Scripture: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Luke 1:68-79
Let us pause for a moment, remembering the words of Paul Fayter that we shared at the beginning of today’s worship service:
Mighty and tender God, voice of the voiceless, power of the powerless: we praise you for your vision of a community of wholeness, a realm of peace, in which all are nourished, in which the stranger is welcomed, the hurting are healed, and the captive set free.
Guide us by your truth and love, until we and all your people make manifestyour reign of justice and compassion.
Today is the last Sunday in the Church year. We begin a New Year next week with the first Sunday in the season of Advent.
Today, we celebrate the end of the church year and anticipate the beginning of a new year together as a community of faith. This is the way of the church – living in the present and yet anticipating, with hope and promise, what we as a people of faith will become in the future.
This last Sunday of the church year is traditionally called “Reign of Christ Sunday” or in some churches “Christ the King Sunday”. I’ll make some comments about what that means to me and some of my own struggles with these titles in a little while.
The reading from Jeremiah that we heard this morning reflects the disdain of the prophet with respect to past kings who have not acted in the best interest of their people. Jeremiah uses the analogy of shepherds whose sole mission is to care for and protect their flock. Shepherds were to do everything in their power to care for the weakest and those who needed the most protection. The kings that Jeremiah was referring to were not good shepherds of their people. They did not act with justice and in ways that were meant to comfort and protect. Jeremiah declares that God is the only true shepherd who cares for all the people. Furthermore, he says that God will empower a new shepherd from the lineage of King David who will reign with righteousness and justice.
Hundreds of years after the time of the prophet, Jeremiah, the Jewish people were still waiting for a king who would free their people from oppressive forces. In the 1st century (C.E.), oppression came in the form of the Roman Imperial Army. The Roman occupation repressed the people through swift and heartless violence. The Jewish people longed for a messiah – a shepherd king that would rise within their ranks. They expected this king to be a forceful military leader who would liberate them. They waited with growing despair. The Roman occupation was fierce and well organized and the people were kept subdued and dispirited. Any hint of subversive rhetoric or organization was quickly crushed. Fear reigned in the land. And then, slowly and quietly there emerged a sign of hope for the people. Many did not recognize what was happening. The Roman army did not seem to be alarmed at first about a simple peasant who roamed the countryside teaching and preaching. What could one person, with no weapons and no army, possibly do that would undermine the Roman Imperial Rule? And so, in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry they ignored him as just another harmless itinerant preacher.
Many of his own people did not pay much attention to Jesus at first. But, there was something appealing and subversive about his teachings. He was a passionate and charismatic teacher and also a gentle and loving healer and companion. He was invitational in his style of leadership—always encouraging others to join him and share his ministry of empowerment. He showed by his words and actions that every person was a child of God. Every person, no matter how religious or social structures defined them, was worthy of respect and compassion. There was power in his teachings; the power of love and faith; the power of marginalized people sharing with each other, turning to God for hope and a sense of peace in the midst of turbulent times.
Jesus often spoke about the Kingdom of God. He pointed to ways of being in right relationship with God, with self, and with others. He told stories using ordinary elements as examples of God’s kingdom coming: a mustard seed—the tiniest of all seeds that grows into a mighty bush which pops up everywhere and cannot be contained; as light that cannot be hidden but rather breaks forth to shine uninhibited in the world; as yeast that bubbles up in surprising and creative ways that spreads and increases in volume.
Jesus’ primary audience were poor and marginalized persons. These people had a keen understanding of the power of king and emperor and the lack of political power of ordinary people. Jesus surprised—even shocked—people when he spoke of a very different kind of kingdom in which God, not Caesar, reigned. The Kingdom of God, as Jesus referred to it, meant the power of God’s transformative love in the world. It meant a realm of egalitarianism and justice where all experience fullness of life. Jesus understood God’s kingdom / God’s reign, as both a present reality as well as not fully realized. Jesus believed that God’s kingdom was present and made visible wherever justice and compassion prevailed. It required that people participate by daring to live differently from the usual religious and societal conventions. Never mind who was rich or poor, Jewish or Samaritan, male or female, servant or free, for these are human constructs. Never mind that Roman soldiers patrolled the land – they could capture the body but not the soul.
I said earlier that I struggle with the concept of Reign of Christ and Christ the King Sunday. What troubles me about these terms is that, in my opinion, they do not reflect Jesus’ life and ministry. Jesus did not seek to be proclaimed as a lord or king that reigns over the people. Always, Jesus proclaimed God and God’s Kingdom. Jesus pointed to God, and God’s reign, and showed people by his words and actions how to participate in this inclusive realm of justice and peace. The people who caught the vision of this alternative way of living followed him and participated in a new and peaceful movement that was centred in living God’s Way. Others who followed later missed what Jesus was pointing to and proclaimed him rather than what Jesus was proclaiming. Theologian, Rudolff Bultmann, described this phenomenon saying that, “the proclaimer became the proclaimed”.
When we gather today in Christian community, I believe we gather with recognition and thanksgiving for God’s presence and with thanksgiving for Jesus’ life and ministry that teaches us so much about living God’s Way of love and justice.
Using a phrase that is familiar with people today I would say that Jesus taught people, then and now, ways of “thinking outside the box”. Jesus challenged people to find creative ways to respond to: sharing their resources; sharing love and compassion; working together to build just and loving communities that reach out to the world around them.
Many years ago I read a book by former minister and author, Robert Fulghum entitled, “Maybe, Maybe Not”. One of the anecdotes in the book recalls Fulghum spending some time with a college class. He had them form a circle of chairs – one chair for each person. Then he removed a chair, turned on some music, and told them to find a chair as quickly as possible and sit down. The students immediately recognized the game, Musical Chairs, and took little time getting into the game with the fierce competition this game engenders. They did a few rounds of the game—the circle growing smaller and smaller—the players getting rougher and rougher. Then suddenly, Fulghum, put a stop to the game, moved the chairs out of the way and gathered all the students as a whole again. He asked them to form a tight circle facing the back of the person in front of them. He asked each of them to trust everyone in the group. Waiting for his instruction they were to lower themselves slowly to a sitting position. To their amazement the tightly knit circle supported them and there they sat perfectly balanced. This exercise sparked a lively discussion about: finding creative ways to keep everyone in the game; what happens with diminishing resources and what happens when everyone is welcomed to work together and participate for the good of the whole group.
This is the kind of creative and inclusive approach that I believe is necessary in communities of faith today. We need to keep exploring ways of working cooperatively together and with others in the wider community.
Jeremiah says, “The days are surely coming”, and when I think of this I know that I have seen glimpses of God’s reign within communities of faith that struggle to understand and embrace Jesus’ teachings and ministry. I have seen glimpses of God’s kingdom in this community of faith as we strive to work together for the good of not just our church family but also the wider community. Working for the realization of God’s commonwealth is hard work which requires persistence and commitment. Through it all, God is with us in our attempts to create and sustain a just, compassionate and inclusive community. God’s reign exists where people of goodwill everywhere believe it and live it.
I’ll close with an excerpt from the book, Guerrilas of Grace by Ted Loder:
…We praise you that out of the turbulence of our lives, a kingdom is coming, is being shaped even now out of our slivers of loving, our bits of trusting, our sprigs of hoping… that out of our songs and struggles, out of our griefs and triumphs, we are gathered up…
We praise you that you turn us loose to go with you to the edge of now and maybe, to welcome the new, to see our possibilities, to accept our limits, and yet begin living to the limit of passion and compassion until released by joy we uncurl to other people and to your Kingdom coming…
May it be so, this day and always.