Christ the King: A sermon on Luke 23:33-43 and Jeremiah 23:1-6

14188523_1260289087335740_7885670721171133113_oBy the Rev. Anna Doherty

Today is Christ the King Sunday, when we celebrate the glorious reign of Christ.

So, why, you might ask, do we celebrate the glorious reign of Christ as King, by reading the passion gospel this morning?

Doesn’t it seem a little out of place to talk about Jesus’ painful and humiliating death when we should be talking about his power and glory?

The truth is, the unexpected nature of today’s gospel is meant to reflect for us, the unexpected nature of Christ’s kingship.

There is a reason why we read the passion gospel today.

Christ is King, but he is a different kind of King.

And few things show that as poignantly or as powerfully as the passion of our Lord.

Unlike some of the other passion narratives, Luke’s gospel dwells less on the painful, torturous details of Jesus’ crucifixion…

But instead dwells more on Christ’s actions, what he says and does, even as he marches inexorably towards his own death.

As today’s gospel reading from Luke demonstrates, Christ is not a King who saves himself—he is a king who saves others.

Christ is not a king who exalts himself—quite the opposite, he is shamed and mocked and put to death alongside of criminals,

even when he himself has done nothing wrong.

Christ is not a king who blames or shames others, even those who have done wrong.

This Christ is a king who forgives criminals and even those who put him to death, who humbles himself to the point of death on the cross,

Christ is a King for whom the redemption of others takes precedent even, over his own life.

Christ the King is fundamentally counter-cultural.

Christ’s kingship is like that of no earthly king or leader that I can recognize in the world today.

And that is why, Christ the King reigns supreme.

We have over the past campaign season, as a nation and a world, put our faith and trust in candidates and earthly leaders that cannot and will not, save us.

A point which the prophet Jeremiah makes quite vividly, in our first reading for today.

The ancient Israelites, much like people of every generation, put too much faith in their earthly kings.

From King David on, the ancient kings of Israel consistently served themselves and their own interests,

rather than serving their God on behalf of God’s people.

You can read all about their failures and their foibles in First and Second Kings, but a lot of it will sound familiar to us, even today.

Sex scandals, corruption, self-interest, exploitation and blame, you name it.

Now in ancient Israel, the word “shepherd”, actually served as a euphemism for kings and other leaders.

So, in today’s reading, when the prophet Jeremiah quotes the word of God by saying,

“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!”

You can insert any leader or ruler who leads people astray, who destroys or scatters, as a bad shepherd.

Woe to kings, politicians, preachers, corporations, whoever it is who destroys and scatters the sheep of God’s pasture!

God is essentially calling out, according to the prophet Jeremiah, the failure of earthly leaders to execute God’s commandments.

And we hear God say, through the prophet, what the criteria for faithful leadership is this:

that leaders “shall deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”

Under leaders such as this, God says, “people shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing.”

So that when we see in our midst, people living in fear, people being excluded or shamed,

we know that we are bearing witness to a failure of earthly kingship.

We’ve seen a lot of this in recent months.

But rather than simply describing what faithful—and unfaithful—kingship looks like, God does even more.

Instead, God basically says, “alright then, I guess I’ll have to do this myself.”

As the prophet Jeremiah says of God, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock.

I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them.”

“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 excuse justice and righteousness in this land.”

These words, my friends, the words of God told through the prophet Jeremiah, are the source of the Messianic promise,

God’s promise to Israel that God will send God’s people a Messiah, a king anointed by God.

It is very appropriate that we hear this passage today, on the last Sunday of the liturgical year, before we begin the season of Advent…

Because for us, as Christians, this passage from Jeremiah prefigures the incarnation, the coming of God in the person of Christ…

…as the king who God sends us for the salvation of God’s people.

God doesn’t just promise us a king who will bring justice and righteousness, God sends us that king, God’s own self, to dwell among us…

in the person of Jesus Christ.

The Hebrew word for “branch” in today’s reading from Jeremiah is a wonderful, symbolic word, that actually means a variety of things…

It can also mean sun, s-u-n, and star…

That’s why throughout the season of Advent, we will hear Jesus described as the sun, s-u-n, of righteousness, or as the star rising in the east, or with images of light.

That kind of imagery for the kingship of Christ all comes from today’s reading from Jeremiah.

But the word that is is translated today in Jeremiah as a righteous “branch”, actually means in Hebrew, a shoot.

As something of an amateur gardener, I am learning the difference between a branch and a shoot.

Branches die when you prune them.

Once the branch is separated from the tree, it doesn’t have any life in itself.

But shoots, are the kind of things that come from the ground in abundance.

And when you cut one shoot down, in a matter of days you have about six more shoots in its place.

So that the image of Christ the King as a righteous shoot, means that Christ brings righteousness to God’s people…

such that the righteousness grows and spreads.

With Christ’s reign, God’s justice and righteousness, is no longer contained in one person.

It spreads and grows through all of God’s people.

We, as people of faith, are the shoots that spring from Christ’s kingship,

we have a part to play in making the reign of Christ a reality here on earth.

We are called, to lead, as best we can, as Christ leads.

With humility, forgiveness, and deep love, as Christ demonstrates through his passion and death on the cross.

With a desire for justice for God’s people, and to help create a world where people shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing from the fold of God.

I am reminded in this call to share in the kingship of Christ, of our baptismal promises this morning.

We are asked at our baptisms, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?”

We promise to do this at our baptisms, with God’s help.

It is a call to share in the kingship of Christ, where justice and righteousness reigns on earth.

We, here at Christ Episcopal Church, celebrate our feast day today on Christ the King Sunday.

In addition to the promises that we make at our baptisms, how wonderful it is that we take our name as a congregation, from the reign of Christ!

What a powerful and profound reminder of what we are called to do as followers of Jesus Christ the King!

That we pursue forgiveness, justice, righteousness, and peace for all of God’s people, just as Christ does.

And that we have a part to play in bringing about God’s kingdom here on earth, of helping to bring about the Reign of Christ the King.

Earthly leaders cannot save us.

But the kingship of Christ saves us.

And we share in the glorious reign of Christ the king, where justice and righteousness prevail.