REIGN OF CHRIST SUNDAY
November 25, 2018
A sermon for the people of God at
Bethesda United Church of Christ, Bethesda, MD
It’s good to be back here, and to give Pastor Dee a week off. I truly enjoy worshipping with you. You might not know that I’ve had opportunity to be in worship with Valerie before… but it’s been a while. And it’s lifted my heart. Thanks, Valerie, and choir for your gift of music to us this morning!
If you’ve read my bio, you know that I’m a Buckeye fan transplanted in Maryland. And I’m sorry-not-sorry about the last two wins… I believe there’s some people who are Terrapin fans and some folks from Ann Arbor in your congregation. It’s deep in my Buckeye DNA to go a little crazed when OSU football is on. My family will testify!
Every team, whether they win or lose has a leader. The trainers, players, fans and coaches all look to the head coach. They cast blame on the head coach when things go badly. They allow for occasional flub ups when things are iffy. They celebrate when things go well. Players who make the game look easy are often called “naturals”. But “naturals” actually give hours to conditioning, practice, study and then fine tuning their skills. There is a tremendous price to be a leader, or a “natural” at anything – and it is important for those of us who are in leadership, or who aspire to be the leader in a sport or a corporate office, make sure that we NOT sacrifice who we are and who God made us to be. The temptation to “win at all costs” is huge.
Like the song Natural1 from Imagine Dragons says,
That’s the price you pay
Leave behind your heartache, cast away
Just another product of today
Rather be the hunter than the prey
And you’re standing on the edge, face up ’cause you’re a Natural…
God asks men and women who are called to be leaders in the Kingdom of God to be above that. To be persons of integrity, not opportunists or power mongers.
So let’s take some time to consider what God asks of us as we participate in the work of the Spirit.
Our text this morning is on a week between the season of Pentecost and Advent. A time for us to take a breath, liturgically speaking, and begin to look ahead to the prophets and the Gospel stories proclaiming the birth of Christ and the return of Christ.
Israel’s King: David
Our text centers of these words of David, in his last days, speaking from his experience as king over Israel. While David was called “a man after God’s own heart” by the prophet Samuel, we know he was a flawed human being.
• David was attacked by his enemies yet believed in God’s deliverance
• He was driven by his desires yet acknowledged his sins of adultery, murder and enmity within his own house.
• He was humbled by his failures and accepting of God’s judgement
• Despite all this – David was still trusting in God at the end of his life – believing in the “everlasting covenant” – a prophetic arrow in the future of the coming Messiah
David the human being engaged in a practice many have participated in over the years: giving words of blessing and reflection. There is a sense of completion to his reign and his awareness that it all came from God.
There is no self-aggrandizement. There is no legacy-building. There is a profound prophetic word from God through God’s servant David to God’s nation. We know from our study of the text at other times that David’s to-do list was not completed. God did not allow David to be the one to build the Temple. Though his motives were pure, the prophet Nathan told him that God would not allow him to build the Temple. God’s plan was for Solomon, David’s son, to build the Temple.
Humanly speaking, it must have been difficult.
Imagine your “dream job”, your “capstone project” that you have worked your entire life to complete. And just as you begin those final plans, God makes it clear to you, saying, “no, this will be the task of that young intern you’ve been mentoring.” I call these moments “holy no’s.”
I’ve had “holy no’s” in my life. They were almost soul-crushing. I would cry and whine and beg God for a different answer. And if I did not believe in God’s goodness and love for me, they would have led me to despair. It’s only now — looking back on those “no’s” that I can say “thank you.” God’s goodness and kindness shines through.
David’s response is one of faith. He may have asked God “why?” but— then David responded in praise and worship. He spent the rest of his rule trying to listen and follow God. Time after time, David failed. Time after time, he was chastised and restored in grace and relationship. David was God’s leader for that time.
What is God’s Leader really like? From our text, we hear God’s leader described as one who “rules in the fear of God.”
God’s Leader: In the fear of God
3b One who rules over people justly,
ruling in the fear of God,
4 is like the light of morning,
like the sun rising on a cloudless morning,
gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.
5a Is not my house like this with God?
For he has made with me an everlasting covenant,
ordered in all things and secure. (2 Samuel 23, NRSV)
In these lines of poetry, this portrays a leader who is known to be like the God she or he serves: God the just, the strong, the beautiful, the provider, the protector, the unchanging. The words in verse 4 suggest that this is a restorative leader, a shepherd of the sheep who leads them in these luscious, green pastures.
This is a leader who promotes justice for the people. Egypt was well-known in the collective memories of the Jewish people. They remembered life under Pharaoh.
This reminds me that, like many groups within our society, there is a deep-seated memory of racism and violence, of prejudice and anti-semitism. There are classes of people who have experienced inexcusable discrimination. A leader who promotes justice needs a long-term memory of the ways that humanity has failed in exercising power in the past.
A leader who has a heart for God is someone who has deep reverence, worship, and obedience. Again, the memories of the Jewish people would recall stories of what would happen when they were following God’s leaders. In the book of Exodus, the people of God saw the provision of God in manna – but only when they took just enough. They remembered what happened to their enemies. They saw the power of obedience, and the swift and certain judgment of the defiant.
We who live in a democracy, not a monarchy, may enjoy the pomp and circumstance of royal weddings and processions. If we travel to London, we stand in line and wait to watch “the changing of the guard” at Buckinham Palace. But there’s something about authoritarian leaders that makes us squirm. It can take us out of our comfort zone.
• Because who “deserves” to lead?
• And if God’s leader is in place, what does God’s Kingdom really look like?
Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary in St. Paul writes about “The True Kingdom” on the Working Preacher blog:
The kingdoms of this world bank on sowing suspicion and authorizing autonomy. The kingdoms of this world depend on individualism and everyone for themselves alone. The kingdoms of this world insist that hierarchy will establish successful rule and that a ladder mentality, that keeps people in their proper places, is the mark of achieving and accomplishing leadership.
Not so with the Truth. For Jesus’ Kingdom chooses relationship. Jesus’ Kingdom chooses the perils and predicaments of flesh. Jesus’ Kingdom tells the truth about the Truth — that God so loved the world.
The truth is, we like clear and simple answers, really. We don’t like grey areas. We don’t like it when we think there’s a “fudge factor” that puts one person into a powerful position over another. This is especially true when we do not trust the person in leadership that has the power to pass judgment on us, to tell us when we are off track, not following Christ’s leadership. We don’t like having authority over us who is not trustworthy, who is dictatorial and uncaring.
Christ is not like an earthly ruler, of course. We know this. But in our humanness, we transfer our lack of trust and our skepticism. We forget that in the Reign of Christ, God’s Anointed will rule with justice and equity.
God’s Anointed: Christ Pantocrator
Who is God’s Anointed? In Eastern Orthodox and Catholic circles, one of the titles of Jesus is Christ Pantocrator. Two Greek words were put together to paint the word picture of the might, power and strength of Christ over all.
Pantocrator: pantos (“all”) + kratos (“might, strength, power”)
All-Powerful, Almighty, Ruler of All
To the Orthodox in particular, this image and expression of Christ is not unfamiliar. Iconography depicts Christ in this role of Ruler and Judge, of Christ’s humanity and deity. In the Orthodox icons, Christ is a large, centered, seated figure. The other persons or entities are smaller and limited to the corners of the art. Christ is pre-eminent. The face of Christ is the focal point.
Protestants morphed Christ Pantocrator into a more benevolent “Christ in Majesty” with a figure seated on some throne or dais, surrounded by depictions of the four Gospel writers, or saints and archangels. And as the centuries have wound along, the Church has strayed away from this idea of Christ the ruler, Christ the judge. We are more apt to speak of Christ as our Redeemer, or the Good Shepherd. And he is! I think if you look at the art in church windows in a modern building, you won’t find depictions of Christ as Ruler over all.
Art reflects the culture… what does that say to us? hmmm…
Every time the theme of “The Reign of Christ” is observed in our liturgical calendar, we are faced with a serious question:
Who is Christ to us?
Like the first century Christ followers who faced political pressure, we have to ask ourselves Who is my ruler? Is it Caesar? Is it money? Is it passion? Is it power? Or is it Christ?
The Church is not outside the petty infighting, corruption and scandals that we see in the political realm. The Church has people who want power, who abuse, who bully, and who lie. The Church has people who misuse funds. The Church has people who are racist, ableist, sexist homophobes.
We have to own where we, personally and corporately, fail God and each other. We have to own where we have been polite and silent instead of joining our voices in protest and anger with those who have been disenfranchised. We have to march, pray, speak out and act in ways that demonstrate we know we are part of the problem.
In a few weeks, we will sing carols about the Advent and Birth of the Christ Child. The second verse of Joy to the World by Isaac Watts speaks of this longing for change and for our part in bringing the world closer to the Kingdom of God in our midst:
Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns; let all their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy!
Where is the joy in a world of pollution and greed? It can be increasingly hard to see God at work. The clouds of darkness get in the way. I struggle. I question. I get mad (sometimes) that evil seems to be so strong and the Light of God is so weak.
Songwriter and cultural commentator Leonard Cohen said in his work, “Anthem”2 these words:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how I cope. I look for that crack where the light gets in. Maybe it’s engaging in a creative act that lifts my Spirit. Maybe it’s hearing beautiful music. Maybe it’s doing something for someone less fortunate. Maybe, just maybe, I need to, in the words of poet Wendell Berry, I need to “…lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.”
Can we be the Light that breaks through the world’s darkness?
Can we bear Christ’s Light in our actions and our words?
Can we be
…like the light of morning,
…like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.
Can we shine the Light of the Christ into our world?
Please pray with me:
O Christ, Ruler over all, omnipotent and powerful, and lover of our souls, shine through us. Turn our hearts towards the grander purposes of Christ, of the Kingdom of our Lord, who reigns now and forever.
1 © 2018 KIDinaKORNER/Interscope Records
2 “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen, © 1992, licensed by SME (on behalf of Columbia Records); UBEM, CMRRA, SOLAR Music Rights Management, Sony ATV Publishing, and 9 Music Rights Societies