Sunday, November 21, 2010,

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

Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. Jehovah of hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our refuge.

I have been part of a group reading through the bible in a year, using a schedule found on the Internet. Instead of reading the book from the first page to the last page, this program reads a portion of each section of the bible each day. On Sunday we read from the Epistles. Monday is from the books of Moses. Tuesday is from the History books. Wednesday we read the Psalms. Thursday is for the Poetry and Literature books. Friday we tackle the Prophets. And Saturday is for reading the Gospels and Acts. This makes it a little easier to read through the entire bible because the reader is not stuck reading through those difficult sections day after day after day. That's when most people lose interest in reading through the entire text, because it is so hard to get through those long genealogies and lists of laws.

The other advantage to this program is that you quickly see how the books of the entire bible relate to one another. Though it is not specifically designed to have common threads through a week, it often works out that way. It is always amazing when we read Paul referencing a story we read in an Old Testament book. We have become so much more aware of the parallels between old and new, God and Christ, the ancient peoples and us.

It is striking to read the stories of the kings which repeat the same thing over and over again. One king is good, and does what is right in the eyes of God. He is lifted up for his obedience to God's ways and his heart for God. But it never takes more than a generation for the kings to fail. The sons and grandsons of those good kings did evil in the eyes of God, turning to pagan gods and destroying God's people. After a few generations of evil, another good king came along to restore the people to their God. The cycle is never ending; over and over again the kings fail to be the kind of leaders that God has called them to be. Even the good kings made mistakes, failing to care for the people in their kingdoms. (re: Uriah the Hittite in David's reign.)

Jeremiah was probably written with a specific time and kingdom in mind, perhaps Zedekiah and his nobles, but our passage for today shows a pattern that has happened over and over again. Jeremiah describes the leaders as shepherds, which was a typical description of both kings and priests. The shepherds are the leaders who care for the flock. When the human kings gain too much power over the people, they do not do what is good or right for them. They turn from God and turn the hearts of the people from God, but can not or will not care for them.

When the human shepherds fail to care for the sheep, God promises to take care of the shepherds. The irony here is that the same word is used in two very different ways. God expects His shepherds to do what is right for His people; if they don't, they'll be dealt with. When Saul failed to be the king God intended, God took away the spirit. When Zedekiah rejected God and sought alliance with Egypt, Jerusalem fell and the people were carried into exile.

In another play with words, God says, "You have driven my people away" and then promises to return the remnant He drove away. So, who did the driving? The better question is, where were the people driven to? Zedekiah, and leaders throughout the ages, drove God's people away from Him. They were driven to the worship of other gods. They were driven to the reliance of human strength. They were driven to a life of living in a kingdom that was bound to fail and fail them. But God drove them away from failure, back into His loving arms.

Exile in Babylon might not seem like a place where God is in control, but that was the way God chose to deal with Zedekiah and the other leaders. He removed their power and authority, and gave it to another. In His time, He reconciled with His people, returned them to their homes, and restored their city. Then He appointed new leaders to serve them as shepherds of His flock. Of course, the pattern of failure continued over and over again, as new generations returned to the ways of the past leaders, turning the people away from God and relying on human strength. In Jeremiah, God promises that He will one day raise a righteous branch, one that is not only good and does what is right, but that kingdom will last forever.

We tend to turn to human strength to get us through our times of trouble and to praise human strength when we succeed. Unfortunately, humans will follow the same pattern, turning away from God and choosing human leaders. Assigned by man, shepherds will always fail because man chooses based on human traits. Assigned by God, shepherds will faithfully serve the people, because God looks at the heart and chooses those who are right with Him. The one who will serve according to God's ways is called, as Jeremiah writes, "The LORD is our righteousness."

That promise has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ our Lord. He is the Good Shepherd, the One who will care for us. He is the King, the priest, the One who will restore us to God. And that is what we celebrate on the last Sunday of the church year. This Sunday is Christ the King Sunday.

Yet the Gospel lesson seems to be such an odd choice, if we consider a king from our human perspective. We don't see Jesus on a throne, but on a cross. We don't see Jesus in glory but suffering. We don't see Him being honored by the people. Instead, Jesus is condemned, ridiculed and rejected. What sort of king is that?

In Luke's story, though, he shows that someone gets it. One of the criminals joins in the derision, but the other rebukes him. " Dost thou not even fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss." Then, He asks Jesus to remember him when He comes into His kingdom. He may not totally understand what is happening, but he knows that Jesus is truly the king and for that faith he receives the promise. "To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise."

Once again we see a contrast in human ways and God's ways. The first criminal and the others mocking Jesus, could not see a kingdom or a promise in the dying man on the cross. They wanted Jesus to prove His power in earthly and physical ways. They wanted to be saved from that moment in time, from their deserved punishment, from the immediate consequences of their faults. The second criminal looked to Jesus for salvation in a whole new way: a salvation that was not temporary, but permanent and eternal.

Paul asks the question, "Where do we look for our salvation?" Do we look to human kings or priests or shepherds? Do we seek help from foreign gods or allies? Why do we look for mortal answers to our questions when we have a God who can overcome even death and the grave? We do it because it is our natural state of being. We are no different than Saul or Zedekiah or the other shepherds who failed to take care of God's flock. We are no different than the first criminal who can't see the reality of God's glory and throne on that cross. We can't do it on our own. Jesus died so that we might live. It might seem odd that we would end the church year with Jesus on the cross, but His death is the culmination of our entire year. He was born to die so we can live. That is how God dealt with the failed shepherds and how He will take care of His people forever.

We can look to man for our salvation, but man will always fail us in some way. We can look to earthly kings to lead us and take care of us, but they'll fail us, too. We can appoint those who appear to be strong and intelligent and powerful, but their authority is limited and they will always tend to lead God's people away from Him. That's why Paul makes the point that Jesus is something other than man. He certainly was human, was born, lived and died. We see His life and His ministry as we journey through the church year. But Jesus was something else. He is God. In Him is the fullness of God, and through Him all things exist. He is the force that holds the world together and He is the one who saved us from ourselves.

So, let us look toward the One who can truly save us. As the psalmist sings, "God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble." We may suffer the failings of our earthly shepherds, but God's promises continue to be true. He will, He has, established a King that will not fail us. He has appointed His Son to rule over our lives. Our circumstances may seem out of control. We may find ourselves in exile or hanging on a cross. But we can rest in the knowledge that God is the driving force behind our lives. When our leaders fail, and when we are led astray, God has not forgotten His promises. He is faithful even when we can not be. Be still and know. He is God and He is with us. And He has appointed the King who will not fail, our Lord Jesus Christ.

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