“The Last Word”
Rev. Barrett Ingram
November 22, 2020
It is often said that we struggle the most with family members whom we are most alike. As I thought of that statement, there are two members of my family for whom that observation is particularly true. They are both headstrong, stubborn and competitive. When they were arguing with one another over any matter, there was always a contest of verbal positioning so that one would come out ahead of the other. Near the end of an argument, one would walk out of the room before the other had a chance to respond. And I remember on one occasion, the other family member looked at me and said, “He always has to get in the last word, doesn’t he?”
We’ve all seen television shows and movies in which two characters are arguing, and one gets in a devastatingly good line, exits the room in dramatic fashion and slams the door on the way out. In the wonderful world of make believe, the person left in the room has an epiphany that he or she is wrong and then goes and seeks forgiveness from the other. There is something satisfying about being the victor in an argument, and if a bit of rhetorical flourish helps seal the victory, then so much the better. But we don’t live in the world of make believe, where things unfold neatly according to a predictable dramatic script. Sometimes our efforts to have the last word – in an argument, in an e-mail or text message or some social media platform – sometimes these things backfire on us and cause irreparable damage to relationships. Sometimes, we are the wiser in an argument when we bite our tongues and let the other person have the last word, even when we are left stinging from those words directed at us.
In the argument that is our lives, who has the last word? In our lives, we see the works of the flesh and the works of the Spirit. In this world of good and evil, right and wrong, God and the devil, whom do we believe will have the ultimate last word? Who wins the argument?
We still have a few weeks left in our calendar year; but in the Western Christian Church, today is the last Sunday on the church calendar. Next Sunday will begin the whole cycle again with Advent. I probably say it every year, but it seems to come faster and faster! The last Sunday of our Christian year is called Christ the King Sunday. Hallmark hasn’t found a way to market it, so it isn’t a card-exchanging kind of day. Christ the King Sunday comes to us compliments of the Roman Catholic Church and a pope, and we (Protestants) get it from the committee that produced the Revised Common Lectionary. It was Pope Pius XI who instituted the feast day in 1925 to celebrate the 16th centenary of the Council of Nicaea – which produced the Nicene Creed. It also affirmed the primacy of Christ in the face of rising nationalism and fascism in Europe, which led to the Second World War. On that first Christ the King Sunday, Europe was still reeling from the First World War. So-called political saviors were emerging in the form of dictators. Mussolini had been leading Italy for three years, and Adolf Hitler had been out of jail for a year, with the popularity of his Nazi party growing by the day. Pope Pious asserted that, nevertheless, Christ is “King of the universe.” The festival became, in the words of one commentator, the church’s great nevertheless to the godlessness of the modern world. Despite the rise of dictators, despite the widespread modern notion that religion was now just a “private affair,” Christ the King asserted that nevertheless Jesus Christ is Lord and he shall reign for ever and ever. The church declared to the world on the last Sunday of the Christian year: “Do what you will, but Jesus Christ will have the final word.”
Now, it has been suggested that this newest addition to the church’s calendar is the most outdated one. These days, few of us know much about true kings. In fact, this country was born by the rejection of monarchs. After all, what do you think of when you hear the word “king”? If you say, “The King” to Americans of a certain age, many think of Elvis, the King of Rock ’n’ Roll. Or Michael Jackson, who was called the King of Pop. Just do a quick Internet search, and you will discover... In sports, there are the Los Angeles Kings in hockey, and the Sacramento Kings in basketball. Animals: king snakes, kingfishers, king crab, king salmon. Food: Chicken a la King, King Ranch Chicken. There are movies, King of the Mountain and The Lion King, and a TV show, King of the Hill. There are notable individuals with the last name King: Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., B.B. King, Stephen King, and Carole King. And, of course, we have Burger King and the King James Bible. Once upon a time, Christ might have been hailed as king amid a people who truly understood what kingship was all about, and particularly Christ’s kingship over them. But we no longer understand kings, as evidenced by the many ways we so broadly apply this title.
Beyond our lack of understanding of kings, the truth is this: We want to have the last word on our own lives. We want to be our own sovereign – to be the kings and queens of our own lives – to rule our own sphere. People in our culture bristle at the thought of owing complete allegiance to anyone or anything other than self. A wealthy man was attending a community worship service, and the sermon topic was serving others in Christ name. He was asked after the service what he thought about the sermon, and he said this: “Make no mistake about it – I worked hard for what I have, and I don’t serve anybody, except myself.” Most of us would not make such a brazen statement, but the sentiment clearly echoes through our culture.
Romans 2:8 says, “God will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth and practice evil deeds.” The Protestant reformer Martin Luther used the Latin phrase, in curvatus in se—turned in upon self, to describe the sinfulness of the human condition. So, each of us has to decide what kind of attitude is going to guide the living of our lives. If we live only for ourselves, the Bible tells us, we are heading down the path toward our destruction. If we fill up our lives with only ourselves, we end up pushing everyone and everything else away. So instead of being full, we discover that our lives are actually very empty. We become a hollow shell of a person – a poor representation of a creature made in God’s own image.
Our Reformed forbearer John Calvin described the Scriptures functioning as spectacles. God’s word in Scripture can be for us a set of corrective lenses to help us see ultimate reality (God’s reality) more clearly. To our culture of confusion, Paul offers some clarity about who Christ really is. After that wonderfully dense, theologically rich opening, he zeros in on the nature of Christ. And he tells us in verse 20 that God raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand. We say that in the Apostles’ Creed: “on the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” You’ve heard of a right-hand man, a person who is both helpful and trusted with authority. Christ Jesus sits in that place of power, at the right hand of the Father. Verse 21 tells us that this authority given to Christ is above every other authority, above every other name, both now and into eternity. Verse 22 tells us that all things have been put under his feet. This alludes to Psalm 8:6, which says, “You make him ruler over the works of your hands. You have put all things under his feet.” The picture is of a reigning monarch sitting on an elevated throne with his subjects at his feet. And the church has a place in this, too. We are told that God has made Christ the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. That last phrase is a bit opaque, but when read with parallel passages in Paul’s letter to the Colossians (1:19-20; 2:9-20), it suggests that the fullness of God dwells in Christ—and Christ fills us and makes us full of the presence of God.
It all sounds nice, doesn’t it? But what are we supposed to do with this claim? Is this just more “pie in the sky, in the sweet bye and bye?” Because if you pick up any newspaper, or turn on the television, or look on your favorite social media site, or even just look on the church’s prayer list, it sure doesn’t seem like Christ is on the throne. It looks like the world, the flesh and the devil are getting the last word. Here, we are faced with the already-but-not-yet dimension of the Christian faith. Christ is already seated at the right hand of the Father, but the day has not yet come when he has put all things under his feet. We say in the Nicene Creed, “he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”
Down here on earth, in the world of our every day, we make our way as best we can between Christ’s first coming and his ultimate triumphant reign. A wise preacher once said, “The point of everything the Bible teaches about the next life is to help us live faithfully in this life.” By giving Christ the last word in our lives, we declare that in the here and now, he is our king. Even though the world can’t see it, and it sometimes it sure doesn’t look like it, Christ is our king. On this side of eternity, we sometimes get those rare, wonderful glimpses of his glorious reign. Our work as believers is to bring a little more heaven on earth – to make those glimpses of Christ’s kingship a little less rare. “…Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We say it every single week. To believe it, and then to live it, is to let Christ the King have the last word in our lives.