Sunday, November 21, 2010

Christ the King: Jesus Is Lord!

Many thanks to Kate Huey and the Preaching Peace website for help in putting this sermon together.

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."

Luke 1:68-79

"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."

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.

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. And the people stood by, watching; 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."

This is the Word of the Lord.

For the Christians living in the Roman city of Colossae, the world was more than what a person could see, feel, and touch. The world was a strange and frightening place. Most people in that day believed that the air was thick with unseen spirits, and mere humans ignored them at their peril. The Colossians, as a culture, lived in a kind of constant terror that, if they did not appease these spirits, they left themselves open to poverty, disease, war, and famine.

The citizens of Colossae looked with suspicion and anger at the Christians, who dared to refuse to honor these gods, thus endangering the entire area and everyone in it! Suppose the gods noticed the lack of worship from these Christians? They might kill them all!

So these Colossian Christians endured constant persecutions and hardships. No wonder so many of them wondered, what is Jesus compared to all these angry, spiteful, dangerous gods? When the persecutor’s whip fell and their children’s bellies grumbled from hunger, they looked around and wondered, surely this can’t be all there is. Is this Jesus really more powerful than the gods we worshiped before Epaphras came and told us the Good News? Is there really any point to this Christianity stuff?

After all, to a person living under Roman rule, merely saying the words, “Jesus is Lord” was a seditious act. To say “Jesus is Lord” was to invite insurrection, to work against the established order and societal expectations. To have any king but Caesar was to be a terrorist, a malcontent, an invader. The Colossian Christians knew that Jesus, and not Caesar, was Lord… but it would have been a lot easier to simply give up, burn the incense at the feet of Caesar’s statue, and just get on with life.

It is into this fear, frustration, lack and pain that the writer of Colossians speaks. Yes, Jesus is more: more powerful, more real, more eternal… Jesus is more than a first among equals within a pantheon of every god everyone ever thought to worship or pray to or think about. Jesus is more than Rome, and more than Caesar. Jesus is the one true, lasting and relevant and reliable image of the living God. The Colossian Christians are no longer citizens of that angry and frightened city, no longer despised subjects of a remote and despotic Caesar, but have been brought into the here-and-now of the Kingdom of Christ.

This is a call to see the question of Jesus Christ as not of secondary but primary importance in the lives of his followers – both those in first-century Colossae and in twenty-first century America. The question of who Jesus is cannot be simply something we think about on Sunday morning, or when someone asks us what church we go to, but a question that shapes our whole life. For the early Christians, and for us today, following Jesus changes everything. As Neta Pringle puts it in Feasting on the Word, the writer of the letter to the Colossians says that being a Christian "is not simply a matter of fitting Jesus into our present way of thinking. We are transferred, moved, deported, from one kingdom to another. Nothing is as we have known it."

This Kingdom is so different than anything anyone has ever known, nothing is as it appears. Imagine the thoughts of those who followed Jesus while He walked the roads of Judea, as they stand before the Cross – or cower in fear, far away from it – in the Gospel reading today. All the years and the miles and the miracles and the teachings end up here, on Golgatha, with the one who was supposed to be the Messiah, the One who was to bring the reign of God to earth once and for all, hanging naked and bleeding on a cross. They must have thought, surely this can’t be all there is.

But what really was happening there? Was a really good idea coming to an end at the hands of an oppressive governmental and religious structure? Or was there something more – the redemption of all humankind, the restoration of all that is, all that ever was, and all that ever shall be, into community with a loving Creator?

Could it be that, in Jesus, we are exposed to a new kind of Empire: not one obtained by the edge of the sword, shedding the blood of enemies, but an empire established when the King Himself sheds his blood?

Isn’t it fascinating that, out of everyone there that day, all the soldiers and all the religious leaders and those few followers of Jesus with the guts to stand at the Cross, one guy understood? Not John, not even Jesus’ mother. Not Pilate, not Annas or Caiaphas, no one. Not one person looked at the cross and saw anything but disaster… except a common criminal, a thief, hanging on the cross right next to Jesus. He said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Do you notice what Jesus said? He didn’t say, “Sure, in three days, when I rise from the dead, you and I will dwell together.” He said “Today.” Joining Jesus in paradise had nothing to do with dying. It had nothing to do with being raised from the dead. It had everything to do with seeing beyond the appearances to the truth, that God is victorious in the cross. It has everything to do with the thief’s realization that his own condemnation on the cross bore no relationship to his standing before God. In that moment, he became free. In that moment, he joined Jesus in paradise.

We are called to make that same paradise a reality in this present moment, as Jesus did for the thief on the cross. We are called to point to the reality of Jesus’ kingship in the here and now, not to point to it as some far-off reward for our perseverance. We can see beyond the lies of this world to the world beyond because we see the meaning of the cross.

Today is “Reign of Christ,” or “Christ the King” Sunday. It is a day we traditionally use to particularly emphasize the triumph of Christ, and the reality of the Kingdom of God, both here in our world, and in the world to come. For this congregation, we proclaim our hope in Christ as King for the second time in four days. The Roman Empire has fallen, and while no human reigns over us demanding full control of our existence, insisting on being worshiped as a god, we have a Caesar – his name is “Death.”

So we, as Christians, as residents in this Kingdom of Christ, proclaim faith and fellowship with the reigning Christ even when we face an open grave, and when we say goodbye to a loved one. Because when we say “Jesus is Lord,” when we proclaim Christ as King, we don’t ignore or deny the pain of loss, the fear of the unknown, or the questions which nag at us. Certainly, for the church at Colossae, the persecution didn’t stop simply because the Apostle Paul wrote them a letter. Rather, we say that the reality of the cross is that through Jesus, God reconciled all things. Everything, be it death or doubt or persecution or fear, has been conquered. We choose to remember that the “Kingdom of God” — to which Jesus constantly pointed — is as fully available now and always as it was 2,000 years ago. We choose to live as if the one who reigns is not Caesar, but God. Jesus is Lord, and because of that, in life, in death, in life beyond death, we belong to God.

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