Sermon preached at St Michael's Woolwich 27 October 1996
Christ the King
There is a tradition at St Michael's that you keep today, the last Sunday in October, as the Feast of Christ the King.
Let me begin by telling you about another, very different king called Claudius, who is one of the main characters in Shakespeare's play Hamlet.
Claudius, Hamlet's uncle, has secretly murdered his brother, Hamlet's father, and made everyone believe it was an accident, that a snake had bitten him. He then proceeded to get himself elected as King (for that is the way the Danish monarchy was ordered at that time) and also married Hamlet's mother, his victim's widow.
Up to halfway through the play Claudius has every reason to believe that he's literally "got away with murder", that nobody even suspects that there was foul play.
Then, suddenly, everything starts to fall apart for him. He realizes that Hamlet his nephew, and goodness knows who else besides, knows the truth, and that sooner or later he will be faced with what he's done. In other words, he hasn't "got away with it" at all as he supposed but, on the contrary he is going to have to "face the music". In utter panic Claudius tries to turn to prayer and repentance, only to realise that of course he cannot both repent and continue as King of Denmark and husband of Gertrude. To repent he must face the ruin and disgrace which his deeds merit. These are the words he speaks as he thinks aloud whilst trying to pray
Pray I cannot
Though inclination be as strong as will
My stronger guilt defets my strong intent
And like a man on double business bound
I stand to pause where I shall first begin
And both neglect.
...What form of prayer
Can serve my turn? "Forgive me my foul murder"?
That cannot be; since I am still possessed
Of those effects for which I did the murder:
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
May one be pardoned and retain the offence?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence's gilded hand may shove by justice
...but 'tis not so above
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature; and we ourselves compelled
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults
To give in evidence
Now the vast majority of people today, and even some who attend church week by week, seem to believe that if only they can "get away with" their misdeeds in this life then they have nothing else to worry about. If there is "life after death" (which most of them hope there will be, though many of them privately doubt) then whatever form it takes such life won't be concerned with their behaviour or beliefs in this life. To sum it up in a single sentence they believe that "Everything in the garden's going to be lovely".
The feast of Christ the King completely undermines this misplaced optimisim.
We are reminded of the truth. God is the rightful King of all the earth, besides being its Creator. To him "all hearts are open, all desires known, and from [him] no secrets are hidden". In other words, every deed of man, good or bad, stands open before him, and being under his judgement, will be called into account.
In contrast to this, the world has tried to banish God as its King and put in his place a whole lot of usurping monarchs who have no claim at all to that title. Power, Pleasure, Riches, Success, Fulfilment, Happiness, Satisfaction, Ambition are just a few of the alternative so-called kings that people have put in the place which God alone by right should occupy.
Well, has God chosen to do nothing and stand by helplessly watching this seizure of his kingdom by mankind and their pseudo-gods? Indeed he has not. He has himself entered this world, in disguise so to speak, in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, to start his recruiting campaigh of those who are prepared to rebel against the false gods of this world and fight on his side.
In the Last Day, the Day of Judgement, as St Paul tells us "Christ will deliver up the Kingdom to God the Father, having put down all [usurping] rule, authority and power, till he shall have put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is Death"
What will that day be like? Well, in St Matthew's Gospel Jesus gives us a picture of it. It will be like a Judgement Court in which every man's deeds are laid open to public inspection.
It will be, Jesus tells us, a Day of Surprises. For the wicked it will be the surprise of discovering, as Claudius did, that, so far from having "got away" with their wickedness they are now being called upon to pay the price of it.
For the righteous there will be surprises too. They will discover that their good deeds, so far from being forgotten or going unrecognized, as so often happens in this world, have been recorded. Those small kindnesses, acts of mercy and charity which have been done for the love of Christ or out of compassion towards their fellow men have now come to be seen in the light of heaven to have been done to Jesus Christ himself.
The Christian Good News (that is what Gospel means) begins with repentance - that is to say it begins with the bad news that everything about us has been "found out". Like Claudius we shall discover that the world we had made for ourselves, a world full of shameful secrets which we hoped would never come to light, has totally disintegrated in the light of heavenly truth.
Like Claudius, too, we shall see that God has made for us a way of escape from the ruins of our fallen world. Our sins, however grave, can be be forgiven through the blood of Jesus Christ, the rightful King who came to save, but whom men nailed to the cross, only to discover that he was stronger even than death.
But as Claudius discovered, there is a price to pay (in human terms) for our repentance to be valid. We can no longer go on living a lie as if nothing had changed. We must, by God's help, forsake our evil ways. The stealer must steal no more; the unchaste person must practise chastity; the liar must tell the truth; the cruel man must strive to be kind.
Well, without God's it's impossible; but with God all things are possible. Even if we don't quite see at any given moment how we can repent, we can make a start by facing up to the facts about ourselves. There is absolutely nothing which we can or will "get away with".
As Christians, we are surrounded by saints, many of whom once thought they could never bring themselves to repent. But they did. Make Christ the King of your heart today, remove the usurpers whom you have allowed to oust him from his rightful place, and you will find that, little by little, the grace of God is at work in your life restoring Christ to his rightful place as your King and Saviour.
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