ART THOU A KING?
A Sermon preached by K. W. H. Howard on Coronation Sunday, May 31st 1953.
“Pilate therefore said unto him. Art thou a king then?” John 18.37.
History records an occasion when a king stood before a judge, and was asked the cynical question – “Art thou a king then?’ It was the Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate, who flung the question. It was the King of Heaven in human guise – Jesus of Nazareth – who answered it.
One can envisage the scene: the might of Rome in the person of the cynical procurator – pitted against the utter weakness in the figure of this pale, bound prisoner. One can see the smile on Pilate’s face, half curious, half contemptuous, as he asks the question -“You call yourself a king then?” But what a reversal the centuries have brought! What an answer history has given to the question! The man who asked it, and the empire that sponsored him have long since faded into ruinous oblivion. The Lord Jesus Christ – the erstwhile prisoner in human hands – reigns where sovereignty is alone secure – in human hearts – in the millions throughout the world who rejoice in His redemption – and in heaven’s glory.
1. Where are the subjects?
“Art thou a king then?” The question seemed relevant to the mind of Pilate, for his inference was:- “Where are the subjects, countless in number, and burning with loyalty – that one expects to find in the retinue of a king?” Indeed that is the most natural thing to associate with monarchy – fervid loyalty.
The history of the monarchy in our land has been a chequered affair. Much devotion of brave men has been poured at the feet of some who were quite unworthy to receive it. So Macaulay can write his famed and devastating epitaph of the Stuarts. And if in doing so, he portrays human sovereignty at its nadir, the very truthfulness of the history only serves to throw into relief the spectacle before us as a nation and people today – when the Crown as a stimulus to loyalty is surely at its zenith.
The almost unparalleled warmth of devotion inspired by the gracious person of our youthful Queen – is one of the brightest rays of human hope in a world that is dark with the lowering clouds of uncertainty. So spontaneous has been, and is, this loyalty, that history’s pages will need to be well turned to discover a time in our land when the Crown commanded such abundant affection. Obedience that is wrung from men by brute force is one thing – and, alas, we are seeing that in the world in our time. Passionate devotion inspired by spontaneous love is quite another thing – and without any complacency, we should be tremendously thankful that our beloved Queen comes to her coronation against the background of exactly such a national disposition and feeling toward her.
“Art thou a king then?” – said the cynical, questioning Pilate. “Yes, every inch a king” – history has replied, as it has unfolded the kingly conquests of Christ in men and nations. It is in no spirit of conflict but rather in the deepest harmony with loyalty to our new monarch, that the Christian Church calls, on the authority of the Word of God, for loyalty to “another king, one Jesus”. A Saviour-Sovereign who will be satisfied with nothing less than the heart’s self-surrender; and who, in miraculous ways, has harnessed the devotion of this saving faith all down the ages to His redeeming purposes. So it is simple history that while crowns and thrones over the face of the earth have gone whistling down the wind – the empire of Christ – invisible and intangible – based in the individual soul’s experience of the saving and keeping power of the Lord Jesus Christ – abides, yea, and will abide.
It is no small part of the explanation of the persistence of the British monarchy through the past fifty years – in which most of the thrones of Europe have fallen – that the British throne is more firmly established in the affection and respect of the people than ever before. This, I say, is in large measure due to the wisdom and the fear of God that our monarchs have brought to their task.
It is fashionable in some quarters today to sneer at the alleged narrow- mindedness of the Victorians. A more discerning reading of history would certainly lead to the conclusion that the Victorian era was one of the greatest in our national life; and that its greatness was largely attributable to the positive religious integrity and fervour of the people – a factor in which the personal piety and devotion of Queen Victoria herself, shines as the brightest and most obvious example.
2. Where is your dignity?
“Art thou a king then?” In the asking of that question we can sense the inference:- “Then, where is your dignity?” And, indeed, judged by Pilate’s standards it was a natural question. Jesus was a King who washed people’s feet; who tended their aching sores and loathsome diseases; who loved the children, and befriended the friendless. The King who, when the mother of two of His disciples came to ask places of honour for her sons – answered by enunciating for all time the Royal Law of dignity: “Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever shall be chief among you, let him be your servant”. In the estimate of the Lord Jesus Christ there is no greater dignity than the dignity of service.
What an amazing thing is some people’s conception of dignity! When Charles Lamb received promotion at India House, he was warned by a pompous official “not to let himself down by speaking to the junior clerks”. “My dear sir”, he replied, “I would not let myself down though I spoke to everybody on London Bridge”!
“Art thou a king? – then, where is your dignity?” May it not be that one reason for the affection lavished on our young and beautiful Queen is that she was brought up in a household where kingly and queenly dignity never conceived itself to be compromised by close personal interest and association in the concerns and cares of the people? Homes visited; philanthropy encouraged; culture inspired; and the shining example of sterling qualities of personal integrity – these are the tokens of the dignity of service.
It would be a good thing if, as we enter this new era, the dignity of service found a revived place in the life of the citizen. Let us have some return to that conception of one’s job as a contribution to the life of the community – and not merely the means to a pay-packet. Let our dignity be at least as much concerned with serving the common cause of our humanity – if nothing higher – as it is with the ever-persistent clamour for civil rights. What a happy thing it would be if the genuine rejoicing of this time did not fully spend itself in celebration, but persisted in permanent emulation of that dignity of service commanded by the Lord Christ, and so happily exemplified in our honoured Royal Family!
Long may the memory remain in the national heart – and its outworking be seen in the national life – of our beloved young Queen suddenly called to the throne and its crushing responsibilities – making the announcement that, so far as she knew her own heart, her one aim was the service of the Commonwealth and its peoples. Happy are all they with a blessedness beyond any earthly blessedness, who learn at the feet of Christ His secret of the dignity and the greatness of service.
3. Where is the source of your responsibility?
“Art thou a king, then? – then, where is the source of your responsibility?” Behind Pilate himself was the might of Rome, to which he was in every detail responsible. The Prisoner, as Pilate thought, was but a waif and a stray on this earth; lonely, unsponsored, pitiable. Little could he conceive how this Prisoner-King was conscious, to a supernatural degree, of One to whom in every act He felt Himself responsible. “I came not to do my own will, but the will of my Father in heaven”. Judge Pilate was sponsored by the emperor of Rome. King Jesus was the Son of the Creator of all the universes there be!
With all reverence, then, let it be said that, even in the case of our Lord, it was with this deep sense of derived authority – of received responsibility – that the King of saints lived His perfect life on earth.
Whatever differences the gradual process of change from absolute to constitutional monarchy may make on the political and legislative prerogatives of our national sovereign – it alters not a whit her moral Headship of the State – a responsibility, the implications of which stretch upward to God more than they do in any other direction. Thus the Coronation Service takes care to preserve the subordination of our monarch to God who rules over all – a relationship which Her Majesty has already more than once publicly acknowledged.
The stewardship of power. The grace to wear the diadem and not to misconstrue the meaning of it! There is a deep saying of James Martineau: “Power is only felt as power by those who abuse it”. That is – the man who gloats over his power over others is standing in a very slippery place. To the wise – to those who ever regard themselves as answerable to a Higher – power is only a deeper name for responsibility.
And this is another aspect of the character of our beloved Queen that has touched our imagination and called forth our fervent prayers – that she has conceived the tremendous responsibilities laid on her young shoulders – as coming from God – and to be primarily discharged as in His sight. Therefore it is something of solid worth if we, her people, are found in sympathy and prayer that she may know the enabling grace of God – so that every gift and talent of personality she may possess shall be transfigured by Divine energy and power.
The Queen has great duties to her people. But her people have equally great duties to her. The success or failure of her effort to maintain the moral and spiritual calibre of the nation, depends on our response; our willingness to live nobly, to serve gladly.
The specific Christian message to these days is that there is no citizenship so likely to advance the cause of national and social righteousness, as Christian citizenship. The life that serves the community because it first serves God – and that for no other purpose than His glory! The life that honours the Queen because it has first bowed to the Sovereignty of the Son of God – and that, for His amazing grace in Redemption. The life that loves its fellows of every nation and tongue – because its own heart has been swept clean of sin – by Divine grace! Such are the men who – apart from anything else – can stop the moral rot – and strengthen the crusade for public purity and honour!
“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord”. There is no factor that can mean so much to our beloved Queen in her colossal task, as the power of a vital godliness in the life of her people. May God therefore grant that this new Elizabethan era shall be one in which there shall be a mighty revival of true religion. May we again become known as the People of the Bible! May the epithet of ‘Christian” be the more worthily ascribed to our nation.
In this hope and aspiration – may we now pledge to our gracious Queen devotion and duty consistent with our Protestsant Reformed Faith; and may the simple and sincere prayer of our hearts ever be –
GOD BLESS THE QUEEN!
One can only comment with great sadness, after almost forty years, that the hopes so warmly expressed in this sermon seem further than ever from fulfilment. We still so obviously await, and desperately need, “a mighty revival of true religion.” Editor.