November 25, 2012
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
LORD OF ALL THE NATIONS
This is the last Sunday of the year. I know you think I’m a month off, but according to the Christian calendar, this really is the last Sunday of the year. The Christian calendar begins with
Advent, and Advent begins next week. There’s some sense to that. It makes sense to begin with a birth. Next week we won’t be celebrating the birth of Jesus, but we will begin the season of preparing to celebrate that birth.
Then the Christian year takes us through the life of Jesus, with Epiphany, then Lent and the events leading up to his crucifixion. On Easter we will celebrate his resurrection. Pentecost comes next, celebrating the beginning of the Church on the day of Pentecost. Pentecost is that season that seems to last forever, but today it finally ends. It ends with Christ the King Sunday. That’s today, the last Sunday of the Christian year.
I’m in the minority among United Methodist clergy in that I will very often ignore Christ the King Sunday entirely. I didn’t even mention it the last couple of years, and I don’t intend to mention it for the next several years. The reason is that Christ the King Sunday almost always falls on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. When that happens, I’ve always felt we need to have a Thanksgiving theme in worship. Many of my colleagues ignore Thanksgiving and make a big deal of Christ the King every year. Nothing wrong with that, but so far I’ve had no complaints about saving up for a big Christ the King Sunday just every once in a while. Next time will be 2017. You might want to get that on your calendar.
There is some drama to the Christian year. It’s a story that never gets old. The way it begins is in such stark contrast to the way it ends. We start with a baby born in a barn to peasants and we end with that same baby enthroned as Lord and Ruler of the entire universe. It’s quite a claim!
Paul’s letter to the Colossians has this passage that captures this theme of the last Sunday of the Christian year.
He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all
creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and
on earth, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or
dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created
through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him
all things hold together.
If I were to ask you the mental picture you have of Jesus, I’ll bet for most of you it would be this. (Hold up painting.) This is the “Head of Christ” by Warner Sallman. Most people probably think Jesus sat down for this painting, between miracles. It’s that old. Actually it only dates back to 1940. It quickly became the most popular American image of Jesus. It’s found in Sunday school rooms all over the country and in many homes. It shows us Jesus with a handsome face, a sincere expression, compassionate eyes, and a $40 haircut. Sallman captured perfectly the American ideal of Jesus. A friend. A leader. A hero. A kind and good man.
In the Catholic tradition Jesus is more typically depicted on the cross. Worldwide, this would be the image of Christ that is the mental picture of the majority of Christians. When we see Jesus on the cross, we are reminded that Jesus is more than just a really good man. He is also our Savior.
But what about the early Christians? Those who lived too late to have actually seen Jesus but were living when Paul wrote his letters? They would not have known the Sallman painting, believe it or not. And they would not have known the images of Jesus on the cross. The image first century Christians had of Jesus is called the “Pantocrator.” You can still see it in churches today. I saw it in many very old churches when I visited theHoly Land. Pantocrator means ruler of everything, ruler of all creation. The painting of the Pantocrator would typically be on the dome ceiling of the sanctuary, so worshipers could see Jesus ruling from the heavens.
Of course first century Christians didn’t worship in these domed sanctuaries. Their renditions of Jesus the Pantocrator may have been a simple painting on a wall or a crude little statue. Still, this was how they saw Jesus. They worshiped what we might call a “cosmic Christ.” That’s the Christ Paul describes in this passage from Colossians. “He is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation, all things have been created through him and for him and in him all things hold together.”
If you put yourself in the mindset of those first Christians, it isn’t hard to see why they were drawn to an exalted Christ. They lived under a government that was very powerful and that was not very friendly. They lived under the brutal thumb of theRoman Empire. And rather than choosing to live meekly and quietly so as not to arouse and antagonize “the Beast”, they courageously proclaimed their faith in Christ. They boldly declared that Christ is Lord, which meant that Caesar isn’t. They did so knowing they were risking their lives. And, yes, the stories of Christians being fed to the lions are true. They knew very well they lived in a kingdom ruled by Caesar. But they wouldn’t bow to Caesar, they wouldn’t worship Caesar, because Jesus was their king.
That is why Paul talks about Christ the way he talks about him in his letter to the Colossians. It’s a bold and a dangerous political statement. He says, “Jesus is above all thrones and all dominions and all powers and all rulers.” Jesus is above everything and everyone. “All things were created through him and for him, and he holds all things together.” There’s a legend that Paul was crucified inRome. It’s not in the Bible, but it’s not a far-fetched conclusion to reach, especially if words like these were brought to the attention of the Roman Emperor.
So far we have a history lesson that I expect some of you are finding interesting and others of you tuned out a long time ago. Maybe about the time I used the word “Pantocrator.” History can be interesting, history is important, but the real value of history is in applying lessons from the past to our lives in the present. So what does this old idea that Jesus is the Lord of the universe mean for us living today?
First, it means we need to be humble. Because if we believe that Christ is ruling over the entire universe it means that we aren’t. As soon as we crown Jesus King of kings and Lord of lords it means we can stop wearing our little tin foil crowns and acting like we’re in charge.
That’s one of the paradoxes of being a Christian. You start by knowing that you need Jesus in your life. And then as you grow as a Christian, your need for Jesus becomes greater not less. You might think you would eventually outgrow Jesus as you grow up into a strong, capable, self-sufficient human being. But it doesn’t work that way. As Christians grow, we grow in humility. We grow in our awareness of how great Jesus is and how great is our need for Jesus. Jesus said, “Without me, you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). Baby Christians are willing to consider that that might possibly be true. Grown up Christians know that is absolutely the truth.
A pastor was waiting for the airport shuttle bus to pick him up. As he waited, a woman was speaking to one stranger after another. She was too friendly. She’d obviously been drinking. She was chain smoking. She was telling all these strangers her life story, whether they cared to hear it or not. The bus came. Everyone got on the bus, except the pastor and this woman. The pastor figured some got on that bus even though it wasn’t their bus just to get away from this woman. Now the woman started talking to the pastor. She said, “Let me guess what you do. I’ll bet you’re a lawyer.” He said, “No, I’m not a lawyer.” She said, “Well, then what do you do?” He said, “I’m a pastor.” She said, “Jesus Christ!” He said, “No ma’am, I just work for him.”
None of us is Jesus Christ. All of us just work for him. Therefore, all of us who call Jesus Lord need to be humble.
Second, this Christ the King Sunday helps us to put things into perspective. It helps us to see what should impress us and what should not. What is worthy of praise and what just appears to be big and impressive and important.
I love that story we printed as the Silent Preparation this morning. A letter comes to a tiny Quaker chapel from corporate headquarters of a huge English chain of stores called “Lewis’s”. The letter got right to the point. The chapel had to go. It was in the way. The store was ready to expand and the chapel was taking up valuable real estate. So the letter said, “We will pay you any price you care to name. If you’ll name a price, we’ll settle the matter as quickly as possible.”
The Quakers wrote back. They explained that their little meeting house was not for sale. After all, they had been there long before “Lewis’s” had moved into the neighborhood. They said they were determined to stay right where they were. The letter said, “We are so determined to stay where we are that we will happily buy “Lewis’s”. If therefore you would like to name a suitable price we will settle the matter as quickly as possible.” Which the corporate executives might have taken as a joke except for the signature. It signed by Sir George Adrian Cadbury, a good Quaker and also head of Cadbury Enterprises. This is the chocolate and candy company. They could have purchased “Lewis’s” many times over.
It’s not the size of the building that matters. It’s who signs the letter. Appearances can deceive. We get impressed by what looks big and impressive by worldly standards. We forget that Christ is King over it all.
As a side note, in 2010 “Lewis’s” closed its doors. Also in 2010 Cadbury Enterprises was acquired by Kraft Foods in a hostile takeover. But theChurchofJesus Christis still in business, under the same management for over 2000 years.
Finally, when we crown Christ as King over everything, it means we ought to take seriously what he taught us. Don’t you think? I mean, we are perfectly free to accept or reject what anyone else teaches us, but if the one doing the teaching is the one we know to be King of kings and Lord of lords, it would probably be a good idea to do what he tells us to do. And what does Christ tell us to do? If we pare it all down to one word, I think you know what that one word would be. Love. Love God. Love neighbor. Love. So when our text tells us that Christ holds all things together, it’s really telling us that love holds all things together.
Once again, our perspective can so easily lead us astray. Because love looks weak. TheRoman Empirelooks strong. I know I’m getting ahead of myself because Advent doesn’t start until next week, but look at the helpless baby Jesus lying in that manger bed. And look at the greatest military machine history had yet produced, theRoman Empire. Which is stronger? Which will last longer? It’s not what one might think. TheRoman Empirehas been dead for 1,600 years. Jesus is alive and the love of Jesus remains the strongest force in this universe.
Last week we received the largest single offering for mission that we have received since I came to be your pastor. $1,588. That’s 22 wheelchairs going to places in our world where a free wheelchair will make the difference between lying on the ground and moving around freely. But you didn’t just give wheelchairs. You also gave love. You gave Jesus. You gave the love that holds this universe together.
It reminded me of my trip toTogoon the western coast ofAfrica. I saw a lot of people inTogowho were crippled, who were missing limbs, for whom a wheelchair could have made all the difference. I remember driving acrossLome, their capital city after we had arrived. We were going from the airport to our hotel, and to get there we had to pass through some of the poorest areas of town. It was poverty that you don’t see unless you leave this country. Appalling, heartbreaking. Our van was moving slowly through a sea of people. There was no clear boundary between the part of the road for pedestrians and the part of the road for motorized vehicles. There were few full size vehicles like ours. There were lots of high pitched motor scooters. It was a wonder people weren’t being run over.
I remember so clearly what I was thinking at that moment. It was getting dark. I had been in the air all day. If I didn’t find a place to run, my running streak, which was then just over 20 years, would be over. But how does one run through a sea of humanity and motor scooters? It looked pretty hopeless for me.
That’s when God talked to me. And I did need a good talking to. It looked hopeless for me?? What about all these people? What mattered was not that I could find a place to run. What mattered was that all these people who were in my way could find food to eat. What mattered was finding a way to love them with the love of Jesus, with a love that would not just fill their souls but would also fill their stomachs.
It was one of those powerful moments where God opened my eyes and helped me to see the world the way God sees the world. And yes, I did find a place to run that night. And before I leftTogoI discovered that distance running is a popular sport there, second only to soccer. I got to run with several Togolese. They ran barefoot. A pair of shoes would have been an impossible luxury.
Paul describes Christ the King in Colossians chapter 1. Then he interprets for us the meaning of Christ the King in Colossians chapter 3. Here is what he says.
[If you want to be exalted with Christ], put on then compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these, put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (3:12-14)
Love is the power that brings about the harmony. That’s what Jesus the Pantocrator is doing up there. Jesus is holding all things together with love. And that’s what we ought to be doing down here. With the love of Jesus, bringing all things together.
U Thant was Secretary General of the United Nations from 1961 to 1971. He was not a Christian. But if Christ is truly a cosmic Christ and Lord of all, then I think that must mean Christ is at work in the lives of non-Christians, too.
U Thant was once asked why he was so successful in bringing people together who came from different backgrounds and had such different ideas and perspectives. He had an amazing way of getting people to move past their differences and to get them to work together on solutions. Here’s what he said. He said he had to live a double life. When he was at his home in the suburbs ofNew York, he could live as a citizen ofBurmaand a Buddhist. But when he was at his office inManhattanin the United Nations building:
I had to forget that I was a Buddhist and a Burmese. One of my duties was to receive people: diplomats, scientists, writers, journalists, and my own United Nations colleagues. Most of my visitors had something very important to say to me. They wanted to leave me with a message of great importance. They wanted me to hear what they believed. In order to receive and fully understand what my brother or sister said to me, I found I must open myself to them. In order to open myself to them, I must empty myself of myself.
If you want to be like Christ the King, then humble yourself. Put on compassion, kindness, meekness, lowliness, patience. And above all else, put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
Lord Christ, on this last Sunday of the year, as we now have come full circle from adoring you in the manger to bowing before you, Lord of all the nations, teach us to be humble. Teach us perspective, to see as you see what matters and what does not. And teach us above all, to love. We exalt you now in worship. May we exalt you this week in our lives. In your name, the name above all names, Amen.