Lectionary Texts: Jeremiah 23: 1-6; Luke 23: 33-43
Reign of Christ C
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, November 20, 2016
- A Cycle of Seasons
Do you feel it? The seasons are changing a bit today. There’s finally some coolness in the air. My turkey is set to be moved from the freezer to the refrigerator today. There is change in the air. How appropriate that the church calendar has the same feeling. Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is the final Sunday of our Lectionary year, the end of the season of Pentecost, when as the community of faith, we move through the season of building the church and its journey toward sanctification, toward becoming perfect in Christ, becoming a part of the fullness of God’s Kingdom. Next Sunday begins the season of Advent, when we will begin the whole cycle again.
But if you think that this is merely an annual repeating motion of the same thing over and over, think again. Our liturgical calendar invites us into an ongoing cycle of preparing, birthing, seeing, emptying, rebirth, and becoming, as we journey toward the fullness of the Kingdom of God, lived, as Rainer Maria Rilke said, in “ever widening circles”, reaching farther and farther beyond ourselves, encompassing all of Creation and coming nearer and nearer ourselves to who we are supposed to be as those created in the very image of God.
Over the past few months, we have recounted the rich stories of the Old Testament through the eyes of patriarchs and kings and prophets and wonderful storytellers as they sought to illuminate what it was those early people of God were meant to become. And we once again read many of Jesus’ parables, those incredible stories of wisdom found in everyday life, even if they do sometimes make us a bit uncomfortable. The reason that we read these stories over and over again from Creation through the cycle of life is because, as we’ve said before, they are our story, they are the recounting of our own becoming who we are, they are our journey toward being the people of God. Henry Van Dyke said that “if the meaning could be put into a sentence, there would be no need of telling the story,” so each liturgical cycle we tell our story.
So in this last week of our Church Year, we celebrate what we believe will finally be true on the last day of history. Christ will be recognized as the King of all Creation. This ever-widening circle of life will be completed and all will be under the rule of Christ Jesus our Lord. Finally, the Kingdom of God will have come to be in its fullness.
- A Crowning Glory
Our Gospel text this week is difficult to read, though. This is the chapter of the story that some of us, rather than hearing the heartbreaking account again, would rather just check out and go get another popcorn and return when the story begins to become more palatable. We are prepared to hear this story read on Good Friday but, here, this should be a happy Sunday. After all, we are crowning Christ the King. And here we read of what can only be characterized as a brutal defeat. And yet, when you think about it, it’s the climax of Jesus’ ministry. There on the cross, a rejected and defiled Jesus hangs bleeding and thirsting. And, yet, the writer of this Gospel depicts Jesus with all of his wits about him. And praying…praying not for salvation or even a relief in the surely unbearable pain that he was experiencing and definitely not for vengeance to be brought upon those who had inflicted it. At his lowest point, Jesus, rather than decreeing self-pity or anger or vengeance, showered unconditional forgiveness upon the world who had put him there.All that Jesus had been born to be was in this moment of the most incredible self-giving, self-denying act that anyone could ever do.
And the writer known as Luke tells us that, in effigy, the inscription ordaining Jesus as King is placed over the spot where he hung. For those who did not get it and for those who don’t today, it is a joke. On the surface, it makes the story harder to read, as if our team has lost that game. But at a much deeper level, there is a profound irony to it all. Because this is truly Jesus’ crowning glory.Amen.
III. One Man Enters the Story
And then we are told of the thief hanging there with him that asked for mercy from this one who in this moment he truly knew was the Christ. Jesus’ response did not include asking him what he had done with his life. He did not demand either a confession or a profession. There was no “if” attached to his answer—no condition of “if you clean up your life” or “if you promise to stop doing what you do or being who you are”. None of that mattered. Because in this moment, the man that history has never named anything but “Thief” entered the story that we call the Gospel and was promised eternal life.
You see, it’s not about what we do or who we are. It’s about becoming the story, becoming the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. It’s not about placing a crown on the head of our King but about becoming part of the Coronation, part of that image of Christ the King. It’s not about proclaiming Christ as King but about being the presence of Christ in this world. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, God with Us. And now we know that’s exactly where God is. It’s about entering the story.
- Another View of a King
What does that mean for us to say that Christ is crowned King? Kings are sort of removed from those over whom they rule. Kings live in palaces and have servants and all the best things that money can buy. Kings are not ordinary. Kings do not mingle with the commoners over whom they are placed. The truth is that our notion of what a king is doesn’t fit at all with Jesus. After all, kings are not born in lowly mangers; kings are not born of peasants and have shepherds visit them; kings are not from no-name towns like Nazareth; kings do not associate with the poor and the socially unacceptable; kings would never kneel down to wash the feet of someone or allow themselves to be covered with oil by a lowly woman; and a true king would never put himself in the position of being crucified as a commoner on the outskirts of town with a crown of thorns. And a true king would never be laid to rest in a borrowed grave in the darkness of night.
The truth is that Jesus’ kingship was and is a sort of “revolt” against the norms of this world. It was a new image of a king and it is one with which the world is still a bit uncomfortable. Christ did not come into this world to take it over or to “win it”; Christ is not on the correct side of our world or our country or our society; Christ doesn’t see winners and losers; Christ came into the world to recreate it into something new. And that new creation requires nothing more than another view of what a king is.
So, rather than ruling over us, Jesus, our king, came and walked with us. I heard Bishop Cynthia Harvey, who is the Bishop for the Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church, speak a few months ago. She quoted someone that she had heard on the radio so she couldn’t write down who it was but what they noted was that the mark of a really good shepherd is that he or she smells a little bit like sheep. That’s what Jesus’ kingship is—walking with us, mingling with us, getting close enough to us to even smell like us so that we will know exactly the footsteps where we should walk. When you were a child, did someone show you how to dance by maybe letting you place your feet on top of theirs? That is the image of our king. That’s pretty much what Jesus does.
You see, it’s not about what we do or who we are or how we act. It’s about becoming the story, becoming the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. It’s not about placing a crown on the head of our King but about growing so close to our king that we become a part of Jesus Christ in the world, part of that image of Christ the King. It’s not about proclaiming Christ as King but about being the presence of Christ in this world. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, God with Us. And now we know that’s exactly where God is–here. It’s about entering the story.
- Forever and Ever
In 1741, a well-known German composer living in England received a letter from a friend of his. The letter contained a compilation of Old Testament and New Testament passages. The composer was so moved by the words and the story that they held that he locked himself in his study and spent the next 24 days composing the work that we know as “The Messiah”. When speaking of those 24 days in Late Summer, 1741, one of Handel’s servants was said to have described him with these words: “He was praying, or he was weeping, or he was staring into eternity.”
If you’ve had an opportunity to hear the whole thing, you know that it begins without words, drawing you into the story, as if reminding you that all of Creation began in silence until God spoke it into being. And Creation continued through exile and deliverance, through destruction and recreation…and grew and struggled and desperately searched for renewal. But God remained veiled in awe and mystery with the promise that God will come when God will come and shake things to their very core, ripping apart what we think is good, what we think is just, what we think is right and righteous, and, like a refiner’s fire, transforming everything in Creation’s path. And, always waiting…waiting on a promise yet to be fulfilled.
We are told that darkness will come but that light is just over the horizon. And then the announcement comes…the world is with child. Emmanuel, God with us…no longer hidden, no longer veiled. And the earth rang out. And we are invited to follow. The coming begins our going. The work begins. The child grows and shows us not merely what to do to gain a place in heaven, but the very Way to God, the way to usher in the fullness of being for all of Creation. But it is sometimes hard for us to change. God has not just come to show us how to live; Christ has come to take away the sin, the brokenness, the darkness of the world. And then we hear the Gospel for today set to music and for a few bars following we live in requiem. And then the stone is rolled back and our eternity begins. We are drawn into sacred space. Handel depicts it as a door in heaven opening as we are ushered into the throne room of God. And God is there, veiled in awe and mystery.
And then there is a sound…The angels—angels upon angels, in Handel’s depiction, a “myriad”, as the NRSV puts it sing with full voice. And all of Creation, even the thief, is summoned into the story, to sing with highest praise…”Forever and ever and ever”…Amen.
- It’s About Transformation
This vision that we’re given is not about our future; it’s about our transformation. I know that all of us have had those holy moments in our lives, those times when the holy and the sacred is so real it’s almost palpable, so real that you can almost reach out and touch it. I used to think that those moments gave me a glimpse of the future. I think instead they are so real because I am part of them. When we become the builders rather than the onlookers, when we become the disciples rather than the crowd, and when we become the holy moments that we see, then the Kingdom of God is. It’s here, it’s here in us. Rainer Maria Rilke once said that “the future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.” We are the future that we see.
This Christ the King Sunday is not about seeing what it means to getting our life right; it is about becoming alive. It is about becoming the Kingdom of God. The Hebrew word that we often translate as “holy” is “qudosh” (kedusha) and is often defined as “set apart”, as if removed. But it’s probably more accurately translated as “life intensity”. To be holy is to be awake, to be fully alive, to understand that the future is now. It means to embrace your life and live it richly, to live it as if the Kingdom of God is now—because it is.
Don’t think of this life with God as a ladder to be climbed. A woman once told her spiritual leader that she found it difficult to mix her holy habits with the demands of a full time mother, employee, friend, volunteer…you fill in the blank. She said, “I’m trying to climb this ladder to holiness. But for every step upward, I slip backwards two steps.” Her spiritual leader responded: “Forget the ladder. When you are awake, everything is already right here on the ground.”
“Amen” does not mean “the end”. In Hebrew, it means “indeed, truly”. Indeed truly, our lives have just begun as the glory of the Lord is revealed and Christ is crowned the King of glory. You see…it’s more than a story…Handel had it right…it’s a glimpse into eternity. And in our praying and in our weeping and in our staring right at it, God comes. O Come, O Come Emmanuel. And with each passing season, we come a little bit closer to seeing that part that is ours to build and tell.
At Lakeview Conference Center, which is the retreat and meeting center owned by our Texas Annual Conference, there is a poster in one of the large meeting rooms on the top part of a wall. If you look at it closely, you see all these wonderful different pictures of people in ministry, doing what God called them to do. But if you step back far enough, you realize that together the pictures form a silhouetted image of Jesus. The point is that it takes all the pictures finally coming into being, coming into focus, to bring the story to its point, to realize that image of Christ.
This week is our coronation. It is the week when we celebrate the Reign of Christ. It is the point of our story when we are given a tiny glimpse of that vision that will be. But unlike earthly kings and queens that we crown and just sit back to see what they do, the crowning of Christ as King comes one picture at a time. What picture is yours? What part of this vision has God called you by name to bring? What were you created to be?
We stand in a threshold between two times. The Kingdom of God has both already and not yet begun. We are given glimpses of what will be, but there is still much, much work to be done. In the beginning when God created* the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…*3Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good…And God calls each of us, gathering us into the light and sends us into the world as light-bearers to show others the vision of what is to come. This week we celebrate the coronation. Go and be the people who God has called into ever widening circles so that the Reign of Christ finally comes into its fullness and completeness. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;…Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…Forever and Ever and Ever. Amen.