Christ the King
John 18: 33-37
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our strength, our redeemer and our king.
So, we are at the end of the year. No, I’m not being premature, today is, officially, the end of the year – the end of the church year, of course. The feast of Christ the King. Next Sunday, we start again, a new year starting at Advent Sunday. Now it’s no surprise that the final Sunday should be the feast of Christ the King because this is what our whole year has been building up to.
He wanted people to think of him and revere him long after he had died -- in fact, you can see the Herodium all the way from Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives. The Herodium is impressive, and a few people visit there, but not like the crowds that flow into the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and how that would have riled him!
So, when it comes to models of Kingship at the time of Christ, look no further than the best of the best, the incredibly successful King Herod. Here was the benchmark by which a king would be measured and here was the expectation of the style of kingship of the coming Messiah. What did they get instead?
A king born in a stable, not a palace. A king who called prostitutes and tax collectors his friends. A king who knelt and washed the feet of fishermen. A servant king? How could a servant be a king? And finally, a king who dies a criminal’s death, nailed to a rough wooden cross and mocked by Pharisees and Roman soldiers. That’s what they got and how disappointed they must have been.
But they got something else as well. Something they could never have expected from a king. They got his sacrifice. They got his very life, laid down for them so that they could truly enter his Kingdom, not for 34 years or their natural span but forever. This is the part they could not understand. This is the part most people still don’t understand now, 2000 years later, that Christ’s kingdom is without parallel, it has no hierarchy and it has no end.
Herod was a king with a love of power whereas Jesus was a king with the power of love. Jesus made the hard choice in his Kingship – the easy choice would have been to follow the expectations of the people and use the example of Herod to rule with power and authority vested in fear and not in love. In his time in the wilderness, the Devil takes him to a high mountain and dangles the earthly dream of kingship before him. The Devil tells him he can have power and dominion over everything he can see – how much more attractive must that have been than the alternative option of being beaten, broken and agonisingly murdered on the cross.
But Jesus chose the one true way, the way of love and the way of the cross. He turned away from the flawed and human concept of kingship to show what real kingship was and that is why, 2000 years later, people ignore the Herodium and flock to the church of the Nativity. That is why Christ is worshipped throughout the world when Herod and all the earthly kings are simply footnotes in history.
But let’s bring all this closer to home. Do we honestly honour Christ as our King? What does it mean to us to have Christ as our King? Well I’m reminded of a famous and true story from the 1920’s that I am sure is familiar to many of you because the story was told in one of the most successful British films ever made and it is the story of the great Scottish evangelist and athlete Eric Liddell that was immortalised in the film Chariots of Fire.
Now, it may be that many of you are too young to have seen Chariots of Fire when it was released or to have missed it when it’s been shown on television. I notice that the DVD was re-released this year thanks to the Olympics and there is actually a stage show running in London as we speak – so apologies if you know the story but bear with me as I remind you of the salient highlights.
Eric Liddell was born in Tianjin in China in 1902, the second son of the Rev and Mrs James Dunlop Liddell who were Scottish missionaries with the London Missionary Society. At the age of 6, Eric and his elder brother were sent back to England to Eltham College, a boarding school for missionaries. Their parents and his sister Jenny, returned to Scotland and so Eric split his boyhood between boarding school and his parent’s home in Edinburgh.
At Eltham, Liddell was an outstanding sportsman and became captain of both the cricket and rugby teams and his headmaster described him as being entirely without vanity. And he was fast. In 1921, he joined his brother at the University of Edinburgh to study Pure Science and athletics and rugby continued to play a large part in his university life and it wasn’t long before he caught the eye of the Scottish rugby selectors.
In 1922 and 1923, he played in seven out of the eight 5 nations matches and in 1923, he also won the AAA championships in athletics in the 100 yards and the 200 yards. In the 100 yards, he set a British record of 9.7 seconds that wouldn’t be broken for 35 years.
He was selected for the Great Britain squad for the Paris Olympics in 1924 with a focus on the two main sprint events, the 100 and 200 metres. Now those of you who have seen the film, Chariots of Fire, will know that Liddell had a dilemma in that the heats for the 100 metres, his favoured event were held on a Sunday. In the film, a bit of Hollywood license suggests that this came as a last minute surprise to him but in reality he had known about it well in advance and, as a result, had withdrawn from that event as it would have compromised his strongly held belief that the Sabbath was solely to honour God.
Because of this, he had decided to enter his least favoured discipline, the 400 metres, in addition to the 200 metres. Having managed to secure bronze in the 200, he then went to the blocks for the 400 metre final, a distance he was reckoned to have no chance in. As he walked to the blocks, one of the American team masseurs passed him a piece of paper with a quote from 1 Samuel, 2.30 on it, “Those who honour me, I will honour”.
Now, at that time, the 400 metres was considered a middle distance race and typically, runners would coast until the sprint finish but, inspired by the scriptural quotation, Liddell raced the whole of the first 200 metres to be well clear at the half way point and then held on against the challenging Americans on the home straight. Not only did he win gold, he broke the Olympic and world records with a time of 47.6 seconds.
That was the unanticipated happy ending but preceding that Liddell was put under a lot of pressure to compete in the 100 metres and, indeed in the two sprint relays which he also dropped out of for the same reason – that their heats were on a Sunday. At one stage, the British Olympic Committee told him that in Continental Europe, the tradition was that the Sabbath finished at noon on a Sunday so he would be fine with the afternoon heats, to which Liddell replied that his Sunday lasted all day.
How much pressure he actually experienced we will never know but in the film, Chariots of Fire, the suggestion is that not only were the members of the British Olympic Committee involved but so was the then Prince of Wales as president. The film shows a wonderful moment where the Prince of Wales appeals to Liddell’s patriotism and duty to crown and country and it is at that point that he replies, “God my King is greater than the king of England, Wales and Scotland. To honour God is more important than to honour the king of England.”
Whether or not he actually uttered those words we will never know but it would be entirely consistent with his beliefs. For Eric Liddell there was not a shadow of doubt as to who he was answerable to. He knew that Christ was his King and it was to Christ that he dedicated his life.
Despite his fame and potential fortune, Eric Liddell returned to China and the missionary work for which he lived his life straight after his graduation in 1925. He remained there, a servant of his King until his death in a Japanese internment camp in 1945. Never once did he doubt his calling.
Could we say the same? Could we have the courage of our faith and belief in Christ as our King to stand against the pressures of the secular world to conform? On Christ the King Sunday we discover the Lord not enthroned in the heavens but welcoming the stranger, visiting the imprisoned and the sick, feeding the hungry.
Christ the King is the moment toward which the whole Christian story has been moving -- the adoration of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. And yet in our end is our beginning. Next Sunday we will begin again that wonderful journey of waiting and preparing for the fulfilment of God’s promise, the miraculous gift at Bethlehem. I’ll finish with some words from Gian Carlo Menotti’s modern opera about the Maji travelling to see the Christ child, “Amahl and the Night Visitors”..
“The child we seek doesn’t need our gold