by Leif Kehrwald
Raise your hand if you know how to read the newspaper. . . It’s not a trick question. Of course you do.
When we read the Bible, or hear the Word of God proclaimed, if we know the type of literature we’re hearing, it’s easier to find the truth proclaimed.
Classic example: Jonah and the Big Fish. (Commonly referred to as “Jonah and the Whale”, but the word ‘whale’ does not appear in Scripture.) You should read the book of Jonah like you read a comic book.The real message is not that God is so awesome that God can have a fish swallow a man and spew him out three days later. The real message is: God loves the Ninevites. Jonah hates the Ninevites. Where does that leave Jonah in relationship with God? Or to bring it close to home: if God loves those whom I despise, where does that leave me with God?
Our readings this morning from 2 Samuel and from Paul’s letter to Colossians are part of the body of literature scattered throughout the Bible known as Apocalyptic literature: prophetic writings that offer visions of the end times, and in particular, relief from current woes of oppression and dominance.
In other years of the lectionary cycle we get readings from the books of Daniel, Ezekiel, and the Revelation of John, again offering a grandiose vision that is in direct contrast to current struggles.
If we read these books in the same way we read front page news, we will likely not find the kernel of truth God has in mind for us. Problem is, unlike the original hearers/readers of 2 Samuel, Daniel, Ezekiel, portions of Paul’s letters, and Revelation who would have immediately understood the prophetic vision proclaimed, our culture is not accustomed to this type of literature, primarily because most of us are not exposed to those who are oppressed and down-trodden.
When peoples are marginalized and discriminated against, they develop a language unto themselves that points toward better times, relief from burdens, salvation from their woes.
Yet we are not completely unfamiliar with this literary style:
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all are created equal."
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. MLK
Here’s another example from Dietrich Bonhoeffer referring to 1940s Nazi domination in Germany and throughout Europe:
“Words and thoughts are not enough. Doing good involves all the things of daily life. ‘If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink’ (Romans 12:20). In the same ways that brothers and sisters stand by each other in times of need—bind up each other’s wounds, ease each other’s pain—love of the enemy should do good to the enemy. Where in the world is there greater need, where are deeper wounds and pain than those of our enemies? Where is doing good more necessary and more blessed than for our enemies?”
Lastly, Oscar Romero, martyred Archbishop of El Salvador, wrote in this poem called “A Future Not Our Own”
It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
So think of it this way, the author of 2 Samuel was the Martin Luther King of his day, and people hung on his every word. Similarly, Paul was the Oscar Romero of his day. We catch the vision and strive for it.
But we must have our ear to the ground, listening and discerning the voices out there to discover who among us is proclaiming God’s message of hope, mercy, justice, and salvation.
Now today’s Gospel reading is different. It’s not apocalyptic literature, but rather a bit more like front page news. However, we need to ask ourselves a key question: why are we hearing this story today? Doesn’t it seem a bit out of season, and out of sequence? Why are we tuning into the Passion of Jesus today? It’s not Holy Week. It’s not Good Friday.
No, but it is the Feast of Christ the King. And the interchange between Jesus and his fellow crucified lifts up Jesus’ reign over the kingdom of God.
But what does that really mean? And why do we have such a feast? And why now, at this point in the year?
Feast of Christ the King
In the life of the church, it’s a relatively new feast, only about 90 years old. And perhaps that’s why it comes at the very end of the year, the church year that is. Yes, today is the last Sunday of the year. Next Sunday is not only the first Sunday of Advent, it is also New Year’s Day, in the life of the Church! From me to you, let me be the first to say Happy New Year!
I think there’s some better logic for putting this feast at the end of the year. Think of it this way: we journey through the year hearing the story of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection. The story of salvation history is laid out before us, building in drama and meaning week after week. And at the end of the year, we can ask ourselves similar questions that the ones on his right and left were asking: Jesus, who are you? Where do you come from? Are you a king? Are you my king? Our king?
And if so, what are the implications for me as an individual, for us as a community, for the world?
The originator of this feast in 1925, Pope Pius XI, said that Jesus must reign in our minds, our wills, our hearts, our bodies . . . as instruments of justice unto God. Rather visionary . . . apocalyptic!
Not Your Ordinary King
I’ll admit, though, that in my own spirituality I don’t usually think of Jesus as a ruler or king or even Lord. In my personal prayer, I don’t typically use the language of lordship or even kingdom of God. The titles of “lord” and “king” seem borrowed from human systems that all too often have been oppressive, particularly to the lowly and the poor.
And, quite frankly, in the current political atmosphere I think we must be careful about the language used to refer to our duly elected, representative leaders. The language of ruler and lordship is not appropriate there, and can only lead to corruption and abuse of power.
Yet, perhaps I’m missing the point that Christ’s kingship is one of humility and service. Jesus himself said,
“You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to become great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45, NAB).
Jesus knew the oppressive nature of secular rulers, and in contrast to them, he connected his role as king to humble service, and commanded his followers to be servants as well.
So, what I’m learning, and what I want to share with you is this: we must realize that Jesus radically redefined and transformed the concept of kingship. And so today,
. . . yes, we underscore the sovereignty of Christ over and above all earthly rulers, but point toward his vision of a just, peaceful, and redemptive world.
. . . and yes, we pray for Christ’s kingdom to come on earth, a kingdom that ultimately looks more like a kin-dom than a kingdom.
(In a moment we’re going to sing an apocalyptic song – “Soon and Very Soon.” As you join in, keep in mind the apocalyptic dreams and visions presented to us by Samuel, Paul, Martin, Dietrich, Oscar, and of course Jesus. For through them we can align all that we do in our lives with what God is doing in the world.