Christ the King B: Amen

Wisdom of the CrossOLD TESTAMENT: 2 Samuel 23: 1-7

To read the Lectionary passage from 2 Samuel

The story contained in the Books of Samuel tells of the extraordinary change in the way Israel is governed. Up to this time, there had been various tribes who on occasion had come together to combat a threat from other nations. In the Book of Judges, we are told how a person was raised by God to lead the tribes on particular occasions. The Spirit of God settles on the person and the story progresses so that we know God’s hand is involved in the consequences. In the Books of Samuel, there is a huge shift in the way that the society is structured. This would have occurred around the end of the 10th century bce. The center of government during the time of the judges was at Shiloh and by the time we got to the end of 2 Samuel, the center of what is now an empire has moved to Jerusalem.

The passage that we read is part of the Song of Deliverance (22:1-23:7) that David makes after his defeat of the Philistines and Saul. It acknowledges that everything which has happened is because the Lord has been there as his rock and refuge. The beginning of this passage affirms David as the anointed one of God. The understanding here is that David is King because God chose him and that the Spirit of the Lord speaks using him. It goes on to speak of David’s reign and the good things that came out of it. According to the words, when a ruler rules in justice and awareness of God’s presence, the ruling is idyllic. This is followed by the claim that God has made an everlasting covenant with David.

The Song is a reminder to David that he is not autonomous, that God’s Presence abides through his life and through his rule. These words are purported to be David’s last words and even if they are not from David, there is no doubt that they are ancient. While this is essentially a memorial to King David and what he did for the ancient monarchy, the image as light and life giving rain can also be seen as an understanding of Christ’s reign, which is why we read this as one of our Christ the King passages. It’s another one of those passages that while not “usurping” its original intent is brought into new focus with Christ.

The everlasting covenant relates to the promise of eternal life that was depicted in Christ’s reign. This Sunday marks the occasion of the last words we speak before the new church year is upon us. Last words, just as David’s last words, close the book on what was, and brace the community as it launches toward its future.

  1. Malcolm Sinclair makes this point:

 

These last words allow little leeway for the next generation of blessings. Only a royal monarch with all the trappings and power flowing from the top can honor this pattern. There is no place here for a manger child, a, a Nazareth nobody, a washer of feet, or a flesh-and-blood life susceptible to lashes, thorns, and nails. Yet that is the one who appears among us when the church year begins next Sunday.

What are we to do? Structurally we have long been tempted by that royal model with its crown and scepter. It fits better into our world of power mongers and high achievers. Yet the gracious last words of the other heroes take us into a strange world that is vulnerable and out of step with our times and neighbors. It is helpful to realize that last words are never what they appear, but are in turn taken by those who follow to be used as protagonists, antagonists, subjects, objects, verbs, curses, or love letters.

On the cusp of a new church year it seems fitting to utter the best words we can, those truest, noblest, cleanest, and closest to the heart. Such words are wide and hold open the door to the wideness of the mystery being born. Such words give broad syntax and good grammar to all those conversationalists who shall stand where we stand today.[i]

  

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What sense does this give you as we close out this church year?
  3. What do you think this has to do with us and with how we live our lives?
  4. In what ways do we “misinterpret” the idea of Christ’s Reign or Christ’s “Kingship”?

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Revelation 1: 4b-8

To read the Lectionary passage from Rev elation

As the title of this book proclaims, the content is a “revelation”, a message of God told through humans. But it is also structured as a letter from John to the seven churches of Asia. In this week when we are celebrating and affirming Christ as King, we read a description of who Jesus is, an explanation of what Jesus has done for us, and a revelation of what our response should be. The writer depicts Jesus as: (1) Faithful witness—one who lived and moved among us as a mentoring teacher and life-changing witness; (2) Firstborn of the dead—one who overcame death and assumed his rightful place in eternity; and (3) Ruler of the Kings of the earth—one who has ultimate authority over all creation—and even over human-made divisions. The depiction of what Jesus has done is told in present tense, reminding us that Christ’s love is always present, not an historical representation of the past, but something that continues perpetually and eternally.

Then the phrase “made us to be” implies that we are to live as members of this Kingdom and “as priests serving God.” The passage ends with the affirmation of God as “alpha and omega”, “beginning and end”, a reminder that there is not slot of time or space that is without God.

The Book of Revelation, as confusing as it may be to some and as confusing as some have tried to make it, is a message of hope even in the face of despair. Its main purpose was to encourage early Christians that were under Roman persecution to remain faithful during the time of tribulation (as opposed, more than likely, to some future tribulation to come!) The writer was offering a different vision that the one in which they were living. This hope is the assurance of something different, both now and for the future.

To those long ago hurting ones to whom John wrote, to those long ago ones whose lives were marked by pain and fear, by weakness and oppression of injustice and death, whose lives were marked by the terror of the now and haunted by the past and uncertain of the future, to those ones and to us, to you, God through the words of Revelation offers us a vision of a brand new life; a life lived in a brand new order in a brand new way. Essentially, what God has to say in this letter is that no matter what comes against you in this life; no matter if all of the power of pain and chaos of the universe seems to overtake you all at once; no matter if you can not control one single thing or fix one single thing in your life, the worst is over, the healing has already begun.

 

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What does that mean to you to “live as priests serving God” and live as members of God’s Kingdom?
  3. What does this message of hope mean for you?

 

GOSPEL: John 18: 33-37

To read the Lectionary passage from The Gospel According to John

This passage is “Scene Two” of the seven scenes that make up the trial of Jesus befoe Pilate. Ironically, the Jewish authorities remain outside because they want to remain pure for the Passover that very evening. (So, apparently, once again, being religious trumps being human.) Pilate is going back and forth between Jesus and them. Pilate likely considers himself (or at least is trying to convince everyone else that he is) the most powerful, most in-control person in Jerusalem. He even brags about his power to Jesus. Pilate probably could care less whether or not Jesus is crucified, but if he doesn’t appease the Jewish authorities, he will lose his own standing and power.

To speak of Jesus as “King of the Jews” is to use a Jewish understanding and category. It is a dangerous depiction, citing alternative government and a statement of revolt. Jesus is seeking radical change in what is. He must be stopped. Jesus’ kingship, while it is and should be a sort of “revolt” is not “of this world”. Jesus embodies truth. Jesus embodies God. We stand in a threshold between two times—the “already” and the “not yet”. We are given glimpses of what the future holds but it is not yet fully realized. Our image of kingship depicted here is a subverted one. Christ did not come to take over or to control the world, but to remake it, to recreate it. The “power” of this kingship is found only as it is subverted.

So we come to the end of our liturgical calendar. We have walked the seasons of birthing and being and suffering and dying. We have told the stories of creation and destruction and renewal. And we come now to the end. Henry Van Dyke said that “if the meaning could be put into a sentence, there would be no need of telling the story.” On this last Sunday of the Church Year, we celebrate what we believe will finally be the last day of history. Christ will be recognized as the King of all Creation. But, as Louis L’Amour said that “there will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.”

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does Jesus’ Kingship mean in terms of this Scripture?
  3. What does it mean for Jesus to be “King” over our lives?
  4. What does the idea of a “subversive” kingship mean?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

A vision is not just a picture of what could be; it is an appeal to our better selves, a call to become something more. (Rosabeth Kanter)

 

The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens. (Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875-1926)

 

The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried. (G.K. Chesterton)

 

Closing

 

Waiting for the “when” keeps me from appreciating what I now have. Longing for promises and dreaming dreams is not a harmful deed as long as the present moment is not overlooked, as long as gratitude rises for what is already here, as long as I do not base my happiness on what is still wanting. Thankfulness for what has already been given is the foundation for hoping for what is not yet.

Today I am going to put aside my “when this happens” and my “if only this could be” and my “when things get better” and my “as soon as I have this.” I am going to harvest what I now have, gather all the many gifts that are already mine. I am going to observe what has been placed in the granary of my heart and marvel at the abundance.

I will stand before this heap of blessings and take a long, grateful look. I will say farewell to my “when” and be thankful for what is.[ii]

 

May an abundance of gratitude burst forth as you reflect upon what you have received.

May thanksgiving overflow in your heart, and often be proclaimed in your prayer.

May you gather around the table of your heart the ardent faithfulness, kindness, and

goodness of each person who is true to you.

May the harvest of your good actions bring forth plentiful fruit each day.

May you discover a cache of hidden wisdom among the people and events that have

brought you distress and sorrow.

May your basket of blessings surprise you with its rich diversity of gifts and its

            opportunities for growth.

May all that nourishes and resources your life bring you daily satisfaction and renewed

hope.

May you slow your hurried pace of life so that you can be aware of, and enjoy, what you

            too easily take for granted.

May you always be open, willing, and ready to share your blessings with others.

May you never forget the Generous One who loves you lavishly and unconditionally.[iii]

[i] From Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 319.

[ii] Joyce Rupp, “When”, from Out of the Ordinary: Prayers, Poems, and Reflections for Every Season, (Notre Dame, ID: Ave Maria Press, 1999), 206.

[iii] Ibid., “A Thanksgiving Blessing”, 207.

Proper 28B: Yearning

Longing for GodOLD TESTAMENT: 1 Samuel 1: 4-20

To read the Old Testament passage

The household of Elkanah and his wives Hannah and Penninah does not look promising at first. It looks instead like a figure for all Israel: Elkanah comes from a distinguished line, and he is pious according to the order of the day, but the household is marked by internal conflict. Penninah has children, but Hannah, whom Elkanah loves, has none. The LORD has “closed her womb.” For this Penninah “provoke[s] her severely,” year after year. Like Israel, the household is torn by rivalry. And like Israel, its future – at least through Hannah – is in doubt.

In this crisis, Hannah models a faithful response. She weeps. She rejects her share of sacrifices that have been handled by the sons of Eli. And she silently refuses her husband’s attempts to console her. Hannah will not accept the half-comforts of the present order. She goes instead to present herself “before the LORD”.  Hannah weeps, prays, and makes a vow. She prays for God to see her. And she prays for God to remember her – as Israel might pray for God to remember the covenant. She prays within the frames of the old order of the judges, promising, like Samson’s mother, that she will dedicate the boy as a Nazirite. But her prayer also reaches beyond the present order. Hannah asks God to do a new thing.

Hannah’s prayer is heard by Eli, the aging priest who embodies whatever is left of the virtues of the old order. He rebukes her, thinking she is drunk – if Eli is not corrupt, like his sons, he still cannot quite recognize the new thing that is already emerging in Hannah’s prayer. But Hannah answers him sharply, “No, my lord…” . No! And Eli hears her. He can still recognize Hannah’s faith. He blesses her and adds his endorsement to her prayer. Hannah departs as if her prayer were already answered. She eats and drinks and shares the company of her husband. And, “in due time” – in God’s time – she conceives and bears a son. She names him Samuel.  Samuel would end the time of the judges and usher in the monarchy.  God was doing a new thing in Israel.  Hannah’s name, which means “grace”, is fitting for someone who would essentially birth the beginning of the monarchy with a bold act of faith.

Now the notion of infertility is not new in the Bible—think of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, even, later, Elizabeth.  But barrenness was a source of shame.  And it was always thought to be the fault of the woman.  So, taunted and rejected, Hannah enters a long line of women who suffered because of this.  And, on top of it, Hannah was part of an unjust system that didn’t even acknowledge her pain. But rather than folding into it, she stood up and prayed. Her tears and her songs point to this injustice.  It becomes a song of revolution.  The mighty will fall and the poor will be raised.  Over and over we are told that God “opens wombs”, birthing new life.  But perhaps the story is not merely about God answering prayers but rather the story of one who yearned for God.  Maybe her yearning, her way of “returning grace” to God, was the answer to the prayer itself.  Our deepest longings themselves often reflect this “upside-down” kingdom that God envisions.  And in those longings, God will open wombs and new life will come to be.

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does “returning grace” look like in your life?
  3. What does prayer mean for you in your life?
  4. What would it mean for us to yearn for something better?

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Hebrews 10: 11-14 (15-18) 19-25

To read the passage from Hebrews

An intimate and frank relationship with God, openness with one another, and bold public witness that perseveres in the face of opposition – these are the characteristics of the confident community portrayed in today’s Scripture reading. The text invites us to a frankness of speech that deals confidently with the barriers of guilt and shame that often divide communities, and with the barriers of timidity and fear that hinder our public witness to the transforming power of the gospel. Such boldness and confidence is grounded in what Christ has done, dealing with the condemning power of sin once-for-all, and what Christ will do, establishing justice on the earth. The word, parresia, (“confidence”), means being free to speak one’s mind, not being ashamed. It means boldness, courage, fearlessness, and joy. It is those things that belong to freedom. In Roman society, slaves did not exercise that boldness. But in the society of God, we are free to have confidence and to be assured of God’s presence with us.

Even if we do find its elaborate imagery of Jesus as high priest and sacrifice somewhat strange, we can affirm what it clearly intends: God’s Presence is enough. And even if we cannot join with the argument that such once and for all-ness came only with Jesus and was not present earlier, we can affirm that this is the truth which we celebrate in Jesus: his life poured out in compassion for others was indeed the pouring out of God’s life, the life we recognize as being active  wherever people are attuned to it – in the church, in ancient Israel, in many and various ways throughout the world and throughout history where God has been before and beyond us.

In some ways, the Letter to the Hebrews is a treatise on organized religion. But it is not that religion of rules and memberships and those who are in and those who are out. It tells us how to be a community—a loving, encouraging community in the name of Jesus Christ. 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber once said “the spiritual life is, for the most part, the obstacle to a life lived in the Spirit.” The writing does not tell us how to be religious; it doesn’t teach us how to be spiritual; it talks of how to live within the Spirit of God, within that “upside-down” Kingdom. It teaches us how to be the worshipping Kingdom of God together. It teaches us how to experience God’s Presence, speak in boldness, and encourage each other.

 

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What would a church that encourages each other look like?
  3. What does it mean to you to live within the Spirit of God?
  4. What does this boldness in Christ mean?

GOSPEL: Mark 13: 1-8

To read the Gospel passage

The disciples were apparently in awe of the temple.  It was magnificent in structure.  Supposedly it covered an area five football fields long and three football fields wide and was covered in white marble and gold, to put it in perspective.  There is debate as to whether the Gospel according to Mark was written before the destruction of this great temple or just after.  Regardless, it was a time of great political crisis and out of this apocalyptic literature began to flourish.

And Jesus is warning the disciples to hold their course, to be faithful, even in the face of suffering, even in the face of the cross.  It is a reminder to be aware of what it is and who it is in which you put your trust.  On what are you building your faith?  What cost of discipleship are you willing to bear?

Elie Wiesel in his book Memoirs: All Rivers Lead to the Sea talks about his childhood in Eastern Europe and the suffering of the Jews even before the Nazis came. His rabbi used to say, “Abraham, the first of the patriarchs, was a better Jew than you. He was a thousand times better than all of us, but the Midrash tells us that he was cast into a burning furnace. So how do you expect to breeze through life without a scratch? Daniel was wiser than you and more pious, yet he was condemned to die in a lion’s den. And you dream of living your life without suffering?”

Here, Jesus was not merely proclaiming destruction. He was prodding those listening to him to change the script, to change that which gets their attention, that which gets their loyalty. He was reminding them to live their life but to yearn for something more. He was pushing them to look beyond what they saw, beyond the stones, beyond the buildings, beyond the beautiful paraments and the other articles of worship, beyond what people are wearing or where they were schooled or what they do for a living.  None of that makes sense in God’s vision.  It is meaningless.  God’s vision is about us, all of us together.  Jesus was telling them that “everything will be alright”, not in a trite, sappy sense where he pats his followers on the head and then walks away, but with a promise of something better just up ahead.

Like any apocalyptic writing, it is trying to make sense of that which really doesn’t make sense.  It is trying to bring comfort to people who are suffering and scared.  It should not be read as a way of “figuring out” when the world will end, or Jesus will return, or whatever you believe will mark the next phase of existence.  It is, rather, about hope, about learning to live, as Hannah did, with that yearning for the new life that God holds.  “Apocalypse” is the Greek word for “revelation”, for seeing.  Jesus was trying to open the door to a vision of what could be.  And, when you think about it, if these are the “birthpangs”, then the journey has only just begun.

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. How do you think most people would read this in today’s world?
  3. What does the image of the “birthpangs” mean for you as it relates to this Scripture?
  4. What vision are we called to see that we are perhaps missing?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

Countless writings underlie the urgency for our modern world, with all its bustle and noise, of rediscovering the value of meditation, of silence of prayer, of devotion.  I preached it before I practiced it.  If one is to help the world towards its rediscovery, one must practice it oneself.  The religious life must be fed.  We devote years to studying a trade or profession.  Ought we show less perseverance in acquiring the presence of God? (Paul Tournier)

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aid, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn. (Henry David Thoreau)

Your life is something opaque, not transparent, as long as you look at it in an ordinary human way.  But if you hold it up against the light of God’s goodness, it shines and turns transparent, radiant and bright.  And then you ask yourself in amazement:  Is this really my own life I see before me? (Albert Schweitzer)

 

 

Closing

 

O God, who out of nothing brought everything that is, out of what I am bring more of what I dream but haven’t dared; direct my power and passion to creating life where there is death, to putting flesh of action on bare-boned intentions, to lighting fires against the midnight of indifference, to throwing bridges of care across canyons of loneliness; so I can look on creation, together with you, and, behold, call it very good; through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.

 

(“Bring More of What I Dream”, from Guerillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle, Ted Loder, p. 109)