Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
November 25, 2018
Text: Revelation 1:5-6, O.T.: II Samuel 23:1-7, N.T.: Revelation 1:4b-8
What do we mean when we say Jesus is King?
It may seem obvious – we’re conferring upon Jesus royal status of kingship. But who among us really knows what that means? When have you lived under a king? When was the last time we had a king as our national ruler?
We Americans are pretty unwilling to submit to a king. We fought a revolution to liberate ourselves from England’s monarch. Americans venerate the Declaration of Independence with a solemnity we hold for few other documents. We celebrate July Fourth for our national freedom from a king.
If there’s American sympathy for a monarchy it might be that some of us rebels look at royalty as a fascinating anachronism. Even the Brits see their monarchy differently than they did when we fought our revolution.
The King, or in today’s case the Queen, is only a symbol of British identity – a national brand that identifies England as a unique people. England’s monarchy does not possess power to dictate national affairs. Nor does it possess authority to give or take human life. The monarchy is ceremonial and symbolic of the British realm.
If some of us Americans have a strange interest in England’s acceptance of royalty, we’re not about to change the American Constitution to permit a monarch over our land. You don’t see petitions to Congress to amend the Constitution to permit a king because any of us think we’re missing something.
So when we say Jesus Christ is King, just what does that mean for a people who have never lived under a king? The American presidency is not a monarchy. For all the power possessed by the White House, our presidency is not a monarch.
The White House is not Westminster Abbey. It is the people’s house. We can vote the president out of office for poor performance. You can’t vote a king out of the monarchy. A king inherits power as a family endowment.
If you want to change the family of a monarchy, it takes a war to overthrow the throne. Not in America. We change presidents whenever the majority of us are disappointed in the president’s leadership. The president serves at the will of the people. The president serves the will of the people.
That wasn’t the case in the monarchy we overthrew.
Since we’ve never lived under a king, can we really say we know what it means to say Jesus is King? Some of us may think the question absurd. All of us know what a king is. We think we know what a king does. We’ve read about it in history books. It’s a basic concept we learned in Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. We’ve seen movies about kings and queens, monarchs and kingdoms.
Yet is our knowledge all that complete?
Reading about monarchs and royal families isn’t the same as living under one. Modern ceremonial monarchies – at least in Europe – don’t capture what is meant by the term “king,” let alone what is meant by declaring Jesus Christ is “King.” Watching others live under a ceremonial king in the twenty-first century isn’t the same as being a king’s subject.
A lot of us are really confused about what it means to be the subject of a king. We think of a king as part of a group of monarchs, not one king who rules over the earth.
The term “lord” is often substituted to describe a king. I once asked a professor of history at Carnegie Mellon about what he thought it meant to say that Jesus Christ is “Lord.” The professor was an elder from Sixth Presbyterian Church in Squirrel Hill. We often discussed church life and its challenges.
He gave a definition from his extensive knowledge of the history of Great Britain. He said “lord,” was a title given to one of many landed gentry under whom vassals served. In other words, there was no unique or ultimate Lord to whom other lords submitted throughout the British Empire.
A lord was part of a council of lords – like the House of Lords in England’s Parliament.
When I asked him to explain what his definition meant for Jesus Christ, my highly educated Presbyterian friend then said that Jesus Christ is one Lord, one king, among many rulers. For him, Jesus was just one among many gods.
If we were to admit it, he represents what a lot of us believe about Jesus. Jesus is just one among many contenders for the throne in our hearts and minds. This is not the biblical image of Jesus Christ as Lord.
George Frideric Handel’s Messiah with its majestic Hallelujah Chorus, doesn’t present Jesus Christ as one king or one lord among many rulers. Handel lived under King George I of England, during an age of monarchs. Every nation had its own king. Yet Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus doesn’t describe one lord among a council of lords, or one ruler among a world of rulers.
The majesty of the Hallelujah Chorus conveys what Handel knew from his study of the Scriptures. Handel’s music carries us into the heavenly throne room of Almighty God where angels and cherubim are singing praises to the King who stands above all monarchs and rulers in heaven and on earth.
When you hear the choir thunder “King of Kings” and “Lord of Lords,” “King of Kings” and “Lord of Lords,” you hear Handel’s depiction of the Christian elevation of Jesus Christ to supreme ruler of the universe. He is the ultimate King to whom all other kings submit in complete reverence.
There’s no peer to Jesus. No other ruler has His authority and power to defeat death and confer life upon the condemned that frees them from death. All earthly and heavenly authority is subject to the almighty power of Jesus Christ’s rule – even the presidency, Congress, and Supreme Court are but vassals to Jesus Christ’s ultimate power and might.
Jesus Christ’s Lordship frees us to serve Him and Him alone.
We Presbyterians defended freedom of conscience in our rebellion against the English Crown. We separated Christ’s rule over our conscience from the earthly rule of contenders for the throne inside our hearts and minds.
We Presbyterians submit completely to Christ’s authority as the King of Kings. There’s no alternative authority for the choices we make, the responsibilities we undertake, the boundaries we keep as Jesus Christ’s vassals. There’s only one King, Jesus Christ. He alone is Lord of our conscience.
Since there’s only one Lord or King over our conscience, we won’t propose another alternative to Him. We can’t use “freedom in interpretation” to say Jesus is just one among many gods for us. We can’t say following Jesus is our hobby that we only do in our free time, when we’re not subject to our employer, or our political party or our civil government. We don’t defend using fear or anxiety as a pretense to take another’s life. We don’t present alternatives of what we really like and want as substitutes for Jesus Christ’s rule over us.
We keep lesser rulers of our conscience in their place, underneath Jesus.
Otherwise, Jesus Christ’s Lordship would be only ceremonial or symbolic.
If we in our Presbyterian cultural establishment think that a council of lords is the meaning of Christ’s Kingship, then we misunderstand the term “Christ is King.” We’ve fallen into the trap of elevating other deities into equality with our monarch. If we believe Jesus Christ’s Lordship is only symbolic or ceremonial, or an anachronism, then we are elevating ourselves to equality with Christ. We have made Jesus subject to the people’s will.
The American Revolution was named the “Presbyterian revolt” by England’s King George III. We Presbyterians revolted against England’s king because we fought the tyranny of kings who didn’t rule by compassion, service, humility in the image of Jesus Christ. They weren’t committed to the life-saving work of Jesus Christ. We wanted the Lord who came to give abundant life.
We revolted because Jesus alone reigns over our conscience. We revolted because Jesus alone rules over death. Only Jesus rules to serve us. Jesus rules our conscience. This is our hallmark, our contribution to the wider Church, as part of Christ’s Body. Presbyterian resistance to tyrants who fail Jesus Christ’s mission inspire us to praise Jesus Christ as the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.
Jesus Christ isn’t a tyrant. His love, His compassion, His offering of Himself to save His Kingdom inspires virtuous rulers on earth to serve their people with justice and mercy. They defend the weak and help the afflicted as Christ taught.
Jesus Christ, the good king, offers His subjects protection and life in exchange for devotion and service to Him. He died for our defense so that all of us might live! Jesus Christ’s Kingship is life-saving, and life-creating. His rule elevates the least among His people to receive His gifts from the Kingdom of Heaven. He is the true King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Amen.