(sermon 11/25/18 – Christ the King/Reign of Christ)
Note: Since preaching this sermon, several people have asked about Revelation, the Flannery O’Connor short story summarized in the sermon. If you’d like to read the entire story, you can find it online at
John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
Today is Christ the King Sunday, or Reign of Christ Sunday – the last Sunday of the year on the Christian liturgical calendar, before we start the liturgical cycle again with the weeks of Advent, and then moving to Christmas. Today is a time for us to think about this idea, this belief that we profess, that Christ is our King, or our Lord, or our Ruler, or our Ultimate Authority. The oldest of professions of our faith is the simple three words, “Jesus is Lord.” We profess the same thing whenever we join the church or are ordained. We profess it in greater length in the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed, and in our Reformed Tradition we profess Jesus’ Lordship – his Kingship, his reign – in any number of Confessions. Maybe most strenuously among those Confessions, we do so in the Barmen Declaration, the document written by Karl Barth and others in opposition to the Nazis demands for the full and ultimate allegiance of the people, and the Church. Barmen made the bold, clear statement that Jesus is Lord, and no one else is.
We spend a good deal of time professing that Jesus is our King. And we spend a good deal of time talking in one way or another about Jesus’ return. We may differ on our thoughts about how that will all work, but regardless of the details, in our lives, and in our liturgies, we look forward to that time when the fullness of God’s plans for the earth, and humanity, come to fruition; the time when every tear is wiped away; the time of the great eternal banquet; the time when everything is made right, and love, and justice, and mercy, and peace, will rule forever.
Today’s preaching text, from Revelation, refers to both Jesus’ Kingship, his Lordship, as well as that future time of full completion of God’s plans for us. We generally talk about this future time as one that we’re looking forward to, something we’re hoping for, and soon. In this text, though, the writer says that Jesus’ return is something that will make the nations “wail.” That doesn’t exactly sound like something to be looking forward to. I suppose when we think about that aspect of it, we generally suppose it’s the bad people, the other people, who are going to be the ones who are sorry, who are going to be wailing – but I also suspect that most of us, when we’re sitting at home alone late at night, or at some time or another, have had this discomforting feeling in the pit of our stomachs, and we wonder if in fact, we’ll “make the cut” on that day. It doesn’t matter how many sermons we’ve heard about God’s grace, and that we’ve been forgiven, and that we’re a part of Christ’s body, a part of his royal priesthood – sometimes, at the end of the day, we still wonder. On that day, will we be one of the ones rejoicing, or one of the ones wailing?
The great writer Flannery O’Connor wrote a short story shortly before she died called “Revelation.” The story centers around a Mrs. Turpin, who is a white farmer’s wife somewhere in the deep South, sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s. She was a proud woman, a proper woman, and in the story, Mrs. Turpin has just gone into her doctor’s office for an appointment. She’s just signed in and is in the waiting room with all the others waiting there, too. As she sits there, she surveys the others, and we get to hear her inner dialogue, what she’s thinking about all of them – more accurately, how she’s judging them, and almost all negatively. This one is lazy, that one is shiftless, that other one has no concept of how to comport oneself in polite society, the woman over there with the cheap shoes, with the little boy with the sunken eyes and runny nose is just triflin’ trash. Mrs. Turpin took great pride in being able to see into the innermost depths of a person’s soul strictly on the basis of what kind of shoes they were wearing. There is one woman, though, that she examines and deems to be in her own social class, and she strikes up a conversation with her. The other woman is there with her daughter, a young woman home from Wellesley College – Mrs. Turpin notes that the young woman is overweight, and has acne, and isn’t very attractive. For her part, the young woman just sits there, glaring and seething at Mrs. Turpin as she goes on and on, offering up all sorts of unfiltered judgment on all the kinds of people in the world who she considers her social inferior, which seems to be just about everyone. She saves the worst of her judgmentalism, though, on blacks, letting horrible racists comments slide out of her mouth with the casual ease that was so common among some people of that time, offering up appalling bigotry as nothing more than simple conventional wisdom, with no more apparent moral content than looking at a clock and announcing what time it was. Finally, the young woman had enough of Mrs. Turpin, and she lunges across the waiting room and starts to strangle her. People finally pull her off of Mrs. Turpin, but not until she tells Mrs. Turpin “Go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog!”
Well as you might expect, that left a lasting impression on Mrs. Turpin. It bothered her all the rest of the day. She was shocked that this horrible person could say such a thing to a fine upstanding person like her. How could she call her a warthog – the very idea! Why, she was a good Christian woman, active in the church and all its good works for the needy! She was educated. She and her husband owned a farm, a business. She knew how respectable people in society were to behave, and how not to behave, not like the trash sitting in that waiting room, and certainly not like that terrible, acne-faced girl. The nerve!
Her thoughts troubled her all day long, until finally, at the end of the day, she was standing in a field observing a beautiful Southern sunset, and as she did, with a heart full of confusion and outrage and hurt, she prayed, “God, how could you have allowed that to happen? Why would you let such a terrible person do such a terrible act, say such a terrible thing, to someone like me?!” Just then, Mrs. Turpin had a vision. She saw, in the red and pink and orange of the clouds, something like a great arcing bridge connecting the earth and heaven. And she saw a long procession of people headed toward heaven on the bridge, all wearing dazzling white robes. And she saw that the very first person in the procession was the awful, acne-faced girl who had called her a warthog from hell. And then she saw the trashy people, and the lazy people she saw in the doctor’s waiting room. And they were followed by all the blacks in town that she looked down her nose at. And then came all sorts of disrespectful people, shifty people, sick people, the mentally disturbed, and they were all laughing and dancing and jumping and singing every which way, in a huge, joyous, chaotic cacophony. Then she saw them – all the people like herself; the respectable, upstanding, decent people, all on the bridge just like the others, but they were bringing up the rear, and she could see on their faces that they seemed a bit confused by that. She noticed that of the whole throng, they were the only ones who were marching in step, and staying in line, and they were the only ones who were singing the right words and the proper parts and in the proper key, but they just didn’t look nearly as joyful as the others up ahead of them. They were in the line, they were still on the bridge to be sure, but it seemed very clear that all the others had been welcomed and invited to the head of the line, and they were definitely happier and more grateful for it.
Flannery O’Connor’s story contains the same sort of mixed feelings as the actual Revelation text we heard today. When we think about that final day arriving, it can make us wonder, and sometimes, maybe worry: are we ourselves more like Mrs. Turpin, or one of the people she judged, who ended up ahead of her on the bridge? I think it’s fair for us to concern ourselves with that question, to guard against being a Mrs. Turpin. But there’s grace for us in this scripture text as well – because even if, on our worst days, we are a bit like Mrs. Turpin, through Christ, we know that we can do better – we can be better. We have the assurance that through Christ, God is working within us to enable us to become more and more the people of God’s Kingdom that we’ve been designed and created to be. And there’s additional grace, good news, gospel, for us in this text in that no matter who we are in life, no matter what social station we might find ourselves in, there’s always a Mrs. Turpin who’s judging us, looking down on us, who thinks they’re better than us, and who’s dismissing or ignoring or mistreating us in some way or another because of it. In some way, each of us is scorned in this life by some Mrs. Turpin. But the grace is that when Jesus walked among us, he was scorned by the Mrs. Turpins of his time, and he identifies with us – and on that final day, when the vision of that bridge is made real, that same Jesus who walked among us, and taught us repeatedly to love God with all of our heart, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, and that the first shall be last and the last shall be first; the Alpha and Omega who was, and is, and is to come – that same Jesus has a reserved place at the front of the bridge, at the head of the banquet table, for all the triflin’ trash – trash just like us.
Thanks be to God.