Christ the King, The Last Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 29, 20 November 2016

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Canticle 16 or Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11-20
Saint Luke 23:33-43



Background: Kingship
The temptation on this particular Sunday is to apply to Jesus all of the mediaeval trappings of kingship that are reinforced by catholic and western iconography, and by our hymnody. Because of that I know many that are ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater in order to cleanse these images of patriarchy and classism.  I know of one person who refers to this day as the Feast of the Non-Gender Specific Monarch. We rid ourselves of all aspects of monarch at our theological peril, for we will have lost touch points that holy men and women have used as a way of understanding the lordship of Jesus.

I am thinking primarily of the foundational connection between kingship and nature that underlies a great deal of the understanding of ancient near eastern kingship. It is those understandings that formed the notions in the Hebrew Scriptures that later Christian writers apply to Jesus. To lose the understanding of those features is to lose a great deal. Nature and kingship were the aspects of the cycle of life that assured continued existence and sustenance in both Egyptian and Mesopotamian systems. Although they differed one from the other due to the nature of the Nile, and the rainy seasons of Mesopotamia that assured the harvest, they still saw a connection between nature, the divine, and its manifestation in kingship. That David was a shepherd and continued to be identified as such, along with his descendants, is such an important understanding and connection (see the first reading for this morning).  Interested readers might want to check out Henri Frankfort’s Kingship and the Gods, A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society & Nature.[1]

Layered onto these ancient understandings are more modern Greek and Roman ideas of soter (Savior), kyrios, and dominus/a (lord), and basilias and basileio (king and kingdom). That these civil terms are applied to Jesus makes it necessary for us to understand their full context and meaning. By being more catholic in our approach, we can provide a richer context for people to understand the Jesus who is enthroned upon the cross.

First Reading: Jeremiah 23:1-6

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: "The Lord is our righteousness."



Here Jeremiah uses a variety of images to communicate with his hearers so that they might understand what has happened to them. The condition is quickly described and assigned to the kings of Judah, “It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away.” Jeremiah wants to move beyond a facile blaming of Babylon or Assyria to a more poignant accusation about the kings who were not good shepherds. The scattering, the exile, was the proof of their ill will and unrighteous decisions, and now the prophet wants to describe what kingship should really be like in Judah. The model is provided by God, and is seen in the following actions, “I will gather the remnant, I will bring them back, they shall be fruitful and multiply.” Finally there is the promise that God will raise up kings – a righteous branch from David’s stem.

Breaking open Jeremiah:
1.          What is your estimation of the rulers of this world?
2.          In what ways is the government a good shepherd?
3.         What should you do if it is bad?

Canticle 16: The Song of Zechariah    Benedictus Dominus Deus
Luke 1: 68-79

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; *
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior, *
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets he promised of old,
that he would save us from our enemies, *
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers *
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham, *
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship him without fear, *
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give people knowledge of salvation *
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.



Like Mary, Simeon, and the angels, Zechariah also has a song, which is a commentary on the events surrounding the birth of his son, John the Baptist. As a follow-up to the first reading from Jeremiah, this canticle provides further direction to God’s intentions for saving Israel. Here the branch points to a further growth on David’s tree – a Messiah who will save the people. The song does not spring from Zechariah’s emotions or from his experience, but rather is the result of his being “filled with the holy Spirit.” So like the prophets before him, Zechariah gives the word as directed by the Spirit of God. Here also God is described in terms of God’s actions for humankind, “Set them free, raised up a mighty savior, save us from our enemies, promised to show mercy.” This set of descriptors not only point to a future promise and condition for people, but also point back to past actions and promises that will be relived in Jesus.

Breaking open Canticle 16:

1.     How have God’s actions in the Benedictus been seen in your own life?
2.     What would a song about your faith and salvation be like?
3.    What promises has God made to you?

Or

Psalm 46 Deus noster refugium
     God is our refuge and strength, *
a very present help in trouble.
2      Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, *
and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea;
3      Though its waters rage and foam, *
and though the mountains tremble at its tumult.
4      The Lord of hosts is with us; *
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
5      There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, *
the holy habitation of the Most High.
6      God is in the midst of her;
she shall not be overthrown; *
God shall help her at the break of day.
7      The nations make much ado, and the kingdoms are shaken; *
God has spoken, and the earth shall melt away.
8      The Lord of hosts is with us; *
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
9      Come now and look upon the works of the Lord, *
what awesome things he has done on earth.
10    It is he who makes war to cease in all the world; *
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear,
and burns the shields with fire.
11    "Be still, then, and know that I am God; *
I will be exalted among the nations;
I will be exalted in the earth."
12    The Lord of hosts is with us; *
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.



“God is our refuge and strength” – a clue that his is a national psalm not related to personal experience but rather to all the people. God’s strength is seen in the midst of the turmoil of nature, “thought the earth be moved”, and the nations as well, “the kingdoms are shaken.” The calm stream that flows from the city of God is seen in contrast to the raging sea pictured earlier. This is the God who stabilizes all of creation and makes of it a pleasant habitation. It matters not what the other nations think and design, for God is the protector of Israel.
  
Breaking open Psalm 46:
1.     How is God a refuge and strength to your city?
2.     How are “kingdoms being shaken” during your time?
3.    What is the calm stream of contentment in your life?

The Second Reading: Colossians 1:11-20

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-- all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.



Our pericope is divided between the ending of a prayer for knowledge and wisdom, (verses 11-14), and a description of Jesus as the Christ, King and Redeemer (verses 15-20). In the prayer Paul makes use of the dichotomy of light and dark, seeing the people as being “rescued” from the power of darkness. What they are brought into is the kingdom of Jesus (the light). Thus the introductory prayer provides us with knowledge not only of who Jesus is, but what he has done for us as well.

Paul introduces us to the idea of the Kingdom of the Son, but in these verses he does not describe that place, but rather the One who rules over it. In its own way it forms a type of salvation history briefly described, beginning with creation, and ending with the new creation that is seen in the church of which “he is head of the body.” Paul also introduces other descriptors that go beyond the ties to kingdom and kingship, seeing in Jesus the fullness of God, and the reconciler of the creation that was once separated from God. This is accomplished through a gift of peace borne of the blood of his cross. It is a kingship in which the cost of the rule is not derived from the subjects, but rather from the monarch himself. He has borne the cost.

Breaking open Colossians:
  1. From what have you been rescued?
  2. How do you see Jesus at Creation?
  3. What are your hopes at the end of time?                                                          

The Gospel: Saint Luke 23:33-43

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots to divide his clothing. The people stood by, watching Jesus on the cross; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews."

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."



The choice of the gospel reading for this day is genius. If we have trouble deconstructing the kingship of Christ, then this is the most handy and telling remedy – for Christ rules from the cross. All aspects of his potential kingdom are gathered around him at this scene from the cross: his mother, and those who followed him, both men and women. There are criminals and naysayers, rulers and the military, and just ordinary people viewing the spectacle. It is important for us to focus not only on the cross and the one hanging there, but also on those drawn to it, unwittingly or not. “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” (John 12:32) These are the potential members of the kingdom, actually already members – the mission will be to convince them of their participation and God’s love for them. The promise given to the one who finds it in him to make prayer to Jesus, “remember me when you come into your kingdom,” is the promise made available to all. Of such is Jesus’ kingship.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     How is the cross a throne?
2.     Whom do you see as members of God’s kindom?
3.    Are there any who are excluded?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 



Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller



[1]Frankfort, H (1948), Kingship and the Gods, A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society & Nature, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. This is available on the Internet at: oi.uchicago.edu/pdf/kingship.pdf

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