Category: Christ the King Sunday

The Righteous Branch—A Lectionary Reflection for Reign of Christ Sunday (Jeremiah 23)

The Crucifixion – Lucas Cranach the Elder, Art Institute of Chicago
 
Jeremiah 23:1-6 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

23 Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. 2 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. 3 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. 4 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. 

5 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. 6 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.”

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                We begin the Christian year on the first Sunday of Advent, and in year C it begins with a word from Jeremiah 33. The reading for that Sunday declares: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” (Jer. 33:14-16). The promise of this passage is the coming of the righteous branch who springs forth for David, and who will “execute justice and righteousness in the land.” This is a word of hope offered by a prophet who offers few such words. Year C of the Christian year concludes with another word from Jeremiah, this time from ten chapters earlier. In Jeremiah 23, we again hear a word about the “Righteous Branch” who will be raised up for David. From beginning to end, we hear the promise of God that righteousness and justice will be served and that God will provide the means by which this occurs. This word of hope that comes on the day we call Reign of Christ (Christ the King) Sunday comes with a caveat. There is first a word of judgment on shepherds who have served the people poorly.

 

                The reading from Jeremiah 23 with a word of woe to “the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture” (vs. 1). This word of judgment is laid upon the leaders of Judah, the monarchs, the ruling elite, and the religious leadership. This word comes to Judah just prior or perhaps in the midst of the Babylonian conquest that will destroy Jerusalem, the Temple, and lead to the captivity of its leading citizens. During this period of Jeremiah’s prophetic work, Judah had been led by three rather disappointing kings, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah. All three of these kings contributed to the chaos that led to the destruction of Judah and the subsequent exile. 

 

Into this debacle on the part of the leadership, God is going to step in and be the shepherd Israel needs. God is going to gather the remnant from the lands into which they are scattered. God will then provide shepherds who will lead with righteousness and judgment. That is the Righteous Branch” who will reign as king over the people. In Jeremiah words of judgment are brought together with words of restoration. Judah may suffer defeat and exile, but this is not the last word. There will be a time of restoration when justice and righteousness will prevail.

 

                We hear this word on Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. This concluding Sunday of the year is designed to focus our attention on the coming reign of Christ over Creation. We can see this envisioned in the iconography of the Eastern churches that picture Christ as Pantocrator or the ruler of the universe. It is a vision that is revealed in the Book of Revelation and in the Gospels, but the reading from the Gospels that is paired with this text speaks of Christ on the Cross. It may not be the vision that we would expect here, but it reminds us that visions of God are not all the same. Justice and righteousness, they are central to the day’s message, but the means could be one of apparent weakness. In the reading from the Gospel of Luke (Lk.23:33-43), the picture of the Christ who reigns is the one named “king of the Jews” by the Roman authorities, who seek to mock the claim. 

 

                The word we hear from Jeremiah is one that is relevant to our times when it seems as if the world is in disarray. People are frustrated with their leaders. In many parts of the world, including here in the United States, many have embraced populist voices that promise to turn everything upside down. Many of them fulfill the promise, but not for the good, not for justice and righteousness. These shepherds are the kinds of leaders Jeremiah condemned for leading the people astray. But all is not lost. There is hope. God will provide for shepherds who will bring justice and righteousness.

 

                Perhaps this is a good moment for the church to consider what is required of a good leader, and how we as the people of God can create and promote such leaders. How might the church speak out against bad leaders and policies? Here’s the thing, how do we do this without becoming enmeshed with partisanship, so that we exchange one set of bad leaders for another? As we ponder these questions, it is appropriate to take note that this word is directed not at the bad leaders, but at their victims, those who suffer under such leaders. God promises to stand with them and provide leadership that is different from what has been experienced. Here’s the thing, as Carlton J. “Cobbie” Palm notes:

The plan for a new future is in God’s hands always, but we must understand that it will never be God’s accomplishment alone. In the unfolding story of God’s work throughout history we see a pattern. God creates and restores on our behalf, but always, and without exception, gives the work back to us to carry forward. This is what Jeremiah is saying when he concludes with the words of God, “I will raise up for David, a righteous branch” (v. 5). This is pointing to us, calling us out of droopiness to prepare for the handover to continue and sustain the work that God has begun. We are the righteous branch. We are the participants in God’s unfolding restoration. [Connections, p. 499].

How is this to be heard on Christ the King Sunday? Can we not hear this in connection with Paul’s description of the church as the Body of Christ? As Christ’s body, might we engage in the work that leads to justice and righteousness in the world? And in this regard, may we sing:

 
Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
does its successive journeys run,
his kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
till moons shall wax and wane no more.
 
Blessings abound where’er he reigns:
the prisoners leap to lose their chains,
the weary find eternal rest,
and all who suffer want are blest.
 
Let every creature rise and bring
the highest honors to our King,
angels descend with songs again,
and earth repeat the loud amen. 
                                Isaac Watts
               

 

Living Under God’s Rule — Lectionary Reflection for Reign of Christ Sunday (2 Samuel 23)

2 Samuel 23:1-7 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
23 Now these are the last words of David:
The oracle of David, son of Jesse,
the oracle of the man whom God exalted,
the anointed of the God of Jacob,
the favorite of the Strong One of Israel:
The spirit of the Lord speaks through me,
his word is upon my tongue.
The God of Israel has spoken,
the Rock of Israel has said to me:
One who rules over people justly,
ruling in the fear of God,
is like the light of morning,
like the sun rising on a cloudless morning,
gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.
Is not my house like this with God?
For he has made with me an everlasting covenant,
ordered in all things and secure.
Will he not cause to prosper
all my help and my desire?
But the godless are all like thorns that are thrown away;
for they cannot be picked up with the hand;
to touch them one uses an iron bar
or the shaft of a spear.
And they are entirely consumed in fire on the spot.
 
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    The liturgical year ends with Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. With the age of monarchy passing into history, this might seem a rather anachronistic way to end the church year. Most modern monarchs serve as ceremonial heads of state, but the real power is left to elected officials. So, is Christ a ceremonial figure? Despite the fading of monarchies, the idea of monarchy may still have some relevance to our spiritual conversations. Of course, there have been conversations about shifting metaphors to more modern possibilities, but none of them have truly caught fire as descriptors. Some have shifted to speak of the realm and reign of God rather than kingdom, but the basic concept remains the same, though the shift allows us to recognize that king and kingdom have patriarchal edges. While monarchies have become more ceremonial, contemporary western leadership positions such as president and prime minister are elective in nature. The question then becomes, in what way is Christ elected as our ruler? So, it appears for now we’re left with monarchical imagery.
                With Christ the King Sunday at hand, and because we are working through the readings from the Hebrew Bible, we have before us the reading from 2 Samuel 23, which enshrines the “Last Words of David.” The lectionary has taken us on a quick jump from Hannah’s song (1 Samuel 1), in which a woman goes to the Temple at Shiloh and makes a deal with God, promising that if God redeemed her from the shame of barrenness, she would bring her son (she asked for a son) to the Temple to be raised there. Lo and behold, she has a son, whom she names Samuel, and she fulfills her side of the bargain. In the end Samuel is called by God to be prophet and judge over Israel. In that position, he anoints first Saul and then David to be kings over Israel. From that song, we jump to another. The two songs frame the rise of monarchy, the fall of Saul and the rise of David. Although there are more stories to be told of David’s exploits, these words are placed here, immediately following David’s song of Thanksgiving (2 Sam. 22).
David is envisioned in Scripture and in our imaginations as Israel’s greatest king. He was the one who united the people and set them on a proper course. Solomon’s kingdom might have been larger in area, and Solomon may have built the Temple, but it was David who set the course. It was David whom God exalted, anointed, and favorited. And as Paul declared, David is to God “a man after my heart, who will carry out all my wishes” (Acts 13:22), and thus a precursor to Jesus, the Messiah.
Of course, the story of David’s reign and that which follows is much more complex than this would suggest. David’s reign not without its scandals, and yet over time David took on a messianic mantle that was passed on to Jesus by early Christians. David’s kingdom would before long fall into realms, one of which disappeared in the eighth century BCE. The smaller portion of his realm, the one that continued under a Davidic dynasty would last until Nebuchadnezzar brought the kingdom and the monarchy to an end in the early sixth century BCE. When the exile ended in the closing third of the sixth century, the former Judean kingdom existed only as a province of the Persians and then of the Greeks. There would be a brief return to monarchy under the Hasmoneans in the second century BCE, but it would be subsumed under Roman rule before too long. By the first century of the Common Era, during the time of Jesus, a messianic fervor erupted in the former realm of David, now under Roman domination, either direct (Pilate) or through vassal kingdoms (Herod Agrippa). The early Christians came to interpret the ministry of Jesus in messianic terms, understanding Jesus to be the chosen heir of David, though the nature of his realm was reenvisioned into a spiritual realm.
                In light of Christ the King Sunday, we might read these “Last Words of David” with the proclamation of Revelation 1 in mind, as this passage marks the second reading for the day. 
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (Rev. 1:4b-6).

Considering this affirmation of Christ’s kingly rule, how might we understand David’s words as words to us?
                The word we have before us come, is said to be an oracle of God, a prophetic word that is delivered through David. These last words begin with a description of David as being the one who is “exalted of God,” “anointed of God,” and the “favorite of the Strong One of Israel.” These three descriptors of David exalt him to an honored place in the heart of God. What he speaks comes from God and might be understood to be his testament, his words of guidance to those who would follow him. Consider that David, as God’s oracle, speaks of the covenant God has made with the house of David, a covenant that is everlasting. If heard in the light of the exile or its aftermath, it’s not surprising that there would be those who would claim this mantle and seek to restore Israel to its former glory. After all, hasn’t God pledged loyalty to the covenant?
So, here is the message of God revealed to us through David:
One who rules over people justly,
ruling in the fear of God,
is like the light of morning,
like the sun rising on a cloudless morning,
gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.
(2Sam. 23:3-4).
One would assume that David is the one who rules justly in the fear of God. As to David’s position in the eyes of God, he is “like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the grassy land.” You might say that David is the apple of God’s eye. A just ruler is a blessing to a nation. One who rules in the fear or awe of God, who understands the position of ruler in relationship to the overall rule of God, “is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.” It is a message of blessing. We can see it. We can feel it. We can smell it. Yes, “morning has broken, like the first morning.” In the words of the third verse of the song, “Mine is the sunlight! Mine is the morning born of the one light Eden saw play! Praise with elation, praise everyone morning, God’s recreation of the new day!” [Eleanor Farjeon, Chalice Hymnal, 53]. 
 
                If a just ruler brings blessing, then the godless, the one who fails to abide by the covenant, is like a thorn that must be thrown away. The contrast is stark. The thorn must be removed, but removal is not easy. You can’t just pick them out by hand. You must use an iron bar or spear shaft, and then when removed they must be consumed by fire “on the spot.” Why? I would assume that if they are not, they might take root once again.
                There is in these words of David an affirmation of covenant but also of judgment. We bring the liturgical year to a close with difficult words. Then, when we regather on the first Sunday of Advent, and light those candles, we prepare to receive a different kind of king. Yet, these words do seem to speak of the need for judgment, of refining, as a pathway to justice. There is here a word of promise and a word of warning to take with us, as we move toward a new season with Christ the King.
               
 

Picture Attribution: Christ the King of Kings, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55319 [retrieved November 19, 2018]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christ_King_of_Kings_(Greece,_c._1600).jpg.

               
               

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.