Sunday, November 21, 2010

Christ the King Sunday

The following is a transcript of my sermon preached Sunday evening, 11/21/2010, at Shepherd's Heart Fellowship in Pittsburgh, PA.  The lectionary readings were as follows:  Psalm 46; Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:34-43.

Jesus is Lord. Hallelujah. Today is Christ the King Sunday, the end of the church calendar year. We’re about to begin advent, or the four weeks leading up to Christmas, which is meant to be a time of repentance and preparation for the coming of the king. That’s what Christmas is about, that’s the beginning of Jesus’s role in history—the incarnation, the virgin birth, there in the stable with the animals in the night. Advent and Christmas will begin the church calendar again. It’s our commemoration of the first coming of Christ. It follows then that on Christ the King Sunday, the end of the church calendar, we should be thinking about his second coming.

We’re at Shepherd’s Heart Fellowship tonight. It’s a great name for a church because it sums up what Jesus was about. And it says that we here want to, with God’s grace, follow in his footsteps. The bible often uses the word “shepherd” to talk about the leaders of God’s people. Moses was a shepherd. David was a shepherd. Jesus was and is the good shepherd. In our passage from Jeremiah tonight, however, God has some strong words for the “shepherds” of Israel of that time. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” he says. “It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord.” That’s a scary thing to hear from the Lord. Sometimes those meant to serve God’s people end up hurting them the most. They don’t love them with the love of Christ and so have the opposite effect of their job description. Those of us who serve and lead in churches ought to tremble at this thought, because we know that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are jealous for their children and will judge those who bring harm to them.

However, in Jeremiah, just after this judgment, however, God promises to them that he will send a good shepherd—a righteous, wise and just king who will save God’s people. It’s Jesus. The pastor of pastors. The king of kings. He is our hope, though all other men may fail us. Church leaders, political leaders, business leaders—but at the end of the day they’re only dust in the wind, withering grass in the field. But the word of the Lord endures forever. Jesus is Lord and he shall reign forever and ever. He's coming back to the earth with justice and love. That’s why we celebrate Christ the King Sunday.

That’s what the people of Jerusalem wanted, when they crucified him. They were looking for a king who could save them, deliver them from the Roman oppressors and restore God’s kingdom to its former glory. But they were blind to the Messiah standing right before them. Their spirits had become crushed and twisted by oppression and hopelessness, and in demanding a king they destroyed the only one they could have. We read in Luke today how the jeering culprits called for him to save himself—three times we see this. Jesus hangs on the cross, beaten, bloodied and pierced, gasping for air and the Jewish leaders say, “If he is the Messiah, let him save himself!” The Roman soldiers, who have just finished driving the nails into him and the others say, “If he is the King of the Jews, let him save himself!” And a criminal crucified and hanging next to him says, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” Save yourself, save yourself, save yourself! That’s what a king does, right? He’s strong and he rules by might.

We know this plea, though. "Save yourself" is the plea of anyone who has seen the darkness in the world and cried out for a king. All of us who have said "Why did this happen in my childhood?" "Why did that happen to that guy over there?" "Why was that girl sexually abused?" "Why is that man in Asia or this woman in Africa starving to death?" Why, why, why? The injustice and darkness in the world makes us cry out for an answer. It's why were longing for a good and strong king to coming along and sort the mess out.

But our king relinquished his authority and died on the cross that day. And it was written over his head, ironically, “The King of the Jews.”

But one man did recognize him that day. The other criminal did not demand that Jesus leave the cross. He rebuked the first criminal, saying, “Don’t you realize we’re up here because we deserve it, but this man has done nothing wrong? Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” That second criminal did not demand that Jesus meet his expectation for what a king should be, but he demonstrated trust that Jesus was king, that he had a kingdom which he could take the criminal to and that he would be successful in reigning there. Many of us already know Jesus’s reply: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus accepted a criminally convicted, dying, shamed man who with his last breaths acknowledged the lordship of the true Messiah. It was like unstrapping a man from the electric chair and sending him on vacation to Hawaii. Because Jesus is a merciful lord, because he accepts all who humbly recognize his authority. "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." That’s why we celebrate Christ the King Sunday.

And we know how the story ends. Jesus didn’t stay dead. He was murdered gruesomely and unjustly but the grave couldn’t hold him. God through the Spirit raised Jesus from the dead three days later and demonstrated that this man really was “King of the Jews.” A man who doesn’t have to save himself because God Almighty vindicates him with surprising strength and power. That’s our king. That’s our savior. That’s the Jesus we worship. Jesus the Messiah has been raised from the dead and is therefore Lord of the whole world. Hallellujah. He’s Christ the King, and he loves you more than you know.

That’s the good news, right? The king God has given us is the good shepherd he promised way back when to Jeremiah. We could have a tyrant, or a selfish monarch, or a timid democratic-republican politician. But because God is merciful, we have Christ the King. Jesus the Messiah. The ruler who is both loving and strong. The lion who lays down with the lamb. And what a lion he is.

Remember our Colossians reading.

"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross."

We have these two amazing pictures of Jesus today. On the one hand we have the Jesus of ancient Jerusalem, stained with dirt, no place to lay his head, followed by friend and foe everywhere he went and weak and bleeding and dying on the Roman cross. On the other we have the resurrected Lord Christ, revealed as fully God and fully man, the creator of all things and the one who will one day restore all things to the way Father, Son and Holy Spirit always intended them to be—beautiful, whole and full of joy.

We know something very important because of this. The king who rules the world and our lives is also the man who suffered a murder most foul. The gospel is no fairy tale. It is good news about a real event of power and love in the midst of the darkness and evil in this world.

I’m saying this because, by myself, I have nothing to offer you today. I’m just a white kid from suburban Florida—what do I know? I don’t know your lives. I don’t know your pain. And if I did, what could I do? Can one person fix another? I am weak and useless. I have my words and my presence—but what are these in the face of homelessness? In the face of addiction? When people have been abused and abandoned? I can promise you nothing of my own, no good thing I can give you. I’m sorry, but I’m just not that great. I’m not that exciting. Thank God Almighty it doesn’t depend on me.

I can’t give you anything today, but I can point you to Jesus. Ten years ago I was seventeen, and I had walked away from the Lord. I decided I didn’t need this Christian stuff, I didn’t need God to get on with my life--in short I wanted nothing to do with it. But God rescued me from my sin and doubt. For weeks on end I woke up night after night with no reason that I could tell--every night at 3 o’clock in the morning. I told no one. After this had happened many times, a man prophesied to me that God was calling home prodigal sons and that I had been waking up at three in the morning but didn’t know why. God spoke to me through that man, convicted and convinced me he was real, rescued me from my despair.

I don’t know your pain. But he does. I don’t know your story. But he does. I don’t know what’s going on in your life tonight. But God does. I can’t talk to you about walking through great suffering, but I can tell you about the Jesus who spoke to me and delivered me from doubt and unbelief and despair all those years ago. I haven’t been through everything in this world, but Jesus has been there. He lived in a small village of a poor country occupied by an evil superpower. He walked among the sick and the sinful. He worked alongside the ordinary people of his day, working with his hands to eke out a living in first century Palestine. And one day, he walked into the desert, driven there by the Holy Spirit, and came out a man on fire for the purposes of God. And he proclaimed and he healed and he delivered and he spent his life in love on behalf of God’s people. A truly good shepherd, laying down his life, leaving the ninety-nine to go after the one. He became obedient to death on a cross and made it so that we neither have to be judged for our sin nor remain enslaved by it. “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father.” That’s why we celebrate Christ the King Sunday.

Remember the thief on the cross. Jesus accepted him into the kingdom solely because he acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah, the Lord. The thief didn’t say to Jesus, “Save us, and I’ll believe!” but rather he believed, and trusted Jesus to save him. The thief accepted Jesus on his own terms, dying there next to him on a cross. So as we celebrate Christ the King, we must remember that Jesus is not the kind of king we’re used to. Celebrating the King of kings and Lord of lords means accepting Jesus as the crucified king, as the one who appears weak, as the one who loves the hurting and the broken and not just the rich and the powerful.

Our king may not lead be leading tanks and helicopters into battle, or making billions on the stock market, or be the most popular man in politics. Strangely enough, to some he might even be the most shamed man in politics. But Jesus loves his people strongly and selflessly. Jesus knows our weakness and he doesn’t try to hide his own. Powerful men are always busy trying to hide their shortcomings, trying to make people forget the times they didn’t succeed. Look at my resume! Look at my accolades! Look what I’ve accomplished! But Jesus said, “When the Son of Man is lifted up, he will draw all men to himself.” Jesus wants us to look at the cross, wants us to look at the broken, humble, dying man there and learn an important lesson. It’s written above his head: “The King of the Jews.” The true shepherd of the people of God, the man with the power, the king and ruler of the earth is the one who has suffered along with every man, woman and child who ever knew the sting of injustice, abuse and pain. Faith is believing that today we read about the same man in Luke 23 that we did in Colossians 1: the man who died on the cross is also the God-man who is coming back to sort out this mess! He’s coming back to bring freedom and healing to the world and to judge and destroy the wicked! That’s why we celebrate Christ the King Sunday.

It is my heart’s desire and prayer for you that you would know Christ the King. Moreover, the King himself wants you to know him. If you already belong to him, he wants you to be near him, he wants you to trust him, he wants to bring healing and deliverance in your life. Jesus has walked the hard paths of this world, he has suffered the abuses and injustices which men heap upon each other, and God has raised him from the dead in order to bring us salvation. That's why we celebrate Christ the King Sunday. Amen.

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