Rev Dr John McCulloch
24th November 2019
Sunday of Christ the King
Jeremiah 23: 1-6 & Luke 23: 33-43.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable to you o Lord, our rock and our redeemer, Amen.
Kings and shepherds are not normally associated. At one level, they represent opposite ends of the social divide, and yet, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and the NT, the figure of king & shepherd are closely related. They are placed in prophetic alignment.
Psalm 23 is just one of many passages where God, the ruler and king of the universe is described, not as all-powerful and mighty, but as a humble shepherd, who ‘leads us by the still waters and restores our soul’.
It was the Shepherds of Beit Sahour who watched by night as our God incarnated into the world; and Jesus is described both as The Good Shepherd, and also as King.
Today is the last Sunday in the Church calendar, known as The Sunday of Christ the King. Next Sunday, we move into a new Christian church year, leaving the gospel of Luke behind and turning to Matthew for the year ahead, which marks the beginning of the season of advent.
Today, as we reflect on what it means to extol our Lord as Christ the King, our readings remind us that his kingship cannot be understood in isolation to shepherding.
In our OT reading from Jeremiah 23, the writer prophetically sees the role of king and shepherd as being one. Jeremiah sees the best traits of kings as those exemplified by good shepherds. Just like a shepherd should care for his vulnerable flock, so a King should care for the widows, orphans and those who do not enjoy power, wealth, and status within the unfairness of our world.
It has often been said that character is shown by how we treat those who can do nothing for us. So many of our human interactions do the complete opposite. If we are honest, more often than not we treat those with wealth, power, status and influence, differently to those who have nothing. In fact, our whole global system is predicated on this unfair and dehumanising approach.
In so doing, we are not being true disciples of Christ… Throughout scripture, we read time and time again, that true power and authority are measured by how we treat those who are crushed by the systems of injustice in our world…, how we care for those who carry heavy burdens. Burdens that come from within and without.
In Jeremiah 23 the prophet cries out with outrage and protest at those who abuse their position: Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! The passage goes on to say that God himself will raise up shepherds to care for his people, and in verse 5 he mentions the great shepherd-King David. God will raise up someone like King David, who will ‘deal wisely, and execute justice and righteousness in the land’.
In our world today, and lamentably throughout the sorry tale of human history, all too often , leaders have been known not because they rule with justice and righteousness, but because they see power as a privilege to be used for their own benefits, rather than doing what is right. Of course, there are exceptions, but they are few and far between. All too often, leaders can become obsessed with the glamorous trappings of power and fame. Many do not seek to challenge a world system where, in the words of the poet Leonard Cohen, ‘the poor stay poor and the rich get rich’.
This is why our God had to come into our world, to show us what real kingship looks like. Christ the King is both King and Shepherd, as the hymn writer reminds us.
In our NT reading from Luke 23, we see that Christ’s rule is paradoxically established through crucifixion. His kingdom will not come through earthy power, through wealth, through violence and military might; but through our Shepherd-King, who gives his life for his flock, dying as an a outcast and a criminal, outside the city walls.
Christ the King dies, literally between two criminals. Look at Verse 23: when they arrived to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his left and one on his right.
There he suffers abuse and ridicule, as some call on him to save himself, and they place an inscription over his head which reads ‘This is the King of the Jews’.
What seems like the end., the tragic culmination to Christ’s life and ministry here on earth, will become an event like no other in human history. Our God, both King and Shepherd, crucified and cast out.
The love, forgiveness, healing, mercy and nonviolence that flow out from the cross to those who crucify him, show us what true kingship looks like, how real servanthood is to be understood.
It is Jesus’ non-violence and love in the face of torture and derision, that show us the transforming love of God.
Christ goes to that place of death and darkness, where in a sense, all the evil and hatred and rejection from down the centuries is thrown at him, and in responding in love, he shows us a better way. Father Timothy Radcliffe puts it like this:
Jesus’ sacrifice upon the altar of the cross was not one more bloody example of sacred violence but its defeat. He shows it up as empty and futile. ‘It is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins’ (Hebrews 10.4). Jesus’ death was a massive rejection of a whole way of being religious. One can also see it as a culmination of a long and gradual process by which our Jewish ancestors withdrew from sacred violence […]
[…] But this innocent and forgiving victim will transform that hate-filled unity into the communion of the kingdom: ‘I, when I am lifted up, will draw all to myself’ (John 12.32). This is Jesus’ costly sacrifice. It is not endured to propitiate an angry God, but so as to take upon himself all the vengeance and blood lust of humanity. This is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s vision of the suffering servant: ‘Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed’ (Isaiah 53.4).
We esteemed him smitten by God, but we were wrong. It is we who smote him and his forgiveness will transform the lynch mob into the communion of the church.
Today, as we reflect on what it means to worship Christ the King, may his example of love, sacrifice, radical forgiveness and compassion; transform our lives, that we may walk out of this place at the beginning of this new week, seeing all whom we meet as those who are dignified by being created in the image of God…
A God who calls us, his flock, to follow in his footsteps, to take up our cross and die to all that is contrary to his kingdom, and be signs of his love and hope, in our hurting world.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning is now, and evermore shall be. Amen.
 Timothy Radcliffe, Why Go to Church: The Drama of the Eucharist (London & New York: Continuum, 2009), 119, 121-122.