Last Sunday night I watched a film on the television: The Book of Eli. The film is set in some future post-apocalyptic time, following a great disaster when a sun burst burnt everything up on earth, including most of the paper, most of the books. The central character is Eli, who has one of the few books left in the world. It is a Bible, and he has had a vision that he must walk west, carrying the book. So he has been walking for 30 years. The world has changed greatly since the catastrophe, and the people don’t read any more. They can’t read. There is very little water and not much food. Everywhere is a desert. Life is tough, a dog eat dog world.
Eli passes through an area where the local baddy, Carnegie, is looking for a book, not just any book. He wants a copy of the Bible. And he wants it not so that he can study it for himself or get closer to God, but because he wants to use it to control others. If he controls access to the wisdom of the Bible, he will have the key to the hearts and minds of all the people, and he will be able to milk that for his own profit. After considerable difficulty, Carnegie manages to get the Bible that Eli is carrying, leaving Eli for dead, very hurt and broken.
Eli struggles to continue travelling. He goes west until he comes to a great river. When he crosses the river by row boat, he and his companion are taken in by a community of scholars who have collected the books that remain and plan to print them again, so that people will be able to read, and there will be culture and civilisation all over again. In the meantime, Carnegie opens the Bible that he has stolen from Eli and finds that it is a Braille copy and he cannot read it. Out west, Eli starts to dictate the whole of the Bible, verse by verse. He has memorized the whole thing. He is the book.
Today is the last Sunday before Advent, the day when the theme is Christ the King, and we think about what it means for Christ to be our King.
Carnegie, the baddy in the film, wants to control the people, he wants to rule them – if you like, he wants to be the kingpin, and he is prepared to use faith, the bible, to do that. He wants the power of the Bible to use against the people He wants to be a sort of Messiah-figure, but for all the wrong reasons.
That is not the kind of king that Jesus is.
In the Old Testament reading, the prophet Jeremiah is raging against the bad leaders, the shepherds who haven’t cared for the flocks. He pronounces the Lord’s promise that good shepherds will be brought in who will tend the sheep properly.
Carnegie is like those bad shepherds. The bad shepherds look out for their own interests, their own pleasure. They treat the sheep like objects, tools to be used. For them, the sheep are disposable. There was another bad shepherd in the news this week in the former Chairman of the Coop Bank, the Methodist minister Paul Flowers.
The Gospel reading shows us what it means for Christ to be king. It is the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, Jesus dying on the cross to save us all. He gives himself up so that we might live and thrive.
In the film, Carnegie is all for killing others so that he himself can thrive. But Jesus loves us so much that he is prepared to die for us.
Pilate mocks the crucified Jesus by putting a sign on the cross “This is the king of the Jews”. The Romans knew about kings. Their emperors were gods. Who was this little man going round talking about God’s kingdom, preaching love and claiming to heal people. He was nothing! The Romans had the power to obliterate him, and that’s what they tried to do.
But God has the last laugh. Jesus was the king of Jews, but not in the way everyone expected. Jesus rose from the dead three days after the crucifixion. That was the real power, God’s power.
In the film, Eli sacrificed himself for his dream, for his vision. He remained true to his calling to go west and carry the book. Even when he lost the physical book, he was still carrying the book because he had learned every word by heart. And fulfilling the vision meant that everyone would have access to the sacred text once again and would be able to get to know God for themselves. The faith would be shared, not exploited.
Christ our King has given himself up for us. Every week, we share the cup of his blood and the bread that is his body. He becomes part of who we are, as individuals and as a church. And he invites us to respond, to put others first, to care for those around us, the strangers as well as close kin.
The middle reading, the Epistle to the Colossians, talks about what this all means for us. It tells us how we have been rescued from darkness and brought into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son where we have forgiveness of our sins and can share in the inheritance of the saints in light. That gives us strength, and we should endure everything with patience and give thanks to the Father.
Christ is our King, but we have to remember what kind of king he is, a king who gives himself up for us. And we are called to be like him in everything we do, in the way we do business, in our attitudes to money and possessions, in our relationships, in the way we treat others. And when we do that, he can say to us: Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.?
Panel from the south window at St Chad’s Bensham, by Percy Bacon brothers