The Feast of Christ the King - Proper 29, 24 November 2013

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Canticle 4 or 16 or Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11-20
St. Luke 23: 33-43

Background: The Feast of Christ the King
It was Pius XI who established this feast day as a response to the secularization of western culture.  Originally it was celebrated on the last Sunday in October, but was moved in 1970 by Paul VI to the last Sunday in Ordinary Time. With the revision of the Ordo Lectionum Missae (the Order of the Readings for the Mass) by the Second Vatican Council, several aspects of the new Ordo were adopted by the Anglican and Lutheran lectionaries as well.  The first was the three-year cycle of readings, and the second was the adoption of certain feast days within the Church’s Year.  The designation of the last Sunday in the liturgical year as “Christ the King” was one such adoption.  The notion is not to celebrate kingship that is born of violence but rather to see in Christ, the King who is a servant.  The reading from the Gospel for today, underlines that understanding.

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."

These verses are a concluding section to an oracle on The Fate of the Kings and the Monarchy.  Jeremiah marches through the recent history of the kings of Judah and finds much to condemn them.  In this section, clearly rooted during the period of exile, Jeremiah looks forward to the return and to the reformation of the monarchy.  The “shepherds” of the initial verses refer to the kings of Judah, and not to the priests.  The choice of this word would have formed an immediate identification in the mind of the hearer with King David, the shepherd king.  It is this line that Jeremiah accuses of “scatter(ing) my flock”.  More than that he deems that they have even “driven them away.”  God’s action then is directed toward “the remnant”, a recurring image in both Jeremiah and Isaiah.  These few who remain faithful to YHWH, will be gathered up and attended to by the Lord.  God brings them back to their “fold” (again an image that reminds us of the shepherding role of kingship). 

What follows then is a promise about the restoration or really reformation of kingship for Israel.  I will raise up shepherds for them,” God promises, and in a couple of verses of poetry outlines what these new kings and shepherds are to be.  What follows is a list of virtues: righteousness, wisdom, justice, salvation, and safety.  Such are the signs of this new kingship.  In the selection of this reading, the framers of the lectionary would have us compare the kingship of Christ to this promised kingship born of YHWH.  How is Jesus the Righteous Branch?

Breaking open Jeremiah:
  1. How are political leaders shepherds?
  2. How would our leaders fare under Jeremiah’s critical eye?
  3. What role do you play in the leadership of your community? 
Note: Although all the readings in Track 1 and 2 are the same, the responsorial psalms or canticles are not.  Track 1 uses the Benedictus from St. Luke, while Track 2 uses Psalm 46.  Either suits the purpose of the day.

Canticle 16  The Song of Zechariah
Benedictus Dominus Deus
St. 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.

Although sung by the character of John the Baptist’s father, and supposedly in honor of the naming of his son, and the restoration of his own powers of speech, this inserted hymn offers commentary on Jesus, more than on the context of John.  Like the other hymns in Luke’s Birth Narrative (the Magnificat, and the Nunc Dimittis) the Old Testament serves as a source of images, verbiage, and themes.  The structure of the Benedictus, however, is more complex and is longer than the other two.  There is some thought that this hymn existed as a Jewish Christian hymn that Luke edits as a response from Zechariah.  Regardless, two major themes appear in the text:  the horn for our salvation”, verse 69, and “the daybreak from on high”, verse 79.  In advance of these ideas, the hymn recalls the God who blessed the household of David and the prophets who continued to tell of the promise.  The use of the word “horn”, is not reproduced in the translation above but is rendered, “he has raised up for us a mighty savior”, and somewhat blunts the usage of this image in the Hebrew Scriptures where it indicates strength and resolve. 

The secondary theme is that of the “dawn from on high” which will break upon the people.  This phrase occurs three times in the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) in Zechariah, and in Jeremiah where the phrase indicates the scion or branch of a dynastic line.  Again, this phraseology appears to relate more to Jesus than to John.  Indeed the one line that seems to indicate John, “for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,” really presents the One who goes before YHWH to prepare the way for God’s coming.  The point, however, is really God’s coming to save the people from “enemies and all who hate us”.  We might wonder whether this is a reference to Roman occupation, or whether, as in Mary’s song, it refers to the oppression of the poor by the rich? 

The song is nuanced, in several directions, and forms a wonderful mix of grist and themes for the homiletical mill.

Breaking open Canticle 16:
  1. What is most notable, for you, about John the Baptist?
  2. How does he compare in his life and ministry with Jesus?
  3. What truth do you understand from the Benedictus?


Psalm 46 Deus noster refugium

God is our refuge and strength, *
a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, *
and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea;

Though its waters rage and foam, *
and though the mountains tremble at its tumult.

The LORD of hosts is with us; *
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, *
the holy habitation of the Most High.

God is in the midst of her;
she shall not be overthrown; *
God shall help her at the break of day.

The nations make much ado, and the kingdoms are shaken; *
God has spoken, and the earth shall melt away.

The LORD of hosts is with us; *
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

Come now and look upon the works of the LORD, *
what awesome things he has done on earth.

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.

"Be still, then, and know that I am God; *
I will be exalted among the nations;
I will be exalted in the earth."

The LORD of hosts is with us; *
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

In comparison with the Canticle of Zechariah, commented on above, a reading of Psalm 46 renders clarity of purpose and meaning unlike that of the Benedictus.  Here the psalm is devoted to its initial themes of strength and shelter born of God.  This is a psalm of thanksgiving upon the defeat of an unspecified enemy.  The first image is of a cataclysmic earthquake and the collapse of the earth into the sea.  Perhaps this is a retelling of the cosmic myth in which YHWH lords it over the chaos of land and sea and brings all into order.  The water theme continues, but this time the water is controlled and comforting, “there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.”  Here God is centered in Jerusalem, in the midst of the people who are saved from the earthquake in the earlier verses.  In the morning, it is God who is there to rescue and to save.

The initial themes of chaos and trouble are repeated again, but God sends for a creator’s voice, one that renders order in the midst of confusion.  The hearer, singer, or reader is invited to behold that which God really does: the cessation of war, the destruction of arms, and the bringing of peace.  What follows after all of this thundering and chaos is silence, like unto the silence that God exhibited to Elijah at Sinai.  For the purposes of this day, the themes of peace and protection speak well to the Christ who reigns from the violence of the cross.

Breaking open Psalm 46:
  1. Does God’s role as creator, end at creation?
  2. Where do you find God in today’s chaos?
  3. Is God silent – and what do you hear in the silence? 
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.

The focus on the congregation at Colossae abruptly changes and Paul’s prayer for them gives way to a paean to Christ.  It begins, as has Psalm 46, with a rehearsal of God’s power and creative ability.  It is a kind of blur in which both the Father and Son are praised for the acts of healing and salvation that marks us as God’s own.  This creation language comes to something of a high point when Paul comments on Jesus as “the first born of all creation.”  With this mention, Jesus becomes a not only a part of creation, but a participant in creation, “for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created.”  The procession of glorious phrase upon phrase recalls the personification of Wisdom in Proverbs 8:22-31.  Such an identification of Jesus and Wisdom is not Pauline, who only sees Wisdom in the pronounced word of the Kerygma.  The import of these verses, however, may come from sources (early hymns?), which Paul or the author used to describe the Christ who is a Savior. 

Breaking open Colossians:
  1. What aspects of Jesus speak most to you?
  2. Which of these aspects do you try to imitate?
  3. What happens when you find such imitation difficult?
St. 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."

I find this to be one of the most profound readings in the Lectionary given its context of the Feast of Christ the King.  All of the profundity and dissonant images of kingship and crucifixion are lifted up for us to ponder and unfold.  Some of the images in earlier readings can be unfolded in a similar way: the shepherd who is king, the sheep that is victim.  Here the Lord of life meets death.  Here the sun of righteousness is truly in the company of sinners.  Here the exalted one is lifted up on an instrument of torture and death.  The king of all is named the “king of the Jews”.  We are bidden to hold all these images in our mind and to blend them into a truth.  The lectionary ends our meditation at the cross, not with the profession of an unbeliever, “this man was innocent, beyond a doubt,” but rather with the prayer of another, and Jesus’ response.  This is the nexus of Jesus’ kingship – our need and our prayer, God’s grace and redemptive response.  Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  I’ve often wondered if, on this day as on Good Friday, the quiet veneration of the cross would suffice for a preacher’s words?

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.      What is your reaction to a crucifix?
2.      How do you see Jesus as a king?
3.      How do you see Jesus in your praying?

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.

All commentary and questions are copyright © 2013 Michael T. Hiller


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