Last Sunday was the feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the Church Year. I would have posted my sermon sooner were it not for my telephone company. They have just introduced fibre-optic broadband and I had decided to upgrade. The problem was that instead of giving me much higher speeds they managed to give me no speed at all as well as no phone line either. However, everything is now fixed and I am able to post last Sunday’s sermon at last.
Last week I began by talking about food. So, this week, just to keep the theme going, I’m going to begin by talking about drink. And I want to ask you, “What is the oldest thing you have ever drunk?”
Well, whatever answer you come up with, I am fairly certain that I can beat it. The oldest thing I have ever drunk was put into a bottle in 1845. I’m talking about a bottle of
Madeira. This bottle of Madeira was owned and opened by a former curate of this parish that some of you will remember. And that glass of Madeira was the first glass of Madeira I’d ever had – it’s a drink that is nowhere near as popular today as it used to be. And, I have to say, it was extremely nice, and I’ve had a few more glasses since. Though nothing quite as good as that glass of 1845. And I’ve never drunk anything anywhere near as old before or since. The people I was with who shared the bottle started to talk about the events of the year 1845 and we quickly realised how lacking our knowledge of that period was. All we could come up with was that it was somewhere between the battle of Waterloo in 1815 and the outbreak of War in Crimea in 1854 and Queen Victoria was on the throne. She had come to the throne in 1837, so she had been on the throne just 8 years when the Madeira was bottled. She was to become the ruler of the largest empire the world has ever known, and most of her subjects never saw her, or even saw her picture. Had they found themselves in her presence they would have been extremely careful not to put a foot wrong, and, on the whole, Queen Victoria usually got her own way. She expected – and got – deference and respect.
And as for the kind of publicity members of the royal family get today – well, Queen Victoria would most definitely not have been amused by some of the things the royal family do or say! And she certainly wouldn’t have approved of a future king marrying anyone other than royalty – not even a member of the aristocracy and most definitely not a commoner. Unthinkable! The monarch – and the rest of the royal family – were on a different level entirely to everyone else.
Today is, of course, the feast of Christ the King – the last Sunday of the Church’s liturgical year and a day when we reflect on what it means to have Jesus as our King. We think about what the title means and how Jesus himself interpreted it. But we tend to bring our modern cultural understanding of the role of a monarch and let it inform our understanding of what the New Testament means by Jesus as king. The problem is, kings (and queens) aren’t what they used to be. Perhaps we think of monarchs like Queen Victoria. But even if you think back to Queen Victoria, and the deference she expected and got, she was still a constitutional monarch who only ruled by the will of Parliament and was subject to the law herself. Going further back, think about King Henry the Eighth – famous (or notorious, depending on how you look at it) for being a king you were desperate to keep on the right side of so that you also kept your head. Henry was not someone you upset. A great many people lost their lives, including two of his wives, because they got on Henry’s wrong side and often through doing nothing wrong. He was the kind of person that when you left his presence you checked to see whether your head was still on your shoulders. We simply wouldn’t accept that kind of king today.
Our attitude to monarchy has changed over the years. They are no longer people to be feared and obeyed. They are no longer people who hold the power of life and death over their subjects. And in this media age we are used to seeing royalty, and what they get up to, on the front pages of our tabloid newspapers. And this attitude to monarchy, this understanding, presents us with a real problem today. Because we don’t quite get what someone at the time of Jesus would have understood by the concept of Jesus as a King. Today we may well think of a king or a queen as someone who perhaps performs a useful role but who can largely be ignored in our everyday life as they don’t have much to do with it. But that’s not the kind of king that anyone who lived at the time of Jesus would have been familiar with. Today we are celebrating the feast of Christ the King – but a king very different from the kind of monarch that we usually think about. When we think about monarchs today we bring with that all those modern cultural expectations of constitutional monarchy. But that’s not the kind of benign king that Jesus is – far from it!
Think back two thousand years. Try and imagine what the concepts of ‘king’ and ‘kingdom’ meant to people then. And try and imagine what went through people’s minds as they thought about the New Testament concepts of Christ as king and of God’s kingdom. For the only concept they had of kingship was that of absolute monarchy – and I mean ‘absolute’ in capital letters. Even by the time of King Henry the Eighth he had laws he had to follow, fearsome though he was – this is post Magna Carta remember. At the time of Jesus the kind of king people knew about was the kind that made the laws himself and did what he pleased. He told you what to do and if you knew what was good for you, you did it. The king wielded total power and held your life in his hands.
And so when the New Testament writers talked about God’s kingdom; when they talked about Jesus as our king, the image that people would have had was that of absolute monarchy, absolute power. And they would have held that picture in their minds as they came to terms with a king who completely overturned that traditional picture of monarchy. And not only that. As well as being completely revolutionary in his attitude to kingship, he is totally revolutionary in his attitude to those who accept his authority as king. They are not people to be downtrodden and worked and taxed in order to give the king a luxury-laden lifestyle. They are people to be raised up to share the life of the king as equals – as free people, not as subjects. And yet, the first Christians understood that like any king in the ancient world, Jesus held their lives in his hands and Jesus called for absolute loyalty and worship. A king like no king the world had ever seen, but a king nonetheless.
The prophet Ezekiel prophesied that God would send a king – but a king unlike anything anyone had ever seen or would expect. A king who would also be a shepherd for his people, his servant David, the shepherd-boy-king – the ideal king that the people looked back to. By which Ezekiel is saying not only would this king look after his people, but also that this king is identified as being like one of the lowliest of people – shepherds were not much thought of in Jewish society. To a society that was used to totally absolute monarchy, the kind of king that God promised he would send, the kind of king that Jesus showed himself to be, was – quite frankly – mind-boggling, even somewhat disturbing for self-respecting people. And here we are, as at the end of the church year we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, and we find ourselves encountering not a king who rules with great power and great pomp but a king who hangs upon a cross. Our altar frontal for this season has upon it a crown – not a crown of gold and jewels, but a crown of thorns. What are we to make of it all? We are called to wrestle with that great paradox of the king who likens himself to a shepherd, the king who reigns from the instrument of torture that is cross, and yet the king who still asks for our absolute loyalty and service and obedience. The king who will one day, like a shepherd, divide the sheep from the goats, and judge those who have been found wanting.
Today, as we pay homage to our king, we are also called to stand and look at Jesus on the cross. And we are called to worship him as our shepherd-king. The king who is an absolute monarch, and yet a king who came down from heaven to come and walk with his people. The king who rules from the throne of the cross and who says to us, “This I do in love for you, in service for you – now go and do what I have done for you to everyone you meet. Take up your own cross, reach out in love and service, and come and join me as equals in my kingdom.”