November 14, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
In most every language I have ever studied, it’s a tiny word. In fact, although I am aware of only a few languages amidst the plethora of tongues spoken on this planet, it’s striking to me that in the languages I know, this tiny word is about as tiny as it gets, consisting of just two letters. Si, Se, Ob, Ha, Om, Ei: they all mean our English “If.”
But what a wallop that little word packs.
It’s amazing when we think back on our own lives how often we have done foolish things—or become irrationally upset and angry—just because someone lobbed that little word “if” our direction. How many foolishly dangerous or precarious things didn’t we do as little children just because some other kid on the playground said, “Go ahead if you’re not a scaredy cat, that is!” Even as adults we’ve had our moments of getting our backs up just because someone challenged us by saying, “If you are a real man . . . If you were a modern woman . . . If you really had integrity, then you would . . .”
Jesus began his ministry with the devil in the wilderness challenging him three times, and the way he tried to get under our Lord’s skin was to say “If you are the Son of God, then . . .” Now as the ministry comes to an end on a cross at Skull Hill, the devil uses some surrogates once again to lob this tiny word in Jesus’ direction: “Jump down from there if you are the Son of God! “If you are the king of the Jews, then do something.”
I don’t doubt it was a powerful temptation in the wilderness to give in to the “If” taunts of the devil and I don’t doubt it was powerfully hard to take when that same two-letter taunt came his way while on the cross. Jesus had already asked his Father to forgive them because they did not know what they were doing but it’s possible that what they did not know was the great irony of their taunts.
Because as it turned out, being the Son of God did not mean what everyone else thought it meant: namely, exercising raw power, proving your identity through some razzle-dazzle that would spell the end of pain and suffering for yourself. The truth was that Jesus in one sense gave in to the taunts on the cross—but in so doing he turned those taunts on their head. Being the Son of God meant suffering and dying. Coming down off that cross, inuring himself to harm and injury, would have been a profoundly wrong thing for the Christ, the Son of God, the King of the Jews to do.
The first half of all those “If” clauses were onto something: the reality and identity of the Son of God was about to be revealed and proven. It was the second clause that had it wrong. But who could have seen that coming? Well, obviously the devil himself did. The devil who was behind all those tongue-wagging deriders at the cross knew full well that the actual formula of the day was “If you are the Son of God, prove it by staying right where you are.”
That is what Jesus did, of course, and in so doing he turned not only those taunts on their head, he turned the whole of reality upside-down. And only by shaking things up just that much could Jesus save a world that had long ago convinced itself that up was down and black was white and might made right.
Luke 23 is where we go for “Reign of Christ” or “Christ the King” Sunday in the Year C Lectionary cycle. The cross is a strange place to go the week before we start our annual Advent trek to Bethlehem. But when you think about it, it’s an even stranger place to visit to celebrate the kingly reign of someone. As Neal Plantinga famously said in a sermon some years ago, getting “glorified on a cross” is finally as nonsensical as claiming to be “enthroned on an electric chair.” Such an odd route to glory and power certainly was not on the minds of all those mockers who began so many sentences with “If . . .” that day. But that odd route is God’s route. It was no mistake. It led to the glory of salvation.
Thanks be to Christ Jesus, the King of kings!
Note: Our specific Advent and Christmas Resource page is now available for you to check out sample sermons and other ideas for the Advent Season of 2016. You can view that material here: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/advent-2016/
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
What kingdom? You expect Jesus to say, “Forget it, buddy! Can’t you see that I’m finished, washed up, through?”
But, of course, he says nothing of the kind. Instead he makes a promise: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Even on his best days Jesus did not talk much about paradise–in fact, this is the only place in the entire Bible where the word “paradise” passes Jesus’ lips. Mighty strange moment to mention it for the first time!
The only time Jesus promised paradise to anybody and he’s almost dead! Maybe that’s because Jesus was just then closer to securing paradise for the whole lot of us than ever before. All along he’d tried to make clear that the kingdom is not what you expect: it’s a mustard seed, a treasure hidden, yeast that disappears in the dough.
Above all, Jesus made clear that the kingdom of God is most concerned with the dispossessed, the lost, the last, the least, the downtrodden. So what a perfect moment to make clear one last time that the paradise of God’s kingdom is for those who know they’re dead without it. “Remember me,” the thief rasped out. The truth is that Jesus could never forget one such as this.
As just noted, this is the first and only time in all the gospels when Jesus used that word “paradise.” Why? Why did Jesus skip over the thief’s mention of the kingdom? For that matter, given the sheer volume of times when Jesus himself talked about his kingdom (the word occurs over 40 times in Luke alone and mostly on the lips of Jesus), why would Jesus have NOT engaged in some kingdom-talk at this critical juncture? Since this lection is for “Reign of Christ/Christ the King” Sunday, you’d expect a little more kingdom talk from Jesus himself, wouldn’t you?
Perhaps not. The thief seemed to imagine that he was asking for some salvation, some future home, in the sweet by-and-by to come at some perhaps far-off future time when Jesus fully brought his kingdom to this earth. Jesus’ reply about paradise indicates two things we need to remember:
First, the good news of the gospel and of what Jesus was making possible through the sacrificial death he was undergoing at that very moment is that our hope need not be pinned only to a far-off, remote future time. Those who are “in Christ” (as Paul will go on to refer to it again and again) have a security and a hope that is for right now and not just off on some misty distant shore.
Second, Jesus’ non-engagement with the thief’s kingdom-talk may be yet another indication that for the most part, when Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God in the gospels, he mostly did not mean it in the eschatological sense that the kingdom would exist only by-and-by at the time of the parousia. The kingdom of God is available now, albeit as a hidden reality in this world. Yes, it will fully come and flower and flourish in the eschaton to come but Jesus did not generally want people to be starry-eyed about some future kingdom. He wanted people to live in kingdom ways now by embodying lives of shalom right now, today.
“Remember us when you come into your kingdom,” we sometimes want to say to Jesus. But the gospel is here to tell us that the kingdom is now and in the coming weeks when we return to Bethlehem—Advent is no nostalgia trip to make us remember something that once was but is no more. Advent, like the rest of the Christian life and its kingdom focus, is about the here, the now, and also the forever after.
Old Testament concepts of the afterlife are notoriously hard to nail down in that there appears to have been a little bit of diffuse thinking on this subject. Many Christians naively overlay the Old Testament with “pop” notions about a simple dichotomy between heaven and hell (good people go straight to God when they die, bad people go straight to the “other place”). But that is indeed naïve as the Old Testament resists easy systematizing into a consistent post-mortem schema of what happens to people after they die. At best it can be observed that Jewish ideas on the afterlife developed and were refined over time.
In the case of the word “paradise,” which occurs in the gospels only once right in this lection of Luke 23:43, the word generally had three referents: the original “Paradise” of the prelapsarian Garden of Eden, the intermediate “Paradise” which was a kind of pleasant waiting area for the redeemed prior to the final resurrection of the dead (in contradistinction to Hades/Sheol, which was a rather dank and unpleasant holding cell for the dead), and the ultimate or final “Paradise” that would be the fullness of “heaven” or of God’s new kingdom. In Luke 23, it is all-but certain that Jesus was using this word in its second sense of the intermediate abode of the faithful.
Some while back I was taking a walk through a neighborhood near where I work and I witnessed something that we’ve all seen and even participated in at one time or another. In a corner of a fenced-in backyard, four children between the ages of 4-6 were playing. And in the 45 seconds or so during which I could observe them, it was clear that one little girl was calling the shots. “OK, Billy, you stand over there and you have to watch for wild animals. Jill, you have to sit behind me and get me things when I need them. Eric, your job is to . . .” Again, we’ve seen this scene before. And we know what it means. In that little backyard this little girl was establishing her kingdom. And she was the kingdom’s Sovereign.
In his fine book The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard claims that we all have our little kingdoms in life. A kingdom, Willard says, is any area of life where my will and my desires determine what happens and what does not happen. “A man’s house is his castle,” the old, rather sexist, adage says. And indeed, in our homes, at our places of work, we all have little spheres of influence, little patches of this earth where we make a kingdom for ourselves, where we try to arrange things so that what we say, what we think, what we believe determines the shape of life.
The kingdom of God is where God’s desires, God’s dreams for this creation, God’s will and God’s intentions rule. The kingdom of God is where the shape of life mirrors God’s design for life.
As Willard writes, the kingdom is real and it is real now. We can see it, right now, today. The kingdom is present wherever people pray the way Jesus taught us to pray. The kingdom is present wherever Jesus nurtures certain behaviors and lifestyles that we call the fruit of the Spirit. The kingdom is present wherever people pour water over the heads of babies or take bread and wine to their lips all simply because Jesus told us that this is the way we are to act in remembrance of him.
The kingdom is present wherever a believer somewhere refuses to go along with some scheme because she believes it is untruthful and that going along with it would make her less transparent to Jesus. Whenever and wherever a woman says no to abortion, whenever and wherever a college student refuses to participate in some binge-drinking party, whenever and wherever someone refuses to cut corners on his taxes, whenever and wherever a kindly old woman brings light into a neighbor’s darkness by speaking a word of peace, whenever and wherever a man sits down to tutor a homeless child, and whenever and wherever all such things are done because all these people believe there is a cosmic Lord named Jesus, then there–right there and right here and right now–the kingdom of God is present because the effective will of Jesus is calling the shots.
When the Son of God came to this earth, he announced the arrival of the kingdom. It’s not pie-in-the-sky and far off in the future. It is now.
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Thanks be to God, he has remembered each one of us and we are in his kingdom, now. Today.
Author: Doug Bratt
Because Jeremiah 23 is about leadership, Americans may not have to squint very hard to see parallels between it and their current political situation. Having survived a bruising presidential campaign, they (as well as citizens of all nations) may even be ready to hear the gospel that God embeds in this text.
Jeremiah 23 begins with an ominous “Woe!” Keith Murphy points out that it’s the kind of language mourners used. David Petersen says, “If an oracle began with a woe, then the prophet seemed to be saying that someone or some group was as good as dead.”
Jeremiah focuses such sad language, of course, on Israel’s “shepherds.” Yet while most shepherds tended flocks of sheep, the shepherds about whom the prophet writes are primarily Judah’s kings and other leaders. Shepherds were supposed to protect and feed their flocks, keep peace within them, defend them against attackers, search for sheep who’d left the flock and rescue sheep that were in danger. They were, in other words, to promote the well-being of those whom they were charged with caring for.
God expected God’s people’s kings to care for God’s people in similar ways. Yet instead of holding them together, these kings, God accuses them in our text, have scattered and destroyed God’s people. In all likelihood, writes Elna Solvang, these shepherds include Shallum/Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Coniah/Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah.
Scholars note there’s word play involved in verse 2b. Because Israel’s shepherds have failed, says the prophet there, to “bestow care on,” literally “attend to” (peqad) their sheep, God will “bestow punishment,” literally “attend to” (poqed) to them. Because, in other words, Israel’s shepherds have failed to pay positive attention to their people, God will pay a kind of negative attention to those leaders. They are as good as dead.
Those shepherds have, after all, according to verse 2, “scattered … and driven away” the flock that is God’s Israelite people. Instead of looking back, this seems to anticipate King Nebuchadnezzar driving the Israelites into exile in 597 and 587 BCE.
Yet in verse 3 God seems to add an interesting twist to the source of that scattering. There, after all, God seems to take some credit for having driven Israel into exile. This at least implies that Israel’s “scattering,” her exile, is actually God’s punishment for her rebellion. God’s using wicked people, including Israel and Babylon’s leaders, to carry out God’s purposes and plans.
While the 21st century has few monarchs who wield much real authority anymore, its shepherd-leaders are no less flawed than 6th century BCE Israel’s. As a result, those who preach and teach Jeremiah 23 may want to quickly jump to examples of the way our political leaders have exercised poor and even harmful leadership.
Yet it’s even more appropriate for us to begin by admitting that about our colleagues and ourselves as well. Religious leaders, including Christian ones, must admit we’ve not always properly cared for those for whom God has called us to serve. Perhaps Jeremiah 23’s preachers and teachers can even be publicly honest about the scattering affect some of our own words and actions have had on the people whom we shepherd.
But, of course, all leaders share some responsibility for the well-being of those we lead. Leaders of democratic governments and societies bear some responsibility for the people they lead. Even members of the church bear some responsibility for our neighbors, both within and outside the church.
Jeremiah 23 reminds us that God takes such leadership responsibilities very seriously. Where we’ve failed to attend to those whom God expects us to attend to, we deserve nothing less than what God gave Israel’s leaders. Where we’ve failed to care for those under our charge, we deserve punishment. Where we’ve scattered rather than united people, we’ve made God angry.
And yet God does not leave either God’s shepherds or sheep without hope. In verses 4 and following, God promises to do for God’s Israelite people what their shepherd-leaders have failed to do for them. First, God promises in verse 3 to be Israel’s shepherd. “I myself (italics added),” God says there, “will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number.”
Of course, her shepherds have mistreated Israel so badly that only a “remnant” remains to be gathered. Yet God promises to bring that remnant home where it will, in Genesis’ language, live out its creational mandate to be fruitful and multiply.
Once God has done that, God promises in a perhaps surprising twist to raise up “shepherds over them who will tend” (4) God’s flock. This suggests God will somehow restore Israel’s monarchy. These kings will so fulfill their shepherding tasks that their people will no longer be afraid, disappointed or even scattered.
Of course, one problem with that glorious promise is that God didn’t seem to keep it. After all, not long after Jeremiah made these lavish promises, Israel became occupied territory again. Zedekiah became Judah’s last king. Israel largely essentially disappeared as any kind of national entity.
Yet while this remains puzzling to those who read it 2,500 years later, the end of Jeremiah 23 is less puzzling. It, in fact, proclaims boundless hope. “The days are coming,” says the Lord in verses 5 and 6, “When I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. In his days, Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteousness.”
This coming king, insists the prophet, will be a descendant of King David. Instead of failing to attend to the sheep God gives him, he will wisely promote and execute justice and righteousness in the land. What’s more, this coming king, “the Lord,” Israel’s “righteousness will protect and rule both Judah and Israel.
This describes something for which so many, perhaps especially Jewish people, still deeply and sometimes desperately long. In fact, elements of this text make up part of Jewish expectations of who the coming Messiah will be and what he will do.
Yet Christians do believe a better King has already come. It’s just that, as my colleague Scott Hoezee wrote in an earlier posting on this text, “he came in diapers and ended up being glorified on a cross … Both the king and the kingdom he established were of a different nature than what David and Solomon had established but at the end of the cosmic day, its glory did (and does) outstrip the gilded buildings of stone and cedar.”
It is that leadership that invites all leaders, but perhaps especially Christian ones, to exercise leadership that imitates Christ’s. The Holy Spirit, after all, fully equips us to lead in ways that encourage and enable those for whom we care to be fruitful and increase in number. The Spirit empowers us to tend to our various “flocks” in ways that allows them to not fear, but be at peace. That Spirit also equips God’s adopted sons and daughters to lead in ways that are just and right.
In her fascinating book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin says Abraham Lincoln’s greatness as a leader partly consisted in his knowledge of ways to reduce sadness and stress — not only in himself, but also in others. Lincoln was, in other words, a good “shepherd” of the people he lead.
“Time and again,” Goodwin writes on page xvii, “he was the one who dispelled his colleagues’ anxiety and sustained their spirits with his gift for storytelling and his life-affirming sense of humor. When resentment and contention threatened to destroy his administration, he refused to be provoked by petty grievances, to submit to jealousy, or to brood over perceived slights.”
Author: Stan Mast
These are auspicious days in my country. We’re less than two weeks downwind from our elections and we know now who our next President will be and what our new Congress will look like. During this coming week, we will pause as a nation to give thanks for the blessings we have received from God, though not all our citizens will acknowledge that God is the source of our blessings. Even fewer of my compatriots will know what I mean when I say that this Sunday is an auspicious day in the life of the church.
Today we come to the end of the liturgical year. It ends not with a whimper, but with a bang, because today is the celebration of Christ the King. We began this church year with our Advent observances, in which we looked forward to the coming of the new born King. Then we followed him to his death on the cross as the “King of the Jews,” celebrated his re-coronation in his resurrection and ascension, and rejoiced in his regal outpouring of his Spirit on Pentecost. In the season after Pentecost, Ordinary Time, we focused on what it means to follow the King in a world that does not acknowledge him. Now today, we rejoice in the fact that he is King of Kings, even if our world does not seem to be under his control.
At first glance, Psalm 46 might seem a slightly peculiar choice for such a celebrative day. I mean, after the high praise commanded and modeled in our reading for last week (Psalm 98), we might expect a Psalm filled with even higher praise on this auspicious day. Instead, Psalm 46 plunges us back into a world in disarray, filled with chaos in nature and conflict among the nations. How can a Psalm so filled with trouble help us celebrate the reign of Christ over the whole world?
Upon closer examination, Psalm 46 is a perfect choice, precisely because it speaks so accurately of the world in which we live and claims with great power that the Lord is King of this very world. Psalm 46 is very honest about the two major sources of dangers in our world—nature out of control and the nations in bloody conflict. With almost daily news about earthquakes destroying cities around the world and hurricanes whipping the oceans into a fury, we can relate to verses 2 and 3 all too well. But the Psalmist is talking about more than the occasional natural disaster or even the environmental cataclysm predicted by so many scientists. He is describing the utter collapse of the continents into the sea, the return of the primeval chaos described so ominously in Genesis 1:2, the shaking of the natural foundations on which our lives absolutely depend, that is, the unmaking of the earth.
In verse 6 the Psalmist turns the camera on the turmoil caused by national upheavals. “Nations are in uproar,” he says, using the very same word that describes the raging of the waters as they “roar and foam.” And “kingdoms fall” or totter, repeating the word used in verse 3 to describe the quaking of the mountains. It is a world filled with wars and rumors of war, with desolate battlefields strewn with the modern equivalent of swords and spears and shields (verses 8 and 9). Could there be a more accurate description of the political instability and military escalations of the 21st Century?
It is against such a backdrop that Psalm 46 announces the reign of God, and I’m glad for that. The writer was not some dreamer looking at the world through rose colored glasses. These are the words of a realist who had a clear eyed perspective on the trouble in the world. So when he says that God is King, we know that his confession is not a denial of the reality that everyone can see. It is the proclamation of a higher reality that can be seen only by faith.
Here’s the way he talks about Christ the King (to use our Christian language). “God is our refuge and our strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” As we’ve just seen, he does not deny the trouble. Instead, he affirms that in the midst of the trouble, we have a refuge and a source of strength unknown to those who don’t know the true God. He repeats this confession two more times in slightly different form. “The Lord Almighty is with us, the God of Jacob is our fortress (verses 7 and 11).” Note that “God” has become “Lord” or Yahweh (a reminder of the covenant). And given all the talk of war in the context, it is not surprising that the author describes Yahweh as “Almighty,” which could be translated “Warrior.” He ties those two ideas of covenant and warrior together with the confession that “the God of Jacob is our fortress.”
At this point in his reign, The King has not yet stilled the chaotic forces of nature completely and he has not brought universal peace to the earth, though he will when he is exalted among the nations throughout the earth. For now, what the King provides to his subjects is his presence with us– not just as a pleasant friend, but as a powerful Warrior, an impregnable Fortress and a safe Refuge. In a dangerous world, the children of the King are not alone and defenseless. We are kept safe and secure.
That confession will not seem true to some of your listeners, and maybe not to you either. Too many terrible things happen to Christians all over the world. So what shall we say about the difficulties and dangers that are all too real to us? Well, we can talk about the church as “the city of God (verse 4).” Now, undoubtedly, that was originally a reference to Jerusalem, that geographical location where God chose to dwell in a special way in Old Testament times. “God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day (when enemies normally chose to attack).”
Some of my readers believe that Jerusalem is still central to God’s saving plan, but I believe that the church has replaced Israel as the focus of God’s saving work (think of Augustine’s City of God) and Jesus has replaced the temple as the “place” where God dwells in a special way. As Mays puts it, “The Psalm does not invite trust in a place, but in a Presence who wills to dwell with his people.” (Cf. John 1:14) The words of verses 4 and 5, then, offer a wonderful pair of comforts to God’s people in the world. First, God will be with us in the future. That is, when we think we are about to fall, “God will help us at break of day.” At the just the right time, when the enemy is about to attack with deadly force and we think all is lost, God will help and we will not fall.
But here’s the second comfort that comes from God’s presence with us. We don’t have to wait for God to help in some distant future, because “there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.” Ancient Jerusalem didn’t have a river running through it as other major ancient cities did, and that proved problematic in times of siege and drought. But Psalm 46 isn’t talking about Jerusalem and a physical river; it is talking about the people of God throughout the ages and the river of God’s grace. No matter how hard life may be, God’s grace keeps flowing into our lives like a mighty river, giving us just the blessings we need. So we can be glad, because this river never stops flowing from the throne of grace. (Cf. Rev. 21)
Some of your listeners will be helped by the explanation given above. Others will stumble over the claim that Christ rules this earth because of the problem that arises in verses 8 and 9, the problem of endless war. If Christ the King is the Prince of Peace, how can it be that wars have never ceased to the ends of the earth, a direct contradiction of the claim of verse 9. What are we to make of those verses?
Well, some scholars say that wars are precisely “the works of the Lord” (verse 8a), that God uses war to accomplish his master plan for the world. They suggest that the “desolations he has brought on the earth” refer to such things as the defeat of Assyria and Babylon, the great enemies and captors of Israel. War is one of the ways God rids the world of unrighteousness. Other scholars point to verse 9, which says that the King makes wars cease, destroying the instruments so completely that they can never be used again (“burns the shields with fire”). It is not the will of the King that the inhabitants of earth slaughter each other forever.
It may be that both interpretations are correct. In the interim, as the King rules his subjects with a love that permits free choice, those subjects will do things of which the King disapproves mightily. As King he uses even their misdeeds to accomplish his will for the world. But his ultimate will for his world is that it be at peace completely. So the day will come when he “makes wars cease to the ends of the earth.” Then the Pax Christus will reign.
Psalm 46 calls on the subjects of the King to respond to his reign in two ways. First, do not be afraid, even though there is much to fear from the chaotic forces of nature and the organized might of nations. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear….”
We can calm the fears that naturally arise when we are threatened only if we do what verse 10 calls us to do. “Be still….” In one sense, that command is addressed to a noisy, frantic world. It means something like “enough, stop it, shut up,” the kind of thing a parent might say to a hyperactive toddler or a spouse might say to a hysterical mate. But this command means much more than “be quiet,” though it means at least that. In fact, the word in Hebrew here has the sense of sink or relax. It is used in the Bible to describe what happens to a pile of hay when it is set afire; it sinks down into itself. It describes the sun setting at the end of the day, the wings of a great bird settling in upon its body as it lands, a worker’s hands dropping after the work is completed. It refers to an inner stillness in which we loosen our grip on life, let it go, let it drop, leave it alone, and do nothing.
Oh yes, there is a legitimate place for hard work and skillful speech, for taking care of your own problems and not letting people run over you. But God is saying a very profound thing here. It is only when we are still, with our mouths and in our souls, that we truly and deeply know that “I am God.” I am, not you. I am, not nature. I am, not the nations. I am God.
Yes, the power of men and nations is great, and the temptation of trying to battle it yourself is overwhelming. But “I am God, and I will be exalted among the nations.” Yes, the forces of nature are incredible, and the effort to manage nature is as old as humanity. But “I am God, and I will be exalted in the earth.”
We know all this, and yet we don’t. We know it in our minds on our good days, but not in our hearts, in our emotions, in times of real trouble. Then we churn within, trying to find a solution, looking for the right words, wondering where God is, why the King isn’t acting for his loyal subjects. That’s why God says, “Be still and know that I am God.” We won’t know God, we won’t find the solution, we won’t get the help, until we stop, loosen our grip, let it drop, let it go, leave it alone, and do nothing except let God be God.
These are auspicious times in my nation. Especially during unsettling times of war and terror, we are tempted to place our trust in earthly powers– the military, the politicians, the nations, the academy, even the clergy. But Psalm 46 reminds us on “Christ the King Sunday” that the Lord Almighty, the God of Jacob, Jesus Christ, is our refuge, our strength, our fortress. Therefore we will not be afraid.
I was looking over some old notes of mine as I prepared this sermon starter. Can you relate to the kind of day my wife and I had back when I made note of it? She left the house at 6:45 AM to teach; I left at 7:45 to go to church. She taught until 2:20, then had to be at Calvin College by 2:30 to take a course for her Master’s degree. Then she had a Teacher’s Education meeting at 3:30, and another class at 6:00. I had a meeting at 3:00, then another at 6:00, and 7:30, and 8:30. So we synchronized our watches and met at 5:00 at Arnie’s restaurant on Breton Road for exactly 45 minutes of Riviera salad, muffins, coffee, and talk. It would have been much easier to just skip dinner, but we really wanted to see each other, so we made the effort. Is it any wonder we don’t meet God much in our daily lives, when we don’t make that kind of concerted effort? The famous psychologist, C. G. Jung, once said, “The three great enemies of spirituality are noise, crowds, and busyness.”
Author: Scott Hoezee
Let no preacher be blasé about these verses from Colossians 1. Let no one miss the punch, the power, the sheer wonder of what Paul says here. Those who have long known the fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith could, I suppose, skate over top of these verses altogether too lightly and swiftly without noticing the galactic implications of it all. Paul is lifting up what to most all observers had been an ordinary human being from Palestine and is claiming that he is THEE ONE of the cosmos, the one with all the supremacy, all the power, all the creativity and redemption there ever was or will ever be. He made everything that exists. He has redeemed everything that exists. Everything. Ta panta in the Greek. Everything from A-Z, the whole kit-n-caboodle, top to bottom and every which way.
It’s an outrageous claim, of course, and it brooks no middle ground between being right and wrong. Paul’s claims about Jesus of Nazareth as the Cosmic Christ cannot be just a little right or just a little wrong. It’s either 100% correct and so represents the most sublime truth you’ll ever encounter. Or it’s 100% lunacy, the kind of claim that gets people locked up in psychiatric wards for the rest of their mortal days.
But here’s the thing: the truth Paul is speaking of is not abstract. This is not theoretical. Paul makes clear in verses 11-14 that this has hands-on, practical application for the lives of the Colossian Christians. They have quite literally had a change of spiritual address. They got re-located from a kingdom of darkness and death into a kingdom of light and life. They exchanged a zip code of misery for a new land where this Cosmic Christ is all in all and in which that “all” shines and sparkles with nothing less than the glory of God.
What’s more, it is a place where forgiveness is the coin of the realm, where redemption rescues everyone from what would otherwise be a miserable spiritual fate. Actually, it is very difficult to exaggerate or overstate the sheer beauty of this picture. It’s the children of Narnia arriving at last with Aslan in the New Narnia where every blade of grass seems to mean more, where the most ordinary pear you can eat is so sweet and juicy as to make every pear from the old world look hard and woody by comparison, where the farther in you go, the deeper everything gets. Or it’s Frodo waking up in a sunlit room in Minas Tirith only to see his friend Gandalf returned to him from the dead as the sweetness of new life and new light floods the scene and makes the prior scene of Mordor’s dark terrors and hell fade quickly from mind.
But, of course, there is a bit of a catch to all this: it is available for now only to the eyes of faith. Looking around a crowded shopping mall today, it’s not obvious to our ordinary eyeballs who is dwelling in a kingdom of darkness and who is a citizen of the light. For the Colossians 2,000 years ago and for believers in the 21st century now, the truths of our spiritual status are not visible. Indeed, Christians then and Christians now still pass through lots of dark valleys in this world. Death does not skip over Christian families nor does Alzheimer’s or cancer or dreadful accidents. Christians needs to fix their eyes on the Cosmic Christ who has mastery over everything but they need to do that from the context of a lot of darkness that yet clings to our lives in this still broken world.
Paul knew that too. That’s why this glorious passage opens with a prayer to God to strengthen with endurance the Colossians. There are things we have yet to endure and suffer through in this present world. We need infusions of God’s glory for the present time because without it, we will never maintain our faith, our vision, our hope. We need a few glimmers from the kingdom of light to pierce our present darkness if we are to have any chance to embrace the outrageous—yet glorious—things Paul here asserts.
This is the (sometimes precarious) balancing act Christians have had to perform for millennia now. We don’t call our faith “blind faith” because we really do have the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit that sustains and informs us. We have seen the light of Christ flicker in the eyes of even our dear ones as they die. And yet, neither do we possess the fullness of our faith and what has been promised. We see through a glass darkly, as Paul writes elsewhere, we see the things promised from a considerable distance, as the writer to the Hebrews put it in the landmark 11th chapter of that book.
Yet what we see now, what we can grasp at present, all hinges on the claims Paul makes in Colossians 1. If Jesus is The One who created, redeemed, sustains, and now holds together ta panta, all things and everything, then it’s all true. The kingdom of light into which we have been rescued from this dark world is real and exists right this very moment.
We see this reflected in also the Gospel lection for this Christ the King Sunday when Jesus promises the thief on the cross an entry into Paradise that very day. It’s real, just on the other side of the veil separating this world from Paradise. The fact that, as Paul says at the conclusion of this reading, all this was made possible through a bloody cross just proves that not only is the death and darkness of this world not the undoing of our hope, our hope in fact is strengthened precisely because it emerged from a deadly darkness that was then defeated from the inside out.
Thanks be to God and to Christ the King!
It’s from a work of fiction and fantasy, of course, which may diminish its real-world traction, but in thinking of all this, I could not help but tumble to this scene from The Return of the King. It also captures the tension of a world of death in which our vision for the light must be maintained.