Last Sunday, we celebrated what is traditionally called “Christ the King Sunday” on the Christian calendar- a date which marks the end of Pentecost for the Church and the beginning of Advent. We focused our attention on the importance of regarding the crucified and risen Christ as ruler over the entire universe, as the King of kings and Lord of lords. We saw how for all the images which one can employ to understand and relate to God, there is none MORE DEFINITIVE and TRUSTWORTHY than this one. It is the highest and greatest image of God that a Christian can possibly conceive- Christ, the creator and head of all things IN whom all things exist and THROUGH whom all things are held together. It is Christ ALONE whom his followers exalt and live in constant subjection to; to him ONLY shall every knee bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord to the glory of God. However, I need to qualify this morning what it means to call Christ “king” as his is a UNIQUE position and his authority cannot be compared to any other king or queen before him. As you will see, the distinction for us is a crucial one!
Our New Testament text for this morning comes from the opening chapter of the book of Revelation. It is actually the salutation or greeting addressed to seven historical churches in the province of Asia Minor. These churches were experiencing intense hostility and suffering for their faith causing some Christians to defect and many more to consider abandoning the faith altogether because the price for following Christ seemed far too great. Rome demanded complete obedience to the empire along with the worship of its leader--the emperor--and any refusal to do so placed one’s life in jeopardy as he ALONE was to be their Lord and God. But faithful Christians, just like faithful Jews, would refuse to worship the emperor and his family, adhering to the commandment that there could be but ONE God with Jehovah being his name. Refusal meant incurring the severest punishment Rome could hand out as was detailed in a letter from Pliny, a governor of one of the eastern provinces during Trajan’s reign:
In the meanwhile, the method I have observed towards those who have been denounced to me as Christians is this: I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it, I repeated the question twice again adding the threat of capital punishment; if they persevered, I ordered them to be executed.
As you can see, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of difference between Rome in the first century and the actions of ISIS some twenty centuries LATER.
In John’s salutation, he immediately establishes that it is Jesus Christ ALONE who is “the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” Only to HIM belongs all worship and obedience for by his sacrifice--his death on the cross--he saved us from our sins and demonstrated conclusively the love of the Father for us. With his resurrection from the dead, God has set him upon his throne and crowned him as his legitimate heir. John wants his hearers to understand that God “who is and who was and who is to come” remains the lord over all history and has now extended that same authority to the Son so that in the Last Day NO ONE shall escape his judgment. Therefore, he wants the Church to demonstrate a SIMILAR witness, the SAME kind of faithfulness and perseverance that Christ HIMSELF showed in the face of HIS arrest and death for if they do, they TOO shall share in his glory. And they CAN for Christ promises to remain at their side and support them every step of the way. If they CONTINUE to trust him, he will keep their hearts strong, REGARDLESS how great their trials and suffering. What the church of the late first century was experiencing was the ages-old war over conflicting loyalties, the TRUE test to one’s faith- whether to serve the kingdom of Christ or to bow before the kingdoms of this world.
Thus, for John, there is no sudden rapture or miraculous deliverance of the church from the world as many modern-day Baptists and Pentecostals would have you believe. Rather, he calls for a BOLD faith, a HEROIC faith- one that would enable them to persevere even under the WORST of circumstances. He knew that their suffering and persecution could quite possibly lead to their own martyrdom even as it had for their Lord, but that is why he reminds them that what awaits them is nothing less than an imperishable crown. Revelation’s basic message is one of comfort and assurance in the midst of troubles and tribulation, a word of encouragement for those who suffer and need a word of hope.
But “kingship” and other royal terms are not something we Americans feel especially comfortable with. After all, we fought a war against a king over two hundred years ago against what was at the time the largest, most powerful empire in the world in order to escape such one-person rule. The problem with thinking about Christ as a king TODAY is that we may picture him as a kind of glorified Henry VIII who arbitrarily makes demands and issues commands as he deems fit when scripture gives us an altogether DIFFERENT picture of his kingship. Where most kings want to appear as “high and lifted up,” that is, as belonging on a completely different plane than the rest of us “mere mortals,” where they demand complete obedience from their subordinates and too-often resort to governing through fear, Jesus came to us as an altogether DIFFERENT king.
I love the Turner Classic Movies channel and from time to time, I like to catch an old movie from the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s headlined by some of Hollywood’s greatest leading men and women. A couple of weeks ago, The Philadelphia Story was on- a classic comedy from 1940 starring Kathryn Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmie Stewart. Every now and then, I’ll experience an epiphany, an “aha!” moment as a result of some particular insight or idea prompted by a film and that’s what happened to me while watching THIS one. It concerns a wealthy Philadelphia family—appropriately named the “Lords”--whose eldest daughter Tracy (played by Katherine Hepburn) is getting married to George Kittridge, a pompous self-made individual. She’s a haughty, high-minded woman who is critical of anyone who can’t meet her own exacting standards. Her urbane and witty ex-husband, Dexter Haven (impeccably played by Cary Grant) is a deeply-flawed man who drank too much and was never capable of measuring up to Tracy’s stern demands, although he is now trying to reform himself. Calling her a “virgin goddess” and a “married maiden,” he claims that she could be the finest woman on earth if she could overcome an intolerance against human frailty. Still in love with her, he crashes the wedding in the hope of possibly winning her back.
My favorite scene occurs during the second half of the film when Tracy has gone out to take a midnight swim in the family pool. Dexter, her former husband, comes out to talk to her where soon they begin assaulting each other with witty insults and serious reproaches about each other's flaws and the reasons that their marriage failed: Tracy's judgmental intolerance and perfectionism, her impossibly high ideals, her wishes to remain frigidly chaste and virginal as a spoilt "goddess," and her lack of understanding of his drinking which led Dexter to drink even more. As Dexter is leaving, he calls attention to the tissue-wrapped wedding present he brought for her. With Dexter now gone, her fiance George appears on the moonlit scene. Seeing the gift, he unwraps it and discovers that it’s a model of the True Love”- a boat Dexter had designed and built for their honeymoon cruise. While Tracy floats it in the swimming pool beside her, she describes to George how she and Dexter sailed it down and back the coast of Maine the summer they were married: “My, she was yar...It means, uh...easy to handle, quick to the helm, fast, right. Everything a boat should be, until she develops dry rot,” a not-so subtle swipe at what her marriage to Dexter had eventually become.
When Tracy climbs out of the pool, George promises Tracy a much better marriage for her than the one Dexter gave her. As he proclaims his hopes about their marriage, Tracy wonders if he is bothered that she had once belonged to Dexter, that he had been her "lord and master." George denies the thought, choosing not to believe that Dexter EVER possessed or loved her. Instead, he proposes worshipping her in an "ivory tower" as a "statue" or "distant queen" because she represents everything he aspires to. He says: "I'm going to build you an ivory tower with my own two hands.” He tells her, “You know, we're gonna represent something, Tracy, you and I in our home, something straight, sound, and fine. Then perhaps your friend Mr. Haven will be somewhat less condescending.”
Tracy responds: George, you, you don't really mind him, do you? I mean, the fact of him...I mean...that he ever was my lord and master. That we ever were...
George: I don't believe he ever was, Tracy, not really. I don't believe that anyone ever was - or ever will be. That's the wonderful thing about you, Tracy.
Tracy (startled): What? How?
George: Well, you're like some marvelous, distant, well, queen, I guess. You're so cool and fine
and - and always so much your own. There's a kind of beautiful purity about you, Tracy,
like, like a statue...
At this point, Tracy tries to interrupt him: George -
George: Oh, it's grand, Tracy. It's what everybody feels about you. It's what I first worshipped you for from afar.
Tracy: George, listen -
George: First, now, and always! Only from a little nearer now, eh, darling!
Tracy: I-I don't want to be worshipped. I want to be loved!
George: Well, you're that too, Tracy. Oh, you're that all right.
Tracy: I mean really loved.
George: But that goes without saying, Tracy.
Tracy: No. No, now it's you who doesn't see what I mean. I-
What makes this scene so pivotal is that for the first time in the movie, Tracy is able to admit her own fragility, that she’s not really the ice princess, the untouchable bronze goddess she likes to portray herself as. Where she denied having any faults of her own, during the course of the story she is confronted by people who force her to see herself as she truly is, that she really is quite human AFTER ALL. Where she is at first completely intolerant towards Dexter’s drinking and her father’s philandering, she gradually learns to understand more of what makes them (and herself) tick leading ultimately to her being more forgiving. When Tracy says, “I don’t want to be worshipped. I want to be LOVED,” she is pleading to be taken down from that ivory tower where she once believed she deserved to be to become one with the rest of her family, in fact, one with the rest of HUMANITY because she now knows that it is far more important to LOVE and BE LOVED than it is to be WORSHIPPED, that life on that pedestal can be a terribly remote and lonely place.
Well I think there is a SIMILAR lesson that can be applied to the Gospel. What differentiates the story of Jesus Christ from that of every OTHER king or queen who has ever walked this earth is that where they were born to live and rule and die, Jesus was born to die FIRST and THEN rule. St. Paul tells us that though he was in the form of God, he “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”(Phil. 2:6-11)
You see, Jesus was a KING all right, but a different KIND of king. He came to us, NOT on a white horse, striding down the avenue of triumph to a tickertape parade but in the back of a cattle stall, wrapped in swaddling blankets, and lying in a manger. Upon his entrance into Jerusalem at the beginning of what we call Holy Week, he told his disciples, “See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey.” Right away, we discover that this was no Caesar or MacArthur on horseback. Jesus had never wielded a sword or a shield; he had never commanded a single soldier. He owned no more than the clothes on his back and yet before that same week was through, he would lose those as well- he would become LITERALLY an emperor without any clothes, a king without a country. For THIS king, his throne was a cross upon which he would be nailed to and his crown, not a headpiece made of gold and encrusted with gems, but fashioned of twisted vines and covered in thorns.
Simply put, his entrance into this world represents the birth of Immanuel, the birth of “God with us”- an event in which the Creator became one with the creature. In this way, God showed complete solidarity with us so that we can NEVER say that God CANNOT understand our situation or that God DOES NOT know just how we feel. Whether we’re ravaged by hunger, feeling unjustly abused, threatened with home foreclosure or the loss of a job, overwhelmed by assorted health problems, betrayed by those closest to us, mourning the loss of a loved one or perhaps facing our OWN death, Christ’s humble birth in the back of that garage is our assurance that God feels what we feel, that he understands our situation, that God knows our deepest needs- he knows all our joys but also our SORROWS, he knows all our pleasures and all our PAINS, he knows all our victories and especially our DEFEATS. And because WE know that God knows and understands us so well, having virtually crawled into our skin for the purpose of saving us, we can be certain that our God, our Heavenly Father, will care for us and sustain us even during our darkest moments; we can be assured that NOTHING will ever separate us from either his presence or his love. Our God is not some unconcerned being residing off in the distant heavens nor is Jesus Christ an aloof and reserved king, inhabiting an ivory tower that keeps him far removed from our own situation because scripture is clear that God DOES understand and the birth of God’s Son--Emmanuel, “God with us”--is our proof of it.
You see, had God simply declared that he was our king and deserving of our worship and obedience, he would have had our respect and possibly our reverence, but would he have ever possessed our HEARTS, our LOVE? I somewhat suspect that the entire plan of sending his Son into the world to die for us in the FIRST place was not just to reconcile us to himself and thereby earn our respect and obedience, but it was that he might claim our affection and devotion ON TOP of that, that God was in a way declaring to the world, “It isn’t ENOUGH to be worshipped by you- I need to be LOVED by you!” As a result, we not only are assured that in spite of how risky or dangerous times may become--whether in our lives or across this world--there is INDEED someone in charge of the affairs of this planet who promises that in the end, justice WILL win out; that the forces of evil and death at work can NEVER succeed and even it if DOES, it will be but TEMPORARY. His name is Jesus and he remains King of kings and Lord of lords and NO ONE will ever be able to DEFEAT him or THWART his will. But more than earning our respect and obedience, he has ALSO earned our LOVE and DEVOTION, and for that reason we bestow on him “the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Amen and amen.