Sermon preached at St James’ Church, Bolton, Bradford on 22 November 2015
One late afternoon in 1980, someone rang our front door-bell and Yvonne went to answer it. We lived in Derwent Road back then. The two men on the doorstep said they were police detectives and they wanted to speak to a Mr Neil Booth. ‘Oh,’ said Yvonne. ‘That’s my husband. He isn’t back from the office yet. Do you want to come in and have a cup of tea while you wait?’ ‘No,’ they said. ‘We’ll come back later’ … And they did. They wanted to know where I had been on a particular evening and if I could produce an alibi for my whereabouts. Fortunately I could — which was just as well, because at that time I was slim and had dark hair and a dark beard, and the two public-spirited ladies who lived next door to us had been in touch with the police to say they were pretty sure I wasn’t quite who everyone thought I was. Oh no. I was really — wait for it — the Yorkshire Ripper.
Bless them, they were wrong. It was a case of mistaken identity. I wasn’t who they thought I was. But it’s not my identity I want us to think about this morning, but the identity of Jesus. Who is he? Who do we think he is? And might we be just as mistaken about him as the ladies of Derwent Road were about me? Who is Jesus? It’s a very important question. Get that answer wrong and we’ll get most other things wrong.
Now, next Sunday is Advent Sunday — the start of the new church year — and over the course of the four weeks that will begin then, the answer coming loud and clear to the question ‘Who is Jesus?’ will be: the baby born in Bethlehem … Mary’s boy-child … ‘infant holy, infant lowly’ … ‘away in a manger no crib for a bed’.
But then, once Christmas has been and gone, and the three kings of Epiphany have disappeared back into the east, we will start the countdown to Easter — 27 March in 2016, in case you were wondering — and over the course of those ten weeks the answer to the question ‘Who is Jesus?’ will change. It will increasingly become: ‘the man upon the cross, my sin upon his shoulders’ … the one ‘led like a lamb to the slaughter in silence and shame’. That’s who Jesus is: the Crucified One of Calvary.
Except that then, within three days, the answer will change to become: the Resurrected One; then (forty days later) the Ascended One, then … Well for the remainder of the church year until it all begins again, we fill the gap by looking at the life of Jesus between his birth and his ascension, and we come up with a variety of answers to the question ‘Who is Jesus?’ Jesus is the Teacher. He is the Healer. He is the Miracle Worker. He is ‘The man who lived in Galilee unlike all men before’.
And all that is fine. With every fresh focus through the passing weeks of the church year we are given new and different answers to the question ‘Who is Jesus?’ And they’re all true. They’re all true. But the trouble is that, even taken together, they are inadequate. Or perhaps it’s better to say they are incomplete. Who is Jesus? All of the above, yes … but so much more.
And so it was that, in 1925, to correct the deficiency, Pope Pius XI of the Roman Catholic Church, instituted a Feast day — a Festival — to encourage God’s people to contemplate what the ‘so-much-more’ about who Jesus is might be. And that Festival is today. It’s the day we celebrate … what? Well, Steve has already told us it is the Feast of ‘Christ the King’. But, sadly, you know, that is a rather watered-down version of what the feast day started out by being and what it really is. It is really ‘The Feast of Jesus Christ the King of the Universe’. And today, on the last Sunday of the Church’s Year, as we turn our eyes upon Jesus, that is the Jesus we are meant to see … ‘Jesus Christ the King of the Universe’.
That is the missing answer to the question ‘Who is Jesus?’ And it is, I believe, the one answer that alone makes sense of all the other answers and gives true meaning to Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension, and gives us a proper perspective for our faith.
The Feast of Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe. Now you can see why we had that reading from John’s gospel. Because in it and the verses that follow it, Pilate asks Jesus in a variety of ways: ‘Are you a king?’ And in a way, this morning, we are invited to stand alongside Pilate and ask Jesus that very same question. We’re invited to search our minds and hearts and to take a long hard look at the Jesus we follow and worship, and to ask ourselves ‘Is that who Jesus really is to me? Is he a king … and if so, the king of what? The King of the Jews? Or more than that … The King of the Universe? Is that what I truly believe?’ I would suggest that if we can be brought to the point of answering in complete honesty ‘Yes’, it will profoundly change our lives.
Canon J B Philips once wrote a book called ‘Your God is Too Small’. And you know what, he was right; our God is too small. And I’m absolutely certain that, in the estimation of all of us, without exception, our Jesus is too small. I tell you this. There is not a single member of this congregation who, when he or she gets to see Jesus as he really is, will turn to the person next to them and say: ‘Really? That’s Jesus. What a let-down. What a disappointment. He’s not nearly as awesome and wonderful as I thought he was going to be.’
Quite the contrary. Jesus’ best friend John — the disciple whom Jesus loved, the one who was at his right hand at the Last Supper and lay his head on his breast, the one who was in the inner circle of Jesus’ friends and knew the human Jesus better than anyone else … That John, the apostle John, when he was in exile on the island of Patmos near the end of his life, had a glimpse of Jesus as he really is in eternity, and do you know how it affected him? ‘I fell at his feet,’ he said ‘as though I was dead’. That’s how the reality of who Jesus is affected him. But how about us?
What is it we see when we think of Jesus, or speak of him, or pray to him, or sing about him? A Robert Powell look-alike from Jesus of Nazareth? A Jim Caviezal look-alike from The Passion of the Christ? Or the man in the watercolour painting I remember from my Sunday School wall in West Hartlepool: the man with long golden hair and blue eyes and a spotless white robe ‘suffering the little children to come to him’ as they gather round his feet and sit in his lap?
Even if we try to stretch our imagination to see beyond that man from Galilee and to think of the ascended and glorified Jesus at the Father’s right hand in heaven, all we generally manage to do is add some shining robes and some special halo effects to our normal visualisation. Well, I’m sorry, but that Jesus is still too small. Way too small. And my job this morning, on this particular Sunday, is to try to throw out some thoughts and ideas that will hopefully enable the Holy Spirit to draw back the curtain for you on Jesus as he really is, right now — the King of the Universe.
To do that, I first need to take you back in time. Back before the birth in Bethlehem, back before King David, back before Moses, back before Abraham, back before Adam and Eve, back before the dinosaurs, back before the earth was formed, back before there was a universe at all. In fact, I need to take you back to what the author of the book of Genesis and the author of the Gospel of John both call ‘the Beginning’.
In the 17th century, James Ussher, the Archbishop of Armagh, calculated that ‘the Beginning’ took place on Saturday, October 22, in 4004 BC … but he couldn’t, of course, have got it more wrong if he’d tried. For we now know with great certainty just how old creation is — though the numbers involved are absolutely mind-blowing. In fact, the Beginning that the book of Genesis talks about took place 13.8 billion years ago. That is when, according to the book of Genesis, God created the heavens and the earth.
But the writer of the Gospel of John has something even more mind-boggling and stupendous to add to that. ‘In the beginning,’ he tells us, ‘was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.’
So who is this ‘he’, this ‘him’, this ‘Word’? A few verses later John tells us. The Word is the One who, 2,000 years ago, ‘became flesh and dwelt among us.’ He is Jesus.
Let’s just stick with that for a minute. We normally have this reading from John’s Gospel at the end of the Christmas Carol service, and because of that, any awesome thoughts that it might spark off in us are quickly snuffed out by ‘O Come all ye faithful’ (wonderful carol though it is) and the mince pies and the mulled wine which literally bring us right back down to earth. But just let’s stick with it now and let’s try to grasp the enormity of it.
What John is saying is that, before there was anything that we would recognise as existence, there was a kind of Fellowship of Love called ‘God’ … and it consisted of the Father, his son, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. And in the heart of this triune God there arose the idea of the universe and of creatures who could be drawn into the life of the Trinity itself to share in the love and joy that Father, Son and Spirit already eternally shared together.
There was then a ‘let’s do it’ moment in the mind of God and the decision that the creation would take place though Jesus. He would be the architect and builder of the universe and of every last thing in it. Every atom and molecule would have its origin in him. Every planet and star and constellation and nebula. His would be the hands that, as Graham Kendrick puts it ‘flung stars into space’. And more than that, he would hold those stars and all other created things together.
Hear how Paul puts it in his letter to the Colossians: ‘In him — in Jesus — all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.’
Think what that means. You don’t have to be a quantum physicist nowadays to know that nothing is as solid as it looks. Just one tiny grain of sand is made up of 17 million, million, million molecules. That is 17 with 18 zeros after it! Just one grain of sand! And everything in the material universe is made up of molecules. But molecules aren’t solid. Each molecule is made up of atoms. At the centre of each atom are neutrons and protons surrounded by electrons. And in each neutron and electron are even smaller particles called quarks. And everything — quarks, neutrons, protons, electrons, atoms, molecules — effectively float in nothing. They’re not attached to each other; they are simply held together in a kind of dance that makes them what they are — a sand dance, a water dance, an iron dance.
And what holds them in place — in what one physicist has called ‘the astounding interconnectedness of the universe’ — is some kind of … energy. But what energy? Where does it come from? What is it that holds everything together and connects everything together? Well the answer to that, folks, whether you believe it or not, is the Word, Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe. ‘All things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.’
What Paul is saying is that if Jesus lets it all go … loses his grip … even for a nanosecond, everything, absolutely everything that is, will cease to be. The universe will simply vanish.
The universe. Let’s talk about the universe. We’ve talked about ‘small’ — the grain of sand with its 17 million, million, million molecules — so let’s talk about ‘big’ for a moment. We all know you measure distances in space in light years. That, as you might expect, is the distance that light travels in a year. In terms of miles, it’s 6 million, million miles a year. But even if you could travel at that speed, the speed of light, do you know how long it would take you to reach the edge of just the known universe. 46 billion years! And there may be even more universe or universes that are still undetected. Wow!
But here’s the thing. Jesus Christ is King of it all. In Hebrews 1, he’s called the one ‘through whom God made the universe’ and ‘who sustains it by his powerful word.’ That’s why I’ve put some science in the sermon this morning! Jesus is King of everything from the inconceivably big to the inconceivably small. He is king of every molecule in every grain of sand and he is king of every star and every planet, whether it’s on our doorstep in the Milky Way or at the outer edge of the universe 276 thousand million, million, million miles away. And my question for each of us this morning is: Is that what we truly believe?
You see, I suspect there are some of you looking back at me now who don’t even want to face that question. I can almost hear you silently shouting: ‘Stop it, Neil. Please, just stop it. I don’t want to know … Such ideas of bigness and smallness frighten the living daylights out of me. I just want to stick with the Jesus I’m used to: the one who’s my saviour and friend. If I go along with what you’re saying, he can’t be my friend any more. Nobody that big, that important, and that powerful could ever even notice me let alone listen to me when I talk to him.’
Really? Why not? You see there’s another truth about Jesus that we choose to neglect almost as much as the truth that Jesus is the creator and sustainer of the universe itself and everything in it. And Paul tells us what it is in Ephesians chapter 1 …
‘Even before the world was made,’ he says, ‘God had already chosen us to be his through our union with Christ, so that we would be holy and without fault before him. Because of his love God had already decided that through Jesus Christ he would make us his children — this was his pleasure and purpose.’
His purpose, please note. That is what creation was all about.
‘In all his wisdom and insight,’ Paul goes on, ‘God did what he had purposed, and made known to us the secret plan he had already decided to complete by means of Christ. This plan, which God will complete when the time is right, is to bring all creation together, everything in heaven and on earth, with Christ as head.’
There are a dozen sermons in those verses but the key point we need to grasp is this. At the same ‘time before time’, when the Trinity of Love decided to create the universe through Jesus, they had already decided it was to be the home of the human race. That was the very purpose of creation. The human race wasn’t an after-thought. And the Trinity of Love had already decided that each member of that human race — you and me included — would, through his or her union with Jesus, become sons and daughters of the heavenly Father. That was all part of the package. ‘Even before the world was made,’ says Paul, ‘God had already chosen us to be his children!’
How wonderful is that! If only we could all get hold of that and take it to heart. How many Christians are there who are striving to work, pray, and believe their way into something they are already in if only they knew it. God chose you specifically, by name, before the first star became a raging furnace of life and light. You already belong to him and with him. You are already family! All he asks of you is that you wake up, smell the coffee, and come to the table. Wake up to what is already yours in Christ.
Oh, yes, you say. But that was before we went and ruined everything. What about sin and evil and the almighty mess we’ve made of Planet Earth? Well, let me tell you, the Trinity of Love knew all about that too before the universe came into being. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus is called ‘the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.’ And do you know why he’s called that? Because, before the universe was even created through him, Jesus said to the Father and the Spirit: ‘We all know what’s going to happen, don’t we? They’re going to mess up. They’re going to mess up big time. They’re going to alienate themselves from us. They’re going to turn their backs on us and choose darkness rather than light. They’re going to embrace their own destruction. But we can fix it; and here is how …
‘I’ll go down there into the muck and mess. I’ll go down deep. I’ll go down into death and hell itself and I’ll defeat them and destroy the darkness. And then I’ll trust you Father and Holy Spirit to pull me back up and when you do I’ll bring the whole human race with me. However long it takes I’ll rescue them from the dump. I’ll clean them up and make them new and I’ll set them free to be one with us and to share and enjoy with me every blessing that is mine …
‘Here, in eternity, before we even light the blue touch-paper and make the Big Bang … before you, Father, say “Let there be light” … I, Jesus, willingly bind myself in love and friendship and blessing to every human being there will ever be and I swear to bring every last one of them here, into this, our fellowship of the Trinity, that we may all love and delight in one another for ever and ever. Amen.’
And that, by the way, is the Gospel. You may have heard it differently. You may have been told that the Gospel is that you can receive Jesus into your life. No. The Gospel is that Jesus has already received you into his life … and that he did so before he created the universe.
The bigness of Jesus isn’t a problem, you see. It isn’t a problem because the greatness of his power and his majesty is entirely matched, measure for measure, by the greatness of his love. And the two together mean that he not only wants you in his life and wants to spend eternity with you, but that he has the power — the almighty power — to make that happen. Indeed, he has already made it happen in eternity — and is unstoppable in his commitment to remove every hindrance, every barrier that you yourself or all the powers of darkness combined might, here in time, try to put in the way.
That’s why you really don’t want or need a little Jesus, a provincial Jesus of the kind we are all too often willing to settle for … a Jesus who is not much more than an invisible version of the man from Galilee.
The real Jesus, the true Jesus — the one we celebrate today — is so much bigger than that. He is indeed the King of the Universe. And please hear this — he loves you. He really does. You! Specifically you! He chose you and decided to die for you before all worlds were made.
People talk of Jesus taking on flesh and going to the cross, you know, as if it were God’s Plan B after God’s Garden-of-Eden-y Plan A had gone horribly wrong. No. There never was a Plan B. The Incarnation and the Cross were always part of Plan A. When Jesus died and rose again and ascended to the Father, you died and were raised in him and carried with him to the Father’s arms. It’s all there in Ephesians 2 — ‘But God … out of the great love with which he loved us … made us alive together with Christ … and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.’ Note the tense of the verbs. Made … raised … seated … past tense! Perfect tense! It has already happened. It’s a done deal and it’ s the real deal.
That is the glory of the gospel. He is yours and you are his for all eternity. And nothing … nothing whatsoever … can ever alter that: ‘neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation.’ That is the truth and it is true because Jesus Christ is the King of all creation … the King of the Universe … and he has ordained it to be so and has made it so. He is the lover of your soul, the one in whom you live and move and have your being, and the one who has decreed that he will never, ever let you go. Amen