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."

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