Envisioning the Reign of God
There are very few true monarchs left in the world. Most are of the sort that “rule” in England. They’re mainly
figureheads who are trotted out on special occasions. True power is held by someone else, whether Parliament or the Prime Minister. Americans don’t very much like monarchs, whether constitutional or not, though we seem to have an interest in things royal, as long as we don’t have to support them with our taxes. So, for moderns, the idea of proclaiming Christ the King Sunday might seem rather odd. Yet, this is the Sunday in which we proclaim Christ as King, as the one in whom and through whom God creates, sustains, and rules the universe. In observing this particular Sunday, we conclude another liturgical cycle. When the church gathers a week later, it will begin the cycle once more with a season of waiting, a season waiting for a king to be born. These two realities – the hope and the fulfillment can be found present in these three texts that hail God’s king, the one who according to Jeremiah will execute justice and righteousness. One of the things that we must realize as we observe this particular event is that God’s idea of a realm or a kingdom often differs from what we might have in mind.
We begin with Jeremiah. His is the prophetic word that offers us a vision of what God desires. As we open to Jeremiah 23 we hear God cry out against the shepherds who have destroyed the flock and scattered the sheep. The identity of these shepherds isn’t revealed, but context suggests the rulers and authorities of Judah. It is their choices that have led to this day, when the nation will be destroyed and the people scattered. But God is not finished with this people, and so despite the realities of the day, God promises to gather up the remnant from the many lands to which they’ve fled, and then bring them back into the fold. There in the safety and security of God’s reign, the people will be “fruitful and multiply,” a promise is rooted in the very act of creation (Gen. 1:28), suggesting that what is promised is a day of new creation. In this new creation in which God will regather the people of God, there will be new shepherds, so that none will live in fear. Yes, the day is coming when God will raise up a righteous branch, whose reign will be marked by wisdom, justice, and righteousness. In that day Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety (yes, this is in this context a parallelism). And the one who will reign shall be known as “The Lord is our Righteousness.” That is, this one who will rule will rule according to the dictates of God’s covenant with the people.
From Jeremiah we move to that second generation Christian leader who writes to the churches in the name and out of the community that knew Paul as its founder and leader. If Jeremiah points us forward into time, offering a vision of God’s chosen representative, this passage from Colossians offers the reader a vision of enthronement. What was hoped for has now come to pass. In a word to people, whom the author believes, had been rescued from darkness so that they might live in the light that is found in the “kingdom of his beloved Son.” It is this beloved Son of God who provides redemption and forgiveness – or to put this in terms of Jeremiah’s vision, he is the one who will provide salvation and safety. Here in this letter we experience one of the great hymns of praise, a hymn that declares that Christ is the “image of the invisible God, the first born of creation.” In him everything is created, including the thrones and kingdoms of this world. Everything is created through him and for him. He is the agent of God’s creation and recreation. In him, the fullness of God has dwelt, and so it is in Christ that we may know God’s grace, mercy, justice, and righteousness. It is a most triumphant scene, worthy of setting to powerful music. By the end of this hymn you’re ready to tack on Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. But there is another text to which we must give our attention – Luke’s account of the crucifixion.
Luke’s account of the crucifixion isn’t a text that we might expect hear on a Sunday before Thanksgiving, especially when the Christmas shopping cycle has already begun in earnest. Spending time contemplating Good Friday doesn’t seem appropriate. Indeed, the Colossian letter seems more appropriate than does this one. And yet, this is the text for the day. Like the other two texts, however, it speaks to the question of kingship and kingdoms. But, the way in which this passage wrestles with the reign of God reminds us that God’s ways may be different from ours. Jeremiah envisioned a righteous and just ruler, a Messiah who would gather the people and save them. The passage raises the question – what kind of King will this Messiah of God be? The answer is found on the cross. Jesus is crucified at a place called the Skull, situated between two criminals. There are a number of onlookers. Some are gawkers, the kind that are attracted to spectacles, and public executions have always seemed to fill that need for entertainment. Others who have gathered are the religious leaders, who come to scoff and remind him that his path to messiahship has taken a rather wrong turn. Instead of glory, it is death and humiliation. So, if you thought you could save others, why not try to save yourself – that is, if you’re the Messiah. Finally, there are the soldiers, and they too join in the derision. So, they say, this is the “King of the Jews”? Not all that impressive is he, can’t even save himself! Yes, here he is the one who would be king, and all that we can say for him, is that he will die a failure in his task. Therefore, in the spirit of mockery they place above his head, a sign that reads “King of the Jews.” Such is the fate of Pretenders to the Throne!
I forgot to mention that there are two other characters in this story – men hanging to the left and the right of Jesus. One joins in the mockery, and why not? A bit of gallows humor might seem appropriate, would be a suitable distraction from the agony of crucifixion. That is one voice from the hill called the Skull. There is another voice, which comes from the other condemned criminal, and this voice first scolds the other victim of Rome’s “justice system,” admitting some guilt, but also insisting that Jesus did not deserve his fate. We could debate the reasons why Jesus may have gone to the cross, but that would miss the point of the hour. This man, experiencing the same agony as Jesus, offers a different assessment, declaring Jesus to be innocent. He offers God’s judgment upon Jesus, and then turns to Jesus and asks to be remembered in the Kingdom. Here from the lips of a condemned man comes Luke’s enthronement psalm. And Jesus responds: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Yes, you will enjoy the blessings of God’s reign, for your understand the truth. You understand that the kingdom of God differs from human kingdoms, which are built upon terror, fear, coercion, and injustice.
As we gather this Sunday, may we consider the true nature of God’s reign. It’s not a democracy, which can easily turn into the tyranny of the majority. Nor is it the tyranny of the one. Instead, it is a commitment to justice and righteousness – and the one who reigns will be called “the Lord is our Righteousness.”
By Bob Cornwall
Bob Cornwall is Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)of Troy, MI and Editor ofSharing the Practice, the journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy. Holder of a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, he loves to write, having authored several books, with a book on the Lord’s Prayer due out in November. Besides contributing to this blog, he writes nearly every day at his personal blogPonderings on a Faith Journey, as well as contributing regularly to the Christian Century blogTheolog.