November 24 – This week is not only the end of our “Abiding in the Reign” series, but it is also the end of the Christian year. Next Sunday will be the first Sunday of Advent, and it begins another journey with the church through the life and witness of Jesus the Christ, our Lord and Savior. So, we end with a statement of allegiance to the one who reigns over us. Sometimes called Christ the King Sunday, this day is also referred to as Reign of Christ Sunday. Either way, we declare our ultimate allegiance not to a nation, not to an ideal or dream, but to a person. Our faith in its most basic form is about a relationship with this person Jesus, whom we call Christ, or the Messiah. He is the one who reigns over us, the one in whom we find our identity and our being. When we surrender to Christ, we will find ourselves more completely. When we bow to this Christ, we stand stronger and taller than at any other time, with any other allegiance. This week should be a joyous celebration in the life of the church, a time of thanksgiving and of preparation for what is to come. (See N. Cowan’s worship notes for links to various emphases on this rich day.)
Our lectionary texts provide various ways of approaching this theme of pledging allegiance to the one who reigns. We begin with the Hebrew scriptures and the familiar words of the Prophet Jeremiah. Pastors and leaders in the church should squirm a little bit under these words. Jeremiah says the Lord has harsh words for leaders who don’t lead or, more appropriately, don’t lead in the direction of the one who reigns. The clear message is that while this situation might survive for a time, the destroying and scattering of the people of God, it won’t last forever. God promises to take a personal interest in the matter and to step in and lead in the way that the people, the church, should go. The Lord will raise up new leaders, ones who are willing to pledge allegiance to the one who reigns and not their own inclinations and preferences.
Jeremiah points to a time when a new leader, one who knows what it is to live in allegiance to the reign of God, will come. And we hear these words and can’t help but hear the name of Jesus, who checks all the boxes that Jeremiah draws up. God says, “I myself will gather the remnant.” And as the incarnate one, God enfleshed, Jesus is the one who gathers us. God says, “I will raise up for David a righteous branch, and he shall reign.” And Jesus as the “son of David” reigns in righteousness.
We must be careful to avoid claiming that all Jeremiah was doing was pointing to Jesus, because his writings are too rich and too full to reduce to that simple formula. But on this day, this Reign of Christ day, it is appropriate for us to acknowledge the tradition from which the idea of the Messiah comes and to see in Jesus the fulfillment of that hope.
In the Psalter, we once again find ourselves staying away from the book of Psalms, unless you choose to select the alternate reading and find yourself in Psalm 46, a powerful and appropriate celebration of the one who reigns as well. But if you choose to venture out of the biblical hymnal, this time you’ll find our hymn of praise comes from the Gospel of Luke and the glorious story of God intervening in history to bring the promised salvation and the hope of the people. In this glorious opening chapter of the Gospel, after a very brief introduction, we leap right into the story and have angel proclamations abounding. The proclamation is first to Zechariah, which has a somewhat unfortunate ending, and then to young Mary, which works out a little better. From there, we have a pregnant mother meeting outside of town, and then a glorious song about the activity of God through a single human life. From there, we have the first remarkable birth as old and formerly barren Elizabeth brings forth her son, John. And at last, Zechariah is released from his inability to speak (and frankly can you think of a worse punishment for a preacher than to be unable to speak for nine months?), and he uses his recently loosened tongue to give praise to God for the work being done, despite those who have trouble getting on board. As hymns of praise and allegiance go, this one is pretty good. It reads as a continuation of the promises of Jeremiah and gets specific about the activity of the God to whom we are called to pledge allegiance.
This hymn is picked up in the epistle to powerful effect. Colossians is a letter with some powerful themes and a bit of confusing history. There is here considerable debate as to whether Paul was the author of this letter. The text itself names Timothy as co-author, and some speculate as to whether he was the actual writer just before or after Paul’s death. (See “The Letter to the Colossians” by Andrew Lincoln in The New Interpreters Bible, Volume XI, pp. 577-583, for more on this.) This might not be an important issue for this week’s text, however, because a large section of the epistle reading appears to be an ancient hymn of praise and not original to the author at all. Beginning with verse 15, this is a song of praise that invites us to stand and sing along. The unarguably high Christology of Colossians is in full force in these verses that begin with a blessing and hope to which we might all want to cling in difficult and divisive times.
“May you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints of light.” You can’t help but stand in awe of these words, even as we acknowledge our utter failure to live up to them as individuals and as a body. Patience and joy seem in short supply in our culture and in our church these days. And yet we sing with hope that maybe, in the days to come, as we slide ever more closely into the reign of Christ, we will have endurance and joy. It may seem far off most days, but now and again, we can feel the refreshing breezes of the Spirit and drops of grace that renew. Maybe this is a case of preach it until you have it. The more we sing this song, the more we read these words, the more we just might be able to try to live into the hope that is the reign of Christ.
This reign seems to stagger from the epistolary confidence in our text from the Gospel this week. For this Reign of Christ Sunday or Christ the King Sunday, as many know it, we turn to the harrowing story of Christ’s passion. But we focus on only one moment in the midst of that panorama of suffering and abuse and the ultimate wrestling of the powers of light and of darkness as played out in this moment in world history. This is a moment not without the rampant ugliness, but a glimpse of the light is allowed to shine through. “Today, you will be with me.” Luke’s telling of the Passion story includes a scene no other Gospel records. Two stories— or two words would be a better description. We speak of the seven last sayings of Christ as he was dying on the cross for us; two of them are in our text for this week. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
We’ve come to expect forgiveness from Jesus; that’s what he’s for, we think. And so, we neglect the astounding shock value of this moment as he was being nailed to the cross, humiliated by having his clothing gambled over, mocked by the leaders of the people who were better at name calling than leading, and dying under a sign that read “King of the Jews.” The writer Frederick Buechner suggests that a better understanding of the irony of that crime would be to translate that sign as “Head Jew” (F. Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, Harper and Row, 1973, p.11). It was in that moment that Jesus uttered those words, Luke claims. “Father, forgive them; they don’t have a clue.” And we don’t; too often, we don’t. Our inclination is to walk away from people who don’t have a clue, to move on to someone else. Jesus’ inclination was to die for them.
But it is the second part of this passage that sums up his reign like no other. Enduring the abuse, even from one who was hanging beside him (and doesn’t that sum up this sordid affair so completely?), he then accepted a blessing from the other side and blessed him in return. “Remember me,” the dying thief asked. “Remember me.” Not “redeem me, rescue me, restore me.” But “remember me.” You can’t help but wonder what that thief had in mind in that moment. But whatever it was, surely, he got much more than he dreamed: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
It is important to not skip over “today” to get to “paradise.” It is the latter word that occupies all our attention, causing us to think that what Jesus is really saying is that “as soon as we get through this little bit of unpleasantness, we’ll get to the real good stuff. So, hang in there, friend” (no pun intended). But if, on the other hand, we put the emphasis on “today,” we come out in a very different place. We can parse that word in all sorts of ways, but it really comes down to meaning “right now,” “this present moment.” He was inviting his new friend to join him in this garden of suffering, this moment of glory. It’s all one and the same.
When we speak of the reign of Christ, we usually think of thrones and banners, clouds and angels in retinue. And our Colossians text has that image in spades. But Luke presents a different side of this reign: not thrones and palaces and places high and lifted up, but a wooden cross and a bleeding figure held in place with nails—or a wooden box filled with straw that scratched an infant’s tender skin; a garden of prayer; a table with friends and enemies alike, in a raging storm and under dripping oil poured from a broken flask. “Today you will be with me,” he said. He was; he reigns, exactly where he needs to reign. He reigns where you are, where the broken are, where the hurting and the hungry and forgotten are. He reigns where black men hang from trees by rope; where young girls are stolen away to be playthings used and cast aside; where people question themselves, their sexuality, their purpose, their value. He reigns. And he invites you into this garden. Pledge allegiance to the reign.