Wednesday, November 27, 2019

December 15, 2019 - 3rd Sunday of Advent

                                                            Biblical Words                                           [635]

Isaiah 35:1-10;  Psalm 146:5-10;  James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11.
Advent looks for a time of healing and  joy for people previously excluded from God's safe highway. 

This Sunday in Advent looks toward impending change, as do the other Advent days, but there is special attention here to healings or other repairs of past damage, as signs that a new reality has appeared.  

Isaiah 35:1-10.  

The prophetic reading is a chapter in Isaiah which is almost isolated and unexpected where it is found.  It stands as the last word in the writings known as First Isaiah (chapters 1-39), followed only by the historical appendix excerpted from the Book of Kings (Isaiah 36-39).  

In its message, tone, and vocabulary, chapter 35 belongs very much in the ambit of the Second Isaiah collection, the prophecies of the return from exile in Babylon (chapters 40-55).  It shares with Second Isaiah an exalted vision of the return of exiles from distant lands.  The following items are also shared between chapter 35 and Isaiah 40-55.  
  • There is a vision of the wilderness bursting into vegetation (35:1-2 and 41:18-19).
  • There is a proclamation to strengthen the weak with good news of God's deliverance (35:3-4 and 40:9-10).
  • There is an emphasis on the blind seeing and the deaf hearing (35:5 and 42:18-20).
  • There is a vision of the great processional highway on which God appears and the exiles return to Zion (35:8-10 and 40:3-4). 
The reading proclaims that the scattered and lost will be brought in abundance and safety to their ancient home, the Holy City.  The special theme for this Sunday is the healing of the ills of these lost ones.  

The eyes of the blind shall be opened,
      and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
     and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
          (Verses 5-6, NRSV.) 

In the prophesies of the exile, the “blind” and “deaf” are Israelites who do not comprehend, who have not yet grasped God's transcendent and saving character (Isaiah 42:18-20, “Who is blind but my servant, / or deaf like my messenger whom I send?”).  This continues the language of the First Isaiah, who heard from God the word of judgment to make the people deaf and blind so they will not repent and be healed (Isaiah 6:9-10).  According to the Second Isaiah there will again be seeing and hearing because a new revelation of God will be available.  

In our passage the divine change is extended to encompass other disabilities that afflict the homeless and lost.  The lame and the dumb as well as the blind and deaf will experience health and wholeness. 

The human-scape as well as the land-scape will be marvelously transformed for the return to the Holy place.  

Psalm 146:5-10.  

The Psalm reading gives us an affirmation of faith, in response to the prophetic vision. 

The psalmist also declares the power of God to restore the human scene to health — physical, social, and spiritual. The words of the blessing pronounced are powerful, here as given in The New Jerusalem Bible translation. 

How blessed is he who has Jacob's God to help him,
his hope is in Yahweh his God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea and all that is in them.

He keeps faith forever,
gives justice to the oppressed,
gives food to the hungry;
Yahweh sets prisoners free. 

Yahweh gives sight to the blind,
lifts up those who are bowed down.
Yahweh protects the stranger,
he sustains the orphan and the widow. 

Yahweh loves the upright [righteous],
but frustrates the wicked.
Yahweh reigns for ever,
your God,
Zion, from age to age. 

James 5:7-10.  

Following the prophecy of healing on the way back from exile, and the psalmist's affirmation of such hope, the Epistle reading declares,  

“Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near” (verse 8, NRSV).  

The writer’s message is about patience.  His hearers are in a waiting mode, and he encourages them to endure and hope. 

The model he proposes for patience is the farmer waiting for the crops to ripen (verse 7).  This was a much more powerful reference in ancient times than in the modern world of commercial food production.  

In the ancient eastern Mediterranean it was not unusual that food ran out before the new crops were ready.  It became desperately critical to preserve the new growing crop and not begin to grasp its young premature grains.  One was sometimes watching a weak family member die from starvation while the new crop was still growing.  

Thus, the initiation of the new crop was a very sacred moment.  It took a religious act to declare the new crop free for human use.  The first head of grain was a first-fruit offering to the holy powers that had given the new grain.  The first harvest (beginning at Passover-Unleavened Bread time) was one of high emotion and tension, especially in times of famine and drought.  

That kind of tension, waiting with restraint, is the “patience” the writer tells his audience they must have.  The opposite of such patience is “grumbling,” and this the believers must avoid toward each other – as they imitate the endurance of the prophets (verses 9-10).  

Matthew 11:2-11.  

The Gospel reading deals with John the Baptist and the signs of the coming reign of Heaven.  

In this passage the Baptist does not seem to know that Jesus is the Anointed One (Messiah).  It is an open question for him, and he sends to Jesus to find out.  

Jesus' answer to John is to remind him of the signs that he (John) has heard about, that the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and in general the poor have good news brought to them (verses 4-5).  

This is in fact an answer only if one knows of the prophecies in Isaiah, and especially in chapter 35, which we heard above.  Jesus’ list of healings exceeds the prophecies, at least those mentioned in Isaiah and the psalm. The Messiah's work here also includes cleansing lepers and raising the dead.  These additional works of mercy were performed by the prophets Elijah and Elisha (I Kings 17:17-24 and II Kings 5:1-19), and thus also belong to God's works for the faithful. 

It is by reference to the prophets that one learns when the right time has come, what are the signs that God's salvation has begun to secretly invade the world, otherwise so full of wickedness and misery. 

Jesus does not say, Yes, I am the Anointed One.  Instead he points to the works and lets John draw his own conclusion.  The Gospel writer refrains from painting for us what John might have said.  John was already in prison and would soon die at the command of Herod Antipas.  

Our passage contains further words of Jesus about John’s significance in the history of salvation. 

John appeared out in the wilderness.  People had to “go out” to hear him.  It was not a setting of comfortable pews or air conditioned conference rooms.  Why would people “go out” in spite of hardships and discomforts?  Because they intuited that a prophet had come, and the coming of a prophet implies great changes in the human order.  In John's case, Jesus says, it was in fact the fore-runner of God’s own coming, as prophesied in Malachi, here quoted by Jesus (in verse 10).  

John the Baptist is the Fore-runner, the Elijah, preparing the way for the Lord, the Son of God, born in the City of David, as we will hear in the next Gospel readings.  

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

December 8, 2019 - 2nd Sunday of Advent

                                                       Biblical Words                                                     [634]
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19;  Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12. 
God’s judgment comes through an heir of David, announced by a prophet preaching repentance.  
Isaiah 11:1-10.  
The prophetic reading for the second Sunday of Advent is a companion piece to last Sunday’s vision about Zion.  Last Sunday described the judgment of God that would be available to the peoples in Zion, a judgment that would lead the peoples to peace.  Today’s reading is about the special royal figure through whom such judgment for the peoples is rendered.  This prophecy is a vision of a New David through whom the spirit of the Lord will speak and act.  
We hear of a new thing, not simply of a continuation of what has been.  There is an old “stump” in the ground, cut off in a time of troubles.  But from it there will grow a “shoot” that will become a “branch.”  The original David was cut off, but from his line will come a new figure with impressive qualifications.  
Those qualifications are endowed by God’s spirit.  It is 
the spirit of wisdom and understanding, 
the spirit of counsel and might, 
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord (verse 2, NRSV).  
These qualities are the ones needed by the perfect judge.  
In the Deuteronomistic History, Solomon was offered whatever he wanted from God, and he had the good sense to ask for wisdom.  “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people [without divine guidance]?” (I Kings 3:9, NRSV).  The qualifications granted by the Spirit of God are those of a wise and perfect judge.  
Given these qualifications, he will judge supremely well.  “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, / or decide by what his ears hear” (verse 3).  His insight will be deeper.  He will penetrate the underlying motives and devious plans of those who come before him.  
The Deuteronomistic historians gave the story of Solomon’s judgment of the two prostitutes (I Kings 3:16-28) as a model of a self-validating judgment such as a wise judge would devise.  Each of the two women claimed to be the mother of the surviving baby.  The king ordered that the baby be cut in half so they could share it.  The woman who then cried out to give the baby to the other woman was manifestly the real mother, the king said.  There is a clarity, a self-evident rightness to this judgment that would characterize all the judgments of one led by the spirit of God.  That Branch of Jesse would be such a one.  “With righteousness he shall judge the poor, / and decide with equity for the meek of the earth” (verse 4). 
Near the end, the passage leaps to a new level of harmony in the created world (verses 6-9).  Righteousness and kindness will become so pervasive that the animal world will also reflect it.  The wolf and lamb will be buddies, similarly the lion and the calf.  The bear and the cow will graze together, and the lion will learn to eat grass instead of creatures further up the food chain.  Finally, small children will play with (formerly) poisonous snakes, and in general “they will not hurt or destroy / on all my holy mountain” (verse 9).  This unique natural utopia is a remarkable element of the vision, expressing a profound sympathy between the natural and the human worlds.  
Our reading, however, returns to the main thrust that links to last week’s vision.  “The root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious” (verse 10).  That is the supreme vision of the one who will reign from God’s holy city.  
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19.  
The psalm reading is a direct response to such a prophetic vision.  This is one of only two psalms assigned to Solomon (the other is 127), the son of David.  It is a powerful prayer – actually uttered not by Solomon but by the people who are dependent on his wise judgment.  It prays fervently for the things promised in the prophetic passage.  Let’s just listen to it in the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanak translation.  
O God, endow the king with Your judgments,
      the king’s son with Your righteousness;
      that he may judge Your people rightly,
      Your lowly ones, justly.  
Let the mountains produce well-being for the people, 
      the hills, the reward of justice.  
Let him champion the lowly among the people, 
      deliver the needy folk, 
      and crush those who wrong them.  
Let him be like rain that falls on a mown field, 
      like a downpour of rain on the ground, 
      that the righteous may flourish in his time,
      and well-being abound, till the moon is no more.  (verses 1-7, NJPSV) 
[The last two verses of the reading, 72:18-19, are the conclusion of the Second Book of the Psalms (psalms 42-72), not of this psalm itself.]  
Romans 15:4-13.  
The Epistle reading makes explicit what the earlier readings have implied:  hope, and especially hope for the nations.  (Throughout this passage, “Gentiles” should always be read as “nations.  Gentiles is a Latin word left over by lazy translators that hides the meaning of Hebrew goiim and Greek ethnē.)  
The apostle refers to the scriptures as providing hope, and prays, “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another…” (verse 5, NRSV).  Writing to the Christians in Rome, this refers to Judean and non-Judean Christians living in harmony.  They are urged to welcome each other, as Christ welcomed them both.  
Christ is here viewed as fulfilling the role of the Root of Jesse.  He is the Davidic king (Romans 1:3) through whom the peoples are judged and brought to peace.  
But equally, Christ was the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham:  
“For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs” (verse 8).  
But even more, Christ is the fulfillment of the promises to the nations, and Paul quotes three scripture passages that call upon the Nations (“gentiles”) to rejoice in God’s salvation for them (verses 9-11).  He then caps off the point by quoting our Isaiah passage (in its Greek version):  
“The root of Jesse shall come, 
       the one who rises to rule the nations; 
       in him the nations shall hope” (verse 12, NRSV modified).  
His final prayer in this passage is for the hope and peace (read, “ethnic harmony”) of the Christians in Rome, which they may expect from the Holy Spirit.  
Matthew 3:1-12.  
All the Gospels begin Jesus’ work by presenting John the Baptist, who announces the coming of God’s judgment.  The word of judgment is the beginning of the gospel.  
In Matthew, John’s opening words are identical to those Jesus proclaims when he begins his ministry (compare Matthew 3:2 with 4:17).  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (RSV). 
This beginning assumes in the background the visions of the exaltation of Zion and the peace it provides, as well as the visions of a descendant of David who will judge the peoples with justice and equity.  If the reign of God is at hand, then in some way the content of these visions, about God’s judgment and the benefits for the nations, is what’s coming.  
John appears as an Elijah-type figure from the wilderness, reflecting both his place as the “voice” crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord (verse 3) and his role as the returned Elijah who precedes the great judgment.  (“Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes,” Malachi 4:5 [Heb. 3:23], NRSV.)  John carries forward this preparing of the way by baptizing people who repented of their sins.  
But there are also established religious types who come to see John, and the rough man of the wilderness takes them on.  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (verse 7, NRSV).  This is a Judean audience, and one of the things John does is undermine the status claim that they may suppose they have as descendants of Abraham.  God can raise up children of Abraham from the very stones on the ground.  
These religious people are not rejected; they are told how serious the time of judgment is.  That time is at hand.  “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (verse 9).  
John is not himself the Judge; he only goes before the great figure.  “I am not worthy to carry his sandals” (verse 11).  However, this great Coming One also comes in judgment!  While John baptizes in water, this Coming One will baptize with the Holy Spirit [wind] and fire.  “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (verse 12).  
This widespread imagery of a winnowing judgment comes from the threshing floors of Palestine.  The sheaves are brought from the fields to the high place, which has a breeze blowing over it.  There the sheaves are trampled over to shake the grains from the dry husks and stalks.  Then scoops of the mass are taken up in a winnowing fork and tossed into the air.  The breeze blows the small pieces of chaff off to the side and lets the grains fall into a pile.  When all the mass is winnowed, the grain is gathered for storage and the heaps of chaff off to the side are burned in big bonfires. 
Here it is explicit that the one coming with the Holy Spirit will judge the wicked as well as the righteous.  We may not have heard the last word about the options open to these wicked, but the imminent judgment for all is very clear, and is announced as the beginning of what, nevertheless, is Good News. 

Thursday, November 14, 2019

December 1, 2019 - 1st Sunday of Advent

                                                      Biblical Words                                               [633]
Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122;  Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44. 
The liturgical year begins with visions that place the world under God’s judgment. 
(For an overview of Lectionary readings in Advent of Year A, see the Special Note below.)  
The Christian year begins with the imagery and symbols of Zion and its king.  In Jewish tradition the covenant of Sinai dominates all later developments of tradition.  In the emergence of Christian faith, the Zion tradition, with its centrality of city and king (Messiah, Christ), is finally most decisive for Christian self-definition.  Thus the first word of Advent is about Zion (Isaiah) and the coming fate of the holy city (Matthew).  
Isaiah 2:1-5.  
The first reading from the Prophets for the Christian year is one of the most dramatic components of the ancient Zion tradition.  
The old Zion tradition.  The Zion tradition was the visionary world of the temple city of Jerusalem, a city that was already many centuries old when King David captured it and made it his capital.  (Jerusalem is mentioned in Egyptian texts of the 19th century BCE, a thousand years before the time of David.)  David turned the city into his own by proclaiming to the religious circles there that it was Yahweh, his God, who had empowered him to capture their city and rule over the surrounding nations from there.  They in turn possessed traditional religious language to express the vastness and the cosmic significance of the God who had made David the ruler of the nations.  
The religious visions of Zion emphasized the divine quality of righteousness (zedeq, in names like Melki-zedeq, Psalm 110:4; Adoni-zedeq, Joshua 10:1; and Zadoq, the Jerusalem priest who served both David and Solomon, I Kings 1:34).  Those visions carried on an ancient heritage of the pre-Israelite world and later gave it world-class expression, glorifying the little temple-city that became the famous “City of David.”  
Our passage announces a “word” that Isaiah “saw,” more literally “envisioned” (ḥāzāh).  It is a vision of things in “days to come” (verse 2, NRSV).  The vision unfolds in stages:  
First, the mountain of the house of the Lord will be elevated, will become obvious as the peak of the world mountain on which the most important holy events occur.  
Secondly, when the mountain has become conspicuous, the peoples will see it and will “stream” to it, like water flowing up hill.  
Thirdly, we hear why these people flow to the house of the God of Jacob.  It is because “instruction” (torah) will be available in Zion.  There, God will “judge between the nations, / and shall arbitrate for many peoples” (verse 4).  The holy city on the hill will be the source of infallible justice (“righteousness,” zedeq).  
Finally, the result of having their disputes settled by supremely wise adjudication is that people no longer need or want to fight wars.  The demand for swords and spears will drop dramatically, and blacksmiths far and wide will be turning the tools of war into the tools of agrarian life.  Zion, in its revelation of the last days, will be the source of peace and prosperity for the nations.  
“Let us beat our swords into plowshares.”  Artist:  Evgeniy Viktorovich Vuchetich (1908-1974).  Courtesy of Vanderbilt University Divinity Library, Lectionary Resources.  
This vision stands at the beginning of the Christian year, as the first word of Advent.  It says in a hopeful way, that the judgment of God is the way to peace.  
The tone here is irenic only; it does not bring up the negative side of the judgment of God, how the persistently wicked and evil will also experience that judgment.  For them, the coming judgment is NOT good news.  They will not so gladly stream to hear the instruction of the Lord.  But for now, they are ignored and the vision that lures and guides the peoples is one of blessing, because righteousness is finally lifted above all the low places of the earth.  
Psalm 122.  
In the Psalm reading the Israelite pilgrims at festival time praise and pray for the holy city, Jerusalem, place where judgment takes place.  
Jerusalem here is not a vision; it is concrete reality.  
Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.  
Jerusalem – built as a city that is bound firmly together (verses 2-3, NRSV).  
The Jerusalem of this psalm is the temple city seeking world renown for the God who is celebrated and worshipped there.  It is a city in which, first the temple was rebuilt with its own walls protecting the sanctuary proper (finished in 515 BCE), then, three generations later, walls around the entire city were completed to make it a fortified city of refuge (completed by Persian governor Nehemiah around 443).  It is this beautiful and confidence-inspiring temple city that the psalm celebrates.  
At the center of the psalm is a statement of the city as the place of judgment among the tribes, recalling a legendary past to intimate a similar glorious future.  
There the thrones for judgment were set up, 
      the thrones of the house of David (verse 5).  
The chosen city was the seat of the royal judge, the final appeal for justice and righteousness among the tribes.  
And Jerusalem is not only a place of the temple of God and of the royal administration.  It is a city where people live!  
Peace be within your walls, 
      and security within your towers. 
For the sake of my relatives and friends 
      I will say, ‘Peace be within you’ (verses 7-8).  
Such a prayer is still appropriate at Advent in the year of our Lord 2019.  
Romans 13:11-14.  
The visions of prophet and psalmist inspire attitudes, which should guide the expectations and conduct of the hearers.  
The Epistle reading urges the hearers to adopt an attitude that will guide them through the time of judgment.  “You know what time it is” – because you have already seen the vision.  It is still night, still the time before the judgment of God has become conspicuous to the peoples.  But it is at the end of the night, near daybreak.  Therefore, time to be awake, to be acting as if the light is already present.  
The apostle seems to regard the activities of the night as pretty wild and scandalous.  “Let us live honorably… not in revelry and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy” (verse 13, NRSV).  Is he suggesting that the present believers used to live this kind of night-life?  Is he saying, “Don’t revert to your old ways”?  Or is he only suggesting horrible things that simple and humble people hear about and should avoid with dread?  
In any case, the attitude he urges is clear.  Live on the verge of dawn, so we can conform our lives to the glorious light about to break on all folks, revealing in gross shame or in humble faithfulness, how all have been living!  
Matthew 24:36-44.  
The Gospel reading is about waiting – not waiting simply to kill time, but waiting in a proper attitude, in very high expectation.  
Jesus lifts up the story of Noah and the flood as a model.  The business of the world was going on as usual.  The bars and lounges were open, wedding parties and bachelor parties were going on.  (Like the apostle, Jesus seems to regard the people of darkness as doing a lot of partying and carousing.)  Such party-goers do not perceive the signs of the time – they do not know the secret word of God about judgment.  Thus, the next thing they know there is more rain than the world can handle, and it is too late to get into that floating temple of salvation.  
The emphasis of the passage is on the time that is NOT known.  While the whole chapter is about the signs of the time, the bottom line is that you can’t calculate the time.  You have to live as if today is the last day of your life.  
An ominous note is sounded in the middle of the passage, where Jesus speaks of those who are “taken.”  “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.  Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left” (verses 40-41, NRSV).  
Considered by itself, this sounds like the one who is taken has been judged – taken away to punishment.  Being “taken” is a bad thing, and the one left behind has survived the judgment.  The point is the unexpectedness, the seemingly arbitrary choice of who gets in the ark and who doesn’t.  Salvation did not come to those who had left the world and gone to a distant hill.  It came right in the midst of the world’s work.  
However, when this passage is taken with ruthless literalness and combined with Paul’s view in I Thessalonians 4:13-18 (as latter day Bible prophecy people do), we are led to the complex theory of the “Rapture” of believers, that whisking away of people preceding the worst of the disasters of the final judgment.  On this other-worldly interpretation, being “taken” is a blessed thing – even if it is still a little scary.  
The last word of the passage is also about night life.  Burglars work at night.  If the homeowner knew the burglar’s schedule, he would obviously protect his property.  In the real world, the burglar strikes when least expected.  The choice for believers, therefore, is not to stay up all night watching for the burglar, but to worry less about the property and live toward the coming judgment of God.  
Living for today, trusting God to manage the process of the imminent judgment – that is the attitude that Jesus’ vision promoted among his followers.  

Special Note:  Advent in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary  
An overview of the readings for the season of Advent in this year may highlight the flow of moods and themes.  
Prophetic Readings.  
The prophetic readings are all from Isaiah:  
·        We hear the vision of the torah of God going forth from Zion to bring peace to the nations through the righteous judgment of God (2:1-4).  
·        We hear of the Spirit filling the perfect ruler (Messiah) who establishes that peace with perfect righteousness (11:1-10).  
·        We hear of the transformation of the barren world into glorious fertile earth, accompanied by the transformation of human suffering into health and happiness (35:1-10).  
·        And we hear the prophecy of a young woman bearing a child which is given an auspicious name declaring the presence of God with humankind (7:10-16).  
The Psalm readings responding to the prophetic readings are:  
·        Psalm 122 presents the glory of the holy city;
·        Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 sings of the glory and promise of the Anointed king; 
·        Psalm 146:5-10 praises God’s gifts of freedom from oppression and care for the unprotected; 
·        and Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 is a prayer from Israel for deliverance by the one at God’s right hand.  
Epistle Readings
The Epistle readings are mostly from Romans:  
·        Romans 13:11-14 speaks of the nearness of salvation;  
·        Romans 15:4-13 quotes scripture about the gospel’s inclusiveness; 
·        James 5:7-10 speaks of patience until the Lord comes; 
·        and Romans 1:1-7 gives the gospel in a nutshell.  
Gospel Readings
The Gospel readings are all from Matthew.  
·        In 24:36-44 we hear of the Son of Man coming suddenly;  
·        in 3:1-12 John the Baptist announces the imminent Judgment;  
·        in 11:2-11 John hears from Jesus the signs of the present Reign of God; 
·        and finally, in 1:18-25 a certain Joseph is guided through the scandal of a virgin’s delivery of a savior. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

November 24, 2019 - Reign of Christ Sunday

                                                               Biblical Words                                             [632]

Jeremiah 23:1-6; Luke 1:68-79;  Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43. 
As the liturgical year ends, the faithful hear the promise of the Reign of Christ. 
The last Sunday of the liturgical year is called the festival of the Reign of Christ (until recently it was called “Christ the King”).  It anticipates the coming season of Advent, with its paradoxical message of strength in weakness and good news in secrecy.  
Jeremiah 23:1-6.  
The theme of the Reign of Christ views Jesus Christ in terms of royalty, which leads to prophecies about the kings of Israel. 
The book of Jeremiah has a whole collection of prophecies about kings (Jeremiah 21:11-23:8).  These are kings of Judah, since the kingdom of Israel was long gone.  Our reading is the concluding part of that collection of prophecies about the kings. 
Using a wide-spread convention of the ancient world, God speaks of kings, good and bad, as shepherds and of their people as sheep.  “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord” (verse 1, NRSV).  The disasters of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah are blamed on their kings.  These kings were responsible for the policies and governance that led to defeat and exile – allowed by God as punishment for the sins of the whole body politic.  
Now the judgment has been carried out, however, and the Lord looks ahead and plans to gather the sheep from their places of scattering and to “bring them back to their fold,” where they will increase and prosper.  In the new days they will need a new king, and as the first great king loved by God was David, so a “branch” of David is now promised as a new king bringing justice and righteousness to the land.  “I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (verse 5). 
This new king will have a special name, loaded with its own meaning.  “And this is the name by which he will be called:  ‘The Lord is our righteousness’” (verse 6).  This is an ironic name.  In Hebrew the new name is yahwēh zidqēnu, Yahweh (the Lord) is our righteousness.  
The irony is that this name mirrors, but reverses, the name of the actual king of Judah in Jeremiah’s last years.  That king’s name was Zedekiah, zidqiy-yāhu, Righteousness is Yahweh.  This may have been a good name, but it was borne by the wrong man!  Zedekiah was anything but a great and righteous king.  He vacillated and resisted the prophet’s words from Yahweh; he yielded to those who opposed the prophet; and finally he rebelled against Babylon and brought final destruction upon Jerusalem and its kingdom.  
The name of Yahweh’s Anointed king of the future, Yahweh is our Righteousness, was an exact reversal of the name of that last ragged king of Judah.  The promised king, with the new name, would reverse the disastrous past and bring in a new era of God’s reign.  
Luke 1:68-79.  
The Psalm reading comes, not from the Psalms, but from the Gospel of the year that is now ending, Luke.  It is the song of blessing sung by Zechariah, the father of that John who would become the Baptizer.  
The song blesses God for raising up a savior from the house of David, that is, a king who will fulfill the promise of welfare to the descendants of Abraham (verses 68-73).  The blessing glides into a prophecy – appropriate for an elderly father blessing his son – and declares that this first new-born child will be called “the prophet of the Most High, / for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (verse 76, NRSV).  
The final words of the blessing speak of these coming events as a “dawn” that will give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.  The people thus enlightened will have their feet guided “into the way of peace.”  
The blessing-prophecy sees ahead to the magnificent transformation hidden behind a couple of modest births in and around Jerusalem.  
Colossians 1:11-20.  
The dawning of the light for a people in darkness is also the opening theme of the Epistle reading.  
This passage, with its hymn about the Christ of the cosmos who overcomes all alien powers, we have read not many weeks ago (6th Sunday after Pentecost, July 21, 2019), among the selections from the smaller letters of Paul.  Its appropriateness to the theme of the Reign of Christ is the declaration of what God did in Christ.  God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (verses 13-14, NRSV).  
In this particular passage, the role of kingship is to rule, to overrule destructive and oppressive powers in the whole cosmos, powers that work for death instead of life.  Thus this king rules, he rules over “things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers,” from all of which we are delivered.  “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (verses 19-20).  
That is, this rule over the demonic and destructive forces that threaten us came at a cost.  The king born as a baby died as a criminal on a cross, with the sign over his head, “the King of the Jews.”  The divine power and redemption comes through the divine weakness and hiddenness.  
Luke 23:33-43.  
The selection from the Gospel for this Sunday emphasizes this hidden character of Christ the King (or Christ Who Reigns).  It is Luke’s account of the crucifixion itself!  
Our first surprised response to this passage is, “This is no way to treat a king!”  Since this is the last selection from Luke’s gospel in the regular cycle of readings, let’s step back and try to catch the long view he is presenting.  
Luke was presenting the “inside story” on this notorious Jesus business, “the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (Luke 1:4, NRSV).  
  • He presents Jesus as born and baptized through the participation of God’s Spirit, and then as the one anointed by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Jubilee to the poor, the prisoners, and the oppressed (Luke 4:18-21). 
  • He reports Jesus proclaiming that the poor, the hungry, and the depressed are blessed now, and the rich, the full, and the laughing are in trouble (6:20-26). 
  • When Jesus is finally recognized by his disciples as the Anointed One (the King) and is manifested to them in his heavenly glory, he immediately begins to predict his disgrace and death in Jerusalem (9:18-39).
  • Then, during his long “journey” from Galilee to Jerusalem (chapters 10-19), Jesus is constantly setting the way of faith in sharp contrast to the way the world works.  For those who truly have faith, the world is not what it seems.  There is a hidden kingdom on hand in relation to which one may live.  
Our reading is the climax to which all that leads.  
When presenting Jesus’ crucifixion, Luke does not dwell on the agony and pain; he dwells on the mocking of the king.  “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”  “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”  And from one of those dying with him, “Are you not the Messiah?  Save yourself and us!”  But from the thief who has caught a glimpse of the truth, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  The crucifixion in Luke IS the mocking of the King (rather than some agony, blood, and flagellation, which if they happened are virtually ignored by the Gospels).  
Throughout, Luke presents Jesus as the veiled embodiment of an alternative reality.  
The message of Jesus, of the apostles, and of the Gospel writers is designed to work a transformation in the hearers, so that they can apprehend this reality and orient their whole lives and beings by it.  
The final angle on this alternative reality is, of course, the last word – the resurrection.  In the resurrection Jesus truly becomes the Christ Who Reigns!