Thursday, November 4, 2010

Proper 29 Year C

Proper 29 C "Christ the King."
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Jeremiah 23:1-6: the Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79); OR Psalm 46; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

Jeremiah has turned his contempt for the last king to rule in Jerusalem before the Babylonians captured the city and exiled the leaders, and now turns his derision to the "shepherds," who have failed their duties. They have scattered the Lord's flock and have driven them away, and they who have "not attended to them."  The Lord, Jeremiah writes, will "gather the remnant of my flock..." and bring them home.  New "shepherds" will be raised up who will not exploit fear or dismay.  The day will come when the Lord will raise up a new "Branch" in the Davidic line who will reign wisely and with justice and righteousness.  His name will be, "'the Lord is our righteousness.'"

Zechariah's mute condition is broken with a song.  He blesses the Lord because the announcement of the birth of Jesus means the Lord will fulfill the promises made by the "holy prophets" of the renewal of the Davidic line and the original covenant "to our forefather Abraham."  This "child" will be known as "the prophet of the Highest."  He will "give knowledge of salvation" and "light to them that sit in darkness."  He will "guide our feet into the way of peace."


When everything else seems to be collapsing around us, "God is a shelter and a strength forever," the psalmist asserts.  In contrast to the "roar and roil" of threatening waters, God's reliability is like a "stream" that "gladdens" God's people.  The international scene might be chaotic and threatening, but God is our "fortress."  God has shattered the weapons of war.  "Let go and know that I am God/I loom among nations, I loom upon the earth."  Jacob's God is our "fortress."

In a "Letter to the Colossians" filled with many hymns, the writer first tells his readers why they should sing; because "the Father... has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light."  And, because he "rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the beloved Son..." whom this hymn venerates.  "He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation...."  He is "the head of the body, the church," the first raised from the dead; the "first place in everything."  In Christ, "the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things... by making peace through the blood of the cross."

Only Luke's narrative says that the first words from Jesus when he arrives at  the place of his execution and is crucified are: "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing."  The narrative tells of three groups of scoffers who sneer and mock Jesus for his fate-- "the leaders," the soldiers and one of the two criminals executed with him.  But the other criminal admonishes him, saying "do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?"  We are getting what we deserve, "but this man has done nothing wrong."  He then turns to Jesus and asks, "remember me when you come into your kingdom."  Jesus promptly responds, "today you will be with me in Paradise." 

The witness of the Hebrew scriptures excels at testifying to hard-won trust in God's promises.  The story begins with a promise to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 22:16-18) and continues between God and God's people over periods of dismay on both sides but interrupted occasionally with brilliant, bold declarations of renewal of the original promises.  Walter Brueggemann writes: "Israel's testimony to Yahweh as a promise-maker presents Yahweh as both powerful and reliable enough to turn life in the world for Israel and for all people beyond present circumstances to new life-- giving possibility. Yahweh's promises keep the world open toward well-being even in the face of deadly circumstances." (Theology of the Old Testament, p. 164)  God's motive for being a reliable promise-maker is just a clear.  Brueggemann again: "Yahweh is the one who loves Israel, who loves what is not-yet Israel, and who, by the full commitment of Yahweh's self causes Israel to be." (p.  415)  "It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors...." (Deuteronomy 7:8a)

Jeremiah's announcement that the Lord will raise up a new "Branch" comes at one of the bleakest hours in Israel's long history, providing hope against hope.  The psalmist (46) has learned whom to trust when everything else has collapsed-- "Jacob's God is our fortress."  

It is the testimony of the Christian scriptures that God's promises were renewed, yet once again, in Jesus and for God's exact same motive-- love.  The writer of a "letter" to Christians in Colossi includes a hymn, either original or extant, for believers to sing: "He is the image of the invisible God...."  So how does God renew the ancient promises again in Jesus and display once more God's love?  "[T]rough the blood of the cross,"  the hymn concludes.

In Luke's narrative, just as Jesus approaches, climbs onto and is nailed to the cross, he  pronounces a full, complete and indiscriminate absolution: "Father, forgive them...."  The near unanimous response from all those who hear him is ridicule.  But one sees what is happening more clearly than the others.  He alone sees the outrageous absurdity of this situation-- "this man has done nothing wrong" -- and hears Jesus' total compassion for his hapless persecutors.  He alone recognizes and accepts this generous offer and receives immediate assurance-- "today you will be in Paradise."  

Jesus is, for Christians, the continuation and full renewal by God of the most ancient promises for the same old reason-- love.  (In Luke's  post resurrection appearance of Jesus, he quotes Jesus as telling the disciple who do not yet recognize him: "'Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?'"  Luke continues, "beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself." [Luke24:26-27])  So Christians sing: "the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things in making peace through the blood of the cross."

Jean-Luc Marion has written that "the death of Christ offers the apex of his visibility." (Being Given:Towards a Phenomenology of Giveness, p. 239)  Hanging out to die on a cross that gruesome Friday in Jerusalem, Jesus is exposed, alone, abandoned, lifted-up to the scrutiny and spectacle of all to see, and, more fully, all he had ever said and done becomes clearest here.  Marion also sees, what he calls, "the paradox of all paradoxes" on the cross, which reveals Christ's "royal" status, that is as the one with the authority to announce and inaugurate God's "Kingdom."  This "paradox of all paradoxes" is contained in the total absurdity of the situation.  God's love is now in flesh and blood.  

Marion insists that this "paradox of all paradoxes", because of its audacity, "transforms the I into a witness, into its witness." (p 241)  Luke intentionally explains that there were two camps of responders that day.  Almost all were scoffers, but there was one new follower.  Wherever and whenever this story of the culmination of Jesus' efforts on our behalf to renew God's promises and expose God's love again is read and explicated, there are fresh witnesses.   Each responds in his or her own way on any given day.