In the Name...
Back in 1934, the Cunard shipping company was planning a new luxury ocean liner. The tradition at Cunard was that all their ships had names which ended in the letters –ia, as in Mauretania or Carpathia and the plan was to name this one the Victoria. However, the Cunard chairman, while on a visit to Windsor, remarked to King George V and Queen Mary that he intended to name the new ship for a great Queen. “Excellent” replied the King, “My wife will be so pleased.” And, that is the true story of how the Queen Mary got its name and a Cunard tradition ended. It’s good to be king.
At the feast of the Passover in the 16th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, a Galilean carpenter was executed in the city of Jerusalem. Twenty years later, a Jewish tentmaker described this man to Greek friends in these words: "He is the image of the invisible God. He is before all things and in him all things hold together. In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, making peace by the blood of his cross."
The journey from the shameful death of a state criminal to the assertion that this man was a pre-existent divine being is perhaps the most amazing procession in history, made all the more remarkable by the additional fact that it seems to have been so widely accepted in such a short time.
And when we celebrate his birth in a few weeks, we will not be alone. Billions of people around the world, in every country, on every continent, in public, or in private, will join the celebration. No one else who has ever lived can claim such universal recognition. And when you stop and think about it that is truly amazing.
So, who then was this man, this Jesus?
This question was first asked 2,000 years ago and the answers continue to come. But, this morning, our attention is directed to one answer in particular. The answer which, some say, is most important. The title, King of the Jews.
After all, Jesus was not crucified for claiming to be, as Paul wrote, "the firstborn of all creation". No. The charge nailed above the nailed body read, "King of the Jews" and there's more in that title than we may first think. It had an obvious political meaning, but, more importantly, it had a theological meaning rooted in the history and religion of Israel.
If we cast our minds back to the Old Testament, we may recall that for generations after Moses and the Exodus, Israel was unique among ancient peoples in not having any kings. Instead, it had prophets and judges, male and female, all from different families and backgrounds, chosen by God when his people had need of them. It was God who was the King of the Jews. "You will be my people and I will be your God" was a special relationship. There was no nobility, no royal family. Rich or poor, the Chosen People were equals.
But, as we read on in the books of Samuel, the Chosen wanted to do some choosing of their own, and so, they created a monarchy so they could "be like other nations". And yet, even this had an important difference. In every other ancient nation, the king, the head of state, was also the high priest, the head of religion. In Israel, there was a distinct separation, we might say, of temple and state. No king was permitted to perform religious functions and the one who did try, Uzziah, was struck with leprosy for his presumption.
There was a clear demarcation in Jewish society between things of God and things of man. Priests and prophets like Nathan, Zadok, Elijah, and Jeremiah acted independently and spoke for God, often against the kings. Most of the kings, after all, were, indeed just like those of other nations; petty tyrants who oppressed the people for personal gain. Many led the people into idolatry and immorality; shepherds who, as we heard Jeremiah say, destroyed and scattered the sheep.
Well, after the last king was deposed by the Babylonians, the Jews fell under the rule of various empires such as Babylon, Persia, Egypt, and Rome. The priestly families became the moral leaders of the nation and what this meant was that there developed the view that no mortal man, no human being, could ever rightfully claim the title "King of the Jews." It once again became an exclusively theological term, another way of describing God.
Why then, was Jesus accorded this title? Why did people raised in this strict religious tradition for hundreds of years accept such a claim about him? What was different about Jesus as about no other man?
And that's really what it all boils down to. There have been many philosophers and religious leaders in history and many of them have said more or less the same thing about how people should respect each other and honour god, or the gods, as the case may be. But, what made, what makes, Jesus different is not so much what he said, as what he did.
The lame walked, the blind saw, the deaf heard, the dead were raised, lepers were cleansed, sins were forgiven, and these things happened in the sight of not only his friends but his enemies. When the Pharisees said he cast out demons because he was a demon, they were attacking his identity but admitting his power. They couldn't deny that, and that's why they objected when Pontius Pilate wrote in Latin and Hebrew and Greek, not that this man claimed to be king of Judea, or even that this man claimed to be king of the Jews, but, that this man actually was the King of the Jews.
They objected because for the Imperial Governor Pilate to write that was for the highest earthly authority to declare that Jesus was the highest heavenly authority.
Now, did Pilate know what he was doing? I rather suspect he did. He's pretty firm with the priests who complain to him. Quod scripsi scripsi. What I have written, I have written. In other words, “Off It.” Roman governors were from the educated elite and schooled in the customs of their provinces. Pilate would have known the nuances of the Jewish religion. And, like the centurion whose servant Jesus healed, Pilate also knew and understood all the nuances about power.
Kings exercise power. It's one of the things they do best. And Jesus exercised power, nobody denied that. He proved his power extended over wind and sea and he conquered the things that make us feel powerless - fear, failure, sickness, anxiety, guilt, alienation, loss, suffering, and death.
Certainly, the criminal hanging on the cross next to Jesus, knew a lot about those things first hand. He knew he deserved to be where he was. But, he also knew that in the torn and bleeding man beside him there was a power, a strength, an authority. He recognized true kingship, even under the most adverse circumstances, and with his last breath he cried out for a royal pardon, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
To no one else in history have such words ever been addressed and no one else in history has ever replied, "This day you will be with me in Paradise."
So it was that only twenty years later, a Jew named Paul could write to Greeks named Nympha and Archippus and expect them to understand and agree, "In Jesus, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell."
All the fullness of God. In Christ the King.
In the Name...