Text: Luke 23: 33-43
Grace and peace be with you my sisters and brothers, in the name of Jesus, Lord of All. Amen.
There is an image associated with New Year’s Eve that I remember seeing more often as a child than I do these days, though I may just not be paying close enough attention. It’s the image of Father Time holding a baby used to represent the passing of one year into another, and it has been floating in my head as I consider the place this day, Christ the King or Reign of God, has in the church’s calendar.
Cards and party napkins and all sorts of other paper goods sold at the grocery store to people preparing for New Year’s Eve used this image of Father Time, usually standing tall in a long robe and holding a scythe, a long blade used for cutting dried up grass – the kind you see the angel of death holding in movies, in one arm and an infant in the other. Sometimes the infant would be wearing a top hat with the date of the new year printed on it.
Today is the final Sunday in the church’s calendar – a calendar that doesn’t sync up with the calendars that hang on our walls or dwell ethereally in our iPhones. The church’s calendar begins four Sundays before December 25th, which means that it can come as early as November 28th or as late as December 3rd depending on where in the week Christmas falls. This year Advent begins next Sunday on December 2nd, because Christmas falls on a Tuesday.
The fact that the church’s calendar is figured with the birth of our Lord as its fixed point – and that this puts our calendar at odds with the civil calendar – is an appropriate metaphor for us to consider this morning as we celebrate the last Sunday in our church year – which is commonly referred to as Christ the King Sunday, or more recently Reign of God Sunday. The recurring themes in our scriptures and hymns today is that Christ is Lord of All, but that God reigns with a different kind of power and authority than the rulers of this world. The hymn of the day, which we’ll sing in a bit, says
O Christ, what can it mean for us to claim you as our king?
What royal face have you revealed whose praise the church would sing?
Aspiring not to glory’s height, to power, wealth, and fame,
you walked a diff’rent, lowly way, another’s will your aim.
That is the question that frames this last Sunday in the church: what does it mean for us to claim Christ as our King, or to declare that God is the ruler of all? As we’ve traveled this last year together in the church we’ve been hearing mainly from the gospel of Luke what that writer thought the reign of God drawn near in Christ meant. Once we have left this year and moved into the next, we’ll be hearing from the gospel of Matthew. It takes us back to the New Year’s Eve cards: Luke’s time is almost done, he has grown up tall and is holding the blade that cuts the dried grasses, a symbol for death.
The Lukan gospel readings for November have kept our eyes fixed on the reality of death and the hope of the resurrection. From All Saints’ Sunday, to the story of the Sadducees’ questions to Jesus about the resurrection, to his prediction last week of the destruction of the Temple, and finally this week as we hear Luke’s account of Jesus Christ upon the cross, mocked by the powers and principalities of his time by a sign hanging over his head reading “This is the King of the Jews.” We ask, O Christ, what can it mean for us to claim you as our king?
We have four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – in part because this question is too large for any one person to answer. What it means for Luke to claim Jesus as Lord is just slightly different than what it means for Matthew, or what it means for each one of us. We tell the story of God in Christ Jesus just a little differently depending on who we are and what perspective we’re looking in on the story from. Since we’re about to set Luke aside for another two years, let’s review how that writer has answered the question.
Firstly, for Luke to claim Christ as our King has meant to be confident that God is working through the course of time for the fulfillment of God’s purposes. Remember that the gospel of Luke is the only gospel that comes with a sequel – the book of Acts, which picks up after the death and resurrection of Christ and continues on with the story of the early church. For Luke, Jesus is not only evidence that God is moving in history, but that God’s movement connects the past to the future. That the history of the prophets of Israel connect to Jesus, but then move forward into the future through the church. To claim Christ as our King means see ourselves as part of the story of God’s work in the world.
Next, Luke has made it clear to us that Jesus has announced salvation for all people – not just the insiders, or the ones who are in on the secret – but everyone. Of course all of the gospels show Jesus to be concerned with the needs and the status of the poor and the outcast, but none of them as clearly as the gospel of Luke. Only in Luke do we hear Jesus named by Simeon in the temple, who gives us the text of the Nunc Dimmitis, “Lord, let your servant go in peace. My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Lk 2:29-32). Over and over in this gospel we have seen the disciples and the temple establishment alike surprised by the people with whom Jesus shares his good news: Samaritans, women and sinners. To claim Christ as our King means to follow on the path of one who welcomed all into his company and offered the promises of heaven regardless of their station in life.
Likewise, no gospel speaks so clearly about the blessings of poverty and the dangers of wealth as the gospel of Luke has. The popular theology in Luke’s day – and in our own – held that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. Yet in Luke we have seen an image of God who lifts up the lowly and casts down the privileged. Again, it is only in Luke that we hear the famous song of Mary, the Magnificat, where she sings, “my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… who has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” Later, in Luke’s version of the beatitudes, this writer refuses to spiritualize poverty and hunger – he writes, “blessed are the poor” – not “the poor in heart” as the other writers will. He writes, “blessed are you who are hungry now” – not “hungry for justice” but actually hungry. To claim Christ as our King means to be concerned with the real situation of people who are most severely impacted by the wealth and conspicuous consumption of others. To claim Christ as our King means to declare that God’s politics and God’s economy aren’t the “pay to play” variety that we encounter in everyday life, but that each life is precious and central to God’s intentions for creation.
Luke demonstrates this again and again in stories of table fellowship, stories of Jesus breaking boundaries and sharing meals with those he should not have and with miraculous effects. In this gospel he eats with tax collectors and sinners, with crowds of strangers and intimate disciples, with Pharisees. At Jesus’ meals all sorts of scandalous things happen: a woman washes his feet with her tears, Jesus refuses to wash his hands, he tells people to be less concerned about where they sit at the table and then instructs them to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind” (Lk 14:15-24) to their dinners. Jesus uses the banquet table, the common meal, as a symbol for the kind of radical hospitality and social reordering that marks the reign of God. We learn in Luke that to claim Christ as our King means to enact forms of welcome that are tangible, physical and routine. We learn to not just talk about the hungry a
nd the poor and the outcasts of our world, but to reconfigure our tables so that there is room for everyone and then to eat with each other. To practice what we preach.
Finally, for this list at least, Luke has taught us about the role of a disciple. Because this is the gospel that leads into the Acts of the Apostles, this is also – not surprisingly – the gospel in which the disciples are shown in a more positive light. In 2009 we’ll be reading mostly from Mark, who has hardly a positive thing to say about the disciples, but Luke has shown us an image of Jesus who is to be imitated and if we were to continue reading the book of Acts we would hear stories of the disciples preaching as Jesus preached, healing as Jesus healed, and in many cases dying as Jesus died. To claim Christ as our King means adopting a daily practice of taking up the cross and following. (Lk. 9:23)
This is the image of the one who orders our days, who sets the fixed point around which we build our church’s calendar. Imagining this day as a hand-off, a changing of the guard from the year past to the year ahead, it is good to stop and give thanks for the witness of Luke’s gospel – strong in its call for social justice and radical discipleship, a good name for a church to go by. We can stand tall in this name, knowing that even as we let this year go by there is an infant waiting to herald in a new one. There is another gospel, another image of our God, waiting to come to life again, to be born among us. We are held in the unending circle of God’s time.