Today You Will Be With Me
This Sunday is sometimes called Christ the King Sunday. We would do well to recall how this all began. Once upon a time, God would raise up leaders for his people. They were called Judges. God would appoint a specific Judge to address current specific situations. But then the people of God begged the boy-prophet Samuel to beg God to give them a king. After all, all the other nations had kings and they wanted one too. They were tired of God raising up Judges to meet the needs of specific times and situations.
As you may recall, God counsels Samuel to convince the people that kings do not always work out very well. Samuel tries, but the people continue their demand for a king. Eventually, God gives in, and voila! Saul is made king, and right away things do not go so well.
Note: Verna Dozier in her book, The Dream of God, calls this “the Second Fall,” long after the fall in the garden. Not content to let God run the show, the people rely on one of their own – and over time it results in some good times, but mostly bad.
Jeremiah (23:1-6) writes about this after the disastrous reign of Jehoiachin resulted in the Babylonian captivity - Exile. Jeremiah’s warning is good for just about any age, any time, any place.
Woe to the shepherds who have scattered the flock. Note: the history of Israel as told in The Bible is unique in giving us the account warts and all, and in Israel taking blame for its own problems.
God through Jeremiah, however, makes a promise: despite the bad leadership – a new shepherd, dare we say a Good Shepherd, will be raised up from the line of David.
Second note: some three hundred years after Jesus comes what Verna Dozier calls “the Third Fall,” when Constantine takes the church from being an alternative to life lived in the Roman Empire to become the organizing principal for the Holy Roman Empire. As good a short term strategy as this may have been for the Empire, the results have been at best mixed, and often disastrous, for the church, for it has made us complicit in a string of historic events that Jesus would have found utterly impossible to believe – the crusades, the inquisition, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, anti-semitism right up to and through the Holocaust.
So, where do we find our “king”? In Luke 23:33-43 we find him as a Jew hanging on a Roman cross. One might want to count the number of times our text refers to “they” or “them” – “When they came to the place of the Skull,” “they crucified Jesus,” “Forgive them for they do not know what they are doing,” “they cast lots to divide his clothing.”
Who are “they”? Not the Jews, and not even the Jewish Temple leadership, who by the way were appointed by Rome. “They” are the Empire – all those who worked on behalf of the Roman god, Caesar. The principal henchman, of course, is Pilate, Caesar’s “man” in Jerusalem.
So one thing one might do on this Christ the King Sunday is to consider the irony of the Third Fall – the Church becomes the Empire, the very instrument of human sin and destruction that placed Jesus on the Cross in the first place.
Jesus is a funny kind of king. He wrote no books. He had no army to command or to protect his kingdom. When his subjects try to pick up the sword he reprimands them. He founded no institution. He instituted no form of government – not even for his disciples! He rides a donkey when other kings might ride a horse. He claims to have no home. He spends most of his time with outcasts of all kinds: the blind, the lame, prostitutes, tax collectors, poor people, migrant workers, undocumented aliens, hungry people, tired people, prisoners, lepers. He is a king like no other king that ever lived.
Which is the Good News for those of us who stand at the foot of the cross every day and look up to him for direction in a world full of bad shepherds scattering flocks far and wide; bad shepherds in every possible human institution, most especially the church. But we need not get into that here.
We are to take solace, hope, and faith from the ancient words of Psalm 46 which assures us that though the waters rage and foam around us, though the mountains tremble, God is with us.
We are urged to “Be still, then, and know that I am God…the Lord of Hosts is with us.”
Not only is our king a funny kind of king, but our God is a funny kind of God. When life is at its most tumultuous, says God, “Be still.” Stop. Be still. Don’t do anything. Be quiet and you will know the presence of the Lord.
Some six hundred years after Jeremiah decries the leadership of God’s people, a new shepherd arrives. This morning we see him hanging on a Roman cross, making a promise – “Today you will be with me in paradise.” After that he breathes his last, hands over his Spirit, and dies.
As we say in our creed, “He suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again…and is seated at the right hand of the Father…”
This is what makes Jesus our king – a king like no other.
And this is why his promise is true – for as long as we are with him today, and we are, we have nothing to fear of all the bad shepherds loose in the world. Because there is no power like his power which has been loose in the world since that moment on the cross when he gave up his Spirit, and that third day when he became king of all creation.
God says to Jeremiah, “I myself shall gather the remnant of my flock.” Even now God in Christ the King gathers us as his faithful remnant. Because God’s Good Shepherd gathers us we are free to be still in the midst of whatever storms rage around us and know that he is God – and that he is with us today – here and now.
To Christ be Glory forever and ever. Amen.