November 17, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Why don’t we pay more attention to life as we live it? Why do we miss so much? In Matthew 25 both groups, sheep and goats alike, say they didn’t realize that the poor of the world represented Jesus.
Both missed that connection.
Ever noticed that before? The righteous are not commended for spying Jesus in the poor, the hungry, the prisoners. They didn’t. They just treated all such folks with love.
But if so, then suppose that those who had failed to do ministry were to ask the King a counter-question. First they ask, “When did we brush you aside, Lord?” and the Lord replies, “You did it every time you brushed them aside.” But suppose these folks countered by asking, “Well, how were we supposed to know that? If we had known it had been you all along, Lord, why by jiggers we would’ve acted differently!”
Couldn’t the wicked say something like, “Well, dear Lord, why didn’t you tell us it was you all along? We would have done things different if we had known.” What might the Lord’s response to that be? (Sometimes you hear this from people who went to high school or college with someone who went on to become President of the United States—“If I had known that was going to happen, I’d’ve been his friend!!”)
“If we had known it was you, Lord . . .” the goats want to say. “Why didn’t you just say something!?”
If they asked that, maybe the reply would be along the lines of this: “You didn’t have to know it was me all along–the righteous didn’t either. It should have been enough to realize no more than that this other person was a human being created in the very image of God! If you had known no more than that (and you did!), that would have been enough. You didn’t need to know it was me. Had you simply acknowledged their humanity, their God-likeness, you would have been led to do the right thing.”
Just here is perhaps as much our challenge as anyone else’s in this world. Can we see the true humanity, the image of God, in the needy people of this world? Do we take care to remind ourselves of that fundamental, basic identity of the poor and the marginalized? It seems that too often we are content to talk in generalities–in broad strokes that conveniently lets human specificity fall away . We lump problems and people together: the homeless, the welfare class, welfare queens, the Third World, the mentally ill, the unemployed. There is scarcely a human face to be seen in any of those broad categories. (Or worse, there is at best the caricature of a face to stand in for the whole group. It’s like punching up “the poor” on Google Images—you’ll see lots of typical pictures of the category but no one whose name you’ll ever know, whose story you’ll ever hear.)
We summarily size up, categorize, characterize, and sometimes dismiss literally millions of people via a blanket label. We reduce all the homeless or all the unemployed to one basic sub-heading. We assume every person in a given category is more-or-less the same. But can we put a name or a face with anyone who actually lives in one of those segments of life? Or are we content with acknowledging no more than that this or that problem area of life exists? And if so, might it be the case for me and for many of us that we sooner or later start to forget that the people who are homeless really are people, God’s very image among us?
Someone once suggested that it would be a good spiritual discipline for all of us to go to a place like O’Hare Airport in Chicago or Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta (two of the busiest airports in the world), sit down somewhere, and just watch the people go by. You maybe know up front what you’ll see: you’ll spy the harried mom with three little kids under the age of 6. Two of the kids are hollering or begging to stop at the McDonalds even as the mom is snapping in anger and maybe even being a bit profane. You’ll spy the rather obese person who lumbers along the concourse short-of-breath. You’ll see the more well-to-do person waiting in a gate area, impeccably dressed and reading something off his iPad. You’ll see a little bit of everything eventually. But in your heart, it would be a good discipline to say of each person, “Jesus died for you.”
Jesus died for him, for her, for that skinny one, for that chunky one; for that stressed-out mom and for that arrogant-looking teenager because each one of them, somewhere under all that exterior stuff, is made in the likeness of Almighty God himself. We dare not reduce them to statistics alone.
The writer Jonathan Kozol, who has devoted much of his career to studying children in places like the South Bronx, says that he is now embarrassed to remember some of the ways by which he himself once talked. Kozol says that he used to march up to Capitol Hill in Washington to advocate for more money for good programs like Headstart. And when he did, he’d say things like, “Every dollar you invest in Headstart today will save the country $6 later on in lower prison costs.” But now, Kozol confesses, he’s ashamed he put it that way: all dollars and cents and bottom lines. Now he says, “Why not invest in them just because they’re babies and they deserve to have some joy in life before they die!?”
We Christians can do better than that: they’re God’s kids, chips off the divine block as surely as any one of us. Kozol also notes that he has run across people on the East Coast who spend upwards of $30,000 per child each year to send the child to an upscale private school. After giving speeches in which he has advocated for our pouring more resources into poor areas of this nation, Kozol has been asked by some of these people if he really thinks spending more money will solve the education problems of the poor. His reply is, “Well, it seems to do the trick for your children, doesn’t it?”
Jesus is not suggesting that we innovate excessively creative programs, that we do the social equivalent of a circus high-wire act or that we perform miracles. He simply asks us to see God (and by extension, Jesus) in the people around us. And so perhaps it would be a useful exercise for us to try, as often as we can, to say an actual person’s name whenever we are dealing with broad categories of social problems (as inevitably we will do).
If we take Matthew 25 seriously and more-or-less at face value, then we cannot help but be reminded of the famous line from St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words.” We know that we are saved by grace, and not by what we do. The Jesus who speaks in Matthew 25 knows that, of course. It is his gospel, after all! But he seems to know also that the faith and the salvation that come from divine grace create new perspectives. Grace opens eyes to see things that we maybe would miss otherwise. Grace begins, already now, to give us a preview of the end of all things.
Grace lets us know that if one day we ask the question, “Lord, when did we see you?” Jesus’ answer will quite probably be, “When not?”
There has been some debate among scholars as to how to interpret Jesus’ reference in Matthew 25 to “the least of these brothers of mine” (vs. 40). The classic interpretation claims that “the least of these” refers to the poor and needy of the world, thus making this a good text for World Hunger Sunday or other services in which a focus on diaconal-like work is front and center.
But some scholars now wonder if the reference to “my brothers” may refer to the disciples (soon to turn into apostles) themselves. Maybe what Jesus is talking about is how the wider (Gentile) world received the disciples when they went forth to proclaim the gospel. If this is the correct reading, then it becomes clear that the ultimate fate of the wider world is determined not in terms of how they treated the generic poor and needy in their midst but more specifically how they received and treated the heralds of the gospel.
Although respected scholars hold to this viewpoint, it seems more likely that the traditional interpretation that relates “the least of these” to anyone who is needy or poor may be the better way to go with this passage. Since the sheep are themselves praised for their kind treatment of the hungry, thirsty, naked, and imprisoned, it seems unlikely that those sheep would at the same time BE the hungry, thirsty, etc. Still, this debate is a good reminder that sometimes our approach to very familiar passages such as this one needs always to be scrutinized. Perhaps there are even ways to glean some possible implications from even the alternative viewpoint sketched above. Maybe we could by extension say that how we treat fellow Christians is also to be a hallmark of our discipleship.
Since the start of the holiday season is now just around the corner, it is likely that at least a few of us will soon watch some or all of the classic holiday movie It’s a Wonderful Life. In the story, a man named George Bailey despairs that his life is so worthless that it would have been better had he never been born at all. In order to prove him wrong, Clarence the guardian angel lets George experience what the world would have been like had the man George Bailey never existed. As most of us know, George discovers that his seemingly humdrum life affected far more people than he could have guessed. A myriad of little, and not-so-little, things that George had done over the course of his lifetime combined to make his hometown of Bedford Falls a better place. George just never realized all the good he had done, and all the bad he had prevented, simply by being alive and by being himself.
A similar point is made in Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Our Town. The play’s central character, Emily, is given a chance, following her death, to view a scene from her past. She is told that it cannot be some obviously important day but should be a fairly ordinary time from her bygone life–indeed, she is told that re-visiting even the least important day of her life would suffice to teach Emily something very important.
Emily chooses to re-visit her 12th birthday, only to discover a vast array of things about that day she had completely forgotten. More than that, however, she is stunned to see how fast life moves and how little she or anyone paid attention to what was happening when it was happening. In the end, Emily cannot bear to watch. “I can’t. I can’t go on,” she cries. “We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed . . . Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?” she asks. The answer is no. Instead, Emily is told, for the vast majority of people, what it means to be alive is “To move about in a cloud of ignorance.”
Emily didn’t realize. George Bailey didn’t realize. They simply were not aware of the larger meaning around them every, every minute of every, every day. A similar phenomenon plays a surprisingly large role in Jesus’ words about the sheep and the goats. Sometimes the most important things we do in life are things that, at the time, we see no real significance in.
Like meeting Jesus in prison, at a food bank, at a homeless shelter . . .
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
If you are searching for things to include under the heading “The Oddities of Scripture,” you likely could do no better than perusing the various chapters of Ezekiel. The book opens with a vision so strange that not a few people in the last century concluded that Ezekiel witnessed a UFO replete with extraterrestrials. (Back in the 1970s I was caught up as a kid in the UFO craze and so remember being intrigued by the “Ezekiel Saw UFOs” headline!)
Elsewhere in this book—in order to convey the various messages God asked him to depict for Israel—Ezekiel performed the following curious actions:
— He dug holes in many of the walls of his house.
–He gave himself a sidewalk haircut.
–He laid down on his couch and remained mute and prostrate for a very long time.
–He built a scale model of the city of Jerusalem (Legos?) and then pretended to lay siege to it.
–He put a big pot of stew on his stove and then proceeded to let it boil and simmer until the whole thing was a burnt mess.
–And at one point his wife died but—at God’s own instruction—Ezekiel did not weep or mourn her and did not put on the attire typical for grieving people.
What’s more, before the book is finished—in the one scene from Ezekiel that most everyone knows—he is brought to a horrific valley of dry bones and then, in that place resembling the grim killing fields of Cambodia or the mass graves of Buchenwald, Ezekiel stands up to preach a sermon. The result of his preaching was even more remarkable than the fact that he preached to the bones at all: in a scene that the special effects folks in Hollywood would surely love to depict, Ezekiel sees a reverse process of decay as organs and sinews and muscles and then skin return, step by step, to every skeleton in the valley.
A most curious book indeed!
And yet nestled about two-thirds of the way into this odd book is one of the most lyric of all Bible passages. It is the Year A Old Testament lection for the “Reign of Christ” Sunday—the last Sunday before Advent begins the church year all over again. As texts that point to Jesus as King go, this one is lovely. In an era when the leaders of Israel did what political leaders the world over have almost always tended to do—namely, take good care of the rich and shove aside the weak and the marginalized—Ezekiel looks ahead to a day when a new Shepherd would come from the line of David and do the exact opposite of what the world does: he’d make extra room for the weak, he’d deal tenderly with the disenfranchised, he’d seek high and low to bring back those who had been scattered for whatever the reason.
This would be a profoundly Good Shepherd whose very presence would bring Psalm 23 to life and then some. He’d be the kind of person who could and would look clean past a whole gaggle of celebrities and “beautiful people” so as to spy the lost and lonely one on the fringes of the crowd. He’d be the kind of person who would not only seek out the marginalized and the disenfranchised but who would be just as much sought out by such lonely and overlooked folks. He would be a magnet for those whom the world shoves aside as losers and ne’r-do-wells and those who are deemed to be of no account.
If we want to celebrate the Reign of Christ, then we must do so by remembering the kind of king Jesus is but also the kind of king he adamantly and repeatedly refused to become. Jesus wanted nothing to do with power, glitz, glamour, or privilege. He did not want a throne as much as a place—any place would do—where he could simply be with the poor, the sad, the sick, the lonely, the misunderstood. And when he was with them, he said things and did things that re-made their whole world. He treated them with a love and a grace that made those who had been of no account suddenly realized they did count. Those who had been lonely found a friend who felt, oddly enough, that he might just be an eternal friend. Losers were made to feel like winners after all and the invisible people whom everyone else routinely overlooked came to realize that Someone did see them, notice them, and was interested even to find out their names and to hear their stories.
That is the kind of Shepherd Ezekiel foresaw, and that same Shepherd is now also the cosmic King of kings. He reigns, he rules, his kingdom knows no bounds and will one day be all in all. But it will be a kingdom unlike any we’ve ever known. Because it won’t have a single lost sheep in it. It won’t have a single invisible or marginalized person, any lonely people, any people who will have even a moment’s cause to wonder whether or not they count.
“I, the LORD, will be their God” Yahweh said to Ezekiel. “I the LORD have spoken.”
Yes, he has. Long live that King!
In the New Testament, whenever Jesus uses the pastoral image of a shepherd for himself—in fulfillment of passages like Ezekiel 34—the point is nearly always the same: as the good shepherd of his sheep, he will risk his life and even temporarily abandon the flock if that’s what it takes to save the one lost sheep. As the true shepherd who loves his sheep, he will let himself be killed rather than see one single sheep harmed. In every image of the flock which Jesus employs it is always clear that as important as the whole flock is, each individual sheep is as important to him as is the larger collective.
But many folks today don’t think that way at all. Instead we hear about giant corporations which do cost-benefit analyses for their products. They calculate how much risk they can get away with in an effort to pad the bottom line by not having to lay out any extra money for additional safeguards. So food companies have been known to let certain products hit the market despite their knowing right up front that there is a slight risk that certain people could well get sick from this food and maybe even die. But if the percentage of people at risk for that is small enough as to be statistically insignificant, then they forge ahead. Politicians often live by polls and so base some pretty big decisions on projected outcomes. Even if some people may be disadvantaged by this or that program cut, if the majority will benefit (and so vote the right way once again at the next election), then those who will be harmed are back-handed aside as statistically irrelevant.
Ours is a world which looks to see how much it can get away with. Ours is a society where the majority rules and the minority had best just learn to live with it. We just don’t love every single sheep near enough. But that is only one-half of our modern-day problem with Jesus as our shepherd. The other difficulty is that in a world of so-called “self-made individuals,” many people are not exactly looking for someone else to lead them around.
Instead, ours is a time where we expect others to meet us where we are. The customer mentality has now taken over everything from college campuses to church sanctuaries. “I want it my way right way (and by the way, I alone will determine what ‘my way’ is.”) Even our concept of a pastor has changed. Of course, the very word “pastor” means “shepherd” but as many observers of the American church scene have noted, pastors today don’t lead so much as they follow. What people want in a pastor today, David Wells claims, is a pollster who holds up two moist fingers to see which way the congregational wind is blowing. He does not take the congregation anywhere but instead goes to where people already are so as to meets their felt needs. What kind of worship service should we have? What kinds of topics need to be addressed in sermons? Well, take a survey and then design liturgies and sermons around the poll results.
So the imagery of shepherds and of sheep, of being led so that we do not scatter out into our own little individual directions: all of this kind of language seems like an echo from another time, another world. It’s a little like what you hear whenever a teenager says he is going to “dial” his friend’s phone number. Because in truth very few people under the age of 18 have ever used a rotary phone that you really do have to dial. To speak of “dialing” a phone is to employ a linguistic anachronism–that phrase is an echo of a bygone world that did not yet know about touch tone phones and digital keypads.
Maybe good shepherds are too. But as the Bible makes everywhere clear: we still need that shepherd. Probably now more than ever.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
For those who worshiped in Reformed or Presbyterian churches, it was a regular part of our worship services: Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise him all creatures here below. Praise him above you heavenly hosts. Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost. We’ve traditionally called this version of Psalm 100 put to music the “Doxology,” coming from a word that simply means “praise.”
The Bible repeatedly challenges God’s children to praise and give thanks to God. It calls us to fall down on our faces, sing, shout, clap our hands, wave branches, blow trumpets, pluck strings and bang cymbals. In fact, the Scriptures challenge worshipers to join God’s whole creation in making a joyful noise to him. In a way we can’t really understand, after all, everything God has made sings its praise to its Creator.
So when God’s people sing the Doxology, we simply join our voices with the planets and the clouds, the rain and the wind, even the mountains and trees. That’s why the Christian poet Wendell Berry can peer at a grove of magnificent trees and write:
Great trees, outspreading and upright, Apostles of the living light, Patient as stars, they build in air, Tier after tier in a timbered choir, Stout leaves upholding weightless grace Of song, a blessing in this place.
Yet according to Psalm 100, we don’t just join the whole creation in its sometimes boisterous praise to God. You and I also profess, “The Lord is God.” Israel’s world worshiped and our contemporary society worships a whole raft of gods. So the question remains, not, “Is there a god,” but “Who is God?”
In our sinfulness, we naturally choose from a veritable buffet of gods. So to worship the “Lord” as God is to make the counter-cultural confession that the One revealed to us in Jesus Christ is the only true God. However, worshipers don’t just thank God for being the one true God. We also thank God for graciously making us God’s own sons and daughters. Because, after all, we profess, “it is he who made us . . . we are his.”
The Lord “made” Israel out of two barren geriatrics, electing, redeeming and ultimately making covenant with her. Christians profess, however, that God also “made” you and me, electing, delivering and making his covenant of grace with us through Jesus Christ. So when we sing the Doxology and recite Psalm 100 we profess that we are not our own makers or bosses. You and I are, instead, the Lord’s creations. We belong to the Lord, as Reformed Christians profess, in body and in soul, in life and in death.
This God mercifully cares for you and me like a shepherd cares for his completely helpless and, frankly, dumb sheep. Or to use a perhaps more familiar analogy, God cares for you and me like a parent cares for her completely dependent newborn. In a culture that fancies itself as independent, those who recite Psalm 100 profess that we’re like sheep that need a shepherd to care for us. In a society that thinks of itself as master of its own destiny, those who sing the Doxology profess that we depend on God to shower all blessings on us.
However, when we stand to sing the Doxology or recite Psalm 100 we also make a fundamental profession about God’s nature. You and I profess that God is “good.” It sounds so simple and general to refer to the Lord as “good.” Some Christians have even created a kind of mantra: “God is good all the time. All the time God is good.”
That’s why it’s helpful to remember that God shows us this goodness in concrete ways. In Psalm 100 you and I profess that God shows us this goodness by loving you and me with an everlasting love. So while our love tends to be conditional, we thank God that God’s love, by contrast, “endures forever.” While our own faithfulness is naturally temporary, we profess that God’s faithfulness “continues through all generations.”
Yet who really thinks about that when we recite Psalm 100’s familiar verses? Who actually thinks about what we’re professing when we sing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow”? Christians sometimes think of Thanksgiving as a time to refocus on whom we should thank for our many blessings. Perhaps, however, it can also be a time when we think about what we’re really saying not only to, but also about God when we give God our thanks.
In a sometimes frantically busy world, Psalm 100 reminds us that we don’t have to, in fact, can’t make it on our own. We live in a culture that demands that we work hard to care for ourselves and those we love. Psalm 100 calms us by reminding us that all blessings flow not from our hard work, but from our heavenly Father.
Yet as John Buchanan notes, those who seemed to have so little reason for being calm wrote many of the biblical commands to thank and praise God. In fact, some of the most powerful expressions of thanks to God come not from those who find it easy to do so, but from those who struggle.
The first winter in New England was terrible for the American pilgrims. They weren’t, after all, well prepared for the weather’s ferocity or the establishing of a new colony’s hard work. More than half of the Pilgrims died that winter in what they called “the starving time” during which leaders rationed to each person just five kernels of corn for each meal.
The next fall, after they’d harvested a successful crop, the pilgrims set aside a day for Thanksgiving. Yet just a few months earlier they’d faced starvation, digging graves in New England’s rocky ground for their children, wives and husbands. So we can only imagine that the pilgrims celebrated that first Thanksgiving with hearts heavy from that grief and trauma.
For many of us Thanksgiving is a happy time where we come together with family members and friends. It’s a time when “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” falls easily from our lips. For others, however, Thanksgiving is far more difficult. Some are enduring some kind of “starving time.” After all, some of us thank and praise God through teeth gritted by loneliness, loss and grief. For hurting people this holiday season may be a time not of calm, but of heightened anxiety.
As we gather for our feasts, you and I remember and pray for those for whom this day and season is difficult. Christians also find ways to try to include the lonely, worried and mourning people in our celebrations. By God’s grace, after all, our hospitality may help God’s hurting sheep enter God’s gates with thanksgiving and God’s courts with praise. Our hospitality may, by God’s Spirit, stimulate God needy people to join us in praising God from whom all blessings flow, even in the midst of pain.
Garrison Keillor calls car ownership in Lake Woebegone “a matter of faith.” Lutherans drive Fords bought from Bunson Motors, the Lutheran car dealers. Catholics drive Chevrolets from Main Garage, that’s owned by the Kruegers, who are Catholic.
The Brethren, being Protestant, also drive Chevys. However, they distinguish themselves from the Lutherans by attaching small Scripture plates to the tops of their license plates. Those Bible passages are written in tiny glass beads so that they show up well at night. The most popular is “The wages of sin is death.” Keillor’s dad’s car had a compass on its dashboard with “I Am the Way” inscribed across its face. Keillor remembers that those words were ”clearly visible in the dark to a girl who might be sitting beside him.”
However, Lake Woebegone’s Church of the Brethren’s real champion is Brother Louie. Keillor calls his four-door Fairlane a “rolling display of Scripture.” After all, Bible passages adorn its license plates, dashboard, sun visors, armrest, floor mats, glove compartment and, yes, even the ashtray.
However, nothing quite matched Brother Louie’s musical car horn that he’d ordered from a company in Indiana that sold custom-made ones. Louie’s horn played — you guessed it — the first eight notes of the Doxology. So he blew it at pedestrians and oncoming traffic. Brother Louie honked the Doxology while passing and sometimes even just for his own pleasure.
“On occasion,” Keillor writes in Lake Woebegone Days, “vexed by a fellow driver, he gave in to wrath and leaned on his horn, only to hear ‘Praise God from whom all blessings flow.’ It calmed him down right away.”
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.
“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.
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.