom, the Kingdom of God, the path to greatness and glory, is through serving others. Instead of grasping for power, Jesus willingly surrendered to it. As the letter to the Philippians puts it, ‘he did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.’
And so we come to today – this feast of Christ the King. Each one of us here this morning is challenged again with that same question: who is this king whom we celebrate and worship? The word ‘king’ will evoke different images and feelings within each of us: different visceral responses, as it did for Herod, Pilate, and Jesus’’ disciples.
Or you may say that the word ‘king’ is anachronistic, no longer helpful or meaningful in our contemporary world. I actually disagree. I believe that each one of us serves a king. And to this king we give our allegiance. Our king may be wealth, or status, or power, or possessions. Black Friday saw the usual frenzied rush at midnight to the shops. King Commerce pulled the string and we came running to pay homage. Which king do you serve?
Jesus came to save our souls from subservience to false kings: despotic, cruel, selfish, power hungry kings, outwardly attractive, full of pomp and circumstance. ‘Come and follow me’ they cry. ‘You will be rich, powerful and influential.’
How does Jesus attract us? By the cross. ‘Behold your king!’ A poor man, hanging on the cross. There is your king, ‘who for our sake humbled himself and became obedient unto death, ven death upon the cross’.
This Sunday we celebrate Christ the King. It is appropriately the last Sunday of the Christian Year. It is a chance for us each to look back at this last year and ask ourselves some searching and truthful questions. During this past year who has been my king? Whom have I served, through my words, thought, and deeds? To whom have I paid allegiance? Who sits on the throne of my heart?
Today, on the cusp of a new year, is an invitation to choose Christ again. Choose Christ. Enthrone Christ as your Lord and your King.
At the close of our worship today we shall be singing that glorious hymn by George Herbert, set so movingly to the tune, ‘General Seminary’. With the image of our crucified king before us, may we, as we sing in one voice, recommit our lives to Christ our King.
‘King of Glory, king of peace, I will love thee.
The cream of all my heart, I will bring thee.
E’en eternity’s too short to extol thee.’
And now to him, who sits upon the throne, be all blessing and honor and glory and might, now and forever. Amen.
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