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Restoration after Exile
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 Righteous Branch of David
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.’
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.
The Supremacy of Christ
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.
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.’
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
On the last Sunday of the Christian year, Reign of Christ, there is always a lot that has to be put in. It’s as if you have to mention everything – anything that got left out over the past year, and everything that matters most. There’s a bit of a last chance feeling. The cycle will start again next week with the first Sunday of Advent, as we turn to the promise of a sweet baby in a stable, and the hope that radiated from him. That story of simple beginnings and light in the darkness has a pristine quality to it, a kind of quiet spiritual serenity that seems exactly right for a season of long nights and fallen leaves.
But that’s next week. By contrast, on this final Sunday of the year, the lectionary is extravagant. It paints us a picture that is not pristine at all, but completely over the top. Christ Pantocrator – ruler of all. Traditionally, it was the day to sing about the second coming, and we’ll do that – Christ descending from the clouds with a thousand saints in attendance. In the Bible passage from Jeremiah that Cora read, we see God’s anger at those who have scattered the flock, and the promise of a new gathering in – a new King from the line of David. And in the verses from Colossians that we read responsively, we hear of a cosmic Christ – a mystical being who is before all things and in whom all things hold together. This ancient hymn of the early Christians imagines Christ as the centre and lynchpin of the universe, encompassing all the fullness of God. Our iconography for Reign of Christ – the jewelled crowns and rainbows and rejoicing multitudes – captures the sense of jubilation and inclusiveness. [You can see it in the window]
But the readings stir up complication and trouble too. When the Gospel lesson arrives, it is the story of the crucifixion. Now instead of a new King David, or a cosmic deity, we have the wretchedness of the cross. In this picture, the year ends with Jesus’ death. In the account given in the Gospel of Luke we see Jesus mocked and vulnerable. Even the location has a gruesome name, the place of the Skull. His humiliation is graphic. He is not front and centre, or triumphant, but strung up with two common thieves. The people stand around gawking. A few start gambling for his clothing. First the leaders of the people and then the Roman soldiers laugh at him – save yourself, if you are a Saviour! Save yourself! The notice nailed above his head is sarcastic – King of the Jews. As if. Now the robbers join in too – save yourself, he hears for the third time. And save us, they add plaintively, and then begin to bicker with each other. Through all the yammer, Jesus says little – his preaching and teaching days are over. Instead he prays and consoles. Forgive them for they know not what they do, he prays for his executioners. When the fearful criminal begs, Remember me, Jesus reassures him – today you will be with me in paradise. His ministry, indeed, his life on earth, is completed in a final small gesture of compassion. It’s over.
This panoramic view of the Christian faith is one that we seldom get on a single Sunday. From the promise in Jeremiah to the glory of Colossians to the bitterness of the cross to the splendour of the second coming, it’s all there today. From tiny to grand, from personal to cosmic. A reminder for us, as we gear up for the Advent and Christmas seasons, that there is more to this faith than we may sometimes appreciate. We have inherited a tradition that encompasses richness and variety – sometimes ideas or images that we find a bit crazy, sometimes language or rituals that don’t quite speak to us any more, sometimes priorities and activities that we flat out disagree with. But on this Sunday, we call them to mind. And we remember too the musical traditions, and the paintings, and the spiritual writing and theology – dance, fabric art, sculpture, stained glass, buildings. Such beautiful buildings. The strange practices of monastic living and of pilgrimage to exotic lands, and the many ways of prayer. The Christian faith is a magnificent tapestry, because it’s human to express your faith in many different ways.
But it seems it is also human to opt for something smaller and more manageable. It is quite easy to cram your faith into a very small box, to paint on a very small corner of this big canvas. In the United Church we may be especially prone to it because we are so earnest, so scrupulous. We edit out the terrible parts of the psalms, we side-step when there are stories of miraculous healing, we may cringe at the thought of the second coming. Mostly, we don’t expect God to swoop down and solve our problems. Some people leave out particular bits of the Creed or the Lord’s Prayer. I’ll only affirm what I feel absolutely sure of, I have heard people say. For some people the whole value of the church is its focus on ethics and social justice, the call to love your neighbour. For others the main thing is the sense of community that they find here.
And those are excellent, central aspects of the Christian faith. The social justice insights and movements that the church has fostered have changed the world. It is our faith that informs us when we read the newspaper and when we act in the world. The challenges and pleasures of a community are more important than ever in the fragmented and hurried society we live in. That is exactly why we want to intensify our efforts to offer friendship and care to all those who are part of the congregation, as we introduce our congregational visitors this morning.
But social justice and community are not the whole story of Christian faith. In faith we place ourselves at the edge of a universe that is vast and incomprehensible, watching for a glimpse of truth. We pause at the mystery of human suffering, knowing that it has meaning beyond words. And we say, as Christians, that Jesus of Nazareth is somehow at the centre of this. At the centre of mystery, and at the centre of compassion.
Is he a king? Is he a shepherd? Is he a friend? Is he going to descend from the clouds? Will there be angels? The poet Mary Oliver offers this:
I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
reasons and proofs.
The world I live in and believe in
is wider than that. And anyway,
what’s wrong with Maybe?
You wouldn’t believe what once or
twice I have seen. I’ll just
tell you this:
only if there are angels in your head will you
ever, possibly, see one.
On Reign of Christ Sunday we step back from our certainties, and let the extravagance of our faith flow over us. We consider letting our own paintbrush move farther out from the corner. Consider allowing our faith to paint with all the colours of the rainbow – letting heart and intellect and will and imagination splash together. We are invited to experience all the fullness of faith, all the fullness of life, all the fullness of God. And for this we give thanks.