History is littered with stories of those who spoke the truth to power and suffered terrible consequences because of it. Both of our Bible texts today have this theme as their backbone, and I want us to explore them together particularly because today is Christ the King Sunday. It’s the final Sunday in the Christian calendar, an annual affirmation that, come what may, God’s kingdom has drawn near and that God in Christ is in charge, no matter what our news says or what our politicians say. As Christians we have one and only one Lord, who reigns supreme over everything and who is at work shaping all things for good in the fullness of time.
But it doesn’t always feel that way, does it? More often it feels like the wicked get their way, that the greedy steal bread from the hungry, and that the selfish can flounce their way through life without consequences. So, let’s consider our texts within this framework of our confidence in God’s loving rule even now and because the reality is that things are not OK.
Paul wrote his letter to the churches in Rome in the spring of 57, approximately 25 years after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Unlike many of his other writings, this letter went to churches that Paul did not found. In fact, he hadn’t even been to Rome. Eight years prior to this letter, the Roman Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome after there were riots in their community. Paul’s collaborators, Priscilla and Aquila, whom we know from Acts 18, were among those who left behind their lives and livelihoods because of this expulsion. Claudius died in 54, so the expulsion ended with Nero’s coronation, but the churches in Rome knew what it was like to be hated, persecuted, and homeless because of their belief that Jesus was Lord, not Caesar.
Our text from Romans occurs right in the middle of this letter to these suffering churches. It is a master class both in encouragement and in the fundamental truths about Christianity marked out in a series of questions that build upon each other. Paul asks, “If God is for us, who is against us?” “Who will bring any charge against God’s elect?” “Who is to condemn?” “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” It’s as though Paul is daring them to answer every time, “Not Caesar!” Can Caesar overcome God? No! Can Caesar condemn? No! Can Caesar steal you from Jesus’ care? No! These are pretty remarkable questions and answers to give to a community that quite literally had its life torn from it by Caesar over their belief in Jesus as Lord.
The logic of this text—for them and for us—when applied seriously, “Pushes us to the heights of confidence. It means more than God being graciously disposed toward us. It means [God] is for us in all that [God] does. We may be defeated at this moment, but evil will never prevail. We are always being led to victory in Christ.” Even in hardship, even in peril, even at our lowest moments, we must remember that God is for us. It might even be helpful to put our names right in there. God is for Troy. God is for Kristine. God is for you…and you…and you. Nothing—not even the most powerful person on the planet—can separate you from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Sometimes, however, we doubt that this is true, but Paul would say to us, “Ridiculous!” Pastor Kent Hughes gives a great analogy for that kind of thinking. “Suppose on a whim you visit a Rolls Royce dealership, enter a drawing, and win a brand-new Rolls Silver Cloud. When you go pick it up, they say, ‘It’s all yours—tax free. Take it home!’ But they refuse to give you the key. Ridiculous! If the car is yours, whatever you need to drive it is yours. Likewise, since we have received the incredible gift of God’s Son and salvation in him, it is ridiculous to suppose God will not give us everything else we need.”
Paul lived this bold belief. In the early 60s he finally made it Rome. Nero is the Emperor. Within a few years a terrible fire breaks out in Rome. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, Nero assigned blame to Christians for the fire, which was economically devastating to portions of the city. Several early Christian sources date the deaths both of Paul and Peter to this period of persecution in Rome. If God is for us, who is against us? Well, Nero died in 68, and here we are today speaking of a dead empire and a living Christ. Paul was right. Jesus reigns.
Around twenty years later the gospel of Matthew begins circulating particularly among communities of Jewish Christians. There is a new emperor named Domitian. It’s a time of intensifying persecution. It’s also the era when the Book of Revelation is written, which we’ll get to in detail early next year. Emperor Domitian was called the “ruler of lands and seas and nations.” Among its many other messages, our text from Matthew of Jesus walking on the water is a direct challenge to Domitian’s claim that he ruled the sea. Could Domitian calm the waves and walk on water? I don’t think so. Some Lord he was…
But Matthew is doing something very interesting through chapter 14. There are echoes of the Book of Exodus, the story where God took an enslaved people and made a way for them out of Egypt. God showed Pharaoh who really is in charge of the land, the sea, and the nations. Just before our reading, Jesus withdraws to the wilderness. The wilderness is where the Israelites wandered for forty years before entering the Promised Land. Crowds follow Jesus and are hungry. He takes five loaves and two fish to feed 5000. Just as God provided manna in the wilderness, so now Jesus provides food in the wilderness.
After this, Jesus sends his disciples to a boat while he goes up a mountain to pray. Who else goes up a mountain to spend time with God? Moses, who receives the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai after communing with the Lord. When Jesus is done praying, he goes to find his disciples who are being pummeled by the wind and the waves churned up by a storm. Not bothering with a boat, Jesus walks his way to them. They’re stunned, which if you ask me, is an entirely reasonable response. Jesus calls out to them, “Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.” Here is yet another connection to Exodus. Moses asks the Lord’s name, and the Lord replies, “I am.” When Jesus says, “It is I,” the language is literally translated, “I am.” Take heart. I am.
Peter’s response, however, is not reasonable. He asks to join Jesus in this miraculous water-walking. He starts out fine, but then fear kicks in, and he starts sinking. “Lord, save!” he cries, and Jesus does save. Matthew’s story strongly echoes the crossing of the Red Sea, where the Lord controls the seas, saving the people from sure destruction.
For the first recipients of this gospel, among many other things, these stories are a strong affirmation that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. Domitian is not lord of the land, sea, and nations. Jesus is.
The affirmation that Jesus is Lord is one we still make today, almost 2000 years later. While empires have risen and fallen, the fact remains that Jesus was Lord, is Lord, and will be Lord forever. That’s the claim we make in our worship every Sunday, but especially on this Christ the King Sunday. No one rules except Christ, so don’t let anyone but Christ rule your life.
Today is the final Sunday in our Songs of the Faith series, and we’re taking a look at a contemporary song written like a hymn called “In Christ Alone.” It’s from the same songwriters who composed “Speak, O Lord,” which we covered last month. The song is now a little over twenty years old, but it is powerful in its scope. As I said on the very first week of this series, music has the ability to teach us the faith, and this song is clearly doing that. This song is the gospel in miniature.
The four verses of “In Christ Alone” tell the story of Jesus and what his lordship means to us. The first verse is breathtaking in the totality of its claims about who Jesus is to us. Like Peter on the water, like the persecuted Christians in Rome, “In Christ alone [our] hope is found.” He’s our light, strength, song, cornerstone, solid ground, comforter, and all in all.
The second verse moves has four lines on the incarnation—more on that next week as we move into Advent!—and four lines on the crucifixion. The third verse begins with Jesus’ body lifeless in the tomb and two lines later we have the resurrection, the bedrock of the Christian faith. The final four lines are entirely about what this Sunday is about—Jesus is reigning even now and that makes all the difference to each and every person and to the entire cosmos. It’s the answer to Paul’s question, “If God is for us, who is against us?” It’s the affirmation that Jesus is the “I am” and we need not be afraid. The final verse describes what it’s like to live in that reality. No guilt. No fear. From our first to our last breath, Jesus commands our destiny. Nothing—not life, depth, angels, rulers, things present, things to come, powers, heights, depths—nothing is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Can I get an “Amen”? Amen! Yes, even the frozen chosen can thaw out sometimes when we’re animated by this great news.
Still, life is not always easy. Lots of lesser lords clamor for our attention. Lots of good things vie to take their place as great things, and we can easily lose the plot, giving them control of our thoughts and actions. We all have worries. Will I have enough to pay my bills and put food on the table this month? Will this hard conversation I need to have bring healing or hurt? Will the results of our elections be good for me, for my community, and for my country? These questions aren’t worthless. It’s not like the early Christians kicked out of Rome by Claudius didn’t suffer the real consequences of Claudius’ reign. It’s not like they were never sick or threatened or fearful. They were.
And we are sometimes, too. That’s why it’s so important to remind ourselves through Scripture and song that Jesus is Lord and no one else is. In Christ alone our hope is found. Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus, our Solid Rock, our Cornerstone. We have seen the light, and we’ll go where it leads us and nowhere else. Good songs give us the gospel in miniature and they travel with us everywhere. They remind us that Jesus is Lord now and will be forever, come what may. God is for us. In Christ alone our hope is found, and he shall reign forever and ever. Hallelujah! Amen.