a sermon for Christ the King [Year B]
“Joy to the world! The Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King!”
There’s a good chance that if you know any hymn by heart, it’s that one. And there’s also a good chance it makes you think of think of Christmas. It may make some of the more liturgically-particular people among us think of Advent, since that’s actually the section of our hymnal it is listed in. Whichever the case may be, it makes us think of this time of year as we round the corner of Thanksgiving and set our sights on the birth of Christ, and all of that is understandable since “Joy to the World” was the most-published Christmas hymn of the 20th century.
However, the writer of “Joy to the World,” an 18th-century English clergyman by the name of Isaac Watts, might be surprised to learn that because he did not write it as a Christmas hymn. He did not write it as an Advent hymn, either. Watts just wrote it as a hymn that could be sung at any and every time of the year. He based it loosely on Psalm 98, and the note he included just under its title and before the first line says, “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.” Although it’s become for us the quintessential Christmas carol, “Joy to the World” was probably never intended to focus us on a baby in Bethlehem, but the final arrival of Jesus and his eternal reign over all things. When we sing about every heart preparing room we’re not primarily singing for a child who’s looking for a room in the inn but rather for a King who has lived through Good Friday, a King who has tried with everything he has to surround us and infuse us with God’s love.
In fact, that’s really the underlying message of everything the church says and sings and does, not just Isaac Watts’ hymn. We wait for and place our hope on a kingdom that is coming where Jesus’ reign will be received and acknowledged by all “as far as the curse is found.” That is, we expect Jesus love and mercy is able to advance and conquer wherever human brokenness is present—the brokenness in our hearts, in our relationships with others, and in our relationship with creation. There is no place that is off-limits for the love of Jesus.
You could say that’s really our main task right now, in fact: to get the world ready to have Jesus as its King. The challenge is that Jesus’ kingdom has some very peculiar qualities about it. For one, Jesus is not going to force anyone to know about his kingdom or force anyone into his kingdom, at least for now. He’s not even going to force his reign on Pontius Pilate, who holds Jesus’ very life in his hands.
Unlike all the authorities of this world—all of the monarchies and democracies and chiefdoms and homeowners’ associations—the authority that God establishes in Jesus never resorts to coercion or violence or financial penalties. Jesus invites people to live under his authority. Jesus performs loving and life-transforming acts in order for people to receive the truth about him. Pilate and the other empires of the world fundamentally don’t understand this because, at the end of the day, they need to back up their authority with a weapon.
We may grow frustrated that Jesus never lays down the law, so to speak, with Pilate—that he never consents to being defended violently by his followers. He’s so close to the throne there in Jerusalem, so close to where he needs to be in order to take over and rule the land. So close! I mean, if there ever were a time for a Second Amendment it would be now, right?—as Jesus is about to head to the cross, as he and his disciples are about to watch it all come crashing down? But in Jesus’ kingdom there is apparently no right to bear arms. Arms don’t even exist where Jesus reigns, so people can’t have a right to them.
The empires of the world don’t comprehend the kind of power that Jesus wields and neither do we, truth be told, until that love envelops us and transforms us with its forgiveness and grace. It’s not like that we’ve got it all figured out and Pilate is the dummy. To some degree, we’re all Pilate, unwilling to see and make sense of this pure gift of love standing right in front of us. But when it does envelop and transform us, we begin to see that it is something to be shared and spread. If there is a force behind Jesus’ authority, it is the force of self-giving, the force of handing over oneself in love.
Last weekend I was with our 7th and 8th graders at the Virginia Synod Youth Event called “Lost and Found.” The theme of the event was “Lost Hate and Found Love,” and the Bible verse they used as the anchor was the part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where he talks about loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you. The way they laid out the presentations for the theme was genius because they based it on a roll-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons. The small group presentations featured a group of bitter rivals playing against each other in cutthroat fashion until one decides to set herself back so that all can win together. It takes them all a while to catch on.
At one point in our small group discussions, we had to pretend that we were in a fortress surrounded by an army and that our commanders had told us they were enemies and needed to be destroyed. However, we knew they could be made into friends, and so our quest was to cleverly come up with a secret plan to turn them into allies. Let me tell you, 7th and 8th graders can be very creative with loving enemies if it’s turned into a fantasy quest and no limits are placed on imagination! One small group decided to complete the quest they’d tell their commanders they were going to poison the enemy but then organize an airlift of fried chicken to the battlefield so they could all eat together and have a dance party. (Fried chicken always gets the job done).
The group I worked with ended up suggesting the more practical ways of turning enemies into friends—things like learning to understand your enemy’s point of view, that the people persecuting you may be lonely or hurt. I came away wondering how Christ-followers might help hearts prepare room for Jesus if we all tapped into the creativity and energy of our inner middle schooler.
Jesus’ love is still transforming people and inviting people to live under his authority, and it happens when people listen to Jesus’ voice. It is a voice that calls us to follow and lay down our lives for the other, to lay aside our goals of winning and conquering and seeing instead that God is concerned with all of us being together, all of God’s children crossing the finish line as one. Even Pontius Pilate.
This past week there was a feature article in a regional publication about two local-area school principals. The article discussed the many challenges of serving in the role of public-school principal these days, of the demands on personal time and the crazy amount of creativity and problem-solving skills that school administrators need. It became clear as the article unfolded that the best way for those principals to run their school communities, the best way to establish their authority was through open communication, honesty, and vulnerability. They have found that being open to understanding students’ real problems, being willing to listen and listen some more, and being ready to lead by example is absolutely critical as a leader. Effective principals don’t lord themselves over people in the hallways or lock themselves up in a fortress office.
One of the more poignant parts in that article was when the reporter and the principal are making their rounds through the school and they stop at a student table where stickers that say, “You can sit with me” are being handed out by a student organization created to combat some of the social issues teens face today. The principal herself stops, gets a sticker, and slaps it on herself so that kids can know they can sit even with her if they need a buddy or listening ear in study hall or the library.
As it happens, that principal is a member of this congregation and currently serves on our council. In fact, she grew up in this congregation, learning about Jesus kingdom here every Sunday. She’s out there in the world, along with you, along with countless others like her, figuring out ways to spread the selfless love of Jesus, preparing room for him to come and reign. This is how it will happen, folks, as the Pilates of the world interrogate and bully. Those who know Jesus’ love will respond by saying, “You can sit with me.” Because at this table the King has said, “You can sit with me.”
One of the things we try to do every night around our dinner table is take turns sharing our highs and lows of the day. We go around the table and interrogate each other, “What was your high? What was your low? What are you thankful for today?” Our daughters always want to include our 2-year-old in this ritual, and they’re really persistent and creative at phrasing those questions in ways that a 2-year-old might understand. They’ll say things like, “When did you smile today?” or “What made you happy today?” and each time they ask him he looks at us and says, “Umm…Jesus!” And then they’ll ask him, “What made you sad today?” and he will reply, “Umm..Jesus!”
Granted, it’s probably a stretch to say the kid knows what he’s saying. He’s just giving the answer he thinks we want to hear because he’s heard it somewhere and he’s learned it means something.
And yet, in some ways, we all await the the time when that’s the only worthwhile answer any of us will be able to give. We will no longer pace back and forth indecisively like Pontius Pilate, wondering what to with this love that covers all sin as far as the curse is found. We will no longer see enemies as enemies but see the cross has made us all friends. And the only truthful answer we’ll be able to give for anything is “Jesus”—the way he’s been reflected in our lives, the way he was present in our good times, the way he held us in the bad, the way his self-giving authority has held sway over our self-serving one.
At the end of the day, only the things of us and our time here which speak of King Jesus will be what remains. And we’ll be so fully transformed by him we’ll be able to answer by heart. And on that day, my brothers and sisters, there will be joy. Joy…to the world.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
 “Under Pressure.” Jack Cooksey in Richmond Mag, November 12, 2019