Christ The King Sunday

Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last day of the Christian year. Instituted in 1925, it is the newest festival on the liturgical calendar. The Presbyterian Church first acknowledged this Sunday by including worship resources for it in the blue hymnal published in 1991.

The significance of this Sunday before advent is to acknowledge what we have been talking about in our churches all year—that whether we are celebrating his birth, his life, his death, his resurrection, or his ascension, Jesus Christ is our king and he will reign forever. He is as the song says, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Glory, halleluiah!”

The problem that comes with celebrating Christ as King is that the word king reminds us of earthly, kings. And, if we use those images to portray Christ, we find that human language is much too limiting. The pomp and circumstance we think of in connection with earthly kings or prices and dutcheses or whomever takes part in those royal weddings, all of that pales by comparison to the riches of God’s kingdom. And, earthly rulers are, of course, limited in the amount of good they can do. They are as prone to sin as any of us (bet you didn’t know that!) and they come to power by good and not-so-good human means.

Christ, on the other hand, is the only king who is completely just and fair. He is not placed in power by the will of the people. Christ reigns regardless. He reigns over us all. He is not placed in power by special interest groups, political parties or military coups.

He is the only ruler who does not sin; who does not make decisions based on current events, the popular vote or the influence of trusted advisors. He is not swayed by the most influential lobbyists or by any cause other than God’s will. Christ will not be overthrown, his kingdom has no end. He will reign forever and ever. No wonder words fail us when we try to describe Christ and his kingdom. It is so far beyond our human experience that we cannot begin to grasp its’ goodness, its’ light, its’ equity.

As the church, of course, we try to carry out God’s will and work with God to establish God’s kingdom on earth. We set up our sessions, our boards and our committees with the best of intentions and do our best. Most of the time it all works out but sometimes we encounter a little dissention or a lot of

The task of bringing God’s kingdom to earth is daunting but every once in a while our feeble human efforts bring forth some small glimpse of the kingdom here on earth. On those occasions when we experience a breakthrough in prayer or Bible study, when a committee works together in fellowship and love, when a congregation decides to lay down individual differences for the greater good—at those times we gain insight into the possibilities of the greater kingdom. Praise God!

Our scriptures today have much to say about kings and rulers. In our first reading, King David, an earthly ancestor of Jesus, records his last thoughts. He says, “One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.” Does that call to mind any great leaders in…I don’t know..the last 30 years?

What do you think? Does that sound like anyone you’ve seen on the news lately? I don’t know. I so want to say something about politicians today only glowing from their fake tans, but I will try to resist.

The more important message for us today, I think, calls us to ponder what we define as ruling justly. I think our country is a little confused about what that is and maybe that is part of what divides us. King David said that those who rule justly do so “in the fear of God.” Anytime we see the phrase “fear of God” we have to remember that a more acurate word than fear is “awe.” Those who rule in “awe” of God.

Recently a world leader reportedly ordered a journalist to be killed—is there justice in that? Are things like that done in awe God? I think, King David might have called that a godless decision—and he doesn’t have much good to say about the people he deems “godless.” What guides the leaders of the world today?

In our second scripture reading an earthly king confronts the King of Kings and the contrast is pretty striking.

If you read the entire chapter you will see Pilate and Jesus in Pilate’s office or headquarters and the religious leaders who have brought Jesus to Pilate out on the portico. Seven times, as Jesus and Pilate talk, Pilate runs back to the portico to get the leaders take on what has been said.

Pilate goes back and forth, back and forth as he tries to make up his mind. This leads us to think, perhaps, that Pilate really does know right from wrong. But he also knows what is easy and what is politically expedient. Will he cave to political pressure and sentence Jesus or will he see the truth and let him go?

Jesus reminds Pilate that “everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate doesn’t listen and not all world leaders listen today. What about us? Do we claim the words of that old hymn, “I need thee every hour?” Or are we more like Fleetwood Mac loving to go our own way?

John rarely uses what we call “kingdom” language. It appears in this passage with Pilate and in the conversation Jesus has with Nicodemus but we don’t get much of an idea from John as to what Christ’s kingdom will look like. In this passage Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world” and while that statement is a bit vague as least it’s something upon which can all agree.

Part of us longs for more information—what will the kingdom of God look like? Will it look like the United States? Will it look like the middle east? Will it be lush and tropical? We wonder because in our human minds kingdom is all about location.

But God can be anywhere and everywhere and also at the same time. So maybe God’s kingdom isn’t found in a palace built on the materials available in one location place—maybe it’s a palace built on the bricks of relationship—a relationship between God’s heart and ours.

On the Working Preacher website, the Rev. Karoline Lewis writes, Jesus’ kingdom is not about amassing additional amounts of [power]. Jesus’ kingdom is not about his ultimate rule over and above others. Jesus’ kingdom is about relationship.

Jesus can say, “My kingdom is not from this world” because it is from God. Pilate attempts to construe the boundaries of Jesus’ kingdom but Jesus’ kingdom is from God, just as Jesus is from God (John 1:1) and Jesus is God’s kingdom.”

The concept of kingdom in John’s gospel is not a kingdom that strains and severs relationships. It is a kingdom that puts relationship at its core. That’s a whole different perspective on kingdom.

Lewis says, “When kingdom is construed from the truth of relationship and not rule, from the truth of incarnation and not location, from the truth of love and not law, then Jesus as truth will ring true.”

When I was growing up my parents had enormous health problems and although they were both active in a church, time and time again I would see my mother look up at the sky and say, “Somebody up there just doesn’t like us, I guess.” I took that to mean that God didn’t like us.

So when I was in my twenties and I started going to my husband’s church, I was astounded to hear the pastor says that God longs for a personal relationship with all of us—with each of us. I just couldn’t imagine that included me. I was a disappointment to everyone.
But, that pastor taught me that by some miracle of love I wasn’t a disappointment to God and that yes, God’s kingdom included a place for me.

And because of the sort of King Jesus is–that same miracle of God’s love is available to each of you and there is a place in God’s kingdom for someone shaped just like you, a place where you will fit, perfectly just as you are.

Belonging to God’s kingdom is so much better than belonging to say, the local royal family, the exclusive country club, the political party in power at any given time. You belong—not for how you look or for how much money or fame you can amass. You belong simply because you are you, a person made and loved by the Lord. You are a person worthy of a relationship with the almighty. You were made for God’s kingdom. Know that you are worthy and loved. Amen.

Act One stars Jeremiah. This male lead is a young and woeful prophet. A man of conflict who has been called by God to deliver messages to a people that both God and Jeremiah dearly love. But the role is complex, for even though he is God’s spokesperson, the words Jeremiah is given to speak are not well received. His messages are unpopular and so is he. Sounds like a great part doesn’t it? Lots of strong pronouncements, lots of angst, lots of pretty depressing action. Lots of weeping over both the things he has to say and the people who will not listen. Lots of opportunities for creative acting in those scenes when the people reject a straight-out message and Jeremiah resorts to theatrics to get his point across. Hmm…what an interesting role–Is Jeremiah a good guy or a bad guy? God’s anointed prophet but one who is leads a lonely life, one who is mocked, thrown in prison and eventually taken into exile.

As our scene opens Jeremiah has, once again, been called to deliver bad news; more words of woe. He has a solioquy and in it he must tell the “shepherds,” the political and church leaders, that they are not doing a very good job. He has to tell them that instead of building up the people of God they are ruling in such a way that they are scattering and destroying them. He tells them that because they have not attended to the people, God will attend to them and by his tone it doesn’t sound good. Listen to the way Eugene Peterson translates this passage in his modern Bible paraphrase, The Message:

1-4 “Doom to the shepherd-leaders who butcher and scatter my sheep!” God’s Decree. “So here is what I, God, Israel’s God, say to the shepherd-leaders who misled my people: ‘You’ve scattered my sheep. You’ve driven them off. You haven’t kept your eye on them. Well, let me tell you, I’m keeping my eye on you, keeping track of your criminal behavior.”

Yikes! Those are some pretty scary thoughts for someone like me who wants to be a pastor. And they are grim words for all of us who are elders, deacons, Sunday School teachers, members of congregations. Have we ever spoken words that have scattered sheep? Have we ever been responsible for driving someone out of the church? Or are there people who have simply drifted away because we haven’t kept an eye on them? People whose feelings have been hurt because the pastor didn’t come to call when they were sick or hurting? People who needed someone from the church to call and check on them and no one did? What a warning this is to all of us that our business needs to be about building up and not tearing down.

It’s also a reminder that we aren’t here to rule little church kingdoms on our own. God, after all, is in control. Every church is God’s church. We can never think of them as a place for enacting our personal agendas. The agenda always has to come from the king and his communication to us in prayer.

Because if we are not careful, if we are not just and good shepherds of the flock God has given us, God, as he speaks through Jeremiah, tells us that he is going to replace us. As “The Message” goes on God says:

“I’ll take over and gather what’s left of my sheep, gather them in from all the lands where I’ve driven them. I’ll bring them back where they belong, and they’ll recover and flourish. I’ll set shepherd-leaders over them who will take good care of them. They won’t live in fear or panic anymore. All the lost sheep rounded up!’ God’s Decree.”

And, when the sheep are rounded up, God promises more. Again, reading from The Message, God says:

5-6″Time’s coming”—God’s Decree—
“when I’ll establish a truly righteous David-Branch,
A ruler who knows how to rule justly.
He’ll make sure of justice and keep people united.
In his time Judah will be secure again
and Israel will live in safety.
This is the name they’ll give him:

Well, that;s good news Jeremiah! There is hope for the future! And that is where Act One ends.

Act Two opens many years later. A baby has been born in the hill country of Judea. Like Isaac, born to Abraham and Sarah all those years ago, this baby, too, has been born to elderly and formerly childless parents. It’s been an unusual pregnancy, not so much for the mother as for the father, old Zachariah, the temple priest.

Almost a year ago, after long years of waiting, it was finally Zachariah’s turn to officiate at the incense offering in the temple. He was in the temple presenting the offering for a much longer time than usual and the people who had gathered outside waiting for him to emerge and pronounce the blessing were getting tied of waiting. When he finally did come out he couldn’t speak. Not a word. Something happened in the temple and he was rendered mute. Rumor had it that he had seen a vision. The actor cast in this part will need to be as expressive one as Zachariah communicates mostly through gestures or by writing notes on a tablet coated in wax.

As our scene opens Zachariah’s son has been born and the people have gathered on the eighth day to see the baby named and circumcised. Everyone expects that the baby will be named for his father as tradition holds, but the mother, Elizabeth, has just said she wants him named John. A murmur goes through the crowd and someone turns and asks Zachariah, through hand motions, what is going on. To their amazement, Zachariah agrees with his wife and writes on the tabled, “His name is John.
The people wonder if he is loosing his mind as well as his voice.

But no, suddenly, something is happening! Old Zachariah seems filled with light. He is filled with the Holy Spirit and suddenly, oh my! He is speaking! Nine months of silence and he is speaking. He is uttering a prophecy! It has been years since God has spoken to his people through a prophet! The people mummer and then fall into a hushed, reverent silence. They listen as Zachariah speaks:

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
he came and set his people free.
He set the power of salvation in the center of our lives,
and in the very house of David his servant,
Just as he promised long ago
through the preaching of his holy prophets:
Deliverance from our enemies
and every hateful hand;
Mercy to our fathers,
as he remembers to do what he said he’d do,
What he swore to our father Abraham—
a clean rescue from the enemy camp,
So we can worship him without a care in the world,
made holy before him as long as we live.

It is amazing! A local priest looking back on the promises of God and speaking a message of hope. Surely God has been with Zachariah during his time of silence. Surely God is speaking through him now—pointing him back to promises made of old, citing that prophecy of Jeremiah delivered so long ago. Talking bout that David-branch; that ruler who is coming to reign in justice.

But, Zachariah has more to say. Perhaps taking his infant son in his arms, he looks at the baby and says,

And you, my child, “Prophet of the Highest,”
will go ahead of the Master to prepare his ways,
Present the offer of salvation to his people,
the forgiveness of their sins.
Through the heartfelt mercies of our God,
God’s Sunrise will break in upon us,
Shining on those in the darkness,
those sitting in the shadow of death,
Then showing us the way, one foot at a time,
down the path of peace.

And, as the curtain falls on Act Two, the people stand in awe. In this tiny village, these very common folk, catch a glimpse of the coming kingdom. They don’t understand it, but they realize change is coming. They don’t know how but this little baby will be part of it. Surely this is much more than your ordinary circumcism and naming ceremony. Surely God is here. What has God brought them in this baby? Who is the one borne into their midst? They cannot see that he will grow up to be called John the Baptist.

And that leads us to the third act of our play. The birth of this special one spoken of by prohets and promised by God in both the words of Jeremiah and the words of Zachariah. The one who is coming to change the word. The king of kings and lord of lords, the messiah, the almighty God, everlasting father, the prince of peace. Act three is coming in advent. It’s a grand finale that is also a new beginning. Act Three will change the world. Be sure to come back to hear more next week, after our week-long intermission.

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