Proper 29A

November 17, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 25:31-46

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 100

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Ephesians 1:15-23

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

                Today we mark the end of the liturgical year with the celebration of Christ the King/Reign of Christ.  We’ve traced the trajectory of his descent from Advent through Good Friday and his ascent from Easter through Pentecost.  Then we spent many Sundays reflecting on what that great Christ event means for our lives in ordinary time.  Having concluded ordinary time with multiple texts from I Thessalonians that pointed to his Second Coming, we now end with this stirring reminder from Ephesians 1 that the coming Christ is already the reigning Christ.

                The problem with this day is that it just doesn’t seem to be true.  What we can see is evil rising and reigning all over the world—chopping off heads, beating up wives, persecuting members of the church, killing innocent children, bullying other nations.  Anyone who preaches about the present reign of Christ the King must take into account the terrible fact that we cannot see the power of this great King.

    What are God’s people to do when we can’t believe what we say we believe, because what we see with our own two eyes seems to contradict what we believe?  It’s an old problem, and it has an old solution—the one Paul gives in our text.  We pray.  Specifically, says Paul, you should pray that the Spirit of Christ will open “the eyes of your heart,” so that you will have “wisdom” to understand the “revelation” about Christ the King.

    Those words are the main point of Paul’s profound Trinitarian prayer, which asks God to enable us to live the abundant Christian life, growing in knowledge of God, filled with hope, enjoying the riches of salvation, and energized with God’s own power.  Such abundant living depends on the Spirit of wisdom and revelation enlightening the eyes of our hearts, so that we can “see” the truth of what we cannot see, namely, that Christ is indeed the King.  Paul prays that the church will be able to see and know three things: “the hope to which he called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.”

    On Christ the King Sunday our attention is drawn to that last phrase about the power of our King.  To call that power “incomparably great” tempts us to try to compare it to something on earth.  I think of natural powers.  Volcanoes erupting around the earth as I write this remind me of a piece I once read about Mt. Saint Helens.  With power 500 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima that eruption ripped 1,200 feet off the top off a 9,700 foot high peak.  But that was nothing compared to the explosion of Mt. Krakatoa a hundred years earlier.  That mountain exploded with a force equal to 30 hydrogen bombs, which is equal to 30,000 atomic bombs.  Kratakoa was 60 times more powerful than St. Helens.

    We could multiply examples of natural power and humanly created power.  There are immense powers at work in the universe, but they give us only a tiny hint of the power at work behind the universe.  Interestingly, when Paul describes that hidden power that is incomparably great, he does not use examples from nature or from human endeavors.  He uses an example from the long story of God’s intervention in natural events and human history.  “That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms….”   Paul uses four words for power in that sentence, straining the limits of his vocabulary to convey the power that made a crucified criminal into Christ the King.  Almost treating the resurrection and the ascension as one act, Paul says that raising was the greatest display of power the world will ever see, until the apocalyptic unveiling of Christ the King.  Only the power of the Almighty could raise Jesus of Nazareth from criminal to King, from the cross to the throne, from being mocked as “the King of the Jews” to being hailed as “Lord” by every tongue in heaven and on earth, from the depths of hell to the heights of heaven.

    Indeed, says Paul, the risen and ascended Jesus is “at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age, but also in the one to come.”  In an effort to help us see the power of Christ the King, Paul piles up words from his world.  The people of Ephesus knew all about rule and authority.  They lived in the Roman Empire, after all, where the power of Caesar was absolute.  In their city of Ephesus, the name of the goddess Diana could start a riot.  The Christians knew what it was to be ruled by power, under the dominion of a great authority.  With prophetic foresight, Paul looked forward into history and predicted that no name will ever rival the name of Jesus Christ.

    I remember when Time magazine conducted a “Person of the Century” contest as we prepared to leave the 20th century.  Who had the greatest impact on that century?  There was great controversy because names like Hitler were on the list, while many favorites were left off.  Einstein won, by the way.  What most struck me was that the name of Jesus was left off the list, because, said Time, he wasn’t really of that century.  Ah, says Paul, but he is.  He is seated at God’s right hand, now and until he returns.

    In fact, says Paul, reaching the heights of his prayer, “God placed all things under his feet and appointed him as head over everything….”  Paul uses a vivid figure of speech there that every ancient person would immediately recognize.  He is referring to the way a conquering king would force his defeated enemy to lie on the ground, and the king would literally put his foot on his enemy’s neck, as a symbol of complete domination.  God made his entire creation Jesus’ footstool.  He is the head over everything in that way.

    And he uses that power “for the church.”  Years ago, Bette Middler sang a lovely song about God.  Over and over she crooned, “God is watching us, God is watching us, from a distance.”  Not so, says Paul.  It isn’t some generic God; it is Jesus himself.  And Jesus isn’t just watching us; he is ruling all things “for us.”  We are the focus on his love and power as he rules all things.  We are not the hair on the frog, on a bump on the log, in the hole at the bottom of sea (as the old camp song put it), but the bulls-eye of God’s work in the world or, better, the apple of Jesus’ eye.

    Paul’s prayer answers one of the great questions asked by all religions. What is the relationship between God and the world?  Deistic religions say that God is so removed that he isn’t involved with the world at all.  Pantheistic religions see God as so close to the world that God actually is the world.  In Islam Allah is so far above us that all we can do is submit to him in fear.  Buddhism tells us that God is so close that we are all God.  The Gospel of Jesus answers the question not with some philosophical treatise or some theological construct, but with a story, the story that climaxes with the power of God raising a Jew named Jesus “from the grave to the skies.”  In Christ, God is far above us and he is unalterably for us.

    I know that “for us” sounds a bit selfish and arrogant, as in “it’s all about me.” But look at it the way Paul does when he describes the church as “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”  That is a mysterious expression, but the rest of the New Testament suggests what it means.  It means that we are Christ’s complement—not that he is dependent on us, but that he is incomplete without us, as the bridegroom is without the bride, or the vine without the branches, or the shepherd without the sheep, or the head without the body.  Maybe Paul means that we complete Jesus by completing his work.  When he left this earth to resume his place on the throne at the center of the universe, he left a Body behind to complete his work here—not the work of accomplishing redemption, but the work of showing and telling the world about that redemption.  Without a visible Body, no one would ever believe in the invisible King.

    But if we are going to do the King’s work, we must believe in Christ the King.  And that will take prayers like the one Paul prayed 2,000 years ago.  It is a testimony to the power and love the Triune God that the eyes of so many hearts have been opened and that so many knees have bowed and that so many tongues have confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord and King to the glory of God the Father.

    Illustration Idea

    “God has placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything….”  A friend of mine visited St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, one of the most magnificent churches in the world, a church that combines eastern and western Christianity.  When he entered that immense church, it was dark and gloomy.  But then suddenly the lights snapped on, and he gasped.  The entire church was covered with glittering, brightly colored mosaics in a background of lustrous gold.  He said, “I saw the cross on which the suffering Son of God was crucified.  But then my eyes floated up and there high in the dome was the inspiring icon you see in every Eastern Orthodox church, a resplendent Christ, his face shining with authority and peace, looking down, his nail scarred right hand raised in blessing.  The eastern Christians call this picture “Christus Pantocrater, Christ the ruler of all.”

    That’s what Paul wants us to see in this dark and gloomy world where one dictator is followed by another, where the war to end all wars is followed by a dozen more, where destruction and death are everywhere we look.  He wants to snap on the lights, so that we see not just the cross, where our Savior died for our sins, but also Christus Pantocrater, the ruler of all, the head over everything for the church.

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    The Ebola epidemic reminded me of an ominous prediction by Dr. Alexander Thomasz, a leading authority on bacteria that are resistant to treatment by antibiotics and anti-viral medications.  “If you get the infection, you are in the Almighty’s hands.”  He meant that in a negative way.  There will be no medical help.  Only a miracle will help.  What a terrible thing, to be in the hands of the Almighty, to have to rely on God alone!

    Christians know better, but it is often hard to find comfort when we are simply “in the Almighty’s hands.”  That is why it is so important to remember that the almighty hands that hold us bear the very distinct mark of a Roman nail in them.  The Almighty is Christ the King.  And that makes all the difference in the world.