Sermon - Christ the King (Ordinary 34) Year A -
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Sometimes we sing a hymn that begins:
The head that once was crowned with thorns
is crowned with glory now;
a royal diadem adorns
the mighty victor's brow.
The meaning of the title Christ or Messiah is "king", literally "the anointed one", one chosen and set apart to rule. When the Christ came, known as the man Jesus, he was not recognized: rather than being crowned with "a royal diadem" he was mocked with a crown of thorns, a gaudy robe and a reed for a sceptre, while the soldiers jeered at him "Hail, King of the Jews" [Matthew 27:28-29]; and Pilate chose to condemn him to death as "King of the Jews"; but we believe that his death was not the end, that he showed he was indeed a king of a far greater kingdom than the Roman Empire when God raised him from the dead, and he ascended to heaven, raising him up as a mighty victor. We believe that after he rose and met with his disciples, he was honoured by being raised to the highest place with God. As Paul wrote to the Philippians:
The highest place that heaven affords
is his, is his by right,
the King of kings and Lord of lords,
and heaven's eternal light. [TIS 378, AHB 301]
So we celebrate today Christ the King. We have come to the end of the cycle of the church's year: having begun with Advent and Christmas, we followed the drama from the birth of Jesus on through his life of teaching and healing to his suffering and death, we rejoiced in his resurrection, we have shared the life of the Spirit poured out at Pentecost on the first believers, and we have sought to share the Gospel and its implications in the continuing life of the church in the world. At the end of the cycle of the festivals of the year we look to the end, not merely to a conclusion but the completion, the perfection, the fulfilment of the purpose towards which all that Jesus did was directed. We anticipate the establishment of the Kingdom of God when his glory will be fully revealed and his power will be exercised fully and openly. [See Colossians 1:15-20, Revelation 1:4-8; 7:9-17].
Christ will come as Judge
It is the faith of the church that God's power will be exercised through Christ at the end. Just as the world was made through him in the past, now and in the future he lives and reigns for ever. So the vision of the Revelation of John the Divine concludes in the Book of the Revelation with the Saviour as Judge:
It seems that when Matthew wrote this he was referring especially to the followers to the followers of Jesus, to those who were witnessing to him and who were being persecuted: giving a cup of water to any of them when they were in need or in prison was the same as giving it to Christ the King himself, for they are his representatives standing in his place. There are other passages where this same idea is present.
There is today a temptation to limit the meaning to socially acceptable purposes. Love your neighbour and serve those in need or you will have to answer for it at the end! That is a fair interpretation as far as it goes. But, it is not the whole of it. Don't forget, at the same time, that it has a special meaning too, about the obligation of believers to meet the needs of people who are struggling in Christ's mission and suffer as a result. It is important to keep that meaning to the fore because it is easy other otherwise to fall into the popular anti-Christian trap of denigrating the church and promoting social welfare in a secular society as it were the sole consequence of value in the teaching of Jesus. The concern which Jesus had for his disciples is certainly extended to the whole human family, but at the same time it is necessary for the work of his disciples to be sustained for the good of all.
The last judgement: can modern people believe in it?
I don't know whether you think much about the last judgement. Some say there is no point in thinking about such things; and anyway, we do not seek a reward but rely upon the grace of God. It has not been a popular theme in recent times in liberal protestant churches and probably not in most mainstream churches. Modern society generally tends to ridicule the preacher who exhorted his listeners to "flee from the wrath to come" [Matthew 3:7, in the scornful words of John the Baptist]; while it is common enough for people who have had little or nothing to do with the church to think that we still talk that way; and, as a result to view preachers with fear and suspicion mixed with contempt.
Knowing that judgmental attitudes are not acceptable in a community which values individual freedom very highly, and that church members are suspected of being judgmental, liberal minded Christians are inclined to want to assure their accusers that they don't believe anything of the kind. However, when asked what they do believe about such things as the last judgment believers are likely to find it difficult to answer. They might be genuinely confused and say they don't know; or they might say that God is a God of love and will accept all people. Of course we should say that God is a God of love, for that is what we believe; and, of course, we should leave judgement to God. We cannot presume to say what God will do. But there is a problem in all this.
Most people, whether or not they call themselves Christians, believe in one way or another that they will be accountable for what they do, that good deeds will be rewarded and bad deeds will be punished. At the same time people like to believe and like to be told that what they are doing is OK. There is no easier way to gain popularity than to give people who might have had doubts about the morality of their behaviour reason to think that they have done nothing wrong. You see it often enough in the advice columns of popular magazines, radio programs, and sadly among popular preachers. In most counselling services whether run by church or secular organisations it is more or less expected. You should feel good about yourself and what you do. Instead of confronting what they have done wrong, confessing their guilt and changing their behaviour, the tendency in a liberal society is to affirm everyone's right to do as they chose; yet, strangely most people don't really believe that, they still think that some things are right and others wrong.
Where the modern view is perhaps different from what might have been accepted in ages past, is that today few people care a great deal about what the church tells them is wrong. They will be a little more ready to accept endorsement of what they do as OK. Generally modern people prefer to decide that for themselves, often saying they have to work out what is right for themselves as individuals, and that it might be different from what is right for others. At that point, believing in the ultimate rightness of what they chose for themselves, they will probably have rejected traditional ideas of any final judgment, or the possibility of having to account to God for how they have lived their lives.
Yet I suspect for many people this rejection of traditional Christian beliefs sits rather uneasily with their sense of being ultimately responsible in some way for what they do. The same people will certainly not always allow others to do whatever they feel is right. Most people will have no trouble in agreeing that a mass murderer has done a terrible thing whatever he thinks of it, as we are unfortunately reminded all to often, whether it be in orgransed acts of terror or individual self-justified acts of violence. There is genuine conflict and confusion in our liberal modern society on this matter of how free we are and how much we must expect to answer for what we do. The judge, Mr Justice Cox, in the trial of Martin Bryant, the gunman of the Port Arthur massacre, reflected upon this question when passing sentence, saying that although the mass murderer was confused, limited in understanding and lacking in normal social support, he was nevertheless responsible for his evil actions.
In recent times the teaching of Jesus has commonly been presented and perhaps even more commonly heard only with the qualities of sweetness and light. Christ's occasional talk of the wrath of God is somehow thought not to be Christian, but such talk is present in Christ's teaching and especially in his hard words of warnings about the end [eg. Luke 21:23 and those texts we have heard today].
Judgement and destruction are common themes in the New Testament
But we know that when the gospel writings are considered as a whole the occasional warnings that Jesus gave cannot easily be explained away. Some of his sayings applied perhaps to the immediate circumstances of life at that time, especially to the threat of destruction by the Romans if the Jews rebelled, but there are too many examples of Jesus warning people of judgement at the end for such sayings to be dismissed. As we heard at the conclusion of the parable of the talents last week;
Or in the parable of the sheep and the goats this week:
These last two saying come from John the Baptist and they are less characteristic of the teaching of Jesus, whose general attitude to sinners is clearly more generous; but it would be wrong to think that such ideas are not found also in what Jesus taught, according to the witness of the apostles, for example:
These are indeed quite common images and you can find many other examples from the New Testament. As well as its analogy with the common place destruction of rubbish which has no future value, the idea of things being burned to get rid of evil goes back to the Old Testament where the whole burned offering of an animal sacrifice was the most holy offering to God. Most sacrifices on the alter in temple worship were not destroyed. A small portion might have been destroyed, but most was of the sacrifice was shared and eaten, some by the priests and some by the people including those who made the offering. That kind of sharing of sacrificed food in a manner similar to our communion at the Lord's Table was a common practice, not only among the ancient people of Israel but among their neighbours such as the Greeks of classical and New Testament times. The complete destruction of an offering by fire, which was called a holocaust, was an offering for sin. Something valuable to the worshipper was sacrificed in the place of the destruction that would otherwise fall on him and his family. We do not think that way now, at least not consciously, but we do have the idea of holocaust.
It is even possible to generalize the warning of destruction if people do not live as God intends them to live, in love and charity with their neighbours, to apply it to the various holocausts and episodes of genocide that have occurred in human history, and so to warn that if people don't learn how to live peaceably together as members of one family under God then terrible things will happen; and there is a great deal of truth in that! The trouble is that in the human holocausts we know, which result from human evil, it is not only the guilty who suffer but often many more who are innocent! But then were not the lambs innocent; and was that not why Jesus was called the Lamb of God!
We have seen enough of it in the past century to serve as evidence of such a general truth, nevertheless, of terrible consequences following from evil human actions: 20 million deaths in World War II after men had fought the First World War "to end all wars"; we remember the millions who have died in Cambodia and Rwanda, and more recently the suffering in Bosia, Kosovo and East Timor, Congo and Namibia; and few in the West seem to have assimilated the fact that a million died in the eight years war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s; and that is not to ignor the thousands who have died in political and religious acts of terror. We are aware of many places of violence and suffering. A general warning of the terrible consequences of not loving God and our neighbours does make some sense to us.
We might even sometimes pause and give thanks that we seem to have come through the Cold War without nuclear catastrophe, beside which all the other horrors would have faded to nothing. We might do well to remind ourselves that there are still enough nuclear weapons in existence to destroy the world many times over, and there are other weapons of mass destruction. The dire warning of terrible suffering if we do not follow the teaching of the Prince of Peace must still be heard; but do you really think that these earthly consequences, terrible as they are, were all that Jesus was talking about when he warned of the final judgement? Can it all be put entirely in terms of human history or is there another dimension to the coming of the Kingdom of God?
You might expect, even in ordinary human terms, that there must be more to it than what happens in this earthly life, for we do not see full justice done here: too many innocent people suffer in the fires lit by human agents of evil; and too many who are guilty prosper for too long to satisfy our limited sense of justice. Then we have trouble working out what is just, and even when we do, there is not always a lot we can do about it. How sure can we be of how much to blame the guilty person? As the Chief Justice of Tasmania put it when sentencing the mass murderer in the Port Arthur tragedy:
In determining an appropriate punishment, the court is required to have regard to a great many factors:
Is that not reason to rejoice! Evil will eventually be overcome and Christ will be all in all! For most of us ordinary people of faith that should not be something to fear but to welcome gladly. Our hope is not in denying responsibility, for that would be to deny the rule of God who will not in the end be mocked. Rather our hope is in Christ. The one who will be our judge is the very same loving servant and brother who was gave up his life for us and prayed even for those who killed him.
Our hope is in the fact that the one who will be our judge is the one whom we know as our Saviour. After all, he could hardly be our Saviour if he had not been able to overcome our enemies and offer us a way forward. Jesus is our Saviour because he is the Christ, Christ the King, the all conquering hero. We have cause to rejoice in his ultimate victory. John in his Revelation caught a vision of it, in the blessed before the throne of God where they discover that the sacrificed Lamb of God is their shepherd, both Judge and Saviour:
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