Subversion: Christ the King Sunday
While today is Christ the King Sunday, next Sunday is the start of Advent. It always seems to me like a starting pistol signalling the frantic dash towards Christmas. No doubt it will be a very different Christmas this year, which perhaps will allow us as God’s people to reflect more deeply on what Christmas is about. To do just that, I reread the Christmas story; one very familiar passage sticks out.
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’” (Luke 2:8-12)
I once went for some tests to become an officer in the Intelligence Corps in the British army. (Who said military intelligence was an oxymoron?) During that weekend, we were given a lecture on subversion. One of the roles of the Intelligence Corps, we were told, was to keep an eye on foreign governments and domestic groups who were trying to subvert, or undermine, British democracy and values. They posed a threat, we were told. I don’t think the Roman Army had an Intelligence Corps, but if they had, those verses from Luke would have definitely interested and worried them. For us, the angels’ words to these poor shepherds seem familiar and safe. The whole scene appears Christmas card cosy and innocuous, but to the Romans, those words were the language of dangerous subversion. To the Romans, those words that described Jesus to the shepherds would have seemed more appropriate on an indictment for treason than on a greeting card.
Here is the significant thing: three things ascribed to Jesus by the angels were already used to describe the Roman Emperor. Written in letters and inscribed on monuments throughout the Roman Empire was that it was good news (“gospel”) that Caesar was Lord and Saviour and that he brought peace to the world (incidentally it was also often said that Caesar was a divine son of the gods).
Now do you see how subversive what Luke is telling us really is?
He is presenting Jesus, not Caesar Augustus, as the true divine King, who had come to bring peace and true salvation to the whole world. What we think of as a quaint nativity scene is in fact a gauntlet laid down to Rome and its claim to absolute power. It is a direct challenge to the so-called “gospel” of Rome and its peace which was enforced through brutality, and which did not provide any actual salvation.
This understanding of Jesus and self-understanding of Jesus which it expresses set the first generations of Christ followers on a collision course with Rome. This is the political reason for Jesus’ execution. Pilate had Jesus crucified because he believed Jesus was usurping the power that alone belonged to Caesar. Pilate rightly realised that there couldn’t be two people in the Roman Empire claiming to be Lord of all.
The early Christians faced death for saying the fundamental creed of Christianity that flowed from the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, that “Jesus is Lord.” Whenever they said Jesus is Lord, they were saying simultaneously that Caesar was not Lord, a statement treasonously subversive to Rome.
I wonder if perhaps we have forgotten that to say Jesus is Lord and mean it, is to dethrone every other claim to ultimate authority over our lives? That other royal figure in the nativity story, King Herod, was many things: cruel, despotic, vain; but he was not a fool. Herod understood the implications of what the angels said to the shepherds. He realised Jesus had come to depose and dethrone him; that’s why he tried to kill him and didn’t mind how many innocent lives were lost in the process.
This Sunday, the last Sunday before Advent, has come to be known in the Church as Christ The King Sunday. It was designed to be a reminder that Jesus alone is Lord. Maybe more than ever as his disciples we need the reminder that Jesus and Jesus alone has the rightful claim to reign over our lives and world. Christ the King Sunday is a much-needed reminder that ultimate authority in our lives lies not with Caesar, not with politicians or governments, not allegiance to a nation, flag or philosophy, not to another human being or even with ourselves, but with our Lord Jesus Christ.
And in case you are looking for some small print – a get-out clause when it comes to Jesus claim to lordship over your life – I want to remind you of that well-worn but nevertheless true Christian cliché: “If he is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all.”There is no area of our lives that Jesus does not claim the right to reign over, which of course means that many of us need to do some dethroning of usurpers.
Perhaps this is the real significance of Christ the King Sunday. It is an opportunity to look at what has been ruling over us in every aspect of our lives. It is an opportunity to dethrone the Caesars of today, allowing Christ the King to reign in their stead.
Dr. Ellsworth Kalas was my Dean when I spent a year at Asbury Theological Seminary. He was a master with words. I want to leave you with some of his words as we approach the celebration of the birth of our rightful ruler, from Preaching the Calendar.
“We’re all people who want to be king or queen. Some of us don’t get a very large throne, but we make the most of it. We start in our crib, from which we scream out our orders, and we generally keep at it, as much as society and good taste will allow, until we’re on our deathbed. We like being king or queen….Here, then, is a Christmas word for you and for me. If your name is Herod or Caesar (and everyone’s name is) then be afraid. Because the King has come, and He is going to win. This little babe, in swaddling clothes, is going to win. Brothers and sister, boys and girls, it’s time to get off the throne, and to give the throne to the only one who is eternally qualified to reign.” (p.144)