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Christus Imperator

Jesus is the imperial giver and taker of life.

Illustration: Some years ago, the distinguished publishing house of Grosset & Dunlap brought together a panel of 28 educators and historians and asked them to select the 100 most significant events of history, then list those events in order of importance. After months of labor, the panel reported that they considered the most significant event of history to be the discovery of America. In second place was the invention of movable type by Gutenberg. Eleven different events tied for third place, and five events tied for fourth place. The events tying for fourth were the writing of the Constitution of our country, the development of ether, the development of the X, the discovery of the airplane, and the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus tied for fourth.

That should not come to us as any surprise, for in the thinking of most people our Lord Jesus is an afterthought, an . He's important at times of baptism and marriage and funerals but not to be considered at other times. But let me make it clear this morning, so clear that there can be no mistake about it, that Jesus is not fourth but first. He is not tied with anybody but triumphant. He is not to be rated, for he is regnant. He is not just important but altogether imperial.

Jesus is the Lord of Life.

Illustration: When King George III of England went to hear George Frederick Handel's Messiah for the first time, it is recorded that on hearing the great chorus which we call today the Hallelujah Chorus, the king stood not principally out of recognition for the majesty of the music but principally because he recognized in his head and in his heart the majesty of the imperial Christ. Jesus is the Lord of life.

Illustration: There is a story that comes to us out of the long ago of a king who organized a great race within his kingdom. All the young men of the kingdom participated. A bag of gold was to be given to the winner, and the finish line was within the courtyard of the king's palace. The race was run, and the runners were surprised to find in the middle of the road leading to the king's palace a great pile of rocks and stones. But they managed to scramble over it or to run around it and eventually to come to the courtyard.

Finally all the runners had crossed the finish line except one. But still the king did not call the race off. After a while one lone runner came through the gate. He lifted a bleeding hand and said, "0 King, I am sorry that I am so late. But you see, I found in the road a pile of rocks and stones, and it took me a while, and I wounded myself in removing them." Then he lifted the other hand, and in it was a bag. He said, "But, Great King, I found beneath the pile of rocks this bag of gold."

The king said, "My son, you have won the race, for that one runs best who makes the way safer for those who follow."

Now, if that is true, that one runs best who makes the way safer for those who follow, then no one has run the race of life like our Lord Jesus Christ, for he makes it safer for us who follow. Only Christ could say at the end of his mortal experience, "It is finished," and be absolutely correct in the utterance.

We cannot say this. When we come to the end of our lives, we're more like Robert Louis Stevenson, who asked that these words might be put on his epitaph: "Here lies one who tried a little, meant well, but accomplished very little indeed." We're more like Cecil Rhodes, the great industrialist, who said, "So little done, so much to do." Our lives are a mixture of wingless Victorys and armless Venus de Milos and Unfinished Symphonies.

But Jesus could say at the end of his experience, "The mission is accomplished. No thread is left untied." There was nothing in his life of which he had to be ashamed. And in so living, he made the way safer for those of us who follow.

Not that he has made life easier for us. Life is a battle. It is a contest. There is sting and hurt in it, and we are all conscripted drafted, if you will into the battle. Some here listening to my voice now are very young in the battle: their uniforms yet unstained, their banners untattered, their weapons not yet discharged. And others have been in the contest for a long time, and they bear on their bodies the scars of their suffering. Some are very close to hearing the sound of the last trumpet in that contest. All of us are caught up in the warfare of the human experience. But if we belong to Christ, we see in him a pattern for living, and we discover in him a power for living that makes life safer for us.

You remember how in the ancient Greek legend Iole was asked how she knew Hercules was a god, and she replied, "I knew because he conquered whether he stood or walked or sat or whatever he did." When we contemplate the life of Jesus, we see in him and in everything he did: conquest.

Illustration: A friend of mine who was a minister in southern California told me recently of a woman in a mental sanitarium there. She'd been in the sanitarium for many years with an extreme depression. She used to just sit on a bench every day staring at the earth with no conversation, no response. And one day a new doctor who'd never seen her came down the hall and greeted her. He said, "Good morning!" She made no reply. "What is your name?" he said. No answer. "Well, my name is Doctor Heven, HEVEN, and I'll be by to see you again tomorrow." Then he started away.

But she lifted her head and said, "What did you say your name was?"

The doctor did not know the patient, so he did not know how remarkable it was that she was saying anything.

He answered, "Heven, HEVEN."

Now, somehow in the confused processes of that wounded mind, the woman confused the word Heven with heaven, and she began thinking about the place. As she thought about heaven, she thought about God, and she thought of God's love made known to us in Christ. The next day she said to everyone she met in the hospital, "This is the day which the Lord hath made." And the day after that, "Yea, I walk through the valley of the shadow of evil, but I fear no evil." Within six days she was saying, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." Within five weeks she had been released from the hospital, and for the last fourteen years she has been carrying out her responsibilities as a leading teacher in southern California.

Here's a woman to whom the very memory of Christ, the very focusing of her mind upon him, so ordered what was disordered, so calmed what was stormy, so straightened what was crooked, that she could go out and live as she lives today. Jesus, you see, is the Lord of life, the imperial Christ.

Jesus is the Lord of Death.

But he's also the Lord of death. There are many who are ready to acknowledge that our Lord Jesus is the pattern of what the human experience should be at its best. But they do not acknowledge that he is the Lord of death just as he is the Lord of life. They do not acknowledge that he has in fact risen from the dead. Oh, they will affirm that something happened to transform the cowards of Good Friday into the heroes of Easter, to bring our New Testament into being, to move the whole worshiping community from devotion on Saturday to devotion on Sunday. But they do not believe that whatever happened was our Lord's rising from the dead. They believe that his body decayed into dust and is mingled now somewhere with the Syrian sands.

But over against those people I offer this testimony: The tomb of Jesus was empty. The New Testament affirms that. The New Testament, the most tested and authentic document out of all the ancient world, announces it. The gospel of the Resurrection was heralded not in some cultural backwater but in Jerusalem, from the street corners and housetops. If there were any on hand who could have refuted that doctrine, they would have done so then, but none did. Why? Because the tomb was empty.

Some seek to explain this emptiness by saying that Jesus only fainted on the cross, and that when he was placed in the cool recesses of the tomb, he revived after a period of rest and then released himself. In order to believe that, however, we must believe that the Romans, who were experts at crucifixion, did not know when a man was dead. We must further believe that Jesus, after hanging nine hours on the cross, could be placed in a tomb for more than two days with no food and no water, and there be so revived that he could get up and walk on wounded feet and with crushed hands push away a stone that it took many men to move; and having pushed away that stone, that he could then overpower armed Roman soldiers and escape. It is easier to believe that he rose from the dead as the gospel proclaims. And the testimony that stands against the argument that he only fainted is this: the tomb was indisputably and unquestionably empty.

So some say the friends of Jesus came and stole his body away in order that they might claim he had risen from the dead. They could announce the resurrection gospel and there would be no body to refute their claim. But in order to believe this, we must believe they overpowered the Roman soldiers and stole the body away. We must also believe and I find this utterly impossible even to conceive of that they were willing to die for what they knew was untrue, that they were willing to be crucified and skinned alive and thrown to wild animals, that they were willing to endure unspeakable punishments and tortures for what they knew all along to be a lie. Most people will not die for what they know to be the truth, let alone for what they know to be a lie. The early disciples knew it was not a lie. Why? Because the tomb was empty.

Some say his enemies came and took the body. The Jews took it. The Romans took it. Thus, if there were a resurrection claim, they could present the rotting corpse and in that instant stop all that gospel nonsense. But they never presented the body, because they did not have that body. The tomb, you see, was empty.

Illustration: I have visited most of the world's great tombs. I stood beneath the monumental pyramids that were raised over the moldering heads of Pharaohs. I stood on the marble balcony of the Tombeau de Napoleon in Paris and looked down on the casket that encloses the body of the little Corsican. I stood in the quiet solitude of the tomb of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, where the remains of our sixteenth President lie in a bronze casket sunk down in tons and tons of concrete. I've been in the crypt of St. Peter's and stood before the white marble simplicity of the tomb of John XXIII, that great and good man, the tomb always surrounded with flowers and burning candles.

At every one of these places I have thought to myself. Sic transit gloria mundi: So passes the glory of the world. But at the center of our faith there stands a tomb that is empty. For Jesus Christ, the glory has not passed, for he is risen: Lord not only of life but Lord also of death.

Illustration: The legend has it that the sphinx, a creature half woman and half lion, used to lie stretched upon a rock at the entrance to a city. And when anyone would approach the city, she would put a riddle. The riddle was this: What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs at night? And if the traveler could not answer the riddle, and none could, she would push that traveler off the cliff to death.

Then one day Oedipus came, and Oedipus answered the riddle. What goes on four legs in the morning and two at noon and three at night? Man. In the morning of his years, he crawls on all fours. In the noontime of his life, the middle years, he walks upon his two feet. At the end of his years, he walks upon two legs and a cane, when night draws near. And the story goes that when the sphinx heard the explanation of the riddle, she was so ashamed that she herself leaped to her death.

Death has been the sphinx that has been stretched out across the pathway of all our human experience. Death has been the riddle, the enigma, put to us that no one could answer. But then came Jesus. And in Jesus we see death itself die. We see the last great enemy defeated. We see that one thing that could stop us is able to stop us no more because he is alive forevermore. Not only is he Emperor of life, but Emperor of death as well.

Jesus is the Lord of life after death.

Jesus is also the Lord of life after death. We have no photographs of heaven. And yet we know that if the creative genius of God is as we know it to be, then the beauties of earth are only a beginning for what he has fashioned there. But we're not able to imagine it. It is outside our order of being.

Illustration: Think of it this way: here's a colony of grubs living on the bottom of a swamp. And every once in a while, one of these grubs is inclined to climb a leaf stem to the surface. Then he disappears above the surface and never returns. All the grubs wonder why this is so and what it must be like up there, so they counsel among themselves and agree that the next one who goes up will come back and tell the others.

Not long after that, one of the grubs feels that urge and climbs that leaf stem and goes out above the surface onto a lily pad. And there in the warmth of the sun, he falls asleep. While he sleeps, the carapace of the tiny creature breaks open, and out of the inside of the grub comes a magnificent dragonfly with beautiful, wide, , iridescent wings. And he spreads those wings and flies, soaring out over those waters. But then he remembers the commitment he has made to those behind, yet now he knows he cannot return. They would not recognize him in the first place, and beyond that, he could not live again in such a place. But one thought takes away all the distress: they, too, shall climb the stem, and they, too, shall know the glory.

Even so, we cannot know heaven. And those who have gone to heaven cannot come back and tell us of it. Oh, we use words. We say the streets are gold because gold is the metal of eternity. It does not rust or tarnish. We say that music will be there, because music is the most perfect of the arts, lifting us out of ourselves. We say that the gates are of pearl, because the pearl comes out of the agony of the oyster, and we come out of the hurt of life into the glories of the kingdom of heaven.

But the grandest thing we can say of heaven is this, that there we shall be with Christ. That's what he said to the dying thief: "This day thou shalt be with me in paradise." And that magnificent promise in John: "In my Father's house are many mansions. If it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and I will receive you unto myself, that where I am ye may be also." That's the greatest glory in heaven.

Illustration: I heard of a little lad named Kenny who developed leukemia. The disease progressed rapidly. Soon he was unable to go to school, then unable to go out at all, and finally confined to his bed. One day he asked the question his mother had most feared hearing. "Mother," he said, "what is it like to die?" Though she'd steeled herself for that moment, she couldn't handle it when it came, so she excused herself and went out of the room. And there in the bathroom she prayed, her knuckles as white as the porcelain in the sink top.

Then, guided by God's Spirit, I believe, she went back into the bedroom and said, "Kenny, you remember how when you were a very little fellow you sometimes would fall asleep in my bed? And how the next morning, when you would waken, you would find yourself in your own bed and in your own room? Do you know how that happened? That happened because while you were sleeping, your big brother came, or your father came, and he lifted you up and carried you so gently to your own bed and to your own room. That, Kenny, is what death is like."

The youngster smiled, for he understood. A few weeks later he fell asleep, and while he slept, his elder Brother and ours, his Father and ours, came and lifted him up and took him off to his own room and to his own bed.

How do you see Jesus? I see him as the Book of Revelation sees him, riding on a white horse. His vesture is dipped in blood, and on that vesture and on his thigh is a name so holy that none of us can know it. And behind him riding are the legions of heaven. First come the enemies he has defeated: sin and death and principalities and powers. Behind them, all also robed in white, come Moses with the multitudes he led out of Egypt, Joshua with the legions he led in to take the Land of Promise, Gideon and his 300, Elijah with the 7000 who had not yet bowed their knees to Baal, Peter and the thousands who responded to his preaching, and Paul and the scores who came to Christ through his announcement of the gospel. And behind them follow the lame and the halt and the blind and the old and the young and the rich and the poor. Then come the great missioners of the church, the great gospel heralders to all the world, representatives of every tribe and people.

They come regiment by regiment and army by army and legion by legion all behind this One who wears crowns and crowns and whose Word is of such power that it is like a sword from his mouth. As they follow they cry out, "He is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. He is the Lord of life. He is the King of death. He is the Sovereign of life after death. Christ the victor; Christ the imperial. Christus Victor! Christus Imperator!"

The late Bruce Thielemann served as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He held degrees from Westminster College, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and a certificate from St. Andrews University in Scotland.

Bruce W. Thielemann

Preaching Today Tape # 55


A resource of Christianity Today International

Bruce Thielemann is the former pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Jesus is the Lord of life

II. Jesus is the Lord of death

III. Jesus is the Lord of life after death