Scripture: Revelation 1:4-8
Earlier this year the British royal family had the joy of celebrating another royal wedding when Prince Harry married Meghan Markle. As expected the ceremony had all of the pomp and circumstance that comes with a royal wedding. An odd thing happened this time though. We Americans cared more about the British royal family getting married than the British people did. An estimated 29 million Americans watched the royal wedding on TV, compared to only 18 million citizens of the United Kingdom. This could just be chalked up to a population difference, but it appears to be more than that because in 2011 when Prince William wed more British people watched it than Americans. It seems that this time the rebellious colonies cared more about the royal wedding than the loyal subjects of the crown. Many commentators were quick to point out the reason for this discrepancy is because the now Duchess of Sussex was herself an American actress. The appeal of the royal wedding to Americans is that she was one of us who got to experience an honest to goodness fairy tale wedding where she married the prince.
In American culture we have a really complicated relationship with the idea of royalty. On the one hand, we are kind of obsessed with it, as the viewership of the royal wedding shows. When you check out at the grocery store this week, there is a fairly decent chance that one of the tabloid magazines will be advertising some kind of article about the royal family on the cover. Also, as the father of a five year old girl I can attest that princess culture for little girls is a very real thing.
Yet on the other hand, we have a deep cultural repulsion to the idea of a king. We hate the idea of royalty, that someone is more special or worthy just because of who their parents are. We value the idea that with enough hard work, grit, and determination anyone can achieve their dreams, so the idea of “noble blood” is ridiculous to us. We dislike the idea of a royal ruler who is the rule of law. We prefer the idea of an accountable leader that we chose by votes and who is bound by the rules of law. It is baked deep into American culture that we do not like the idea or want a king. That is why we had a revolution in the first place after all. The American culture both loves the idea of royalty and hates it. This same contradictory attitude towards kingship exist in Christianity as well. We have no problems declaring Jesus is Lord of all, but yet we struggle to truly give him lordship over our lives.
This morning’s scripture is a reminder to just what it means to regards Jesus as Lord. This morning’s scripture comes from the very beginning of Revelation. This book of the Bible is often attributed to John, the disciple of Jesus and author of the gospel. It is traditionally stated that he wrote the Revelation while exiled on the island of Patmos, and that the contents of the book came through a divinely inspired vision. One of the things that we can easily lose sight of is that John did not record his Revelation in a vacuum. He wrote this while in exile at a possible Roman penal colony as punishment for his beliefs, the Revelation is addressed to seven churches in the province of Asia (modern day Turkey). The Christians of these churches were under cultural pressure for their beliefs and they were beginning to experience persecution for proclaiming Jesus as Lord.
Referring to Jesus as Lord or even king is so common in our flowery religious language, that we lose sight of the fact that declaring the Lordship of Jesus was (and is) a deeply political statement. In the Roman Empire there was supposed to be only one lord, and that was Caesar. Caesar was the Emperor. The Senate, the representatives of the people, answered to him. The military, the greatest fighting force the world had seen, obeyed his commands. The governors, the local rulers who held the authority over the lives of the Christians, were appointed by Caesar himself. Caesar was the sovereign ruler of the civilized world. Caesar may have ruled the empire, but the Christians were bold enough to declare that Jesus ruled a far greater kingdom that had no end. Caesar may have had the adoration of the empire’s loyal subjects, but the Christians fearlessly sang “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” The good news the first century Christians offered is that there is a higher authority in the world than Caesar and that was quite simply treason.
Given that background the language of this morning’s scripture begins to make sense. It was written to a group of threatened, marginalized, and vulnerable people who had dared to defy the Emperor and declare that Jesus is king of their lives. This introduction, then was meant to be of incredible encouragement to them, because it is full of reminders of Jesus’ majesty, his power, and his absolute sovereignty. Just in this short scripture this morning we are reminded that Jesus is the one who can approach the throne of God, that Jesus has sovereignty over all the earth, that Jesus is the one who freed us from our sins by his blood, and that Jesus is a king of a holy kingdom. This morning’s scripture reminded the original recipients and us that Jesus is the alpha and the omega, the begging and the end. It reminds us that Jesus is the Lord who was, who is, and who is to come. In other words, Jesus is the once and future king!
This morning’s scripture was meant to remind the original recipients that Jesus is their savior and their king. I think this is a reminder that we still need today. Actually, I think we need more than a reminder we need to better learn what it means to have a king in the first place. The first century Christians had a one up on us in this regard. They understood what it meant to have a sovereign over them. Being full of grace and truth they denied Caesar and proclaimed Jesus as their king. They understood what that meant, so much more than we do. Because if you recall, as Americans we have a complicated relationship with monarchy. We do not like the idea of someone else telling us what to do, and we like to think that no one is the boss of me. The very fact that those attitudes are so prevalent show we have a lot to learn about what it means to follow Jesus as king.
John and Charles Wesley, the founders of the Methodist movement, probably has a much better understanding of what it means to have a king. They were after British subjects under King George. Their understanding of Jesus as king can be helpful for us to gain a better understanding. This is clear because if you flip through the hymnal you will find that almost every Charles Wesley hymn in there refers to the royalty and kingship of Jesus. In one of his sermons John Wesley preached about Jesus “And in his office of king, forever he gives laws to all those whom he has bought with his blood. . . He reigns in all believing hearts until he ‘makes all things subject to himself,’ utterly casts out all sin, and ‘brings in everlasting righteousness.’ In other words, as king Jesus leads us. Jesus is not some despot sitting on a throne giving capricious degrees, Jesus is a leader who comes along besides us and then says follow me. Jesus is a king, who if we are willing to follow, will lead us along the paths of righteousness. A king, which if we follow his laws of love, will transform us into the best possible, sin-free versions of ourselves. Jesus is a king who invites us to follow and to join him in his kingdom. Randy Maddox, Methodist theologian, summarizes Wesley’s position as such: “as King, Christ is the one who guides Christians in the process of renewal, thereby delivering them from the power of sin. And Christ will eventually deliver the whole creation from the very presence of sin, returning it to God.”
Jesus is king, but he is a different kind of king. Usually those who are subject to a king in this world have little say so in that matter, but the kingdom of Christ is not of this world. Those who are citizens of the kingdom of heaven are there because they have made the choice to accept Jesus as Lord and savior. They have said yes to God’s yes and acceptance. They have opened the gift of forgiveness that has already been given. Jesus is the king of those who follow him, which raises two questions. The first question is, what does that mean if you are not following him? That is fairly is simple. If you are not following him Jesus is not your king. There are no almost Christians, either you are following the king and kings and the Lord of lords, or you are following something else. Even it if is our own pride and hubris. Everyone follows and serves something and if you follow Jesus then he is your king.
The second question is how do you know if you are following Jesus? Remember, what makes Jesus a king is that he is a leader, so you know you are following Jesus if you are following his commands and examples. Jesus commanded to love God with all of our being. The examples Jesus gave us to follow in that regard is to seek time alone with God, to rely on God to provide, and to truly pray not my will but your will be done. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves. The example Jesus gave us to follow is to have compassion for the vulnerable, to pay attention to the outcast, to serve the poor, to forgive the hard hearted, and to love those who are different than us. Jesus is a king, but instead of being first he made himself last. He was a servant to all and that is the example we should follow. Those are the directions Jesus led us in and if we are not seeking to actively follow the lead of Jesus then we are not really following Jesus. Because again we are following Jesus or we are not.
When it comes from our American perspective, perhaps this is the biggest change in thinking we need to make in regarding Jesus as king. We tend to think of leaders as a bit more temporary. The leaders we follow change a lot. The average tenure of a CEO of a company is only five years. Professional sport coaches lead for even less time as they average only four and a half seasons. Even the leader of our country, the president, is up for a possible change every four years and is guaranteed a change every eight. That is not how a monarchy works though. Queen Elizabeth for instance has worn the crown long enough to see twelve different men be president of the United States. If Jesus is our king, that means we are following him for the long haul. This means that Jesus is not just another wise teacher, Jesus is supposed to be our king. That means that Jesus is not the “man upstairs” we go to only when we need help, Jesus is supposed to be our king. That means Jesus is not our co-pilot, Jesus is supposed to be our king. Jesus is not just our king for an hour on Sunday morning. If Jesus is our king then he is the leader of our life every day and he is the Lord of all.
In medieval times there was a ceremony that I think still teaches us about what it means to follow Jesus as our king. When someone, usually called a vassal, swore to serve a king they did so through a ritual called homage. In Homage the king would promise the vassal that he would care for them, always look out and act in the vassal’s best interest, and consider the life of the vassal equal to his own. In return the vassal would bend the knee, put his hands between the king’s and promise that the will of the king would be greater than his own, and that his life was entrusted into the hands of the King. In homage, the vassal was willing to follow the will of the king over his own desires. Through his death and resurrection Jesus has proven that he cares for us to the point that he is willing to go up on a cross for us. Jesus has proven himself as a king worth following, so may we be willing to bend the knee, and may we be willing to follow Jesus our savior and king.
Over the next few weeks we will almost certainly be singing likes like “Hark the herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn king” and “Joy to the world the Lord is come! Let earth receive her king!” and “Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel born is the king of Israel.” May those not just be songs that we sing because we like the tunes, but may you realize them for the declarations they are. May he be the leader that you follow in your life. May you follow his examples and keep his commands. All praise, honor, and glory be to the king of kings and the lord of lords! Jesus is the king who was and is, and will come again. Long live the king!