Sermon for Christ the King: Lord of Lords and King of Kings: preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday 21 November 2021 by The Reverend Christopher Huitson. (Revelation 1: 4b – 8; John 18: 33 – 37)
A good many years ago the Queen drew up at the Royal Windsor Horse show where she was greeted by a guard saying: “Sorry dear, you can’t come in without a badge.”
The Queen, unfazed by the incident, replied: “I think, if you check, I will be allowed to come in!” The guard later admitted he thought she was “some old dear” who was lost.
Our ideas of the monarchy have changed over the years and we are a long way from kings like Henry 8th who was ready to execute any who crossed him. Even thinking and speculating about the death of the king in those days was a matter of treason with dire consequences.
But he wasn’t all bad! In recognition of Henry’s book on the seven sacraments, the Pope bestowed on him the title “Defender of the Faith”. This honour was, however rescinded when Henry broke with Rome though the title was later restored to Henry by Parliament. To this day “Fid Def” appears on our coins, or more simply “F.D”.
But today our Queen does not rule by fear and tyranny but is instead termed a constitutional monarch. All this is to demonstrate that our attitudes to Kings and Queens are full of variety so when we come to this day on which we celebrate Christ the King we need to know what we mean by it and we need to know how Jesus approached the title of king.
At his birth the magi came looking for a king, for their studies of the stars and possibly astrology had indicated the birth of such an important leader. Unfortunately, they shared their insight with Herod the Great who was pretty paranoid at the best of times and who wanted no rivals either to himself or his successors. The slaughter of the innocents was the result and though there is no independent verification of that event, which is only recorded in St. Matthew’s gospel, it is agreed that it would be entirely within Herod’s character. Jesus, as a new born baby couldn’t say what he thought but one can wonder whether, as he grew up, he heard the story of the Magi seeking a king.
Other incidents do provide us with a reaction. The first opportunity concerns the temptations when Jesus is shown by the devil all the kingdoms of the world in their glory. He was being tempted to be the king of a great empire. He rejected it because he would have had to bow down to Satan and in any case ruling an empire would have distracted him from his primary vocation. Rulers are prey to all sorts of compromises and can be led down tempting, luxurious by-ways.
Then the people themselves, so St. John tells us, want to seize Jesus and proclaim him king. Jesus slips away and, as so often, goes to the hills to pray. Perhaps they saw him as a great prophet or indeed, more than a prophet – the longed for and long-awaited Messiah. The word means anointed one as does the Greek translation which is rendered “Christ” in English. In the Old Testament, it is Kings and the High priest who were anointed with olive oil no doubt as a symbol of plenty, with the King expected to ensure that barns were full of corn and that vineyards and olive trees provided a bounteous harvest. The symbolism is imitated in our own Coronation services where an intriguing mixture of sesame and olive oil, orange flowers, roses, jasmine and cinnamon amongst other substances is blended into the oil used to anoint the new king or queen.
The Messiah would be a leader, a king potentially, who would drive out the hated Roman occupiers. Jesus was very careful about the application of the concept to himself and warned the disciples against using it after their insight at Caesarea Philippi. The disciples, though, are ready to misread the signs and James and John ask Jesus to reserve the chief places in his new administration for themselves, much to the annoyance of the other disciples. Again, Jesus has to teach them that he has to follow a different road.
Then at his trial, St. John gives us a conversation with Pontius Pilate about kingship as we have just heard in the gospel today. Pilate seizes on the indictment as fed to him by the Jewish leaders because any rival to Caesar would be taken to be treasonable. Jesus explains that his kingdom is not of this world. Pilate does not know what to make of it but takes revenge on the Jewish leadership to annoy them by nailing the charge on the cross: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.
You can see that Jesus did not seek to be an earthly king and did all in his power to reject such an idea. The festival of Christ the King then is not a reference to Jesus in his earthly life but a celebration of the future after his death when his resurrection and ascension are revealed. Sometimes the painting of a crucifix will show Christ, not in suffering, but in glory with his arms outstretched in welcome and forgiveness.
It is to the last book of the NT – Revelation that we need to look as St. John the divine gives us his wonderful imagery of heaven ruled over by Jesus in triumph. Today’s reading from Revelation speaks of Jesus as “ruler of the kings of the earth.” Heaven and earth are linked together not by an earthly king but by a heavenly one. Verses in the 17th and 19th chapters of Revelation speak of Jesus as Lord of Lords and King of Kings. Jesus is king indeed but of the kingdom of heaven, for he is given power and authority by God. Christ invites us into his kingdom and the only badge we shall need is the badge of faith.
All this is encapsulated in the creed which links together all that follows after the death of Jesus – the resurrection, ascension and Jesus’ place at the right hand of the Father, King of an everlasting kingdom – a worthy celebration of Christ the King to whom we give praise and glory, world without end.