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Of course, the idea of Christ as king came long before the church incorporated it on the calendar. Go back to the gospel record and you find all four evangelists recounting the confrontation we read about a moment ago. The religious authorities had dragged Jesus before the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate in hopes he would be found guilty of treason. Pilate asks Jesus, "Are YOU the king of the Jews?"
Jesus banters back, "Is that your own idea, or did others talk to you about me?"
Pilate replies, "Am I a Jew? It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?"
Jesus answers, "My kingdom is not of this world." And we know it is not. How could it be when "King of the Jews" was the inscription posted over Jesus' head, not above a gilded throne but atop a cruel cross? Still, we know the kingdom is real. After all, why have we ever heard of Pontius Pilate? Or the high priests, Annas and Caiaphas? The only reason we know those names is because they were once part of the story of Jesus. Or what about Pilate's great Roman Empire, or all the others of the past 2000 years? They have risen and fallen; kings and kingdoms have come and gone. Presidents and Prime ministers, despots and dictators have had their moments of glory. But through them all, millions upon millions all over the world have humbled themselves at the foot of that cross and bowed their heads in homage and honor at the name of Jesus. "I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, "who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty."
"The Alpha and the Omega." As you scholars know, those are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. To say something or someone is the Alpha and the Omega is to affirm completeness - the beginning and the end, the A to Z (and everything in between)!
Interesting choice of words for the writer of Revelation. John lived in a time of vicious persecution. To make a public profession of faith in Jesus Christ put one in danger of, at the least, becoming a social and commercial leper or, at worst, being legally murdered as an enemy of the Roman empire. John himself was on the prison island of Patmos as he wrote (and prison islands were not simply places of incarceration; normally they were holding cells for those awaiting execution). In the poetic language of Revelation that we call "apocalyptic," John pictured the awful conditions as they existed in his day and was convinced they were God's judgment upon a world gone wrong.
He described the devastation of the forces of nature run amok; he noted the moral rot and decay that turn humans into monsters and destroy a society from within; he saw the disastrous results of violent conflict. But with eyes of faith, John gazed into the future and saw a better day, a day in a world ruled by King Jesus - the Alpha and the Omega, the one who was and is and is to come, the Almighty.
Others have seen that day as well. Just a few days ago we joined some of those as we sat around our Thanksgiving tables. We remember the Pilgrims' journey that had begun so full of hope for a new life of religious freedom in a warm and welcoming land called Virginia. Oops. Instead they landed at Plymouth Rock on December 21, 1620, not the best time of year in Massachusetts. Until such time as they could build houses and establish themselves on the land, they made their home on board the Mayflower, the vessel in which they had sailed.(1) The men went ashore every morning to work, returning to the little ship at night. They built a "common house" to which the sick and dying were transferred, placed their four little cannon in a fort, which they built on a hill close by, built two rows of houses with a wide street between and finally landed their stores and provisions. Then the whole company came ashore toward the last of March, and in April the Mayflower sailed away.
The ensuing winter was hard and bitter. At one time all but six or seven of the pilgrims were sick. Eighteen women denied themselves food so that their children could eat. Thirteen of them died. Half of the 102 pilgrims died of malnourishment, disease, and exposure. Only about 30 of those who survived were over the age of 16. Those who died were buried in unmarked graves because the pilgrims did not want the natives to know how small their numbers had become.
In the spring they planted three crops; English Peas, Barley, and Indian Corn. The peas were planted too late - though they came up beautifully, the hot sun parched the blossoms and the plants died. One of the settlers described their barley crops as "indifferent;" apparently the barley was not worth harvesting either. Only the corn survived. Of course, not the corn we are used to with big, plump yellow kernels; this was "Indian Corn" with ears only two to three inches long and kernels of different colors. The pilgrims harvested only twenty acres. And to top it all off, a second shipload of thirty-five settlers arrived without any provisions because they expected to live off the crops the first settlers had raised. By the end of their second winter in Plymouth, food had to be rationed again: five kernels of corn for each person per day.(2)
A hard life. In fact, some proposed a Day of Mourning to honor all those who had perished. But the others said no, a Day of Thanksgiving would be more appropriate. After all, even though half had died, half had NOT. Reason to give thanks to the God who had seen them through. Good for them. The eyes of their faith were the same as those of John so many centuries before. They saw their world in the loving care and control of "the Alpha and the Omega, [the one] who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty."
In 1957, Ben Michtom, president of the Ideal Toy Company, had a brainstorm: why not sell a Jesus doll? The majority of kids in America were Christian, so he figured parents would jump at the opportunity to make playtime a religious experience. Other Ideal executives were horrified, but Michtom was convinced it was a great idea. To prove it, he took his case to a higher authority; while on vacation in Italy, he got an audience with the Pope and pitched the idea to him. The Pope gave his blessing, as did every other Christian leader Michtom consulted.
Unfortunately for Ideal, Michtom did not consult any parents, who probably would have told him the idea was a loser (which it turned out to be). As Sydney Stem describes the doll in Toyland, The High-Stakes Game of the Toy Industry, no one bought them because parents were horrified at the idea of undressing the Jesus doll, dragging it around, sticking it in the bathtub. Nothing sold. Ordinarily, there is a no-return policy on products already shipped, but in this case it was such a horrible mistake that Ideal took the dolls back. It appears that what Ideal did with them was give each of its employees a doll and then ground up the rest and put them in landfills.
Jesus dolls - packaged in a box that looked like the Bible - were probably the biggest doll flop in American toy history.(3) Why? Because even though people of faith celebrate the fact that Jesus was truly human - walked, talked, ate, drank, suffered, even died - we know there is more to his story: he is "the Alpha and the Omega, [the one] who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty." That is not doll house stuff!
And that is the point of this Christ the King Sunday - this day is a reminder that Jesus is not simply some ancient itinerant rabbi who taught timeless truths, not simply some helpful Hebrew healer who had remarkable power over disease and even death, not simply a compassionate, caring friend who reached out to those whom society rejected, but rather the God of all creation come to earth, incarnate in human flesh.
Christ the King. Do you believe it? Do you? Then how do you show it? A good start is by taking Christ's instructions seriously. If you want a quick primer on acceptable behavior, take a fast trip through the Sermon on the Mount.(4) Angry words, insulting words are out. Our sexual behavior will be in control. We will be honest in our business dealings. We will go above and beyond the call of duty in response to appeals for help. We will care for the welfare of, not only our neighbor, but our enemy as well. We will be religious, but not showy about it. Possessions will have their rightful place in our lives, not the be-all and end-all of existence. We will not be judgmental, but we will use good judgment. We will trust God to meet our needs. Of course, the gospels have lots more for us, but those should do to get us started. Is Jesus Christ your King, your Lord? Good. Then you will do your level best to do what he says.
Piece of cake, eh? Of course not. But we have the promise of his abiding presence to help us on our journey. This is, after all, our LIVING Lord. This is the one who is ultimately in charge, and that, my friend, is a wonderful word of hope for you or me or anyone who has ever been drenched in the storms of life. It is a word of hope for this old world that says "the wrong shall fail, the right prevail."
True, he wrote no books, composed no songs, drew no pictures, carved no statues, amassed no fortune, commanded no army, ruled no nation...
"I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, "who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty." Christ the King.
Quietly now. Listen for it. Faintly to be heard over the busyness of a too-busy world, the clamor of Christmas commercials, the noisy nattering of political spinmeisters, the din of police whistles and fire sirens, the anguished cries of the mothers of murdered children, you can begin to make it out. Slowly but surely it builds to crescendo and echos down through the corridors of the universe: "The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. And he shall reign forever and ever. Hallelujah!"
1. "Thanksgiving in America" by May Lowe from the book, Thanksgiving, Copyright (c) 1907 by Dodd, Mead, & Company
2. Graham Fowler, sermon via PresbyNet, "In Everything Give Thanks," 11/25/92
3. Dynamic Illustrations quoting Uncle John's Ultimate Bathroom Reader, (The Bathroom Readers' Institute, Bathroom Readers' Press, Berkeley, California 1996)
4. Matthew 5-7
5. Mack Stokes quoted by James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 1988) p. 73