Reign of Christ Sunday
John 18:33-37

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world.”

You may already know this, but the Christian year is a little different from the calendar year.  The calendar year runs from January through December while the Christian year runs from Advent through Ordinary Time.  “Ordinary time?” you ask.  “Is that the opposite of Daylight Savings Time?”  Well, no, and ordinarily, it wouldn’t make much difference.  But today is the last Sunday in Ordinary Time, which means we have come to the end of the Christian year.  It’s the perfect time to gather in the harvest of the past twelve months and reflect on what we have learned about Jesus.

As we have worked our way through the Gospel readings each Sunday we have listened to Jesus teach and preach.  We have watched him heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, and cast out demons.  We are at the place, finally, where we can sum up all we know about him, and the way we usually sum things up at the end of the Christian year is to crown him king.  That’s what some people call this Sunday: “Christ the King.”  Others call it “Reign of Christ.”  Either way, it holds out the hope that those of us who have been following Jesus closely in the past year will have come to the place where we can affirm what the New Testament so boldly proclaims: that Jesus really is the “king of kings and lord of lords” (1 Tim. 6:15; Rev. 17:14; Rev. 19:16).  That seems especially bold when you consider that the only crown Jesus got to wear in this world was a crown of thorns, and that when he was “lifted up” (as he put it) it wasn’t onto a throne, but onto a cruel Roman cross.  Nonetheless, he was a king, and some people seemed to know it all along.

We’ve been talking about the “Faith of Our Mothers” recently.  We’ve looked at the stories of Ruth, Naomi, and Hannah.  I thought we might conclude with those women who were there at Jesus’ crucifixion (what some people might call his “coronation”), but as I tried to identify those women I found that each of the Gospel writers has a different list.  Matthew mentions “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.”  Mark also mentions Mary Magdalene, but adds “Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.  Luke only tells us that “the women who had followed him from Galilee” were at his crucifixion, but in the next chapter names them as “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them.”  And finally John says, “Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.”  By the way, John is the only one who mentions a man at the foot of the cross, and it won’t surprise you to learn that that man is “the disciple Jesus loved.”

But look how many women!  There’s the wife of Zebedee, Salome, Joanna, Jesus’ aunt, his mother Mary, and about four other Marys, including Mary Magdalene, the only one mentioned by all four Gospel writers.  I thought about focusing on her today, but the Bible really doesn’t say that much about Mary Magdalene.  And so I decided to talk about this other Mary, the mother of Jesus, if only because we know so much more about her.

According to Luke, Mary was just a girl when the angel Gabriel came to her and said, “Hail, favored one, the Lord is with you!” While she was wondering what sort of greeting this might be, Gabriel said, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And now you will conceive in your womb, and bear a son, and name him Jesus.”  “How can this be,” she asked, “since I am a virgin?”  “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” Gabriel said, “and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.  And now your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month for her who was thought to be barren, for nothing will be impossible with God!”  And that’s when Mary said, “Well then, here I am, the handmaid of the Lord.  Let it be unto me according to your word.”  In other words she believed everything the angel had told her, but after he had gone she thought it wouldn’t hurt to get some proof.

So she packed her things and hurried off to the hill country of Judea to visit her cousin Elizabeth, and when she called out to her at the gate the baby in Elizabeth’s womb jumped for joy.  Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and said, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  And who am I that the mother of my Lord should visit me?  For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears the baby in my womb leaped for joy, and blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord!”  And that’s when Mary threw her head back and began to sing a song we have come to call The Magnificat.  Listen:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

Afterward, Mary remained with Elizabeth for about three months, and then returned to her home.

Some of you know that my mother’s name was Mary—Mary Rice.  Most people called her “Ricie,” but along with that childhood nickname she carried the name of Jesus’ mother, and she carried it proudly.  She grew up in the Presbyterian Church but when she was sixteen she met some girls who were going to Columbia Bible College in Columbia, South Carolina.  They were Baptist.  They talked to her about Jesus and convinced her to be baptized in the Baptist way, by immersion.  That was a pivotal moment for her, and it was one of the things that got her thinking about being a missionary.

She went off to King College in Bristol, Tennessee, and while she was there she met a young man named Jim Somerville, the son of a Presbyterian preacher.  He thought she was the prettiest girl in the freshman class and told her so.  They began to go out together.  Eventually they were engaged to be married, but in the summer before his senior year, while he was sweating at a summer job in sultry South Carolina and she was cooling it at her parents’ summer cottage in the mountains of North Carolina, she sent him a letter breaking off the engagement.  He didn’t think twice.  He got in his car and drove to the mountains to see her.  He took her out on a lonely road somewhere, stopped the car, and asked her what all this was about.  “Well,” she said, “I feel called to be a missionary, and if I marry you I’ll never get to do that.”  Things were quiet in the car for a long time, and then my mother heard a voice that said, “There’s your mission field.”  She looked over and there was my dad.  And in that moment she felt as if her prayer had been answered, as if somehow, marrying this man would lead to the fulfillment of her missionary calling.  And so she said yes, and the engagement was back on, and maybe, because of what she told him, my dad followed in his father’s footsteps; he went off to seminary to become a Presbyterian preacher.

Mom went with him to his first church in Troy, Alabama, where two of her sons were born.  She went with him to Hayneville, Alabama, where I was born.  She went with him to Wise, Virginia, where her next two sons were born.  And finally she went with him to Boone County, West Virginia, where her last son was born.  In those days Dad was doing what was essentially missionary work, and my mother tried to help in every way she could, but she had six sons to raise, and the more she dedicated herself to that work the more she became convinced that that was her mission—raising those boys, and training them for their own mission fields.  I heard her say on more than one occasion, “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.”

Would it surprise you to learn that every one of her six sons has been engaged in full-time or part-time Christian service?  That among them have been pastors, missionaries, musicians, worship leaders, lay preachers, and Christian educators?  My mother’s impact was felt in our lives, and although my father was the pastor I think it is fair to say that she was my single greatest religious influence.  So, I think about that other Mary, the mother of Jesus, rocking his cradle and singing that song, the one about the high and mighty being brought down while the meek and lowly were lifted up.  How much of that song ended up in Jesus’ life?  How much of his own mission and ministry was influenced by the mission of his mother?  They say the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world and this hand—Mary’s hand—rocked the cradle of the one who would become the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus stands before Pontius Pilate who asks him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus’ eventual answer is that his kingdom is not from this world, and it is not.  If it were from this world the rich and powerful would be in charge and the poor and pitiful would not.  But in Jesus’ kingdom the least are great and the last are first and the world is upside down.  Listen to the opening lines of his Sermon on the Mount:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the

     kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be


Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the


If you listen to those words in the right frame of mind they sound like the announcement of a revolution, as if God’s Kingdom were about to break into the world like a rock through a plate glass window, and the people who had had almost nothing before were going to end up with almost everything.  Where do you think Jesus got that?  Did any part of it come from the woman who sang:

[The Lord] has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

I know that Jesus was the Son of his Heavenly Father, but he was also the Son of his Earthly Mother, and who knows how much of who he was came from her?

According to John she was one of those women who was there at his crucifixion, and “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home” (Jn. 19:26-27).  But think about that hour, when Jesus’ mother stood there, looking up at that cross, watching her own son die.  Is there any mother among us who cannot feel her pain?  If she had known it would come to this would she have said yes to Gabriel?  Would she have said, “Let it be with me according to your word?”  Or would she have said, “Please, please find someone else!”

Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.  Mary did say yes, but maybe she should have seen where things were headed when she was forced to deliver God’s son in a stable, and wrap him in bands of cloth, and lay him in a feed trough.  And maybe she should have been warned when old Simeon, the prophet, told her that her child was set for the rise and fall of many in Israel, and that a sword would pierce her own soul, also.  Maybe she was trying to keep this hour from coming when she and her sons came to take Jesus home, that time when people were saying that he had “gone out of his mind.”  And now here he was, hanging from a cross, condemned to die for claiming that he was “the king of the Jews.”

At least, that’s what some people said.

But as Mary watched the blood trickling from his noble brow like anointing oil, as she saw the crown of thorns turn golden in the afternoon sunlight, and as she read the word “King” written on the placard above his head, she may have thought, “Yes.  He is a king.  He’s a king like no other who has ever lived.”  And she may have said out loud the words he had heard so many times before, “You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”

—Jim Somerville © 2021