Sunday, November 21, 2004

Christ the King Sunday
Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

For it was the good pleasure of the Father that in him should all the fulness dwell; and through him to reconcile all things unto himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross; through him, I say, whether things upon the earth, or things in the heavens.

When the people of Israel went to Samuel with the request that he proclaim a king for their nation, God accepted their need for a human representative to rule them from earth. He warned them, however, that earthly kings will use and abuse their power over them, take their people and possessions and rule with an iron hand. The people would become slaves to a king that has only perishable human power.

The prophet Jeremiah lived during the reign of King Zedekiah whose name means “righteousness of Yahweh.” Unfortunately, Zedekiah did not live up to his name. We see in 2 Kings that Zedekiah did evil in the eyes of the LORD. He also rebelled against the king of Babylon and it was that nation which God used to bring the Jews to their knees. It was under Zedekiah that Judah was taken into exile by the Babylonians.

Jeremiah warned the people. “Woe unto the shepherds that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” The kings did exactly as Samuel reported to the people when they first wanted a king – they were destructive and self-centered. They did not care for God’s people, but cared only about their reign. They took care of their own interests and jeopardized the entire nation.

Yet, Jeremiah’s words do not speak only judgment. He encourages the people with the hope of God’s promises. He will not abandon His people to the enemy or to the earthbound kings that can not save. “And I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries whither I have driven them, and will bring them again to their folds; and they shall be fruitful and multiply.” The unrighteous kings will be punished and new shepherd kings who will feed them will reign.

Then we hear the promise of the Messiah, the shepherd King that will continue the line of David. “In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely; and this is his name whereby he shall be called: Jehovah our righteousness.” This play on the name Zedekiah shows a difference between the King God will appoint and the state of the earthly kings in the day of Jeremiah. God will save His people and provide for their needs.

The promise of the Messiah was the only hope of the people in Israel during the days of the Roman occupation. They wanted a return of the power of David, so that they could be an independent nation once again. They wanted a king who would lead them, who would defeat their enemies, so that the kingdom might be restored and respected around the world. To them, the Messiah needed to be a charismatic military leader whose power was obvious. They wanted another David.

They forgot that David was not the strong and powerful leader that any one would have expected. When Samuel went to the house of Jesse to anoint the king, he was surprised to find it was not the strong of body that God would choose, but the humble of heart. The older sons were warriors. David was the last son, a shepherd boy. David was a servant in the tent of King Saul. He was slight of build, unable to even wear the armor of a king. He was humble of heart and sought the LORD in all things. This is why God was with David. All of his success as a king was credited to God. The Jews longed to see the promised fulfilled when Jesus was born, they were looking for a Messiah who would save them.

Our image of king might not necessarily be one focused entirely on glory. Throughout history there have been kings of every different type, from wicked to weak to nothing more than a figurehead. As we look at the monarchy around the world today, we see a great deal of pomp and circumstance, wealth and affluence but little power and authority. The royalty of our world has little voice in the governments of their nation. They provide fodder for the paparazzi and dreams for little girls.

We certainly do not see the image in today’s Gospel as being that of a king. Even from our Christian perspective, most often our idea of Christ the King comes from the Easter story. We prefer to see Him in His glory, the resurrected body that defeated death and the grave to rise as victor over His enemies. The picture of the cross shows little more than a defeated man who could not even save Himself. He was ridiculed, the sign identifying Him as the king of the Jews was little more than a joke. Even the criminal on another cross sneered at Him.

The other criminal asked Jesus, “Jesus, remember me when thou comest in thy kingdom.” Another way to translate the word kingdom in this passage is to use the word power. On the cross, Jesus seemed to have no power, no authority and no kingdom, yet the criminal recognized something. What did he see? Did he have faith in something that had not yet come to be? Though some people believed in a resurrection, it was not a common doctrine. Certainly the idea of Christian resurrection as we know it today did not yet exist. Jesus answered, “Verily I say unto thee, To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise.” The criminal knew and Jesus confirmed that something awaited them on the other side of the cross.

As we consider our Christian faith, we tend to want to identify with the Christ that appears to us on Easter Sunday, we want to identify with His glory. The world does not understand how we can honor a God that would require such a sacrifice, so we reduce the importance of it. Many Christians do not even recognize the event of Good Friday, focusing solely on the Resurrection as the foundation of faith. Christ the King is the king on the throne who has defeated His enemies and who rules over the heavens and earth forever.

The language of this passage is difficult for us, because it talks about something we will not see in this life. What is this Paradise that Jesus mentions? When is To-day? As Christians we differ on our understanding of heaven and the after life. Many believe that our death will bring us a time of rest, sleep, and that we will be awakened in the Day of Judgment. Other Christians believe that since God does not recognize time the way we do, our death brings us directly into the Day of Resurrection when we will see the glory of God for ourselves.

The psalmist talks of a river that flows out of the tabernacle of God, the river of life. Other images found in scripture indicate there will be fruit trees that always produce fruit and that we will have access to the tree of life. Artists have depicted heaven as a city made of gold that glows and unearthly light. Revelation tells us there is no need for the sun or the moon – time is no longer measured by the creation – for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb is the light within. There is no more tears, no more evil. The City of God is a place of eternal refuge where the adversary can never reach us and we will know peace. Is this the Paradise to which Jesus refers?

How could the criminal be with Jesus in heaven that day, when Jesus had not yet been raised from the dead? The word used in this passage is better understood as a place of bliss and rest between death and resurrection. Should we understand this to mean there is a place where we wait after death to be in the presence of God? Isn’t that what we are now doing? Now that we have died with Christ on His cross but not yet been resurrected?

Now, we have a difficult time accepting that this world might be paradise, but we worship the God who has turned the world upside down. He did not come to rule in flesh, but to save our souls. He did not fight with swords, but died on a cross. He did not display great power and authority while on earth, but rather He spoke faith into the lives of those who had ears to hear. His authority came not from His own strength, but from by the power of God. He was the Word made flesh, the Christ, the chosen One.

This is the image of Jesus we see in today’s epistle lesson from the letter to the Colossians. Paul writes, “For it was the good pleasure of the Father that in him should all the fulness dwell; and through him to reconcile all things unto himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross; through him, I say, whether things upon the earth, or things in the heavens.” The peace will never come through the works of man, through the strength of a king, through the power of human ability. Peace comes through the cross, and it is the King that hangs on that cross we worship today.

What is most incredible is that the King we see on the cross, the human flesh that died for our sake, is the Logos of God that was with Him from the beginning. When the Jews missed seeing the Messiah that stood before them, they missed the Word made flesh who was before all things. Paul writes, “for in him were all things created, in the heavens and upon the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through him, and unto him; and he is before all things, and in him all things consist.”

When we look at a tree or a flower or a rock or the human flesh, we see it as a whole. Science sees things from a much different perspective. In the quest to understand the world and everything which is in it, scientists have discovered that big things are made of little things which are made up of even littler things. The atom is so small that it is impossible to see it with the human eye. As a matter of fact, the smallest speck visible on an ordinary microscope consists of 10 billion atoms. The atom is made up of more parts – the proton, the neutron and the electron. The protons and neutrons gather together in the nucleus of the atom, but the electrons orbit the nucleus with no apparent connection. There is an invisible force that holds it all together. Science has named that force the Colossians force based on this particular passage.

Jeremiah said that the shepherds abandoned the sheep so that they were left to fend for themselves. The kings of Judah and Israel had indeed abandoned the people as they turned away from God. As God had warned them in the beginning, the earthly rulers were never able to be the kind of king they needed – a king that would be with them always. The psalmist promises that God will be in their midst, a refuge and strength to His people. Paul tells us that Christ is supreme, the Word by which all things were created and the force that holds it all together.

Then Luke shows us an image of a king that is hard for us to understand, but it is the only image we can see with clarity today. He is the King of the cross, the salvation of His people and the refuge for us as we await the day when everything will be fulfilled. Just like that criminal on the cross, we ask Jesus to remember us when He comes into His kingdom. For now, we are with Him in this Paradise – this rest between our own death with Christ through our baptism and the Day of Resurrection for which we long. Here, in this time and place, we rejoice in faith knowing there is a peace beyond this life which we can not see with our human eyes. Until that day we know Christ the King is with us – the king of the cross holding His people together until we will spend eternity in the presence of God. Thanks be to God.

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