A sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Jeremiah 23:1-6, Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79), Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:33-43

What stunning, challenging and exciting readings we are offered today! A Sunday dedicated to “Christ the King” invites us into dialogue with the texts on offer, to acknowledge, but move beyond, any problems that the word ‘king’ might raise for us, and to explore what lies behind this bold assertion that Christ, and no other, is King, Queen, Ruler, President, Prime Minister, Boss, Matriarch – or any other descriptor of those in power. Given the relatively short time a Eucharist offers the preacher I hope to be able to say something worthwhile on all four readings offered this morning, and one of the hymns to be sung today!

Jeremiah prophesied over a lengthy period of time during which he foresaw the utter disaster to which Judah was moving. Openly rebelling against the might of Babylon, the leaders, the kings, of Judah are likened by Jeremiah to the bad shepherds – those who destroy and scatter the flock, causing it to be driven away. This happened twice in quick succession in Judah’s history – the first time in 597 BC and the second, after the puppet king Zedekiah allowed himself to be fooled into thinking he could take on the might of Babylon, in 586 BC. Exile – with a capital E – followed and proved to be a defining moment in the history of the ancient Jews. It’s not difficult to make connections between the destroying, scattering, inattentive shepherds railed against by Jeremiah, and some of today’s leaders – whether they be political or otherwise.

By contrast, Jeremiah suggests that God Himself is the true shepherd – the one who will gather and bring back the scattered sheep into the fold. There they will be safe and will be fruitful and multiply – surely one of the understandings of shalom, of true peace. But it is also God who will raise up new shepherds whose legacy will be a world without fear, dismay or the missing – again an understanding of shalom, of peace. At its best, the understanding of kingship, the task of those chosen to rule over others, is to put their subjects first. There are royal obligations and they include the genuine caring for all those to and for whom they are responsible and answerable.

There’s one further point to notice before we leave Jeremiah and that is the promise to ‘raise up for David a righteous Branch’ – a king who will deal wisely and execute justice and righteousness in the land. As Isaiah had done before (Is 11:1) Jeremiah raised the prospect of a king of the line of David. To me it is fascinating that despite all King David’s faults, and he had many including the seduction of Bathsheba and the appalling act of treachery in having her husband murdered, David should become the one against whom all other kings would be measured. In a little over a month we will be reading the Christmas texts and singing the carols with their association with David.

Jump now to the New Testament, some six hundred years after Jeremiah, and the reading from Colossians 1: 11- 20. Here we find one of the very early hymns, a poem, extolling the virtues of Jesus Christ. Was it St Paul or someone else who, within a few decades of the death of Jesus on the cross, was able to imagine that Jesus of Nazareth – betrayed, arrested, deserted, mocked, convicted, tortured, crucified, died – could be the subject of this early hymn? It’s worth repeating the hymn in full this morning. Follow the text, listen to the descriptors, marvel at the insights and understanding, the boldness of these words about someone treated in such fashion.

I wonder which words you would underline as important, as needing more thought, as influencing you as you leave here today?

He (Christ) 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. (Col 1: 15 – 20)

But before you get too excited let me refer you to another early Christian hymn, this time found in Luke’s Gospel. Known as the Benedictus from the opening word of the Latin, it is the Song of Zechariah. To Zechariah is given the knowledge that it is his son, John the Baptist, who will be the messenger of God, announcing that the long awaited Messiah, the righteous Branch referred to by Jeremiah, is coming. It fell to Luke and his contemporaries to comb through the ancient writings of the Holy Scriptures and come up with this beautiful song, full of promise, hope and healing. Here too are pictures of shalom, of peace, of wholeness.

Jump to the 20th century and a curate in his early thirties in the parish of St Margaret’s, Edgeware writing a hymn to celebrate, in 1964, the birthday of the parish’s Youth Group. Michael Saward was one of a number of people writing contemporary expressions of faith, influenced by the new English translations of the Bible and liturgical revision. “I wanted,” he says, “to offer great declarations of truth, to which my fellow Christians could join their affirmations of commitment in passionate song.” https://hymnquest.com/resources/bs06/ We will sing his hymn shortly with its stirring opening words “Christ triumphant, ever reigning, Saviour, Master, King!” A&M 612. Each verse offers a different biblical perspective on Jesus Christ – King, immortal God, Suffering Servant, true high priest.

These three hymns – one from Colossians, one from Luke’s Gospel, one from a 20th century English priest – offer food for thought and action as we gather today to celebrate Christ the King.

But there is still today’s Gospel reading, Luke 23: 33 – 34, to consider and we segue nicely to that reading from the third verse of Saward’s hymn: “Suffering servant, scorned, ill-treated, victim crucified!”

It may seem strange, at the very end of the liturgical year and the climax of all the teaching we have had throughout the year, to return to the cross and crucifixion of Jesus. But that is where it really all begins and most certainly continues. Without the suffering we have triumphalism of the worst sort. With the suffering we have a king who truly puts his subjects, his people, first. But it’s no easy task.

Glance down again to the Gospel reading – you know it well but there’s no harm in looking at the words. At the place called The Skull, Jesus is crucified, nailed to a cross. Incredibly he prays for his executioners – “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Yet even now it is not over and he must continue to face derision, see his meager belongings fought over, and listen to the endless taunts of the leaders and soldiers. Nothing but an object of derision, amusement – a cruel sport indeed. Of course, we would never do that – would we?

It is as if the temptation in the wilderness, those nagging questions from the devil during the long forty days without food, is coming back again. Is this really what you want to do Jesus? Why not just call on God, ask God to send down angels – whip you away from this pain and suffering, forget about all your troubles and responsibilities. You can do it! Easily. One of the thieves crucified alongside Jesus knows it all too well. “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

This may be the way of the kings of this world but it’s not the way of Christ the King. The other thief recognizes he is in the presence of royalty, of holiness and his words too are recorded – both his retort to his fellow guilty and rightly convicted sufferer – and, more importantly, the deeply felt, and incredibly insightful, prayer. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” To him, as to all who pray that prayer, is given words beyond imagining (and it does not matter where the comma comes): “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Let Michael Saward have the final word today:

So, our hearts and voices raising through the ages long,

ceaselessly upon you gazing, this shall be our song:

Yours the glory, and the crown, the high renown, the eternal name.