Sunday, November 24, 2013

Christ the King Sunday Sermon

"Behold, the days are 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."
Jer 23:5

Today is commemorated as Christ the King Sunday. It is a relatively new feast. The Roman Church instituted it around the period of the second Vatican Council, in the mid-twentieth century. The new prayer book of the Episcopal Church picked up on this feast. Historically the Sunday before Advent was known as "Stir up Sunday" based on the words of the traditional collect: "STIR up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded." We stand now at the threshold of the new Church year which begins with Advent. It is appropriate on this Sunday to recognize that Christian people everywhere need some "stirring up", as we enter into the somber season of Advent. Advent of course is a time for reflection on the first Advent or coming of our Lord Jesus, but it is also a time to reflect on his return when he will, in his own words, come like a thief in the night. Advent is also a time to consider what are known as the four last things: death, judgement, hell and heaven. These are somber subjects so as we close the church year we ask God to stir up our wills. It is a beautiful phrase because there are many times when we know what we should do but we just don't feel like it. Call it fatigue or laziness, we have all known this feeling. Our wills need to be stirred up, to do the good which we know we ought to do.

The commemoration of Christ the King also helps us towards preparing for Advent. In Advent, as I said, we think about our Lord's return in power and glory, but as Christians, we believe this return will make manifest that which is already the case. Our Lord Jesus is already raised from the dead so that now we can have new life in him, confident that on the last day those who rest in him, will rise again to eternal life. Our Lord Jesus has already ascended into heaven where he rules and reigns as King. The claim that the risen and ascended Jesus was both Lord and King was one of the primary reasons why the early Christians clashed with the Roman authorities. These Christians had the audacity to say that our Lord Jesus was supreme even over the Ceasars. By faith, we know that our Lord Jesus reigns over every earthly power and authority.

The commemoration of Christ the King is also an apt time for our parish to have Pledge Sunday. King Jesus, like other kings, demands certain things of us his subjects. Like other kings and earthly rulers, he expects obedience, loyalty and tribute. We are to serve this king in all we do or say; we are to follow his commandments; and we are to offer to him a portion of our wealth. But, of course, King Jesus is different than every other king. Earthly kings want their subjects to serve them as slaves. King Jesus wants us to serve him as free men and women, liberated by him from the bondage of fear and sin. Earthly kings expect conformity in speech and action to their laws and commands. King Jesus wants us to say and do the right things, but he also wants to change and renew our hearts. Earthly kings exact taxes that are a burden to their subjects and which are used in part to enrich themselves. King Jesus demands tribute from us so that he can be free us from the love of money, as we recognize that all we have comes from God and that money and material things will not alone make us happy.

This contrast between earthly kings and King Jesus is at the heart of the Old Testament lesson. Jeremiah speaks a word of judgement against the shepherds "who destroy and scatter the sheep" of God's people. In the Ancient Near East, a common metaphor for kings was a shepherd. A good king would tend and care for his people in the same way as a shepherd would care for and protect his flock. Jeremiah is drawing on this metaphor when he condemns the kings as bad shepherds of God's people. When one reads the record of the kings of Israel and Judah, it is largely a record of self-aggrandizement and tyranny. Solomon is remembered for his great wealth, but it becomes very clear through the narrative of 1 Kings that the majesty and glory of his kingdom is funded from the pockets of his people. We are told that one of the major reasons why Israel was split into two kingdoms after Solomon's death was because Solomon's successor refused to hear pleas for a reduction in taxes and tributes. The prophets saw the inadequacy of the kings of Israel and Judah, and they condemned their sins and injustices. The prophets also rightly felt that there must be something more and better when it comes to kings. They spoke of a coming King who in the words of Jeremiah would "execute justice and righteousness in the land." He would not be a tyrant over his people, taxing them for his own enrichment, but would be a merciful and just shepherd who loved and provided for his people. Under this king, God's people would "dwell securely." These prophets were shown, of course, in a shadowy way the coming King of Peace, our Lord Jesus.

It would be great to say that since our Lord's coming that earthly kings and authorities have changed significantly. However, when one reads the records of the kings in the Bible, it does not sound that different from our own day. There are still shepherds in abundance who destroy and scatter, leaders and authorities who are more concerned with promoting and enriching themselves than they are with benefiting the people whom they are called to serve. Our good and beneficent and merciful and just King Jesus still speaks a word of judgement against every earthly power and authority. Whether it is the powers of government, the leaders of the Church, the heads of social institutions like schools and universities, or even the rule of parents over children, King Jesus reveals their inadequacy. In fact, everybody in this room is a leader in some way, and yes, even we are under the judgement of King Jesus as selfish shepherds, and there is only one course of action: repent, acknowledge the true king and pray for his speedy return.  We need to repent, for example, of the ways in which we as parents have disciplined our children for own convenience and not for their benefit, knowing that King Jesus is merciful and forgiving. No matter how powerful and influential we are, we need to acknowledge that we are all subject to a higher authority, the King of kings and Lord of lords. We need finally to pray for his speedy return that we and all God's people might dwell securely in his eternal kingdom. "The Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. Even so, come, Lord Jesus."

Thursday, November 21, 2013

23rd Sunday after Pentecost

"As for these things which you see, the days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down."

Two times in the history of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, it was destroyed. The first was in 586 B.C. by the Babylonians who afterwards took the Jews into exile. The second was in A.D. 70 by the Romans who effectively drove the Jews out of Palestine. After the year 70, the temple would never again be rebuilt even down to our own day. All that remains of the Temple is the Western Wall which was part of the foundation of the second temple. It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of these two destructions of the temple on the development of Jewish and Christian religion. The day on which the temples were destroyed is still commemorated every year by pious Jews. I would guess that about a quarter of the Old Testament deals either directly or indirectly with the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians, while the destruction of the temple by the Romans is foretold or alluded to numerous times in the New Testament. In our Gospel lesson, we have an instance of the latter. Our Lord foretells the destruction of the temple. Looking around at its "noble stones" and "offerings", Jesus remarks that "the days come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another."

Our Lord is say something far more profound than merely a historical note about the future destruction of the temple. Our Lord was reminding his disciples and us that we live in a world of change and decay and death. If you looked at the temple in A.D. 30, it would have been difficult to imagine its destruction. The stones that formed its foundation on the Western Wall are huge blocks that weigh hundreds if not thousands of pounds. Could such a building really be destroyed? It can, and it was. In the same way, there many things in our lives that appear immune to change and decay. They may appear as sturdy as a heavy boulder. They may even seem invincible. When we are in good health and our loved ones are in good health, we often feel this way, but of course, one's health can change in a moment. It's odd in a way that we are surprised when one's health takes a turn for the worse: on one level we know that we cannot live forever in these mortals bodies, and yet sickness often catches us surprised and unprepared. I believe there is a good explanation for this tendency.

Theology teaches that humans have a hunger and capacity for God. We have a God-shaped hole inside of us. God of course is eternal and unchanging. In our broken and sinful state, however, we often look to other things besides God to give us that sense of permanency and stability, like our health or the health of loved ones. Those other things, however, are anything but permanent and stable. Health changes from wholeness to sickness; fortunes change from abundance to loss; the things of this world decay. I had the chance this past week to drive through some sections of rural New Jersey. The next time you drive past an old barn with its siding falling down or an abandoned house with a hole in its roof, consider the fact of how little time it takes for such decay to set it. 50 years, 100 years at max. The things that somehow manage to survive the ravages of time like the pyramids in the Egypt or the Colosseum in Rome, people flock to because they are exceptions to the natural course of things. The fact is one day even these monuments will whither away.

If your happiness is in the things of the world, the things that change, if your trust is in "the noble stones and offerings" of the Temples of this world, this is sure recipe for unhappiness: it is only a matter of time before things fall apart. You might be thinking that this is grim view of reality, but, my friends, it is true accounting of life in this world. So, instead of expecting permanency and stability from the things of this world, we can look to the Rock that is higher than we are, Him in whom there is neither variableness nor shadow of turning. In Him, you can receive all the good things of this world with gratitude for the time that you do have to use and enjoy them. I have a favorite image to illustrate this point. Imagine a piece of your grandmother's china. Everybody probably has some prized piece of porcelain that has come down through the family. The fact is eventually it will break or be lost. Most people either keep that treasured heirloom locked up in a cabinet; they do not use it or enjoy it because they are afraid it will break. They do not want to face the fact, that whoever inherits it may not value it as much as they do. Other people may use the china, but when it chips or breaks they are devastated. The hard truth is that it was only a matter of time. In God, we find the source of everything that is beautiful. He made the world, and all the beauties of nature. He made humans in his image, so that we can create beautiful things after the patterns we see in the world. If we find our true home and happiness in God, then we can use and enjoy that family heirloom without anxiety, knowing that at some point it will break but that is okay because our ultimate joy is not based on it. Like grandmother's china, we have similar anxieties about our children. Some would like to lock them away and shield them from every trouble or evil. Others manage to cut those apron strings, only to be mortified if the young person encounters some exacerbating trial or has a wayward streak. My friends, a wayward streak in your child should not be surprising: your children are after all made in your image. The only true security and protection for our children is to entrust them to God in prayer and with faith.

As we approach the holiday season and the frenzy of consumerism that erupts during this time of year, may we not be deceived into thinking that some object will make us or our children truly happy. May learn to look for the permanency and stability that we so desire not in the things of this world, but in Him who does not change. And may we our hearts learn to seek and pray after God, like the words from one of my favorite hymns: "Swift to its close, ebbs out life's little day, / Earth's joys grow dim, its glories pass away, / Change and decay in all around I see, / O thou who changest not, abide with me."