This is a sermon that I preached this Sunday (11/20/16), at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Luke 1:67-80.
You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
I was raised in the Quaker community, so I didn’t grow up with liturgical seasons. My church growing up was actually more “high church” than most Quaker meetings, if you can believe it. We actually did observe the Advent season to some extent. I remember as a kid we had five candles up front in the sanctuary, and during worship we’d light one for each week of advent. We finally lit the fifth one at our Christmas Eve service. That’s about as intense as our liturgical calendar ever got.
Since I became a Christian as an adult, I’ve really come to appreciate what I would call the “basic” liturgical calendar – all the big holidays that fall between Advent and Pentecost. Observing Lent, Good Friday, Easter – these have all become a meaningful part of my life. They help shape the spiritual rhythm of my year.
Lately I’ve been preaching more frequently here at Washington City Church of the Brethren, and I’ve found the lectionary to be a sort of gateway drug for what I’d call the “advanced” liturgical calendar. The broader church recognizes all sorts of special days and festivals, way beyond what I ever imagined. There’s a special focus, theme, saint, or event to commemorate practically every day of the year. Growing up Quaker, I thought that there were maybe half a dozen Christian holidays. Turns out, there are hundreds!
So, today is a holiday, too. It’s one that I’d never heard of before I looked at the lectionary for this Sunday. This morning, we’re gathered together on the feast day of Christ the King.
But check this out, this is cool. Ordinarily, today is referred to as the feast of Christ the King. But the official name for today is: The Solemnity of our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.
Pretty cool, right?
Today is the last Sunday before the beginning of Advent. Advent is all about preparing ourselves for the arrival of the baby Jesus, the infant King of kings. We’re getting ready to welcome the Word made flesh, who comes to us in weakness and vulnerability yet is the power through whom everything came into being – from the sun in the sky to your breakfast this morning. He came in weakness, but his power is limitless. Though he was willing to die for us, God has raised him up to live and reign forever. This morning, we declare that Jesus is the one true God and sovereign of the universe.
He is our commander and chief. He is our president. He is the reference point for all our thoughts and actions. He is the rightful recipient of our prayers, our hopes, our dreams, and our devotion.
He is powerful leader.
This morning, our scripture reading talks about the huge difference between the leadership of human beings, and this fierce, loving reign of justice that we find in Jesus.
This reading is really well-timed. The limits and pitfalls of human government are about as clear as they’ve ever been in living memory. Our country has been struggling for a long time. And in the last year we’ve watched our society straining under the weight of political divisions, violence committed against black and brown bodies, hatred poured out on immigrants, women, and the LGBT community, and a stubborn refusal to respond to the very real ecological crisis that threatens our future as a people.
There’s never been a time in history when we’ve been in greater need of the kingship of Jesus. There’s never been an Advent season when we should be more ready to hear the good news that Christ is here to govern us in truth, compassion, justice, and wholeness.
On this morning, more than most mornings, we dream of an earth restored. We hear the creation crying out for redemption. We hear the voices of the poor, the oppressed, those who are shoved aside in our society. We hear the reality of our own pain and hopelessness in the face of so much evil. In the face of national leadership that for so many years has shown itself to be blind to the destruction of the creation, and deaf to the cry of the poor.
We need a savior. We need a leader. We need our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.
In our scripture reading this morning, we hear that God is angry at the oppression of his people. Through Jeremiah the prophet, God calls out the ruling classes of Israel, who have posed as shepherds but who in fact are only interested in shearing the sheep and eating their flesh. God is speaking to the evil rulers of ancient Israel, and he is speaking just as clearly to those who rule over us today: The politicians and officials, the celebrities and pundits – an entire system of governance through fear, confusion, and consumerist seduction. God condemns this system, and he promises that he will judge it, upend it, and replace it with the long-awaited reign of God.
Here’s what God says through Jeremiah: “Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock… I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer…”
“The days are surely 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.”
We are in the midst of a national crisis. White supremacy has captured the White House. The constitutional order that has sustained American democracy for centuries is under threat. The very fabric of our society is being called into question.
But we’re not the first ones to experience this kind of upheaval. And we don’t stand alone in the face of these challenges. God has promised to accompany us in these dark days. He has assured us that he will intervene in history to thwart the selfishness and evil of our human leaders. He has promised to raise up a righteous Branch (his name is Jesus).
God has declared that he will be with us, and that he will send us a righteous ruler to govern us, to heal our people and our land. But we can’t just sit back and wait for that to happen. It’s not an accident that we receive this word of encouragement through the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah. There can’t be a kings without prophets. As part of God’s plan to reign in our society, we are called to be his prophets in this generation.
That’s what our second reading this morning is about. Early on in the gospel of Luke, we get introduced to John the Baptist. Actually, we first get introduced to his parents. John’s dad was Zechariah, Israel’s high priest. His mom was named Elizabeth. They were both very old, and had never been able to have children.
Well, one day when Zechariah is ministering before God in the Temple, the angel Gabriel appears to him and tells him that his wife Elizabeth is going to have a son. Zechariah is astonished at this news. Understandably, he expresses a little bit of uncertainty about the idea that he and his elderly wife could possibly bear children. In response to his skepticism, Gabriel tells Zechariah that until his son is born, he will not be able to speak. And so it is. Zechariah comes out of the Temple speechless, and he stays that way for the next nine months.
When the baby is born, there is some discussion about what his name should be. Elizabeth wants to name him John, but all the men of the family think he should be named Zechariah, after his father. When Elizabeth insists on the name John, the men go to Zechariah – who’s still mute – and ask him what name he wants to give the child. Zechariah asks for a writing tablet, and spells it out for them, “His name is John.”
Now the scripture says that after he writes these words, “Immediately his mouth was open and his tongue freed and he began to speak, praising God.” Zechariah must have been really noisy, because it also says that all the neighbors heard it and were frightened. “What then will this child become?” they asked one another. “For indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.”
It’s at this point that Zechariah gives the prophecy that we heard this morning. This birth was a miraculous sign that the reign of God is breaking into history. “He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David.” John would be a prophet of this new order:
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people, by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
We’re sitting in darkness right now. We’re in the shadow of death. We need the dawn to break on us. We need a prophet to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Well, I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news. The good news is, God “has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David.” Jesus is here with us. He’s ready to lead us if we’ll open ourselves to his kingship. If we’ll take on the very real risks that come with being his friends. In times like these, that’s encouraging to me.
Here’s the bad news. If we want to walk in the kingdom of God, the riskiness of discipleship isn’t going to stay theoretical for very long. This journey is going to cost us, just like it cost John.
Most of us know what happened to John. He had an amazing ministry. He touched the lives of thousands. And, just as Zechariah predicted, he was instrumental in preparing a way for the ministry of Jesus, who conquers the world and all its darkness.
John was a prophet. John spoke the word of God. Unabridged and uncut. He didn’t win popularity contests with the rulers. It’s not an accident that he spent his ministry living out in the wilderness beyond the reach of polite society. He was one of the most powerful voices in all of Israel, and yet he lived his life as an outcast.
John was also imprisoned for his witness. He ultimately died for it, when Herod ordered him beheaded. John was a prophet of God, and like so many other prophets before and after him, he paid the ultimate price for his faithful obedience.
The good news is that the reign of God is coming. It’s the power of invincible love that can’t be destroyed. But, as Jesus demonstrated for us, that unstoppable power is revealed in weakness, suffering, and even death. John died in Herod’s dungeon. Jesus was put to death on a Roman cross. The cost of discipleship is real, and each one of us has to consider whether we are ready to face the consequences of following Jesus.
We can’t delay our choice any longer. The false shepherds are devouring our people. The wolves are loose in the fold. God has promised us deliverance, a savior. Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe stands with us and sees all the way to the end of war, violence, intimidation, and discrimination.
But that eschatological reality doesn’t exempt us from the challenge of discipleship. On the contrary, it is precisely because Jesus has conquered the world through the blood of his cross that we must be willing to carry our own, in this time and place.
When we as Christians say that “Jesus is Lord,” we are by necessity saying that Caesar is not. The United States government is not lord. Donald Trump is not lord. The white supremacist regime that is currently preparing to take power is not lord. Just as John spoke the truth to the tyrant Herod, we must preach the word in this dangerous season.
Jesus proclaimed good news to the poor, release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind. He let the oppressed go free. He proclaimed the jubilee year of debt forgiveness. He endured torture and death at the hands of empire. He preached the good news all the way to the depths of hell. What will he ask us to do? Are we ready?
Today we celebrate the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. It is a solemnity. It’s a solemnity because love is powerful. Love doesn’t play games with the truth. It doesn’t back down before hatred and fear. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Empires come and go, but love never ends. We have to ground ourselves in that.
These are heavy times, and this is a heavy sermon. But I hope that you feel encouraged, too. Because we are incredibly privileged to be the friends of the light in these days of darkness. John the Baptist knew that it was a joy and an honor to serve as a prophet of the living God. So will we. Through the pain, the doubt, and the uncertainty, we are being invited into the most joyful path that there is, the way of Jesus – our brother, our friend, our king.