Another church year has told its story, taking us from anticipating the Christ, to encountering the Christ, to killing the Christ, to marveling at the Christ’s new life, and finally to following the Christ into the future. How should this story end, before we rewind it and begin again, next time with different emphases?
I’m not simply referring to the ambivalence that many preachers bring to the year-end observance of the Reign of Christ (Christ the King). For one thing, that celebration was instituted relatively recently (1925). Moreover, a lot of us, especially in more privileged cultural contexts, have good reason to be apprehensive about imperialistic rhetoric. At the same time, I always chuckle when the believers who most love focusing on the reign (basileia) of God balk at speaking of God as a potentate (basileus), even a just one.
No, the larger question for us at this time of year is this: What future do we imagine? Where is our story headed? The question swirls all around us. It lurks in the Gospel texts from the previous week (calamities described in Mark 13) and the next week (the distress of Luke 21 coming with your first Advent candle). It’s implicit in your congregation’s stewardship campaign and budgeting decisions. It was screaming at the few who were listening during the recently concluded United Nations climate change conference (COP26). It’s there as we continue to slog through the pandemic’s lethal and emotional devastation and preach to pews that are much emptier than they were last time Year B came to an end.
No one expects you to be able to see clearly into the future, Working Preachers, but we are expected to preach in light of an imagination for what comes next. Our preaching has to be about more than transporting people into first-century Galilee so they can happen upon a sandal-clad Jesus for fifteen minutes before returning to confront life in an uncertain present. What’s next? Where are we headed?
I urge you this week to take some time to think about the end—the telos, the goal or the realization—of the good news you preach. There is no single best way to answer the questions I’m posing. Christian eschatology is full of variety, and I’m convinced it needs a massive overhaul if Christianity hopes to recover some intellectual and moral credibility in our lifetimes.
But that heavy lifting will need to wait for another day.
Don’t rush your preparations this week toward a tidy sermon that talks about Jesus as a king, even the kind of king who redefines our whole notion of kingship. I’m not sure where that gets us. I’m also not sure everyone needs a sermon about letting Jesus rule in their hearts right now.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t preach about Christ as one who reigns and who will reign. But what will that message look like? What does it mean for life in a society where selfishness and death appear to hold the better hand?
Where does your theological imagination beckon you, and why? Do you speak about (or run from) themes like re-creation or ecological catastrophe, divine judgment or systemic oppression, and Christ’s rule or public cynicism? It’s a lot easier to get through the day (and the church year) if you neglect those topics. But then consider what happens when our rosy but tissue-y pictures of the church and our grandiose fantasies for growth, novelty, and “success” wake up to the cruel reality of a pandemic? What happens when Christians’ parochialism, inhospitality, and just plain bullying get (re)exposed?
To me, at least, church leaders of all kinds too often resemble Pontius Pilate in John 18. We think securing the future happens through controlling the discourse. We interrogate Jesus and the Bible, either trolling for knowledge or scavenging any kind of evidence to corroborate what we’ve already decided is true: “So you are a king?” Just tell us what you are. Define the terms. Declare your authority. Validate the categories I’ve chosen to use. Check this box. It’s lazy and manipulative.
Meanwhile Jesus is trying to bust open Pilate’s tiny imagination: “My kingdom is not from [ek] this world.” You’ve missed the whole point. You’re employing the wrong criteria. You haven’t learned to dream. The point is to open yourself to what’s possible. Break your addiction to control.
You don’t have to explain “thy kingdom come” with precision, charts, or a timeline. But you can help people figure out how to get to get to next week. You can help your congregation hold the space people need to express their disappointment. You can give permission to dream—not to return to some illusory nostalgia about good old days but to guide us into future discipleship, present consolation, and our realistic capacities.
This column has been short on answers though long on questions. That’s because we’re talking about the future. At least you’ll get to be part of it, and that’s probably what your congregation really needs right now. Pat yourself on the back and offer thanks to God because you’ve made it through this awful year. I’m not saying next year will be any better. But it can be different.