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Christ the King Sunday is also known in some churches as the Reign of Christ Sunday. Either way, something very powerful is being said. "King," "kingdom," "reign" - these are all highly-charged political words. They say something about power: who has it, and conversely, who does not.
Pilate understood that. He asked Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?" This is not a casual question, although Pilate seems to be asking it derisively. In fact, this word "king" is repeated nine times during this encounter between Pilate, Jesus and the Jewish leaders.
Jesus' response is interesting. Instead of a direct answer, he comes back with another question: "Is that your own idea, or did others talk to you about me?" Sounds almost smart-alecky or at least bold considering his situation. The Jewish leaders had brought him to Pilate after their illegal midnight trial. They made it perfectly clear that the expectation was that Pilate would condemn him to death, so one would think that flippant replies might not be the best idea.
Pilate, of course, is equally flippant in response: "Am I a Jew?" - the implication being that even an idiot would never make THAT mistake. In fact, that attitude was characteristic of Pilate's administration in Judea - in his arrogance he never deigned to identify with the people in his charge and the result was an ill-tempered, mean-spirited regime that would have long ago been relegated to the dust bin of history, his name quickly forgotten, except for one memorable, even earth-shaking, incident.
Pilate was certainly no fan of the Jewish leaders. They had been trouble for him from the beginning and his very first visit to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was not the capital of the province; that was Caesarea. But the procurator paid many visits to Jerusalem, and, when he did, he always came with a detachment of soldiers. The soldiers had their standards; and on the top of the standard there was a little metal bust of the reigning Emperor. The Emperor was regarded as a god, and to the Jew, that little bust on the standards was a graven image.
Previous Roman governors, in deference to the religious scruples of the Jews, had removed that image before they entered the city. Pilate refused to do it; he would not pander to the superstitions of the Jews. He went back to Caesarea. The Jews followed him. They dogged his footsteps for five days. They were humble, but determined in their requests. Finally he told them to meet him in the amphitheatre. He surrounded them with armed soldiers, and informed them that if they did not stop their requests they would be killed there and then. The Jews bared their necks and invited the soldiers strike. Not even Pilate could massacre defenseless men like that. He was beaten and compelled to agree that the images should thereafter be removed from the standards. That was how Pilate began, and it was a bad beginning.(1)
Another incident proved even worse for the governor. Pilate, in honor of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, had some special shields made with the Emperor's name inscribed. As you historians know, in ancient Rome the Emperor was regarded as a god; so here was the name of a strange god inscribed and displayed for reverence in the holy city of Jerusalem. The people were enraged; Pilate's closest advisors suggested he remove them. He refused. The Jews reported the matter to Tiberius the Emperor, and, not wanting a revolution in the province, the Emperor ordered Pilate to comply.(2) As we say, Pilate was no friend of the Jews.
Perhaps that is what led to the next question: "It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?" He knew what HE had done over time to upset these Jews, but what in the world could Jesus have done that was such a threat as to make them want him dead?
Jesus responds, but not with anything that would answer Pilate's question: "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place."
Pilate is still confused: "You are a king, then!"
Jesus answered, "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me."
Pilate remains confused. He still cannot figure what Jesus has done to so infuriate the Jews, and, as we know, he does his best to avoid acquiescing to their demand for Jesus' death. That was probably motivated by his disdain for the Jews as much as any sense of preventing injustice. But finally he gives in after they effectively blackmail him by the reminder of previous run-ins and his resulting rebuke by the Emperor: "If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar." In other words, if you let this man go, we are going to tell on you again!!! And the rest, as they say, is history.
"You are right in saying that I am a king," says Jesus. But we would have to add, but like no other king this world has ever known. We are drawn back to the beginning of the Christian year that culminates on the Sunday that celebrates Christ as King. The story opens with the birth of a baby in an out-of-the-way town called Bethlehem with his first cradle a manger for the feeding of livestock. He grew up in the unsanitary mountain village of Nazareth with a reputation only for the fact that nothing "good" had ever come from that town. As far as we can tell, it was a normal home; Jesus would have shared normal duties with his brothers and sisters. He knew how to fill lamps and to trim wicks. He knew what housecleaning involved. He knew how to build a fire and could prepare a fish fry. He learned the trade of a carpenter.
At about 30 years of age, Jesus laid aside those tools and began to teach and preach and heal. From the beginning people reacted to him. Little children ran at the music of his voice, the aged found comfort in his presence, the sick found healing by merely touching the hem of his garment. He had his hours of popularity when the multitudes crowded about him. He had his moments of quiet reflection, either alone, or with those closest to him. It was on one of those occasions that he asked, "Who do you say that I am?" Simon answered, "You are the Messiah (from the Hebrew), [or] the Christ (the Greek equivalent of Messiah), the Son of the living God."
CHRIST is not Jesus' surname. It is a title. It indicates "the anointed one" - someone set apart for God's service. In the Old Testament the title was regularly applied to the king. By the time of Jesus, the Jewish people were looking for a Messiah, a Christ, to come who would lead them in victory against their oppressors, a conquering hero who would overthrow the hated Romans. As soon became evident, this was not God's intention in Jesus. For those who had their hopes pinned on a military Messiah, this was a devastating blow. Indeed, some have speculated that this was Judas' problem - once he found out that his dream of conquest was over, he bolted ranks. And the rest of the story we know too well.
Jesus was betrayed by those he trusted, abandoned by those he loved. A purple robe was thrown contemptuously across his shoulders, a crown of thorns jammed down upon his brow. He carried his own cross, as far as he was able, to an outlaw's execution. The life which had begun in humble obscurity ended in public shame. He who, at birth, had been laid in a borrowed manger was now laid away in a borrowed tomb.
But we know the story does not end there. And that is why we culminate the Christian year with Christ the King Sunday. This is the day that we can rock the rafters of the universe with our declaration that JESUS CHRIST IS LORD!!!
LORD. What does the name mean? To the ancients it meant master or owner and was always a title of consummate respect. In the modern world, to call Jesus "Lord" is to say he is the chief, the boss, the main man, the head honcho. The buck stops with him; his decisions are final.
Jesus Christ is Lord! These four words were the first creed that the Christian Church ever had. To be a Christian then and to be a Christian now is to make that affirmation. If someone can say, "For me, Jesus Christ is Lord," that person is a Christian.
If we say that "Jesus Christ is Lord," it means that, for us, Jesus Christ is uniquely in charge - we are prepared to obediently follow in whatever direction the Lord chooses to lead, even if he goes where we might rather he did not.
If we say, "Jesus Christ is Lord," that means his priorities will become our priorities. We will be drawn to those on the margins, the outcasts, and even those society (and sometimes even the church) suggests we stay away from.
If we say, "Jesus Christ is Lord," we will take religion seriously - we will worship, we will fellowship, we will pray, we will even sacrifice...just as Jesus did, and we will never let religion become an end in itself; it must never get in the way of people.
If we say, "Jesus Christ is Lord," it means we are prepared to give to Jesus a love and a loyalty that will be given to no other person in all the universe.
An anonymous author made this striking comparison: "Socrates taught for 40 years, Plato for 50, Aristotle for 40, and Jesus for only 3. Yet the influence of Christ's 3-year ministry infinitely transcends the impact left by the combined 130 years of teaching from these men who were among the greatest philosophers of all antiquity.
Millions upon millions of words have been written and spoken about Jesus. As Emerson once noted, "The name of Jesus is not so much written as PLOUGHED into the history of the world." But none of that history has ever been able to tell the whole story. As that great preacher of the 19th century, Horace Bushnell once said, "Who can satisfy himself with anything he can say concerning Jesus Christ?"
Then let us leave it here. Words from the "Declaration of Faith" written by the Southern Presbyterians a few years ago:(4)
We declare that Jesus is Lord.
1. William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, CD-ROM edition (Liguori, MO: Liguori Faithware, 1996) used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press
3. Bible Illustrator for Windows
4. Albert Curry Winn, A Christian Primer, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990), p. 101-102