OLD TESTAMENT: Jeremiah 23: 1-6
The “shepherds” here, as opposed to the ones to which we are accustomed to joining us at the stable in a few weeks, are probably Judah’s kings or other high-ranking leaders. The indictment speaks indirectly to the royal houses of Jehoiakim and Zedekiah, Israel’s last two kings. Jeremiah says that neither shepherd called the sheep to account, so YHWH is calling them to account. They are indicted for scattering the sheep in YHWH’s pasture by allowing injustices to exist and causing the people to drift away from their identity as God’s people. So, the pastoral number will be reduced to a single branch, a “shoot” of the Davidic line, whose reign shall succeed as the reigns of Judah’s present kings have not done. And under this new Davidic shoot, the future king will reign over a united Judah and Israel (such as existed under King David). Finally, all will be one.
The prophet’s words sound harsh and full of lament. The warning comes with an opportunity to learn from the failure of past leadership. Their responsibility was to lead the people and the nation in their relationship with God. They have failed. But there’s another point to this. The leader cannot lead without the gifts of the people. The people, too, have failed. They have not used their gifts; they have not been who God has called them to be. The underlying implication is that the people had lost their relationship with God. But with the new Davidic line, the “righteous Shepherd” will bring the people back to the God who wants to be in relationship with them.
The end of the church year has traditionally been a time to be confronted with the judgment of God, not so much to cower in fear, but rather to take stock of ourselves, to seek change, and to seek forgiveness and amendment of life. We can’t help but ask the question, “Is it I, Lord?” when hearing this text. No one is totally off the hook. While those with greater responsibility have greater accountability, all of us in democratic governments bear responsibility for the common good. All of us in a church, made up of the priesthood of all believers, bear responsibility for the well-being of all our brothers and sisters in Christ. Even more so than in the ancient world, this text becomes for us an equal-opportunity accuser.
But the good news applies to us too. There is a new reign that is coming to be as it sweeps through Creation. The Kingdom of God has truly come near. God is now the shepherd and will raise up faithful leaders, a “righteous branch” that will bring the reign to be. It is a new beginning that will transform the world.
The reading fits well for Christ the King Sunday as we wrap up our Lectionary year. We have been given everything and yet we are still not what we should be. But God has not given up on us. Emmanuel, God with us, is coming soon.
- What is your response to this passage?
- What does this say about leadership, even in our time?
- How does this speak to our own responsibility for bringing in the fullness of the Kingdom of God?
NEW TESTAMENT: Colossians 1: 11-20
Paul (or probably another teacher writing to the community with the same concerns) speaks to the church in Colossae, a community surrounded by a polytheistic culture that was terrified that if they didn’t appease these spirits that so many knew, they would be subject to disease and poverty and darkness. So, their Christian teachings had to compete with the values and beliefs (even religious ones) that were swirling around the current culture. So the writer wants to make it abundantly clear that Christ is not just one among many competing approaches to life, not just the first among equals: Christ is at the very center of the meaning of everything, for all people. The question of Jesus Christ is of the most important thing in the lives of his followers. It is not just something that we think about on Sunday morning, or when someone asks us what church we attend, but a question that shapes our whole life. For the early Christians, and for us today, following Jesus is a big-time “game-changer.” Or, to put it in ancient terms, as Neta Pringle does, the writer of this letter says that being a Christian “is not simply a matter of fitting Jesus into our present way of thinking. We are transferred, moved, deported, from one kingdom to another. Nothing is as we have known it” (Feasting on the Word).
We, too, have “unseen spirits”—the powers of greed and fear, of war and violence, of addiction and commercialism. We live in a world of exaggerated individualism where we have forgotten about each other and excessive materialism where we have forgotten what is important. The author of this letter is no harsh teacher but has the heart of a pastor. In response to the fears and confusion of the ancient Colossians, the writer is really kind and compassionate, bringing hope into what was a really scary world. We are the same. Christ is truly King over any powers that may come into your life.
In our individual experience, it seems that when a few things fall apart, the whole apparatus of life threatens to collapse. That’s what I see happening whenever people lose their center and forget the comforting quality of the Lord’s presence. It is amazing what a few days of poor test results or unresponsive medication will do. One’s whole world can seem to disintegrate. All coping mechanisms seem to go into hiding.
If I have one prayer for those who are entering critical surgery, it is this: That the peace of Christ will somehow hold the life of this patient and his or her loved ones together. Not physically together, as if no one in the family can afford to die, but spiritually together, as in that incomprehensible peace of Christ that can find its settling way into human hearts.
When chaos strikes, faith-filled people look for ways to quit idolizing their fears. They seek strategies for pulling life back together. The challenge for most of us is to make the priority of Christ more than mere words. Who needs more talk of making Christ first in our lives? The world is full of religious talk. We need instead to act, to live as if Christ were indeed the head of the body, and not some extra equipment we strap on when it’s “third and long.”
In Bibles that provide chapter headings, this section of Colossians may be titled “The Supremacy of Christ,” or something similar. This is the Christ in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” Nothing of God is held back or left out of the person of Jesus. Though God once was content to dwell in places like Sinai, Zion or the Temple, now God is in a person. Everything that God is, and cares about, now resides in Jesus Christ. Christ is the face or the image of the invisible God.
Western culture has so thoroughly domesticated Christ that it takes some imagination to see the cosmic Christ of Colossians. We have whittled him down to the size of a pocket charm, confining him to the containers of our own ethnic, economic and political instincts. Chumminess is in; grandeur is out, We want a version of God that bears some resemblance to ourselves.
Fosteria, Ohio, made news in 1986 when a local resident saw an image of Christ on the rusting side of a soybean oil storage tank. Archer Daniels Midland was suddenly on the religion page. Hundreds of cars lined Route 12 on August evenings, full of curiosity seekers waiting to sneak a peek. As one local named Jimmy noted, “It’s real. The image looks like me, but I’ve always had long hair and a beard.” With more profundity than he may have ever realized, Jimmy spoke for all of us who unwittingly like to see Christ reflecting the image of our own lives.
The way to reorder jumbled lives and hold meaning together in the face of chaos, however, is not to see the fullness of ourselves in Christ. It is to cherish the fullness of God dwelling in Christ. He is the image of the invisible God, the one who holds all things together, the glue that makes Christ the King Sunday so important. (From “Super Glue”, by Peter W. Marty, in “The Christian Century”, November 16, 2004, available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3105, accessed 17 November, 2010)
- What is your response to this passage?
- What are the “unseen powers” of our own world and our own lives?
- What, in light of this passage, does the Kingdom of God mean to you?
GOSPEL: Luke 23: 33-43
Another difficult text…(Did I go to sleep and wake up on Good Friday?) 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.
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.
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.
“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. Amen, indeed!
- What is your response to this passage?
- What does the notion of “Christ the King” mean to you?
- What responsibility or part do you play in the coronation?
- What things do we let get in the way of the Christ having first place in our lives?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
We must remind ourselves that, though our lives are small and our acts seem insignificant, we are generative elements of this universe, and we create meaning with each act that we perform or fail to perform. (Kent Nerburn, Make Me An Instrument of Your Peace)
If the meaning could be put into a sentence, there would be no need of telling the story. (Henry Van Dyke)
I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world. I may not complete this last one but I give myself to it. (Rainer Maria Rilke)
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.
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
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.
(Joyce Rupp, “When” and “A Thanksgiving Blessing”, from Out of the Ordinary: Prayers, Poems, and Reflections for Every Season, (Notre Dame, ID: Ave Maria Press, 1999), 206-207.)