Lectionary Commentaries for November 21, 2010
Christ the King

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 23:33-43

David Tiede

“Christ the King” Sunday concludes the year of Luke with a final luminous testimony to how Jesus is God’s way of ruling in this world and in the world to come.

The Biblical titles of Jesus Son of God, Messiah, and King have been so thoroughly absorbed as words for church and worship that their simple, earthly force is largely lost. Jesus’ crucifixion, however, did not occur on an altar between two candles, but outside the city between two convicts on a dismal executioner’s hill, called “The Skull.” The Gospel is the story of how Jesus the Messiah of God brought God’s reign of justice and mercy to earth, and Luke’s account presents the crucified Messiah enacting God’s reign, surrounded by mocking, brutal violence.

The power of this brief “snippet” or pericope (Luke 23:33-43) will be best grasped as the conclusion of Jesus’ determined journey to Jerusalem and in the context of Luke’s magisterial passion narrative. Luke has tracked the three “passion predictions” in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 8:31-33 and Luke 9:22; Mark 9:30-32 and Luke 9:43-45; and Mark 10:32-34 and Luke 18:31-34), and Luke has amplified the story with Jesus’ purposeful, extended journey. Jesus is on a prophetic mission, bringing God’s reign to Jerusalem (see 9:51-56), and he will not be deterred by Pilate, Herod, or the Judean authorities (see Luke 13:1; 31-35). His presence in Jerusalem, however, also discloses the tragic rejection of his mission.  As Simeon prophesied, Jesus proves to be “destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed” (Luke 2:33-35).

How fierce is the rejection? How complicit are God’s people in this evil? What will God do next?

These questions are more than literary and historical. The dirty secret of our condition is out. Our hope, however, lies not in the denial of our reality, but in trusting the mercy of the Messiah of God.

The opposition to Jesus has been building in the narrative. Irritated by how the people love him, Jesus’ enemies display their resistance to God’s reign by their adamant ferocity. After “the scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people” (Luke 20:19). As Passover approached, “The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to put Jesus to death, for they were afraid of the people” (Luke 22:2).

As Jesus now hangs dying, the mockery of “the leaders” and the Roman executioners hurls sand in the face of “the people” who “stood by watching (Luke 23:35). We join the people who ironically hear the truth spoken in ignorant, sarcastic jabs. “He saved others, let him save himself!” That, of course, is exactly the point of how Jesus is enacting God’s reign of mercy, by not saving himself. But they are blind. Then they cite the heart of the Biblical story as accusations against Jesus: “If he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one.” Whom do the scriptures convict in their testimony to the Chosen One, Jesus or them?

The Romans were responsible for the inscription over Jesus’ head: “This is the King of the Jews.” And their soldiers mocked Jesus and all of Israel with this title. It was the title with which Pilate scorned Jesus and the title which Herod Antipas desperately wanted for his own (see Luke 23:1-12).The point of crucifixions was to humiliate “enemies of the Roman Order” in public displays of Roman clout, as if to say: “Look here, Judeans, this is the fate of all with pretensions to royal titles only Rome can award!” Ironically, the faithful know Jesus truly is the King of the Jews, but not because Rome said so. No, it is the title, “The Messiah of God” that carries the promise, because it is God who has chosen Jesus by anointing (Messiah in Hebrew and Christ in Greek mean “the anointed one”) him with the Holy Spirit and with power (see Luke 3:21-22; Acts 2:36; 10:37-38!) And God’s “Messiah” or “King” exercises God’s righteous reign of justice and mercy. So “the Messiah of God” is truly “the righteous one!”

Push a few verses beyond this “snippet” and notice in Luke’s account how when a Roman Centurion “saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent!'” (Luke 23:47, NRV, compare Mark 15:39: “Truly this man was God’s Son”). The Greek word that is translated “innocent” is dikaios, which also means “righteous.” Through the centuries, Christian faithful have understood that the Centurion was not merely announcing they had executed an innocent person, but his word noted the ultimate defiance of God’s reign, killing the righteous one, the Messiah of God.

In Luke’s account, Jesus is enacting an earlier script. In Wisdom 2, the torture and murder of “the righteous one” is described as the blind arrogance of those who oppose God, mocking “the righteous one” who “professes to have knowledge of God and calls himself a child of the Lord.” “Let us see if his words are true,” they sneer, “and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; for if the righteous one is God’s son, he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. …Let us test him with insult and torture. …Let us condemn him to a shameful death” (Wisdom 2:13-20).

We stand with the people and the disciples, frightened at the power of evil, wondering why we could not or simply did not prevent the atrocity. “The people stood by watching … all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home beating their breasts … but all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things” (Luke 23:35, 48-49). As in so many cases of 20/20 hindsight, we look deep into the darkness of brutality and arrogance, and we are afraid. “Oh my God, what have I done?”

Then we see Jesus exercising his dominion in the midst of mockery, coercion, and arrogance. His two “words” from the cross in Luke’s account enact his authority. The first (Luke 23:34) has problems of textual history, but it fits powerfully in the narrative: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing!” The second (Luke 23:43) anticipates Jesus’ authority as the Son of Man, conferring mercy on sinners in God’s ultimate judgment: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

What God will do next is, of course, the heart of the Gospel. In raising Jesus from the dead, God will vindicate him as Messiah and Lord, not to condemn, but to reign in mercy.  This is the gift of a new opportunity to return to God and the gift of the Holy Spirit, renewing the promise “for you and for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:37-39).

The season ahead in Advent is a time of renewed hope.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 23:1-6

Fred Gaiser

Words one does not want to hear from God: “You have not attended to them. So I will attend to you” (Jeremiah 23:2).

It really does not matter much what the “them” refers to—the threat is clear without the historical context—but the language of the text makes things worse: these are “my people,” “my flock,” God’s own “sheep” that the shepherds have neglected and driven away.

The shepherds in this text would be the leaders and rulers, primarily the kings, who have failed in their primary task of protecting and nurturing those whom God has entrusted to their care. Ezekiel uses a similar image at about the same time—heading into the exile—spelling out in more detail the failure of the leaders. Rather than feeding the sheep, they have fed themselves, gathering the fat and the wool for their own use—literally, living off the “fat of the land.”

They have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bound up the injured, bought back the strayed, or sought the lost (Ezekiel 34:1-10). The list is significant because it tells us quite clearly what government is for in God’s eyes, and it “promises” judgment to those leaders who fail. Indeed, this failure is seen as one of the major causes of the exile. Bad leaders, we see, bring judgment not only on themselves, but wreak havoc on their entire nation, including those caught up in disaster through no particular fault of their own.

The end of the church year has traditionally been a time to be confronted with the judgment of God, not so much to cower in fear, but rather to take stock of ourselves, to repent, and to seek forgiveness and amendment of life. Not a bad thing for preachers to commend in these days.

But who is judged here? If it is primarily the leaders, preachers must first perhaps turn the text on themselves and ask to what degree they have failed in their call to give themselves for the sake of the people, especially the most vulnerable. Similarly, lay leaders and parishioners whose vocations place them in leadership roles should ask, “Is it I, Lord?” when hearing this text.

In the present world, of course, no one is totally off the hook. While those with greater responsibility have greater accountability, all of us in democratic governments bear responsibility for the common good. All of us in a church, made up of the priesthood of all believers, bear responsibility for the well-being of all our brothers and sisters in Christ. Even more so than in ancient world, this text becomes for us an equal-opportunity accuser.

God does not leave God’s people hopeless, however. The good news of this text applies to all as well. First, though, there is that matter of God’s “attending to”—coming into the throne room of Christ the King is and should be a scary matter. This is the real wizard of Oz, not the phony guy behind the curtain manipulating special effects.

John got it right in the Gospels: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:2). The point of a liturgy and sermon that allows people to do this is not to terrorize for its own sake, nor is it to scream about the wrath of God. It is, I think, simply to help people realize that God is God (and so is Christ), while we are not. Thus, to come into God’s presence is a little like approaching a blast furnace. The blast furnace means us no harm, it is just hot. Hot enough, indeed, to burn away our impurities and prepare us for a new life.

And the new life is promised in the text. When leaders fail, God says, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock.” First, God becomes the shepherd, and only then does God raise up faithful leaders, including the “righteous Branch,” who will deal wisely, execute justice, and allow people to live in safety. Only God can pull off this job description fully, of course, which is why we learn in the New Testament that God has taken upon God’s own son this role of the righteous messianic ruler. In the text itself, the title given the king (“The Lord is our righteousness”) may be a play on the name Zedekiah, the last king of Judah prior to the collapse. If so, God promises something like a “new Zedekiah,” one who will succeed, a new beginning for God’s scattered people.

God promises to begin anew in every generation it seems, and now, with the introduction of Christ the King, Christ the Good Shepherd, Christ the Messiah, we proclaim and confess a new beginning that transforms us all—indeed, that transforms the world.

The primary work of transformation is done by God, of course, just as it is in the text. But what is our role in this? Back to the notion that, in Christ, we are all “kings” and “priests,” no longer merely subjects and bystanders for whom others provide guidance and mediation; we are all shepherds, no longer merely sheep. Under God, of course, we never cease being sheep—tended and nurtured by a loving Lord—nor would we want to; but we are also sent out as shepherds to “attend to” the tasks of governance described in our text and in Ezekiel 34 (above).

More, we are empowered to do this precisely because God always provides the safe harbor where we can be “sheep” again, fed by word and sacrament, nourished by pastoral care and ministry, supported by the mutual consolation of the saints, loved and cared for even when we falter. Back and forth we go, in and out of the sheepfold, fed to feed, blessed to be a blessing, loved in order to love, strengthened in order to give strength. Not a bad way to run a congregation—or a world.


Commentary on Psalm 46

Joel LeMon

Psalm 46 is a song of trust in Yahweh.

Its three major sections (verses 1-3, 4-7, 8-11) describe Yahweh’s defense of the people against cosmic and geopolitical threats. In the face of these dangers, the community reiterates its fundamental claim: Yahweh is with us (verses 1, 7, 11).

“Though the Earth Should Change”
The first section of the psalm (verses 1-3) testifies to the people’s confidence in Yahweh in the midst of cosmic turmoil. Verses 2-3 depict creation in utter disarray: earthquakes, storms, floods, even a tsunami.

Ancient peoples understood all of these natural phenomena as forces of chaos. As such, they convey an anxiety that the world is slipping out of control.

The roaring sea is one of the stock motifs for chaos throughout the Psalter. Elsewhere, we read of God founding the world amidst or on top of this watery chaos (see Psalm 24:1-2; 104:5-9). In the first verses of this psalm, the churning water threatens to overwhelm the order that God established at creation.

However, in the city of God, where peace and order reigns, the waters run in well-marked channels, nourishing the city (verses 4-5). Yahweh tames the watery chaos.

The psalm evokes another element of nature, the sun, to describe the order that God brings to the city (46:5b). The constant, unyielding movement of the sun across the sky provides the perfect picture of order.

Thus, throughout the ancient Near East, sun gods were understood to be gods of order and righteousness. That tradition lies in the background of this psalm, which contends: as sure as the sun rises at dawn, so certain is God’s rule.

The Roaring Nations
Two types of the threats seem to challenge God’s rule: cosmic disorder, epitomized by the roaring waters (verses 2-3), and political ones, those nations who seek to destroy God’s people (verses 6-7).

These forces are simply different manifestations of the chaos God has already conquered at creation and continues to keep at bay. As such the psalmist uses the similar vocabulary to describe the threats.

As the waters roar (Hebrew hmh, verse 3), so “the nations are in an uproar (hmh)” (verse 6), and as the mountains totter (mwt, verse 2), so “the kingdoms totter” (mwt, verse 6) when they encounter the voice of God. Through all this tumult, the holy city will not totter (mwt, verse 5), for Yahweh is in her midst.

The Reign of Yahweh
In the final section of the psalm (verses 8-11), the faithful community exalts Yahweh and declares God’s dominion. Yahweh exercises power to such an extent that Yahweh obliterates war itself and unbuilds the technology of combat (verse 9).

Following the community’s testimony of Yahweh’s universal disarmament program, the psalm introduces the very voice of God with the command “be still, and know” (verse 10). The audience for God’s words is open and includes both the faithful and the forces of chaos that threaten them. As such, God’s command reminds us of Christ’s words to the raging sea (Mark 4:39).

The psalm ends with the refrain that also appeared in verse 7: “Yahweh of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.” This refrain echoes verse 1 in describing God’s strength and his ability to afford protection. While verse 1 highlights God’s protecting presence, the refrain in verses 7 and 11 place the accent on God’s identity.

Two titles appear in the refrains. The first, “Yahweh of hosts,” signifies Yahweh’s control of the heavenly armies and refers to God as the supremely powerful deity (cf. 1 Samuel 4:4; 2 Samuel 6:2; Isaiah 37:16). The second, “the God of Jacob,” recalls Yahweh’s history with a particular people.

Thus, the psalm asserts that the god of the patriarchs and matriarchs is none other than the god who commands the hosts of heaven. The people have had a long history with this God-a history that reminds them that God is trustworthy.

The True Source of Our Trust
The particular name of the “city of God” (verses 4-5) does not appear in this psalm, lest the readers confuse the source of the protection with an easily identifiable location. To tie Yahweh’s protective power to a specific locale, risks the vanity of trusting in human power.

This psalm exhorts its earliest audience not to base its confidence on high, thick walls and expert archers manning the balustrades. It is only God’s presence that promotes security.

Today we can hear the psalm’s message clearly, but many find it difficult to believe. We much prefer to trust in that which we can see: a strong military and a robust economy. or full savings accounts and solid resumes. But these “defenses” ultimately prove unreliable.

God is the only sure defense. On Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of the liturgical year, the Church reminds itself once again of God’s ultimate power over all. Our salvation comes not through military, economic, or physical strength, but through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Indeed, this psalm has been an anthem of the faithful throughout Christian history. In the turmoil of the Reformation, Martin Luther turned to Psalm 46 for courage and comfort. His robust melody and stirring lyrics became the definitive hymn of the Reformed tradition, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” (Ein’ feste Burg, ca. 1529).

Today, when faced with difficult situations, all Christians—both Protestants and Catholics—do well to remember the central message of the psalm.  We are inclined to place our trust in our own resources or in the world’s mighty institutions. Yet these cannot remedy our fear, for they are unable to match the power of God.

The psalm guides us to faith and encourages us to claim: “A mighty fortress is our God.”

Second Reading

Commentary on Colossians 1:11-20

Sally A. Brown

This lection reframes Christian experience within a wide-angle, cosmic divine perspective.

Its opening verses (verses 11-14), a distinctively Christian version of the customary prayer for divine blessings characteristic of formal correspondence of the day, expand into a reminder of all that God has done and continues to do for the often beleaguered Asian believers. Christians in Colossae and other cities of Asia Minor were the victims of suspicion and therefore ill-treatment. Yet, declares the Colossians writer, God provides strength and the ability to endure difficulty with patience (verse 11). God has made them heirs with all the “saints” who live in the “light” (verse 12), “rescued” (liberated) them from the power of darkness, and “transferred” them to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son (verse 13). Their new citizenship includes forgiveness of sins (verse 14).

One approach to preaching on this text is to focus on verses 11-14 and the import of these divine actions. Yet one must keep in mind that Colossians was addressed to the persecuted; it was for their faith that they suffered. Not every inconvenience or mild frustration of our wants constitutes suffering of the kind in view here, and it is important not to trivialize the claims of this text. God seeks to maintain our freedom from the darkness of powers that bind and blind us, including powers that may seem on the surface to be benign. Living in the freedom of frank self-assessment and transparent honesty as individuals and communities, we reap joy.

Exodus motifs echo in verse 13; the term for “rescue” is the same as that used in the LXX to refer to the deliverance of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. A new exodus, a new deliverance from bondage, is in view here. A sermon could explore this theme of the deliverance of humanity from an array of captivities on individual, ecclesial, and broader social levels.

If the sermon centers on these opening verses, it will be important to allow well-chosen hymns and liturgy to evoke the sweeping Christological claims of the remaining verses without invoking triumphalist claims. The cosmic Christology of verses 15-20, though much debated by scholars, strongly suggests all creation belongs to Christ. Reconciliation, even when it is advanced by those who stand outside the Church, is empowered by the Lord in whom all things come to wholeness.

What follows in verses 15-20 is one of the most comprehensive Christological visions to be found in the New Testament. It will be all but impossible to convey all of this in a single sermon. The preacher who works her way doggedly through all of the profound claims of verses 15-20, heaping one upon another, is likely to leave most listeners overwhelmed. Homiletical modesty is in order. Handling two or three verses will be plenty; and preachers are better advised to invite the listeners into a shared exploration that opens a space of wonder and worship than attempt a tour de force of theological explanation.

In order to make a wise choice of phrases to emphasize, taking into account
the structure of verses 15-20 is a first step. The two parts of this section stand in parallel, coalescing around two claims: God’s Son is (1) firstborn of creation (verses 15-17) and (2)firstborn from among the dead (verses 18-20). Under these two major headings stand other claims no less stunning. As firstborn of creation, the Son is the visible image of the invisible God (verse 15). All things, both visible things and invisible things, including the powers of this world, were created through him, and for him (verse 16).  The Son pre-existed all else, and is the matrix of coherence for all created things (verse 17).

As firstborn from the dead, the Son is the head of the body, the church (verse 18); and this function as head aims toward that time when the Son will “have first place in everything” (verse 18b). The fullness of God “was pleased to dwell” (took pleasure in dwelling) in the Son (verse 19), and God took pleasure in reconciling all things, earthly and heavenly, to himself, bending the bloodshed of the cross into the instrument of cosmic peace (verse 20).

The preacher might emphasize the cosmic, creation-centered Christology of the first set of claims (verses 15-17). These verses clearly stake the claim that all created things, visible and invisible, came to be through the Godhead made visible, the pre-existent Son. They exist for the firstborn and derive from him their coherence. Notably, we find here no mention of a “fall” or of creation corrupted; there is only the allusion to powers of darkness from which humanity is liberated. All the emphasis falls on the claim that creation makes sense because of the Son; and this has been true from before the beginning of time. This must shape our attitude toward creation as well as persons of other faiths. Their fulfillment, like ours, flows from the firstborn of creation.

The second set of claims (verses 18-20) stand in sequential relation to the first set. Through death, the firstborn of creation becomes the firstborn from the dead, “assuming first place in everything.” These verses provide an opportunity to help a congregation reconsider its theology of resurrection, as well as aspects of their ecclesiological self-understanding. In too many congregations today, resurrection means only “now we can go to heaven when we die.” So much more is in view here. The parallel structures of verses 15 and 18 imply that the resurrection initiates a new creation. The Church, the Son’s body, is the agent of reconciliation, declaring to the whole created order its emancipation from the powers of darkness.

Some surmise that these verses reflect an underlying baptismal hymn or creed; and this suggests a baptism sermon. Baptism reveals our true destiny and identity. Whatever our life stories may turn out to be, their inconsistencies will be reconciled and their coherence revealed in the reigning, cosmic, visible God for whom we were made.