11May you be strengthened through his glorious might so that you endure everything and have patience; 12and by giving thanks with joy to the Father. He made it so you could take part in the inheritance, in light granted to God’s holy people.13He rescued us from the control of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. 14He set us free through the Son and forgave our sins.
15The Son is the image of the invisible God,
The one who is first over all creation.
16Because all things were created by him:
both in the heavens and on the earth,
the things that are visible and the things that are invisible.
Whether they are thrones or powers, or rulers or authorities,
all things were created through him and for him.
17He existed before all things,
and all things are held together in him.
18He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning,
the one who is firstborn from among the dead
so that he might occupy the first place in everything.
19Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him,
20and he reconciled all things to himself through him - whether things on earth on in the heavens. He brought peace through the blood of his cross.
This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God
The last sunday of the church year, the last sunday before advent, is always dedicated to proclaiming the Reign of Christ. Our resurrected Lord rules all of creation from where he is seated on the right hand of the Father, from thence he shall come again to judge the quick and the dead.
So I set out at the beginning of the week excited for a sermon comparing the reign of Christ to all the things that his rule would replace. It was going to be full of hope for a brighter future, when we left our unjust systems behind. I was ready for a scripture passage all about how The Earth is the Lord’s, and all that is within it. It was going to be very Presbyterian in its emphasis on the loving and unyielding sovereignty of God.
There was going to be a parade celebrating the reign of Christ, people were going to cast ticker-tape from the windows of buildings, marching bands would play the great hymns of the faith, and people would wave banners all proclaiming the good news of God!
Then I turned to our Gospel passage this morning, where I read the following story. Please stand for the reading of the gospel.
33When they arrived at the place called The Skull, they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. 34Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” They drew lots for his clothing.
35The people were standing around watching, but the leaders sneered at him, saying, “He saved others. Let him save himself if he really is the Christ sent from God, the chosen one.”
36The soldiers also mocked him. They came up to him offering him sour wine 37and saying, “If you really are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” 38Above his head was a notice of the formal charge against him. It read “This is the king of the Jews.”
39One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus insulted him, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
40Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, “Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die? 41We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.” 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
43Jesus replied, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.”
This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God
You’re kidding me, right? I was all prepped for a high-energy-God-wins-in-the-end kind of sermon and I get the narrative of the crucifixion? I wanted banners and instead I got a sign that said “This is the king of the Jews. Where’s the part about God smiting the evil empire and setting up a kingdom which shall have no end? I wanted marching bands and instead I got jeering crowds. Where’s the redeemer who rescues his people with a strong arm? I wanted ticker tape and instead I got cast lots for his clothing. Where’s the end to all our suffering? Why did it end up at the place called The Skull?
My guess is that the disciples asked the very same questions. The inner circle whom we call the twelve have made themselves invisible during the night, and the people who stand around watching are no longer convinced that this is the heir to the throne of David.
It looks as if the Roman Empire has found another brigand. They’re going to make a visible example of him so that others will know not to claim the title of “King.” For only Caesar is a son of gods, and only Caesar rules in this empire.
Or so it seems.
Up to this point, everyone who has looked for the coming of the kingdom of God was watching for the same model of visible conquest as earthly rulers had used. But God is not the same kind of generic ruler we have come to expect. The reign of Christ is not defined by champions or armies. The reign of Christ is defined by the cross. “Because the fullness of God was please to live in him, and he reconciled all things to himself through him-- whether things on earth or in the heavens. He brought peace through the blood of his cross.”
I think it is certainly within God’s power to sweep any empire right off the map. But I don’t think God is interested in coercive, destructive, rule. God is much more interested in redemptive, creative, reign. The first is much easier than the second. Christ’s redemption over all creation comes through the cross so that the world might be forever changed, even the parts of the world that had opposed God at every turn. The reign of Christ is not visible in armies marching forth with religious symbols painted on their shields, it’s shown when at his death, the heir to all authority on heaven and earth intercedes in prayer, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”
We really don’t. We don’t know what we’re doing when we step out into this world and proclaim that the powers and principalities that we can see are not the final word, and yet work so hard to serve them. We don’t know what we’re doing when we buy into the stories that our culture tells us about what being blessed looks like. We don’t know what we’re doing when we say we believe, but live in a way that sows doubt. We don’t know what we’re doing, and so out of our own limited understanding of how the world works, we end up opposing God.
The reign of Christ claims even us. Even in our stubbornness, our limitedness, our ignorance, our sin, Christ still claims us. No matter how deeply we are stuck in our wrongness, God measures us according to Christ’s rightness. The reign of Christ doesn’t just upend our unjust systems because even those injustices we would rather stay invisible are subject to the redemptive reign of our Lord who “rescued us from the control of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. He set us free through the Son and forgave our sins.”
That, friends, is something worthy of gratitude on this Sunday before Thanksgiving. The reign of Christ, in his peculiar cruciform way of showing it, extends to all of creation, even to the unworthy bits.
Lucky for us. Because I’ve never met anyone who is worthy of the gifts God gives us. And it’s easy, I think, to get caught up in obsessing over all those components in our lives that we wish we could just make invisible and never have to deal with again.
In my work in the Chaplain’s office, I’m not only tasked with visiting patients and providing pastoral care to a broad swath of people. I’m also working in an educational setting to learn and explore my own pastoral identity, and to develop the skills to engage those around me not just on an intellectual level, but on an emotional level as well.
Much of that work involves exploring and confronting the parts of myself that I would rather keep hidden: my anger, my fear, my grief, the places in my own history where I have been hurt. As we approach the holidays and the gathering of families, it is all to easy to see the places where I have been wounded. It is tempting to compartmentalize the parts of myself that I’m not proud of, especially in a family where there is an unspoken expectation that, let’s be honest, I don’t always meet.
Now I’ve never felt unloved by any member of my family, and I certainly hope to make them as proud of me as I am of them. There’s a lot to celebrate in the rich history of Tabers, Potters, Shrewsburys, Barnettes, Barnards, and Boshells. The love shared in those groups, the talents, the triumphs, the traditions, are all part of what defines my family for me. Those parts are easy to identify as belong to, and extending from, the reign of Christ.
But there are also parts of my history that I would rather sweep under the rug, history of families broken up through divorce, or abuse, or of being ruled by addiction.
The reign of Christ extends to all of that as well. Even the parts of me that I don’t like belong to God. The reign of Christ preserves my whole self, even the parts of me that I would rather not let anybody see, and claims all of me as beloved by God, and wrapped in the righteousness of Christ until even the darkest parts of my soul are set free from the stain of sin.
All of this is possible through the reign of the Son who, at the place called The Skull, prayed for the forgiveness of those who mocked him, killed him, and dared him to try and save himself.
The Son is the image of the invisible God,
the one who is first over all creation.
Because all things were created by him:
both in the heavens and on the earth
the things that are visible and the things that are invisible.
T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men” makes the claim that the world will end not with a bang, but a whimper. Christ, however, claims both as defining characteristics of his reign. The visible bang comes in the hymn of praise in our Colossians text, for all people can sing praises to their God, and to Christ who reigns on high. But in claiming the greatness of the hymn, Christ also chooses to define his reign by the whimper of a dying criminal, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Both the visible acts of praise and the nearly invisible cries of hope out of despair belong to the reign of Christ.
In our own time and place, we are approaching Thanksgiving, a time when we celebrate the things we are grateful for, lifting them up and choosing them as our organizing narrative throughout the darker months of the year. Immediately after Thanksgiving, we line up around the block for the chance to get the best deals on our holiday shopping. We make the news with our nuisance, a visible part of the Christmas season which we are approaching.
Yet on that same night, others will be lined up at the doors of soup kitchens and night shelters, hoping for the chance to get a meal this week, or that they might not have to sleep outside in the cold. They’re often overlooked, invisible to society for any number of reasons. It’s easy to judge them as being unwilling or unable to work their way out of their situation, or so say that we are not in a position to help, and maintain their invisibility.
On the other hand, a number of my friends from Seminary, and I’d imagine they’re not alone, would look at the commercial bent of the other lines, the one’s outside of department stores, and see those who have twisted their whole lives around saving a few bucks. They would judge those who would sacrifice time with family for a we dollars fewer spent on gifts for that same family.
I say that both sets of lines are full of people who are claimed by Christ. The homeless and the shoppers are all citizens of God’s kingdom, rescued from the darkness by Christ.
As our days grow steadily darker, and less of the day is visible, we celebrate the Reign of Christ at the end of the Christian Calendar. Advent begins next week. It’s a season of waiting, of longing, of preparing. Advent is a time when we look for the invisible, preparing for the easily overlooked birth of a peasant child whom we celebrate at Christmas. The invisible God made flesh, visible at last for those who know to look. Advent is a time of waiting for the invisible to become visible. The Christian calendar begins in Advent because we need to know that we start with waiting.
This week shows us what we are waiting for. The reign of Christ, who is heir among all creation, who’s reign is defined not by a visible sign that reads “This is the king of the Jews,” but by the invisible redemption that is already begun.
The things we celebrate, and the things we hide are all subject to the lordship of Christ. We can hide them from each other, because some of them cause friction within the community of faith. We cannot, however, hide them from God. The parts of ourselves we would show to the whole world belong to God, the parts of our society we would make visible to all who look also belong to God. But in those moments when we are ashamed, either of part of ourselves or on behalf of our whole community, God claims those as well. The Reign of Christ is not about discarding the bad and uplifting the good, it’s about the reality that all of creation, both in the heavens and on the earth,
the things that are visible and invisible, Whether they are thrones or powers, or rulers or authorities, all things were created through Christ and for Christ.
And Christ who reigns loves us.