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.

Lent 3B: Standing With Fools

jesus drives out the- money-changersOLD TESTAMENT: Exodus 20: 1-17

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

This seems at first to be an odd passage to read in the middle of Lent. But keep in mind that the whole of Exodus shows the people how to stay in relationship with God and, for us, that is the whole idea of Lent. This version of the Ten Commandments in Exodus was probably written and edited in light of the exile in Babylon. It is important to see them in that context. This is hard. The people are journeying through the wilderness. Food is in short supply and nerves are raw. They have quarreled and tested God but until now, they have had no real identity, no real purpose. This is the place where they are finally aware of the intention that God has for them as a people. This is the place where their lives and their journey becomes meaningful. And God gives them this covenant. The specific laws would have been selected from among the many social and moral laws over many generations. It is probable that they did not magically drop out of the sky but rather grew out of a people’s understanding of who God was.

The people are first reminded that God has already saved them before, bringing them out of slavery, bringing them into relationship with God. But you can’t help noticing that these commandments are formative of who one is before God and how one lives in response to God. The first four commandments related to one’s relationship with God and the remaining six have to do with the relationship between human beings. It is really very simple: You shall love the Lord God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. (with all that you are, with every essence of your being) And…you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

But God’s grace, as we are reminded, happened before any of these laws were laid down. It is expected, then, that in response to the salvific nature of God, the people will want to respond and stay in relationship with God. In Hebrew, these laws are known as the “ten words”, and for the most part are expressed in brief sentences. Tradition says that God gave these words directly to the people and then later Moses is summoned to receive the tablets on which they are written for posterity. (Exodus 24: 12-18) Torah, or “law”, is really more about teaching and positive instruction rather than a list of rules, the way we would normally interpret “laws”. Think of it more like the law that we talk about when we say “natural laws” or “the laws of nature”. It is the way things are; it is the way order, rather than chaos and relationship, rather than separation ensues. It is the way that God draws us into God. This reading continues the theme of covenant that we have had the last two weeks. The purpose of the “law”, here is to choose life. And that choice is easy to see how it relates to us in our walk to the cross and Easter.

But in our modern-day society, there are those who have tried to make these words “law” in the judicial sense, simply by displaying them in courthouses or public buildings. But they are missing the fact that these are not laws to obey but the natural way that we are called to respond to the freedom of God. In fact, these laws, unlike many others, do not sanction a certain type of government or a specific king. Rather than dictating what we should do, they depict who we are as a people of God. They are less about behavior than they are about identity—who God is, who the people are, and who we are as people of God. It is about how we relate to God, how we relate to each other, and, even, how we provide sustenance and nourishment for our faith journey. And regardless of whether or not we believe they actually dropped out of the sky, they are like manna in the wilderness, providing sustenance and life. Think of them as declarations of freedom to become who we are called to be, rather than a set of rules or regulations that force us into becoming what someone else wants us to be.

Now, admittedly, I don’t think they belong on the courthouse lawn or on the walls of a schoolroom. I think they’re bigger than that and I don’t think they can be contained. They are, yet again, the very breath and essence of the God who dances with us rather than holds court over us to make sure we follow the rules. The Decalogue is, once again, God with us. And this Season of Lent is not about following the rules or being burdened with regulations; it is about experiencing the freedom of this God who dances with us—this one God, who, alone, drives our life with a Spirit of steadfast love and the integrity of respect; this one God who offers us rest and reflection that we might delight in Creation and that we might enjoy the best that it has to offer; this one God who knows that we can only understand the love we are given if we love in return, if we honor the ones from whom we came, if we honor life and love and all of Creation; if we are honest with ourselves and with each other, and if we want the very best for our brothers and sisters. In this way we will understand this God who offers us life and all that it entails.

 

  • What is your response to this passage?
  • What meaning for covenant do you see here?
  • In what ways (if any) are these commandments formative for you?
  • What does that definitive difference between burdens and freedom mean to you?
  • What is your experience of The Ten Commandments? 

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Corinthians 1: 18-25

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

In the earlier part of this chapter, Paul has been bemoaning the divisions in the Corinthian church community. He starts here not really taking sides, but addressing the issue of wisdom and pointing out that wisdom in Christ is not the same as the wisdom of the world. Now, he is not attacking being “wise”, but is calling them to a more profound wisdom.

Think about it. The ugly sight of a mangled human body hanging on a cross confronts normal worldly values. In fact, in the first century, this was not a death of martyrs; this was a death of criminals and outcasts. There was nothing heroic about it. In fact, in terms of society, it would have been downright embarrassing. But these are not worldly values. And this first century church, no less than we, have tried to “clean up” this image and fit it into something that makes sense within the normalcy of the world. Paul is warning against the structures and intentions of the world that crucified Jesus and that are now trying to make it “presentable”. Because Paul is reminding us that for those wise in the ways of God, the cross is salvation.

In this Season of Lent, as we come closer and closer to the cross, we get a better and better sense of its meaning. You know, Paul’s really the only one that really ever dared to speak of the foolishness of the Cross, of the foolishness of God. And he’s right, because in terms of the world, the Cross is utter foolishness. The world says “mind your own business”; Jesus says “there is no such thing as your own business”. The world says “buy low, sell high”; Jesus says “give it all away”. The world says “take care of your health”; Jesus says “surrender your life to me”. The world says “Drive carefully—the life you save may be your own”; Jesus says “whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” The world says “get what you are due”; Jesus says, “love your neighbor as yourself”.

In his book, The Faces of Jesus, Frederick Buechner says that “if the world is sane, then Jesus is mad as a hatter and the Last Supper is the Mad Tea Party…In terms of the world’s sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under delusion.” (Buechner, The Faces of Jesus, p. 61) Think about it. It is really pretty ludicrous. Here in this season, called to enter Christ’s suffering, called to follow Christ to the Cross. Are we nuts? That could kill someone!

But Paul says that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” That is why we are called to rest in God’s foolishness and relinquish our strength to God. Because, you see, God raises us up far beyond the wisdom of this world in which we live and takes our weakness unto God’s self that we might finally rely on God’s strength.

Life is not ever what we plan for it to be. It is because life is not a sterile existence that is never touched by illness or grief or hardship or suffering or deep and profound loss. Life is just Life. Perhaps it would be easier to live in a bubble or in some other sort of “Stepford-type” existence, but then that wouldn’t really be Life, now would it?   God gave us life and gave it abundantly. In terms of the world, that is sheer foolishness, but in terms of the wisdom of God, that is life.

This is the power of the cross. Maybe sometimes we make the mistake of cleaning it up too soon, of trying to wash away the wreak of death that it still holds. But the power of the cross IS the power over death. It did not just wash it away, but turned it into life. In the Byzantine tradition, this third Sunday of Lent is devoted to the Adoration of the Cross. A tray of flowers and sweet basil bears a cross in its center and is then processed around the nave as the hymn is sung: “Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us.”–sheer foolishness if you look at it through the eyes of the world. But if you look at the Cross and recognize God’s power to make all things new, it begins to look a little different.

One of the dangers of being in church as often as I am is that it all starts to make sense. I speak of the Christian faith so casually and effortlessly that I begin to think, “Fine thing, this Christianity. Makes good sense.” And then I find myself believing all sorts of things in church that I wouldn’t let anyone put over on me in the real world. That which people would choke on in everyday speech, they will swallow if it’s in a sermon. That’s a blessing for those of us who get paid to preach Christ crucified.

And so Kierkegaard could say, “Christianity has taken a giant stride into the absurd,” and again, “Remove from Christianity its ability to shock and it is altogether destroyed. It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable neither of inflicting deep wounds nor of healing them.” It’s when the absurd starts to sound reasonable that we should begin to worry. “Blessed are the meek. . . .” “Thou shalt not kill.” “Love your enemies.” “Go, sell all you have and give to the poor.” Be honest now. Blessed are the meek? Try being meek tomorrow at work and see how far you get. Meekness is fine for church, but in the real world the meek get to go home early with a pink slip and a pat on the back. Blessed are those who are peacemakers; they shall get done to them what they are loath to do to others. Blessed are the merciful; they shall get it done to them a second time. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake; they shall be called fanatics. As Paul says, when you hear the gospel not with Sunday-morning ears but with Monday-morning ears, it can sound foolish indeed — tragically foolish or comically foolish, depending upon one’s point of view…

Along with the world, we expected to see a savior coming to take charge on our terms. Then the parade comes, and we find that we are standing in the wrong place to get a good view. Here comes the carpenter’s son, bouncing on the back of a donkey — not coming for breakfast with [the president and his wife], or dinner with Congress, or consultations at 475 Riverside Drive. The smart ones, the ones who are well adjusted to the status quo, the ones in the know, neither see nor know — so the story goes. Here is a messiah who does not make sense. Only the very young, the very old, the women and the simpletons see him. They are standing in the right place to get a proper view. Along with the poor, the maimed, the blind, the lame, the prisoners and the poor old crazed men like Paul, these “fools” see things as they really are. As for us smart ones, we know better. We know that if we work hard, achieve, get advanced degrees, adjust to the way things are, and act sensibly, we shall be in the know. It all depends on how you look at it. (From “Looking Like Fools”, by Bishop William Willimon, in The Christian Century, March 10, 1982., available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1288, accessed 5 March, 2012)

  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What image does the cross hold for you?
  • In what ways do you think we try to “fit” God into our worldly values?
  • What is your notion of the “foolishness of the cross”?
  • What is your notion of the “power of the cross.”?

 

GOSPEL: John 2: 13-22

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

This is always sort of an odd passage for us because we don’t usually think of Jesus getting angry. Here, as he approaches the temple, there is all this activity blocking his way. There are those who are exchanging currencies so that people can purchase animals to be sacrificed (because foreign currency was considered “unclean” and had to first be exchanged.) (and, of course, making a little money on the side!) So he “turns the tables”—literally and figuratively. Jesus cleared the temple not because they were necessarily doing anything wrong but because the temple should be pure, clear of all merchandising, all bargaining, and reward-earning. Now before we discount this with our “God doesn’t just live in the sanctuary” bit, remember that for these first century Jewish followers, that was exactly where God lived. Just as Solomon had intended when he constructed the first temple, this second temple was THE place where God dwelled. This was the House of God. And in the inner holies of the temple was the Ark of the Covenant, the very dwelling of God. So, I think Jesus probably did mean this to be taken literally to remind people that God was the master here, that this was God’s house, God’s dwelling place.

So, fast forward…our theology tells us that God dwells everywhere in our lives. Really? Everywhere? Are you sure? The temple is a metaphor for our souls, the temple where God should indeed be the master. But think about our own society. Our lives are reward-driven and because of it we live with the idea that we should get what is “due” to us. We believe that by working hard and doing the right things we will be rewarded. And often that carries into our spiritual lives. How many of us do the things we do because we think we should, because we think that it will in some way earn us points with God, or, even, because we think that we are the only ones that can do them? It is our own way of merchandising. What do we do because we love God and what do we do because we think that will reap a reward?

Meister Eckhart (13th-14th century German mystic) said that “as long as we to get something from God on some kind of exchange, we are like the merchants. If you want to be rid of the commercial spirit, then by all means do all you can in the way of good works, but do so solely for the praise of God.” Eckhart then exhorts us to “live as if you do not exist…then God alone dwells there.”

So, where, then, do we encounter God? Where do you expect to meet God? Where do you love God? If we really take all this journey stuff seriously, in what parts of our life are we aware of God and in what parts do we fall a little short? After all, if God dwells within our souls, if our souls are the temple for God, then why is this even a question? A life of faith is supposed to be just that—a LIFE of faith. This is not a trade-off. There is no such thing as “of the world” and “of God”. God is not locked in the sanctuary and we are not seeking some reward for a job well done. Our encounter with God in the sanctuary should, in essence, propel us into the world, carrying that encounter with us. God dwells with us. The Holiest of Holies is deep within our souls. That is how we connect with God—by growing our relationship with God.

When this Gospel version by the writer that we know as John was written, it was probably already late in the first century. Paul had written his letters and was gone. The writers of the synoptic Gospels were gone. And, more importantly, this temple would have been destroyed ten or twenty years earlier in 70 C.E. during the Siege of Jerusalem. (The Temple has never been rebuilt. After the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in the 7th century, the Dome of the Rock, or al-Aqsa Mosque, was built on the temple mount. And even though Jews are now allowed to pray at the Temple Mount—actually the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall—the mount itself is under the administrative control of the Muslim Waqf.)   So, the Christian tradition holds that the temple is not needed, that Christ and we as followers of Christ are to become God’s dwelling place in the world.  Boy, that Jesus was a troublemaker wasn’t he? Look at that…he just turned everything over on our lives. So what do we do now?

 

  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What does it mean for you to be a “temple” of God?
  • What would it mean to “live as if you do not exist”?
  • Do we live our lives the way we do (or should!) because we want to please God or because we love God?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 The world dies whenever reality demands absolute dominion. (Amery, on the wall of the Israel Holocaust Museum)

 Spirituality is the ability to live with ambiguity. (Ray Anderson)

 We are what we repeatedly do. (Aristotle)

 

Closing

 

Going through Lent is a listening, When we listen to the word, we hear where we are so blatantly unloving. If we listen to the word, and hallow it into our lives, we hear how we can so abundantly live again.

 Lord, teach us to listen. Teach us to be quiet. Teach us to hear. Amen.

(Paraphrased from “A Listening”, from Kneeling in Jerusalem, by Ann Weems, p. 33)