November 22, 2015 Christ the King Revelation 1: 4b-7 John 18: 33-37
Rev. Catherine Purves
Who’s in charge? When you find yourself in a situation of danger or chaos or threat, that’s what you want to know. Someone has to be in charge. Whether we’re talking about the scene of a horrible traffic accident, or a battlefield, an operating room, or a classroom, or a country under terrorist attack, the immediate need and the crucial question is: Who’s in charge? If no one is in charge then anything could happen, no one is safe, and the future is, at best, uncertain.
We live in a terribly complicated and unpredictable world. In a sense, we know too much. Our instant communication and the global reach of our various forms of news media mean that we can know about crises and chaos in countries all over the world simultaneously and immediately. Hostages can send out text messages, everyone has a cell phone that can take pictures of horrific events as they unfold. Reporters are on the ground at disaster sites and send live feed with commentary and speculation. Terrorism thrives on social media, and we are served up their threats nightly on the evening news. Meanwhile, candidates for the highest office behave like schoolyard bullies with their name-calling and their ill-conceived solutions to global problems. Who’s in charge? It seems like no one is in charge, and people aren’t playing by the rules anymore (if they ever did). That is a recipe for chaos and fear and insecurity.
But it was to just this kind of a world that Jesus came. We think of the Middle East as a powder keg now, but it was no more stable in the first century. Rome had conquered Palestine in 63 B.C., but they were just the last in a long list of invaders whose indiscriminate violence and harsh and oppressive rule sought to crush the spirit of God’s people. The Romans were preceded by the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Persians, the Babylonians, and the Assyrians. Who’s in charge? You may well ask. Today we are faced with suicidal hostage-takers and car bombs. Then there were crosses on every hill. Terrorism is not a modern phenomenon. The world hasn’t changed that much.
All of the Gospels tell us that near the end of his life Jesus stood toe to toe with Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect or provincial governor of Judea who was appointed by Tiberius, the Emperor of Rome. It was Pilate, of course, who condemned Jesus and who ordered his crucifixion. At that time, in Palestine, Pilate was in charge; he had the power to acquit, or to torture, or to condemn. Such power to terrorize and tax and desecrate the Holy Land left all of the inhabitants feeling constantly insecure and fearful. Everyone, that is, except Jesus. He was not intimidated by Rome.
The issue that most concerned Pilate was that people were calling Jesus the King of the Jews. He was not much bothered by the pompous religious leaders and their feeble claims to authority over the people, but a king was something different entirely. A king could be a threat to Rome – not a big threat, because Rome could easily crush a minor provincial uprising, but a nuisance and something that needed to be dealt with. That was his job as prefect, to control the natives. He’d found that crosses were an extremely effective way to do that. So, Pilate’s first question to Jesus was, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
We can see the irony of that question. It is almost a put-down. Do you claim to rule over this defeated and oppressed nation that is really under the complete control of the Roman Emperor? I can almost imagine the smirk on Pilate’s face when he asked the question. “Are you the King of the Jews?” But Jesus didn’t flinch. He knew, even if Pilate didn’t, that he was King of kings and emperors, of presidents and prime ministers, of dictators and demagogues.
Pilate was understandably confused when Jesus said, “My kingdom is not from this world.” We need to make sure that we too are not confused by this cryptic comment. Jesus was not talking about where his kingdom was, as if it were somehow out of this world. His kingdom is not a place. The word means rule or reign. What he’s saying is that his kingship and his right to rule do not come from some earthly power. Unlike Pilate himself, Jesus is not one in a long line of tin-pot rulers who rely on military might, intimidation, or cruelty. The reign of Jesus supersedes all other claims to rule, because it comes directly from God. “My kingdom is not from this world,” is what he said.
But that doesn’t mean that it is an otherworldly kingship. This is not simply a religious designation that has no impact on this world in which we must live. Jesus is not saying that he is king of our souls or king of the church. He is King of kings. That is his claim. He is King of this world.
And that is a far bigger claim than any emperor or king or president or prime minister could make, no matter how many armies they command, no matter how many times they rig the elections, no matter how much wealth or power they manage to accumulate, and no matter how ruthless they are willing to be. The power of Rome is dwarfed by Jesus’ claim. The threat of our modern-day terrorists is nothing by comparison. The pride and presumption of presidents and dictators and any and all world leaders is of a different order. It is limited, it is temporary, and it is earthly. The rule of Jesus is limitless, it is eternal, and it is cosmic. As Jesus told Pilate, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” And this is the truth: He is King of kings.
That truth was vitally important to the early church. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, believers still found themselves living in a brutal and dangerous world. All of the cities where churches were planted were still ruled by Rome. As Christians continued to celebrate the rule of Christ as King of kings, the earthly authorities directed their oppressive power onto Jesus’ followers. It was treasonous to proclaim that Jesus was King of kings. Persecutions began, and those who declared that Jesus, not Caesar, was King of kings became martyrs.
It felt like the last days when the powers of good and evil must come to some final, ultimate confrontation. We are still living in those last days. The puzzling book of Revelation was written to provide encouragement and hope for those living through the last days. These were, these are the days when Christ, the King of kings, must conquer all other powers that have brought death and destruction to the world and to God’s people. In its strange way, Revelation is a celebration of the fact that Jesus is King of kings, and it promises that our future is in his hands. That means, of course, that we are utterly secure and that we need not be afraid of any lesser kings or pretenders to power.
So, in the midst of their persecutions, John writes to the churches, “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come.” Grace and peace – these are words that must be heard on the streets of Paris. They are words for the hostages, victims, and refugees and for all those who live in fear of earthly powers and sin and evil. We can only hear and receive those good words, grace and peace, if we recognize and believe that Jesus is King of kings. Only the King of kings can send grace and peace into our world.
In the book of Revelation, Jesus is never the beaten and crucified victim of Pontius Pilate. He is the risen and ascended Lord, sitting at the right hand of the Father in glory. John describes him as “the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” The tables have been turned. Rome no longer has the upper hand – it never did!
The world may look like it is tumbling into chaos. The powers of evil are doing their worst to inspire fear and insecurity, and we ourselves have seen so much carnage, especially in these last days. But John urges us instead to look and see the King of kings. “Look,” he writes, “He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him.” Take note, Pontius Pilate, and all other lesser kings and tyrants, bullies and terrorists. Look, and you will see the King of kings.
Who’s in charge of this chaotic and fear-filled world? Jesus is in charge. He is King of kings. And he is also the one who loves us, and who freed us from our sins, who sends us his grace and peace, and who made us to be his kingdom, his church in this world and in the world to come. That is what we are celebrating on this Christ the King Sunday. Jesus is in charge.