Sermon Text: John 18:33-38a
Today is a special Sunday known as Christ the King Sunday. It is the last Sunday of the Christian year. It’s sort of New Year’s Eve, if you want to think of it that way. Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent. While we don’t have noisemakers, party hats, or champagne, we do have good reason to celebrate because Jesus Christ is our king.
Speaking of royalty, when I was 15, my family and I took a two-week trip to the British Isles. We spent a week in England. While we were in London, we had just finished visiting St. Paul’s Cathedral and were walking around the streets of London when something remarkable happened. We stumbled upon a parade and saw the queen. She was about as far away from me as this front row of chairs is. We took a snapshot of her riding by on a horse-drawn carriage. Standing next to me was a small, frail man, probably in his eighties, wearing a rumpled old military uniform that he had proudly worn probably 60 years earlier. He stood motionless, saluting her as she passed, a tear in his eye. Talk about moving! As impressive as it was to see the queen, what stands out more than anything was this old soldier!
We don’t have royalty in our country—aside from Hollywood celebrities, of course—but we would know royalty if we saw it: I’m sure I didn’t know what Queen Elizabeth II looked like before seeing her in person, but you better believe that no one had to say, “That one there is the queen,” when she passed by. There was no mistaking who she was. It was obvious from the pageantry, the decorum, the way she carried herself.
Whatever majestic imagery we have in mind when we think of kings and queens, we need to put that out of our minds when we think of our king, Jesus Christ. Because there was very little about Jesus that would suggest royalty. Born in a humble stable to a family of modest means who lived in a backwater town. Not formally educated. Someone who worked with his hands. It’s true that Jesus must have been a powerful and charismatic speaker, healer, and teacher, but he didn’t command any military force. Indeed, even his closest followers and friends abandoned him and denied knowing him in this hour of trial. So you can imagine what Pilate thought of Jesus. Especially when Jesus informed him that his kingdom was “not of this world.” Pilate must have breathed a sigh of relief at this point: “Well, I’m only concerned about kingdoms that are of this world. You can have your kingdom in the sky or outer space or heaven, for all I care, as long as I get to have my kingdom in this world. A kingdom that is not of this world isn’t a threat to me.”
Now, allow me make a very important point here: Just because Christ’s kingdom is not of this world doesn’t mean that it’s not for this world. We pray every week in this service, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come…” Jesus taught us this prayer. It means that we actively look forward to and hope for the coming of God’s kingdom in all its fullness, and we work on behalf of that kingdom until then. Why? Because it’s exactly what this world needs. And the Pontius Pilates of the world may think that this kingdom has no bearing on their lives, but we who have been baptized and placed faith in Christ know better. We voluntarily place ourselves under the rule of Christ our king. We live our lives now as if this kingdom were already here. Our will, therefore, is to do God’s will, not simply for the sake of doing good in the world but to bear witness to the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Think about that: our will is to do God’s will. In my own prayer life, instead of seeking God’s will first, I’m often simply asking God to bless or endorse a course of action that I’ve already taken or already decided upon. I must think Jesus Christ is a lot like me because I often assume that what Christ wants me to do is exactly what I want to do anyway. How about you?
If you want to know what kingdom living in the here and now looks like, read Matthew Chapters 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount, for starters. “Turn the other cheek when someone slaps you.” “Go the extra mile.” “When you do good works, don’t let the left hand know what the right hand is doing.” “Don’t be greedy.” “Don’t worry about anything.” And we read that and say, “That’s hard,” and I say, “Yep. It is.” And we may say, “But that’s not practical.” And I say, “Yep, you’re right. Some people have even been known to get persecuted and killed because of their allegiance to Christ’s kingdom.” But it’s only hard and it’s only impractical because there’s something wrong with us, and there’s something wrong with the world. There are spiritual forces at work in the world that resist God’s kingdom at every turn. We have, as Charles Wesley wrote in “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” this bent toward sinning. We need to let the Holy Spirit to give us power to change us and change the world. Indeed, all of us who have been baptized and joined the church have been given our marching orders to follow Christ our King. Listen to what we commit ourselves to do when we are baptized: Among other things, we “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness” and “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”
Bono of U2 takes his baptism vows very seriously. He has identified evil and injustice in the way banks in the industrialized world have placed people in the third world under a mountain of insupportable debt. He’s been campaigning for third-world debt forgiveness. He said in a recent interview that if you look at all the money raised by Live Aid, the big rock charity concert in 1985 in which U2 and so many other rock stars participated, it adds up to one day’s worth of interest on third world debt. This debt, he argues, is indirectly killing millions of people. Bono’s efforts are paying off. He’s gotten powerful leaders in the world to join his cause. And because of the “friends” he’s made—including some leaders with spotty human rights records—he’s been criticized and ridiculed loudly on both the political left and right. It’s cost him some good will with his fans. About all the criticism, he said, “You know, I don’t have an ego about that. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a rock star; of course I have an ego; but I don’t have an ego about this issue. It just doesn’t matter. Too many people are dying.” The point is that of course following Christ our King will engender conflict with the forces of evil in this world. We do it anyway. This is the kind of example that our king leaves for us.
Many of you know what it’s like to stand up to evil and injustice. Did you know that a group from our church including Renee Sassaman, Kerri Downs, Bruce and Lori Mack and many of our high school youth have been involved in working for a homeless ministry in downtown Atlanta. Last week, they prepared about 200 meals to hand out to the poorest of poor, the drug-addicted, and the mentally ill living under bridges in the city and offering them a way to get further help. Renee told me that when she first got involved in this ministry, it was all about trying to be a blessing to other people. She said that as time has gone in, she’s found it to be a great blessing to her.
Friends, that’s the way serving Christ our King works. We find our true and best selves by leaving our old, self-serving, sin-addicted selves behind. We find our life by losing it for Christ’s sake. We find true freedom by willingly becoming servants of Christ and others. Think of that old soldier standing next to me, standing proudly, saluting as the queen went by. What wouldn’t he do out of love, joy, and gratitude for his queen? What wouldn’t we do for out of love, joy, and gratitude for Christ our king?
And make no mistake: following Christ our king ought to be about love and joy and gratitude. Did any of you, like me, experience joy at Coffee House last Friday? The joy of sitting at a table with friends… the joy of music… the joy of people using gifts that God gave them to bless others… Listen: the band sang a song earlier called “How Far is Heaven.” There are moments in our lives when that veil that separates heaven and earth is very thin, and we see just how close heaven is, and just how beautiful heaven is. Thanks to the redeeming love of God expressed to us in the life, death, and resurrection of our King Jesus, we know that we have a future in God’s heavenly kingdom. How can we not feel love and joy? How can we not live our lives in gratitude?
It’s New Year’s Eve in the Christian year. Let’s think about making a New Year’s resolution. Think about one new way you can serve your king in this year ahead. It might be getting involved in a new ministry; volunteering for a mission project; going on a mission trip. Maybe it means picking up a new habit related to prayer or Bible study. [I then invited members of the congregation to write it down on a card and place it on altar table.]