Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. Tonight, the picture we see of Jesus in our reading from Revelation is not one that we are used to. A conquering king mounted upon a white horse with flaming eyes and a sword coming out of his mouth is not the image of Christ portrayed in the Gospels. There he is a meek and mild king, born as an unassuming infant in a manger, and later hanged on a cross like a criminal with his only regalia a crown of thorns and a reed for a scepter. In our popular imagination, we picture Jesus as Warner Sallman depicts him in his famous painting, Head of Christ (1940): soft brown curls, high cheekbones, and a short, trim beard. Jesus is so effeminate in this painting that he could almost pass as a woman, were it not for the beard.
It does not help that postmodern Christianity has turned God into a Teddy bear—what sociologists of religion call “therapeutic moral deism.” That is a fancy way to say that, by the large, most people today no longer regard God as an authority figure or Creator who must be obeyed because he has claim over us. Rather, they view him (or her?) mostly as uninvolved in their day-to-day lives with only a mild suggestion that they be “nice” people. This kind of “god” may show up every once in a while to pat us on the back and reassure us that we are all basically good people and everything will be okay. Can you blame anyone for ignoring a “god” like that? Why would anyone live in fear of a god like that?
But in tonight’s readings from the prophet Daniel and John’s Apocalypse we see a side of Jesus that remained hidden at his first coming. Gone are the doe eyes and cuddly baby. In their place is a conquering King who comes to judge the people of the world for their wickedness. He sits upon a stomping stallion with a sword in hand—the sword of his mouth, which is the Word of God (Eph. 6:17; Heb. 4:12). As foretold by Psalm 2, Jesus holds in his hand a rod of iron with which he rules the nations, upon which he unleashes the full fury and wrath of God’s judgment, treading out the grapes of wrath in the winepress. (Aside: The imagery of Revelation 19 is the inspiration behind the old Civil War song, “Battle Hymn of the Republic”).
In this glorious depiction of Jesus on the day of his Second Coming, he is called by many names: “Faithful and True” (v. 11, ESV), “The Word of God” (v. 13), and “King of kings and Lord of lords” (v. 16), which is a Hebraism that means the best King and the greatest Lord. None of the rulers of this world can touch him. No earthly king, prime minister, president, or prince comes anywhere close to the power and majesty of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
But how can this be? Why should God be so interested in matters of state? Doesn’t he care only for the Church and heavenly things? After all, Jesus famously told Pontius Pilate that his kingdom is “not of this world” (John 18:36) with the erroneous implication that Christ’s kingdom has nothing to do with this world. No wonder that so many Christians wrongly believe that God’s kingdom is only in heaven and not here on earth. But the Greek preposition ek (ejk) indicates source or origin, not possession. No, Jesus’ kingdom does not belong to the world. Nor does it find its origin on earth. The source of Christ’s kingdom is from above—from “heaven,” as it were. But that doesn’t mean that the kingdom of God has nothing to do with the earth! Quite the opposite, in fact. Why else would we pray, in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”? Why would John the Baptist and Jesus declare, “Heaven’s kingdom is almost here!” if it were only to remain remote and faraway on some ethereal plane (Matt. 3:2; 4:17, CSM)?
No, Christ’s kingdom has everything to do with this world. His kingdom is not “of” (from) this world. But his kingdom comes for this world! Christ the King comes for you and me. Jesus tears down the rulers from their thrones and lifts up the needy and those of low estate. His kingdom begins small, like the stone in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Daniel 2:34). This was a stone uncut by human hands, thereby proving its divine origin. Yet just as David slew the mighty giant Goliath with a mere stone from his sling, so this stone smashes and shatters into pieces all the kingdoms of the world (vv. 34-35). But the stone itself grew and become large as a mountain, filling the entire earth. Thus, the kingdom of God does not come from the nations, but supplants and subjects them. Christianity is not a religion with national or even international interests. Rather, the Christian faith is supranational—rising to rule over every government and principality when the Last Day comes.
When Christ comes on the Last Day, he will judge the earth. Every single person whoever lived, including you and me, will have to stand before the throne of God and give an account of our life. As St. Paul writes, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10).
St. John the Evangelist describes this scene in Revelation 20:
“And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done…. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:12-13, 15).
This is a rather sobering picture, isn’t it? I should hope so! None of us should regard lightly the discipline of the Lord or his glory on Judgment Day. None of us will escape on that Day were it not for one thing: Christ the King also suffered and died for you.
Even though he will judge the earth at his Second Coming, do not forget that Jesus came to save the earth at his first coming. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Jesus doesn’t want to judge you. He came to save, not to condemn (John 3:17). He would rather be your Savior than your Executioner; yet with sword in hand, he will wield his strange and alien power against you, if he must.
But he doesn’t have to, and he won’t, if you believe and trust in his mercy and grace. For even in the picture of the Rider on the white horse in Revelation 19, we have a reminder of the cross: Jesus “is clothed in a robe dipped in blood” (Rev. 19:13). His garments are dyed with blood. Whose blood? His enemies’? No, his own. Jesus robe is stained with the blood that poured out of his veins on the cross when he died for your salvation. Like the blood of the Passover lamb swabbed across the gates and doorframes of the Israelites in Egypt, so also Christ’s garments are dipped in blood as a reminder of his grace. Even in his wrath, he remembers mercy (cf. Hab. 3:2). For though he is King of kings and Lord of lords, he remains the Prince of Peace.
During Advent and at Christmas, we remember that this little princeling once came to bring “peace on earth, good will towards men” (Luke 2:14, KJV). Someday, “he will come again to judge the living and the dead,” as we confess in the Creed. But that Day is not here yet. There is still time to believe and repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (cf. Matt. 3:2). “Behold, now is the favorable time! Behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2). Do not let this moment pass you by. In the name of Jesus, our coming King, Amen.