Category: Christ the King Sunday

Hebrews 9:24-28 New Revised Standard Version

24 For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25 Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; 26 for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

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                Like much of the New Testament, the Book of Hebrews has a strong apocalyptic element. We see that apocalyptic dimension present here in this passage. Because of how apocalyptic messages have been used over the centuries and especially over the past several decades, there is general discomfort with the apocalyptic dimension of the New Testament. It’s understandable. However, it’s there for all to see. We can’t ignore it. Besides the apocalyptic elements of the New Testament provide a certain intensity and alertness to the texts. It brings to the fore a certain anticipation that something is about to happen. Granted, we live two millennia later and, as of yet, Jesus hasn’t returned. That is why theologians such as Origen and Augustine allegorized texts like this. In fact, one scholar spoke of Origen demythologizing the apocalyptic elements. There is reason to do so. At the same time, it’s important that we not ignore the message even if we must reinterpret it.

                First-century Christians expected Jesus to return at any moment. At times Paul encouraged such thinking and at other times he had to calm the folks down, reminding them that in the meantime they needed to attend to business. That is, go to work so you can eat. That being said, the author of Hebrews, whose identity remains unknown, offers us a meditation on the apocalyptic dimension of Jesus’ ministry.

                As noted in a previous reflection, Hebrews represents a Platonized vision of the ministry of Jesus. He contrasts the earthly ministry of the Levitical priesthood with Jesus’ heavenly priesthood. Whereas the Levitical priests had to annually offer sacrifices on behalf of not only the general populace but themselves as well. In our reading, which continues the messaging we’ve been hearing, Jesus enters the heavenly Temple ready to offer a sacrifice for sin. The sacrifice he offers is himself. Nothing is said here of the cross upon which Jesus died but is rather an offering of himself to God as a replacement for the annual sacrifices. That is, the author of Hebrews focuses on the sacrifices offered on the Day of Atonement and not Passover. While we know from Scripture (Leviticus 16) what this involves, the nature of the sacrifice on  Jesus’ part is not revealed. In other words, the cross is not specifically mentioned.

                The apocalyptic element is clear in the statement that Jesus has appeared “at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.” The way it is phrased here, Jesus has already done this, suggesting that the “end of the age” has already occurred, and that it occurred when Jesus offered himself in the heavenly Temple in the presence of God on our behalf. In doing this, Jesus acted to remove sin from us. As noted elsewhere in Hebrews, Jesus does this only once and not annually as was true of the Levitical priests. As we’ve seen earlier, Jesus takes his priesthood from the mysterious line of the priest-king Melchizedek (Heb. 7).

                The reading suggests that the end of the age began when Jesus offered himself up as the atoning sacrifice in the heavenly temple. In other words, what happened on earth with the crucifixion also happened in heaven as Jesus entered the heavenly Temple and offered himself up to God as an atoning sacrifice. This is the word Hebrews offers concerning the first advent, but there is a second as well. Some use the analogy of D-Day for understanding the cross. While the war would continue for almost a year in Europe, once the allies landed in Normandy the war was won. There would be no turning back. With that analogy as a reference to the cross, Jesus gained a beachhead that would never be turned back. There would be many more battles to come. Evil hasn’t given up its resistance, but it will not win. Even for those of us who believe that the future is open and unwritten, could we not say that Good Friday and Easter turned the tide?

                Hebrews acknowledges that we all die once, and then comes the day of judgment. What this means is not clear, though Jürgen Moltmann cautions those of us who lean toward universal salvation,

If salvation is tied to faith, then all the universal statements in the New Testament must be related to God’s good salvific intention, but not to the outcome of history. What is meant is the possibility of redemption, not its inevitable actuality. It is true that the word aionios does not mean the absolute eternity of God, but it does mean the irrevocability of the decision for faith or unbelief. Faith’s experience that in the presence of the call to decision one is standing before God has as its corollary the finality of human decision. Consequently `the double outcome’ is the last word of the Last Judgment.  [Moltmann. The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (Kindle Locations 3506-3509). Kindle Edition].

That is good to remember—the outcome is not inevitable. We have choices and redemption can’t be coerced if God is truly love.

                When it comes to the timing of this day of judgment, it does sound here as if it immediately follows death. Other passages of Scripture suggest a different timeframe, so unless we embrace a God who stands outside time (timeless) then we have some interpretive moves to make here. Whatever the time frame, the story is not yet complete. There is also a second coming. But unlike the first advent, in which Christ dealt with sin (apparently through his death on the cross) this second advent is designed to save the faithful who are eagerly awaiting Jesus’ return.

                Hebrews doesn’t reveal exactly what is meant by the word “save,” but it would seem that the expectation is that Jesus will return to gather up the faithful bringing this age to a close. Judgment has already occurred, so the expectation is not one of fear but hope. Thus, salvation in this context is not related to deliverance from sin, but a gathering up of those whom Jesus has already saved. Tom Long puts it this way concerning the anticipated day of judgment:

In this part of the passage, the writer of Hebrews indicates that the offering of Christ makes this obsession with judgment moot. In Christ, sin has already been extinguished, and lasting forgiveness has been granted. So Christians do not have to dread the future, watching fearfully for God the judge. God’s future is one of salvation and redemption. Christ is “coming again,” not with a sword of judgment, but “to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” [Long, Feasting on the Word, p.
283].

So, instead of putting up signs that call for people to get right with God, in Christ, we are already made right with God. So, we can focus on other things.  Judgment day is not a day to be feared but celebrated. So keep alert, the day of the Lord is near at hand!!  Maranatha!  Lord Come Quickly!

Image attribution:  Icon of the Second Coming, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56666 [retrieved October 31, 2021]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Icon_second_coming.jpg.

Are You Ready? Jesus Is Coming Back Soon — Lectionary Reflection for Realm of Christ Sunday (Revelation 1)

Revelation 1: (1-4a), 4b-8.

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.

Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.

John to the seven churches that are in Asia:

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.

Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes of the earth will
wail.

So it is to be. Amen.

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

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                Advent is on the horizon. You can feel it in the air (well you can see the growing presence of the holiday season making itself known), but we’re not quite there. While the four Sundays of Advent are usually understood to be a time of preparation before the coming of Christmas (the first advent) the season not only looks backward it also looks forward into the future. While we prepare to celebrate that moment in the first century when, according to the Gospel of John, the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14), that is not the end of the story. The season of Advent looks forward to the moment celebrated on the final Sunday of the Christian/Liturgical Year—Reign of Christ/Christ the King Sunday—when Jesus is said to return, and the realm of God will come in its fullness. Christ may already be reigning, but that reign has not reached its culmination as envisioned in the Book of Revelation. So, we gather on the final Sunday of the Christian year to celebrate the promise that God is the Alpha and Omega, the one “who is and who was and who is to come.” We might not know when and how that day will come, but the promise is there.

                The Gospel reading for the day comes from John 18. In this passage, we hear Jesus’ response to Pilate’s question about whether Jesus is the king of the Jews. In this exchange, Jesus tells Pilate that his “kingdom is not from this world.” If it was, Jesus tells Pilate that his followers would be fighting to keep him from being handed over (John 18:33-38). He doesn’t deny his calling, but he redefines it. If you’ve read the Frank Herbert novel Dune, the first half of which has been recently set to film, you will see something like what Jesus denied being. Whatever his kingdom looks like, it doesn’t come into existence through the force of arms.

                This reflection takes up the reading from the first chapter of Revelation. While there is a strong apocalyptic thread running throughout the New Testament, the Book of Revelation offers the most explicit apocalyptic vision in the New Testament. The book’s very name conveys that premise since “revelation” is the English translation of the Greek apocalypsis. In essence, an apocalypse is simply an unveiling, thus it need not be understood as a word of doom and catastrophe. That’s the meaning we’ve attached to it. Nevertheless, because of its use of metaphor and myth, Revelation is a book that presents difficulties to us as we attempt to interpret it in our day. In fact, that has been truefrom almost the very beginning, which has led to a wide variety of interpretations. Some of these interpretations have taken on a life of their own and as a result, the apocalyptic genre has been deemed too hot to handle. Thus, it seems as if preachers either indulge this literature or avoid it altogether. Since the New Testament is thoroughly apocalyptic, the typical way of engaging the apocalyptic elements is to demythologize them. Unfortunately, in my mind, that takes much of the power away from the text. We might need to demythologize the text at points, but we need to be careful as to how we do it. After all, Ernst Käsemann famously declared that “apocalyptic was the mother of all Christian theology.” That is because it is the apocalyptic dimension of the story that holds the key to the proclamation of the realm of God. Or, more specifically, as Käsemann states, “apocalyptic, Christianly understood, is a theology of liberation and salvation, not of anxiety” [On Being a Disciple of the Crucified Nazarene, p. 5]. If we can understand apocalyptic theology in such a way that the focus is not on doom but liberation and salvation, perhaps we can better appreciate the message of the Book of Revelation.

                So, we come to the reading from Revelation 1 designated by the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary for Reign of Christ Sunday. It’s not often that the lectionary invites us to hear a word from Revelation, and the word we hear this morning is the introductory statement before John the Revelator addresses each of the seven churches of Asia (Rev. 1:4b-8). I decided to include in the reading above the prior verses to give context to the reading. The word that John the Revelator writes to these churches comes from the one “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.” It is meant as a word of “grace to you and peace.” Yes, the word to come is one of grace and peace. It is intended to be a word of encouragement to churches feeling pressure to conform to the ways of the Roman Empire, including the worship of the empire’s gods.

                We start with the identification of God as the one “who is and who was and who is to come.” This tri-part declaration is a common identifier of divine beings. Something similar was applied to Zeus, for instance. However, what John does is speak of God coming. Thus, as Brian Blount writes: “John hijacks the formulation for God. He then adds a direct provocation. His God was also coming to bring the reality of supernatural rule to the natural realm.” In the reference to God as the Alpha and Omega, “John claims that God transcends human history and therefore controls it. Rome had already staked that claim by conquering Asia Minor and the people of God who lived in it. It is at just the point of this theological difference of opinion that religious confrontation escalates into political combat. When John records God’s second self-reference at v. 8, he uses the very language Moses used to describe the liberator God in the Exod3:14 account: Egō Eimi (I AM).” [Blount, Revelation (2009): A Commentary (The New Testament Library) (p. 34). Kindle Edition].

                This declaration that God is in control can give the reader a sense of assurance when the world seems to be out of control. It does pose a problem for those of us who envision an open future that requires our participation, especially if we assume that God is powerful but is limited in some way either in essence or due to decisions to give us freedom. That offer of freedom of course is more amenable when things are going well and perhaps less hopeful when you need help. For early Christians facing a hostile empire, they needed outside help if they were going to survive. So, it’s no wonder that Revelation takes on a more deterministic posture.

                As we ponder how God is defined here, as the Alpha and Omega and the one “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (vs. 8), we’re told that God is not acting alone. There are also the Seven Spirits, which represent God’s expansive power. A close reading of the Revelation of John reveals the regular presence of the number seven is important. As this passage sets the foundation for the words given to the seven churches, it is important to note that each church has its own angel. The reference to Seven Spirits could also have in mind the Holy Spirit through whom God will work in the world of these churches.

                This word also comes from Jesus who is the “faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” Here again, we have a three-fold formula. The first of these revelations of Jesus’ identity speaks of him as the “faithful witness” to the things of God. It is the testimony of Jesus given by God and then shared with John by the angel that serves as the foundation of what is to come (Rev. 1:1-2). Theologically, if we are to know the identity of God, who is before all things and after all things, then we need to look to Jesus, to his life and teachings. He is the unveiling of God. Secondly, he is the “firstborn of the dead.” That is, Jesus is the first to be resurrected. Our resurrection is rooted in his resurrection. As such, he is the “ruler of the kings of the earth.” Though he was killed by the powers that be represented by Pilate, Jesus was lifted up from the dead and now takes his place as the “ruler of the kings of the earth.” In making this declaration, we’re reminded that the emperor understood himself to be the ruler of the kings of the earth. Caesar might allow certain rulers within the empire to style themselves as kings, but their power derived from that of Caesar, or so Caesar believes. So, as followers of Jesus, we might not be the firstborn of the dead or the ruler of the kings of the earth, but we can be faithful witnesses and it is to this that we are called.

                Here is the word for us. John gives praise to the who loves us and frees us by his blood. Not only that but Jesus makes us a kingdom of priests. In other words, Jesus is the one who rules the kingdom of God, and we act as priests who serve God the Father to whom is given glory and dominion forever. With that doxology, we hear the proclamation that Jesus will come with the clouds so that every eye will see him.  Not only will every eye see him, but this is especially true of those who pierced him—those who nailed him to the cross will see him. While the first advent may have come in the form of a baby born in a humble abode in a small village, the second advent will be visible to all. As a result, all the tribes of the earth will wail.  This is, of course, traditional apocalyptic language in that it promises a day of judgment, especially the vision provided in Daniel 7.

As I watched in the night visions,

I saw one like a human being [Son
of Man]
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
(Daniel 7:13)

In other words, when Jesus returns in the clouds, as the Son of Man, the earth will turn and repent of its sins. As Ron Allen writes, this vision offers us the foundation for hearing “the rest of the Book of Revelation. To those in the Johannine congregations who are faithfully witnessing to the presence and coming of the Realm of God, the book is a word of pastoral comfort” [Allen, I Will Tell You the Mystery, p. 8]. So, as faithful witnesses to the gospel, they offer the opportunity to others to repent and receive this act of grace of God. So, are you ready for Jesus to come back in the clouds?

                This is the word that comes to John from the Alpha and Omega, the one who is, who was, and who is to come! There is good news. Despite what it may seem like at the moment, Caesar will not win. That is because God has this covered. So let us give praise to God because Jesus is setting up the realm of God.

Wondering Where the Lions Are: Advent 1(Narrative Lectionary)

Wondering Where the Lions Are: Advent 1(Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

November 29, 2020

Read: Daniel 6:1-27

Reflection

Between ages 7 and 10, I took swimming lessons at the YWCA and YMCA.  I had a good time in the water and loved to use the paddle boards and make big splashes in the pool.  

But there was one thing that scared me to death…the deep end of the swimming pool. You see, I could touch the end of the pool on the shallow end. However as you moved farther away from the shallow end, it became harder and harder to touch the floor.  You would get to that point where you couldn’t touch the bottom of the pool and you get a bit scared.  Of course, the reason I was in a swimming class is to learn how to swim, even in deep water, even in the places where I couldn’t just touch the bottom. Swimming was suppose to teach me how to handle the deep end, how to manuver in a place that seemed scary.  The swimming instructors were teaching me to trust the skills I’ve learned to tackle the deep end.  Not to get cocky in my skills, but to trust what I’ve learned to prevent me from drowning.

 This is the first day of the new church year, so I guess I should say Happy New Year.  This is the first Sunday of Advent, that season before Christmas where we await the coming of the Savior and also are reminded of why we need to Christ to come and save us and there is no one more deserving of salvation than the character in today’s text.

Daniel and the Lion’s Den is one of the first Bible stories children learn about. Daniel, an Israelite in exile, is a faithful worker in the court of King Darius of Persia.  Daniel does such a good job in his position as a chief administrator that the king is interested in promoting him to be the second in command in the Empire; only the king would be higher than Daniel.

His fellow administrators can’t stand that this foreigner is showing them up, so they devise a plan to trick the King into sending Daniel to the lions where he would meet his end.

When the days comes to send Daniel into the lion’s den. The administrators are joyous because they have this foreigner where they wanted him and soon, their troubles would be gone.  King Darius is nervous; he hates to lose such an able worker and he probably feels this charge is all trumped up. But he can’t do much other than hope Daniel’s God would save him.

The king didn’t sleep all night.  The king races to find Daniel is safe and sound, while Daniel’s rivials and their families face the lions and meeta cruel fate. 

What an odd text to start Advent with!  But maybe it isn’t so weird.  Daniel was facing an unjust punishment.  God comes to the rescue and save him from devastation.

Advent is a time of waiting for Christ, waiting for salvation.  Daniel waited for salvation as well and God did save him.  But the story here is not that God won’t let us face bad times.  The list is long of good people, faithful people who were killed by despots past and present.  The story here is that God will prevail even when it seems that evil will have the last word.  Even if Daniel were swallowed by the lions, this would still be a tale of God winning over evil, because God is bigger than corrupt administrators or a fumbling king.

The thing that scared me about the deep end of the pull is that I would be engulfed by water, that I would drown.  Daniel could have been scared about how the lions would pull him apart and then devour him.  But he has faith in God and is able to face down the lions because God is faithful.  The lions might kill him, but they have no power over him.

As I said before, trusting God doesn’t mean you won’t face trials.  We wait and hope for salvation, but that doesn’t always come in the way we want or expect.  Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonheoffer, Oscar Romero and countless other disciples and followers of Jesus did not come to happy endings and yet they believed in a God that would save them, a God that never allowed evil to have the last word.

We wait in Advent for the coming of Jesus.  Jesus will not take away all the bad things in our lives.  We will still get cancer.  Our loved ones will still die.  We will get laid off.  The lions are always there waiting to have a midnight snack.  But we have hope.  Hope not that things will be okay, but that God is with us and will never ever let evil win. We wait knowing that Jesus is coming to be with us, to be with us in all of the dark times in our lives and to give us the faith to stand up to intolerance because the forces of darkness will never ever have the last word.

By the way, I’m still scared of the deep end of the pool.  But I also trust what I learned in swimming class.  May God give us the same courage in all the deep ends of our lives.

 

Photo by Laura Seaman on Unsplash

 

Don’t You Forget About Me: Christ the King Sunday(Narrative Lectionary)

Don’t You Forget About Me: Christ the King Sunday(Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

November 22, 2020

Read: Jeremiah 31:31-34

Reflection

Imagine with me that you wake up one morning and everything seems normal.  You listen to the news on the television and make breakfast and then head to work.  

When you get there, you expect to see your friend Bruce.  You’ve known him for nine years and his personality is such that everyone in the office knows who Bruce is.  You pass his desk and it’s empty.  In fact, it seems like no one had used his cubicle for months.  There is no nameplate or anything that shows he worked at your office. You ask around what happened to Bruce.  Everyone gives you a strange look.  To a person, no one remembers Bruce.  At first you think it’s a joke, but then you realize people are serious.  They act like Bruce never existed.  

You get to work, but you have this odd feeling.  Why can you remember Bruce, but no one else can?  

The day ends and you get back to your home to get ready to have dinner with your brother Nathan and Aunt Sophie.  You get ready and drive to the restaurant.  You see your brother you start catching up on things.  After a while, you ask where is Aunt Sophie.  Nathan gives you a blank look.  He asks who is Sophie.  You tell him that she’s your father’s sister and has two kids: Ben and Olivia.  But those names don’t register either.  Now you start to get nervous.  You finish dinner and get to bed hoping this is just a weird day.  

The next day, you give Nathan a call.  The phone rings and rings, when finally a woman picks up.  You know this is Carol, Nathan’s finance.  You ask to speak to your brother and for a moment, there is silence.  She doesn’t know a Nathan.  You are shocked.  Nathan and Carol had dated for six years.  

You hang up the phone.  You wonder what in the world is going on.

This keeps happening over a few days.  Friends, relatives and significant others just seem to vanish with the people around them having no memory of their existence.  One day, you realize everyone around you has vanished.  You sit in your room, in tears.  You pledge to remember these people, to believe they existed and mattered.  And you hope one day they will return. You hope you won’t be forgotten.

In our text this week, the people of Israel are not in a good place.  This text is being written to a people who have gone through the worst thing possible, at least to them.  Their homeland, Judah or the Southern Kingdom was one of the last places standing during the rise of the Babylonian Empire.  Finally, the Babylonians swept in and invaded.  Jerusalem is destroyed. The temple built by Solomon is brought down. The people were taken far away from their homes to live in Babylon.  They were in a new culture with new gods.  They remember the old days and they also remember how they didn’t follow God. They remember worshipping other gods. They remember treating the poor unjustly.  They know they hurt God. They probably think they deserved this punishment, which of course, they did. They might have wondered if God had forgotten them and moved on.

But then they hear this passage from Jeremiah.  They knew he was the old prophet.  Back in the day he preached that the people repent and no one listened to him.  These days, everyone wished they had.  

People gather around to hear what the old prophet has to say.  He tells the people that one day, they will go back home.  That made people feel good.  Their time in Babylon was more only for a time.  Their memories of a past land that doesn’t exist anymore will no longer be memories.  But there was still more Jeremiah had to say.

He tells them that soon he will make a new covenant with the people.  The old covenant was the one made during their journey from Egypt to the homeland.  After years of a broken relationship, God wants to get back together and start a new.  God will make a new covenant, not one that’s written in stone, but written in the hearts of the people.  God was going to transform the people from the inside out.  

Then Jeremiah says something that just blows everyone’s mind.  God will forget the sins of the people.  God had not forgotten God’s people, but the sins of the people would be liked they never existed.  Even when all has vanished in front of them, God is still there remaining faithful.

The people were smiling.  It would be years, decades before the people could come back, but they knew that God had not forgotten them.  God always wanted a relationship with the people of Israel and they were ready to renew the relationship and start over with God.  

When we look at the Bible, we tend to see two sides of God.  We think the Old Testament is filled with stories of an angry god ready to punish people.  We think the New Testament is about a God of love, a God that gives second chances.  But this passage puts a lie to that thinking.  It is in God’s nature to love passionately and to give second, third and fourth chances. Like an addict that falls off the wagon again and again, God is there to transform us into something wonderful.

This passage is about the covenant God establishes with the people of Israel, so it is not our covenant.  But it is a reminder that we live under a gracious covenant as well.  Because of the life, death and resurrection of Christ, God doesn’t remember our sins either.  God works at making us followers by working from the inside out.  We remember how good God is to us and God forgets our sin, making it possible to begin anew.

On this Christ the King Sunday, we are reminded that Jesus is a king, but he is not like other kings.  If we were following the Revised Common Lectionary, which we have done in recent years, today we would read the passages from the passion, those last few hours before Jesus’ death.  The crucifixion is a reminder of the lengths God will go to prove God’s love for us.  In the form a Jesus, a king is willing to lay aside a crown and die for the sake of others.  This is the God we find here in Jeremiah, the one that is willing to start anew to forgive and forget. To restore and to heal.

Next week, many of us won’t be traveling to see Mom and Dad or any other relative.  We have been urged to not travel to see our loved ones because it could cause the coronavirus to spread.  In a year where we feel cut off, it is easy to feel like we have been forgotten.  But what this passage reminds us is that God doesn’t forget us.  Even when we feel alone, we aren’t alone and in this dark time, it can give a sense of hope.

Decades later, the people make their way back to Judah.  After years of abandonment, the cities would be repopulated.  It is with happiness that they realize God didn’t forget them, but God also forgot their sins.  It was a new day.

Photo by Forest Simon on Unsplash

 

Heirs of the Realm – A Lectionary Reflection for Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday (Ephesians 1)

 

 

Ephesians 1:11-23  
New Revised Standard Version

11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you
had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

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                It is Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday. The year-long journey that began with the promise of Advent has come to its conclusion. We’ve heard the stories of Christ’s birth, his baptism, death, and resurrection. Then, after we celebrated his ascension, we waited patiently with the church in Jerusalem for the coming of the Spirit like a mighty wind to empower the body of Christ so that it might embody the Gospel of Jesus in word and deed. The journey culminates with an eschatological celebration of the reign of Christ. We will continue this cycle until the day when the realm of God comes in its fulness.

                The second reading from the lectionary designated for this last Sunday of the liturgical year comes from the first chapter of Ephesians. As to the identity of the author, that has long been disputed. The mainstream scholarly consensus suggests that it is a later document written in the name of Paul. I tend to follow that consensus, though I don’t feel compelled to take a firm position on the question. But, if you’re interested in this question, I will point you to my discussion of the issue in my Participatory Study Guide for Ephesians, (pp. 2-7).

                As for this reading, it closes with a prayer on the part of the author, that asks for wisdom to be given to the readers of the letter, so that they might, with enlightened eyes, know the hope to which God has called them, a hope that brings with it “the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints” (vv. 17-18). The closing words of the prayer affirm the power of God that is at work in Christ because God raised him from the dead and “seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.” With that declaration, we can join in singing “All the power of Jesus’ Name!”

                In this declaration, Paul affirms both the resurrection and the ascension of Jesus.  Now seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly places, Jesus reigns with God, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” Having given dominion to Jesus, God has also “put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the
church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” This is the key to the message of this passage. Jesus has been given authority over the church. He is its head, its source, its ruler. This is an appropriate message for Christ the King Sunday. It is a moment that is summed up by hymns such as “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name!” Yes, “let angels prostrate fall, bring forth the royal diadem, and crown him Lord of all” [Edward Perronet].  We can sing with Isaac Watts “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun does its successive journeys run; his love shall spread from shore to shore till moons shall wax and wane no more.”

                In this word, the church is reminded that it is not just an institution. It is the very body of Christ who reigns with God on high. And as the body of Christ, it is to embody all that is Christ for us. We also receive this word as the church, that we are heirs of Christ. To be in Christ is to be destined to live for Christ’s glory. We needn’t take this in a hard and fast determinist way. The concern of the moment isn’t the destiny of individuals (that’s a very modern concept). The reference here is to the church, the body of Christ. The church is destined to live for Christ’s glory. Not only would we be well served not to read this in an individualistic manner, but we should read it eschatologically. This is meant to be read as a promise, that in the end, all things will belong to God, for there will be a restoration of all things.

                Having been destined for Christ’s glory, we are then told that “In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory” (vv. 13-14). We have been marked with the seal of the promised Spirit of God. This is most likely a reference to baptism, but whether that is true or not, as Karl Barth notes this sealing in the Spirit “brings to mind a contract, which is legally valid by virtue of the seal that the contracting party places on the document”  [The Epistle to the Ephesians, p. 121]. Because God has sealed this contract with the presence of the Spirit, then God guarantees its fulfillment. It is, Barth writes, “as certain as if it were already fulfilled because he is the one who made the promise.” Therefore “the future is already present for those who are sealed with the Spirit, which is why Paul can speak about the future in terms of the present, as he does here” [Barth, p. 122-123].

                Again, we need not be determinist in our reading of the message here. We can receive this word in an open and relational manner, affirming that while the future may be open, God will pursue God’s purpose (not coercively, but persuasively) to its culmination so that the reign of Christ might come in its fullness. Paul writes to the readers of the letter, whether in Ephesus or elsewhere, affirming that they are the first fruits of God’s promise. Thereby, they are heirs of the promise, which in the end is to participate in the restoration of all things, as Christ fills all. While we may not see this reign fully expressed at the moment, we can embrace it in our lives and our ministries. We can be expressions of Christ’s reign in the pursuit of justice and peace in a world torn by hate, greed, tribalism, and more. Therefore, may Jesus reign wherever the sun does shine!

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.