16 The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. 17 They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. 18 And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!” 19 Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. 20 And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him. (Mark 15:16-20)
In her annual televised Christmas address to the nation, The Queen would regularly speak about her Christian faith.
It has been often said in the media that to understand the Queen you need to understand her Christian faith.
It appears to have been not the ceremonial sort of faith, not a wishy-washy, vague faith of some politicians and royalty (and sometimes also so called religious leaders!), but a very specific, personal and genuine faith in Jesus. For example,
“For me, the life of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace,...is an inspiration and an anchor in my life” (Christmas 2014).
I want to show you who the Jesus our late Queen worshipped really is (for what you worship you become) by looking at this short piece from Mark’s Gospel in the Bible.
Jesus is a king
This little scene is a mock enthronement. It takes place in a palace. There’s a crowd of witnesses. His purple robe signified wealth. He wears a crown. Cries of ‘Hail King of Jews’. There’s bowing and falling on their knees.
It’s all designed to mock Jesus.
But the irony, Christianity would say, is that Jesus really is a King.
And in the Old Testament God is routinely called the King. The true King of all heaven and earth.
Psalm 47 says:
For God is the King of all the earth; sing to him a psalm of praise. God reigns over the nations; God is seated on his holy throne.
The New Testament makes the astonishing claim that Jesus is the King of Heaven come down to earth. He is God-in-the-flesh. If you had met him and shook his hand you'd have shook the hand of the Ruler of All Time.
We want a King
One of the problems people often have with Christianity is that it says we have to swear ultimate allegiance to Jesus and be prepared to lay our lives down for him!
People say, ‘well this is clearly bad’. ‘We’re free individuals who should be allowed to make our own choices. We shouldn't be under the rule of anyone. We’re free.'
And yet here we are, almost every one of us, up and down the place - happy to have had Elizabeth as their Queen.
We used to sing to God, as a nation, for more than seventy years
“Send her victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us,
God save the Queen.
I know it’s not the same! Nevertheless, perhaps there’s a hint there that living under a good King, a good ultimate King, might actually know deep down is what we really want. We don’t really want to be able to do completely as we want and live entirely for ourselves, free from all restraint. We actually know that would be awful. We want to be ruled.
Maybe we really are designed to have a true Monarch to which all human monarchs point.
In the reign of Queen Elizabeth we were treated to and experienced a mere shadow of the ultimate goodness of the reign of the King whom she loved - Jesus. Christianity claims he is the King we all actually need.
Jesus is a king who dies
Elizabeth has died. All monarchs die. We all die!
We hope to die in old age, peacefully, surrounded by people who are important to us, in a place we love. Like Queen Elizabeth did.
But that’s not what Jesus experienced:
And they led him out to crucify him.
Jesus died by execution on a wooden cross.
We are accustomed to a cross as a piece of jewellery.
But you might as well be wearing the image of an electric chair or some gallows.
The cross was reserved for the people the Romans hated most: Slaves, disgraced soldiers, foreigners, and, political activists - and Christians.
It was designed to be both excruciatingly painful and highly embarrassing.
The Romans would take the condemned man (or woman) along the busiest street on the way to the execution site as warning to all.
A humiliated King
Now here’s an interesting thing: the best source material to know about how the Romans killed people using the cross in the New Testament Gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.,
You'd have thought the Romans would have left behind the manual on how to crucify someone.
But the Romans were ashamed of it. Even they knew - the ones who perfected it - wanted to keep it quiet. It was so humiliating for all involved that even the inventors of it didn't want later generations to associate the glory of Rome with something so savage.
Jesus the King was struck down in his prime, probably naked, in agony, in public.
And here’s an important point, and one reason why you have to take Christianity seriously.
For the Jews (Jesus and all his friends were Jews), it would have been unimaginable to say that God could become human. To then say that God-in-human-form could suffer death - and death on a cross - would have been a wicked thing to say.
And yet, it was Jewish people who claimed it was all true. It’s the sort of thing a huge and growing group of people wouldn’t easily fall for. It went against all their understanding. And yet many believed it, and the Christian faith in the crucified, humiliated King Jesus grew and grew.
But why did Jesus die?
So our late and dearly loved late Queen worshipped a heavenly King who died on a cross.
Her death had no ultimate meaning. It’s her life that really counted. But for Christianity the most important thing about Jesus is his death.
Why? The piece from Mark’s Gospel, above, helps us.
The Roman soldiers use Jesus for their own sick pleasure. It’s a moving thing to read.
They dress him up.
They pushing thorns deep into his skull
They strike him on the head with a lump of wood. Again and again.
They spit on him.
They mock him: “Hail, King of the Jews!”
We read it and we think “what are they doing, these sick people?”
Mark, the writer, summarises their actions by saying ‘when they had mocked him’ v 20
And the Bible would tell us that in reality we have all mocked God with our whole lives. The most common word we use for it is ‘sin’’.
We might say, ‘hey! I’m not like these soldiers. I wouldn't do anything like that!’. I’m sure you are right.
But the Bible pushes us to look a bit deeper. It says that by living our lives without God as our king is mocking God.
For example, every day we enjoy food, warmth, friendships, entertainment, sleep… and yet we never stop to thank God for any of it. The Bible would say that this is mocking God. It’s little us saying to the one who provides everything and made us, ‘I don’t need you’.
We might say, ‘well I don’t believe there is a God’. Fair enough, we might not. But that’s an act of faith - there might be a God after all.
But the evidence of the physical world around us which points to design, our own human instincts about majesty and beauty and eternity, and our belief in right and wrong all point to the likelihood of there being a God. And to say he doesn't exist, or even to say we’re not sure he exists, is Christianity would claim, mockery of God.
Now, this is where it starts to become offensive. Really offensive. No wonder Christians were crucified!
Real Christianity - the Christianity of the Queen - gets under our skin.
Our school upbringing told us that Christianity was all about ‘being nicer’.
But real Christianity is saying that we all stand guilty before God. Just like the soldiers, are clearly guilty. If we’d been in their shoes, we’d have done the same. Because mocking God is the default mode of our rebellious hearts.
But it’s actually here that Christianity has radical power.
Why did Jesus die? The Bible says that Jesus died as a substitute. The physical pain of the cross was one thing, the embarrassment of it for him and his friends another. But the real horror for Jesus lay in its spiritual agony.
Jesus punished by God
For Jesus was punished by God on the cross. He took the spiritual punishment we deserve for our mockery of God, in the place of all who, like the Queen, put their trust in him.
That’s why he died. To rescue us from the consequences of our own sin. In fact, we think a Roman soldier - perhaps one of those who had beaten him - became a follower when he said “Surely this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39).
Most importantly, Jesus’ death secures our relationship with God, forever. We can look forward to being with God when we die. There’s no reason to have any doubt about that, if you, like the Queen, trust in Jesus.
But the cross also has an enormous power in the present, which I think we saw in the Queen's life.
Do you have to meet the President of France tomorrow? Or of China? No, didn’t think so.
But over the course of her seventy year reign Queen Elizabeth represented the United Kingdom before all manner of world leaders. This small, posh, country-loving woman dealt with them all.
When you know that the King of the whole universe died for you, you get a deep confidence that means that no matter who you are meeting, or whatever you are facing in life, you have no reason to fear. The God of the universe looks at you, and you know deep within that he accepts you and loves you.
But it also makes you deeply humble. The Queen, when you look beyond the tiaras and the palaces, is considered to have been deeply humble. The word that is most used to describe her is ‘serve’. She was a servant. A Queen who served!
What would make you serve consistently like that right until the day you die - when you needn’t! Elizabeth was the Queen of fifteen countries!
Because she knew that she had been served by the true King. The King to whom she had sworn her ultimate allegiance.
Confidence and humility. Two qualities that rarely ever can go together. But the gospel can produce it in our lives.
And we saw them both in Queen Elizabeth. We give thanks to God for her.
Photo: PRESS ASSOCIATION / Danny Lawson.