For Nov. 24, 2013: Last Sunday in Pentecost, Year C

The last Sunday in Pentecost is also known as Christ the King Sunday, and the lections for the day reflect this.

The Reading            Jeremiah 23:1-6

The English word “jeremiad” is based on the prophecies of Jeremiah, most of which are bitter denunciations of bad behavior that leads to bad results for Israel. Today’s reading starts out that way, as bad shepherds are called to account—but then, behold: God announces something new.

The Response            Psalm 46

“The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.”

The Epistle            Colossians 1:11-20

In the first century A.D., the little church at Colossae in western Turkey bubbled over with theories about angels and other supernatural powers and with questions about the nature of Jesus. This Sunday’s passage explains in terms that are reminiscent of our Nicene Creed: Jesus is God’s firstborn and God’s champion on our behalf.

The Gospel            Luke 23:33-43

“‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him.”

 

Further thoughts

What does “king” mean, and how does that change when it’s predicated of the Son of God?

That the rights of kingship are easily abused is an article of faith in the US; we vacillate between being skeptical of kinglike figures and adulating them. Sports and entertainment stars loom like kings in terms of the attention they attract and the cultural influence they have. Billionaire owners or executives of big corporations won’t draw thousands to a concert, but they are kingpins or kingmakers whose riches buy them political clout equal to hundreds of thousands. It is prudent to assume that any human with great power can and will do whatever he chooses, whenever he chooses. Thoughtless or even evil acts are not entirely unchallengeable, but we recognize that the process is likely to bring the challenger humiliation and pain and possibly defeat.

Some lore of kingship goes in a very different direction, however. In most of the ancient world, the king was consort of the land itself, personally responsible for it; if his health declined, its health did too, and his individual virtue was embodied in its fertility. The touch of a true king could even heal diseases. This is power exerted to serve, and it is reflected in Jeremiah’s vision of the coming Davidic king as a righteous shepherd of his people. We understand this as real leadership: using the power at one’s disposal to do right.

The epistle depicts Jesus as infinitely more powerful than any earthly king. Because Jesus is also depicted as infinitely more good, he can be expected to do right—but when he seems to fail to intervene in stopping this natural disaster or illness or that madman with a machine gun, we feel devastated and deserted.

Then there’s the vision of kingship that the gospel gives us. Hanging on a cross. In unspeakable humiliation and agony. Verbally and physically abused for being who he can’t help being. Wrongly accused by ignoramuses whose hate-filled faces look unsettlingly like our own. Taking it and taking it, all of it.

Why doesn’t this King teach these wretches a lesson?

Because he is teaching them and us a greater lesson: to love as he loves, not because he makes us but because it’s what the world needs.

And that is what it means to reign as the Son of God.

 

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