The Promise Renewed, Anew

For Christ the King Sunday… Scriptures from Jeremiah 36 and 31

This week sits at a funny intersection of our secular and liturgical calendars.

Today marks the beginning of the end of the year, the holiday season that starts with Thanksgiving, runs headlong into Christmas and then comes to a grand conclusion with New Year’s Eve. Though I suppose technically, if we look at the consumer marketing calendar, the holiday season started just before Halloween.

In the liturgical calendar, today is the final Sunday of the year. We have completed another cycle of feast days and seasons. Next Sunday, we start over with Advent.  
But today, we mark the end of the year with Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday.  

“The day centers on the crucified and risen Christ, whom God exalted to rule over the whole universe. The celebration of the lordship of Christ thus looks back to Ascension, Easter, and Transfiguration, and points ahead to the appearing in glory of the King of kings and Lord of lords. Christ reigns supreme.

Christ’s truth judges falsehood. As the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, Christ is the center of the universe, the ruler of all history, the judge of all people. In Christ all things began, and in Christ all things will be fulfilled. In the end, Christ will triumph over the forces of evil.

Such concepts as these cluster around the affirmation that Christ is King or Christ reigns! As sovereign ruler, Christ calls us to a loyalty that transcends every earthly claim on the human heart. To Christ alone belongs the supreme allegiance in our lives. Christ calls us to stand with those who in every age confessed, “Jesus Christ is Lord!”

In every generation, demagogues emerge to claim an allegiance that belongs only to God. But Christ alone has the right to claim our highest loyalty. The blood of martyrs, past and present, witnesses to this truth.”  (From the Companion to the Book of Common Worship)

The Christ the King festival was established in 1925 by decree of Pope Pius XI.

For just a little context, 1925 was the year that Benito Mussolini declared he was taking over Italy and turning it into a dictatorship ending free elections.

Adolf Hitler published his personal manifesto Mein Kampf that same year.

In 1924, government sponsored unrest in the Ruhr region of Germany led to the complete destabilization and collapse of the German economy.  The issues created by the collapse forced France and Belgium to agree on a lowered reparation payment plan and an to end their occupation of the Ruhr within the following year – 1925.

And Stalin was General Secretary of the Central Committee in Russia.  

Looking back, we can see the early warning signs of the second world war.  I’m not sure that Pope Pius was that prescient, but he did see the dangers of nations like Italy being ruled by dictators. And of national governments seeking to silence or remove the church from public life entirely.

He outlined the purposes of Christ the King Sunday in an encyclical or letter from the Pope to the bishops and other clerics.  He spoke of the ways that individuals – whether part of the Catholic faith or not – might reflect on the ongoing sovereignty of God, as well as the Kingdom to come.

Then he spoke to the political happenings of the day, writing:

“Nations will be reminded by the annual celebration of this feast that not only private individuals but also rulers and princes are bound to give public honor and obedience to Christ. It will call to their minds the thought of the last judgment, wherein Christ, who has been cast out of public life, despised, neglected and ignored, will most severely avenge these insults; for his kingly dignity demands that the State should take account of the commandments of God and of Christian principles, both in making laws and in administering justice, and also in providing for the young a sound moral education.”  (Quas Primus)

A few weeks ago, we looked at Samuel’s interactions with God and with the people of Israel as they asked for a king, so that they might be like other nations.

It was a bad idea from the beginning, which God made clear to the people through Samuel.  Kings are fallible, vulnerable to the temptations that all of us humans face.  

And yet, God relented.

Like a parent who knows that every choice their child makes has the potential for great success and equally spectacular failure, God gave Israel the agency to change their minds. Or to go ahead and say, “No really, we want a king.”  

Which they did. Even after God let them know the consequences of placing their faith in the leadership of men.

And within just a few generations, the wheels had come off the wagon in the northern kingdom.  And eventually, those same consequences would come south to Judah.

And once more, God chooses a prophet to carry a message of repentance into the crisis.

36:1 In the fourth year of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord:

2 Take a scroll and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel and Judah and all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah until today. 3 It may be that when the house of Judah hears of all the disasters that I intend to do to them, all of them may turn from their evil ways, so that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin.

4 Then Jeremiah called Baruch son of Neriah, and Baruch wrote on a scroll at Jeremiah’s dictation all the words of the Lord that he had spoken to him. 5 And Jeremiah ordered Baruch, saying, “I am prevented from entering the house of the Lord; 6 so you go yourself, and on a fast day in the hearing of the people in the Lord’s house you shall read the words of the Lord from the scroll that you have written at my dictation. You shall read them also in the hearing of all the people of Judah who come up from their towns.7 It may be that their plea will come before the Lord, and that all of them will turn from their evil ways, for great is the anger and wrath that the Lord has pronounced against this people.”

8 And Baruch son of Neriah did all that the prophet Jeremiah ordered him about reading from the scroll the words of the Lord in the Lord’s house.

Unlike Jonah, walking through the city calling on the people of Ninevah to repent, Baruch went to the Temple. The people heard the word of the Lord, including some of the men who had access to the King. They knew that this was an important word, and that it was critical for the King to hear the message.

Remember the Ninevite’s response?  The King’s response?
Sackcloth and ashes. Repentance.  Fear of the Lord.

And they were the enemies of the Lord!

Here’s how the king of Judah… the descendant from the house of David… responded
21 Then the king sent Jehudi to get the scroll, and he took it from the chamber of Elishama the secretary; and Jehudi read it to the king and all the officials who stood beside the king.

22 Now the king was sitting in his winter apartment (it was the ninth month), and there was a fire burning in the brazier before him. 23 As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a penknife and throw them into the fire in the brazier, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire that was in the brazier.

No sackcloth.
Wrong kind of ashes.

Now, it’s important to note where this takes place. The king is in his winter apartment, which means he had a separate place to live during the warmer months.  In other words, the King is quite comfortable, on this occasion and in general, enjoying the luxuries that come with money and power.

He is so comfortable with power, in fact, that he is not at all frightened by the words from the prophet. As Jehudi read, Jehoiakim literally removed the offending words from the scroll.  He destroyed them by throwing the scraps into the fire.

He utterly rejected the word of God… one slice of the pen, one big old NOPE after another

I don’t know if this was the first, but it certainly was not the last example of book-burning by the ruler of a nation. It is a means of silencing opposition, no matter its origin  

Quite literally, this destruction tells the writer and would-be readers that the sword is mightier than the pen. Symbolically, the message is even more sinister: the one in power can destroy ideas, beliefs, hopes, or dreams.   

We don’t see a lot of book burning these days, but books do get banned.  

People call for boycotts of artists and musicians, when their images or lyrics oppose our strongly-held beliefs or offend our sensibilities.  And certainly in the past months, as protesters make known their frustration with deadly police actions, pipelines through sacred land, city water systems being poisoned and the threats of elected officials against minority groups… there have been government-sponsored efforts to quiet, if not silence their voices.     

But this was not an act of free speech or art…

What the king had forgotten in his arrogance and narcissistic paranoia, was that the message was not from flesh and blood, from Jeremiah, but from God.
This was the word of God to the people of God…
Delivered to a King by a prophet chosen by God.

And in the end, even if you’re the king, you don’t get to decide what has and hasn’t happened.  What God did or didn’t say.
27 Now, after the king had burned the scroll with the words that Baruch wrote at Jeremiah’s dictation, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah:

28 Take another scroll and write on it all the former words that were in the first scroll, which King Jehoiakim of Judah has burned.

Thus, even now, all these generations and translations later, we see in our scriptures not only the warnings of God against the king and the people of Judah, but the actions that Jehoiakim took.

Ironically, this king who thought so highly of himself that he assumed he could silence the voice God,  the very God who had made it possible for him to rule…That king is essentially a footnote in the history of Israel.  

He is just one more king who disobeyed.
One more king who led the people astray.
One more example of why the story of humanity’s redemption is dependent on God’s grace and not our obedience.  

You see, even before this scroll was re-written, before the original was read to the king and his court, before it was taken to the temple to be read aloud to the people as they fasted, Jeremiah had also heard a promise from God.  

A message of hope:
31:31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt— a covenant that they broke,  though I was their husband, says the Lord.

33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord:

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Even as Zion is overtaken by the Babylon, Jeremiah’s prophecy offers consolation.  God has offered a new covenant. A Covenant that moves the relationship between God and the people into new territory.

This covenant is inclusive of both kingdoms – Israel and Judah. God’s promise to David was that a king from his house would always be on the throne in Judah, but there was no such promise made for leadership in the north, leading to chaos and conflict within Israel and against Judah.   

Now there is hope for a reconciliation between the tribes, a close to the enmity between these two kingdoms. And there is hope for the poor and the powerful as all will know God, from the least to the greatest.

Second, this covenant will be built on the foundation of the Torah, with teachings that center on the written word. Not only written in the scrolls, but on the hearts of the people. They can go beyond hearing, beyond reading the laws, to knowing and understanding them at the heart level. They can thus become a faithful people, lawful instead of lawless, maintaining covenant in community.

And finally, this new covenant is dependent on God’s divine faithfulness, remaining in place despite human inconsistency.  God assures that the covenant is unbreakable by taking on the work directly and completely. Listen again for who will be the prime mover in this effort:

“But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God.”

Lot’s of I language there… but this isn’t God making the people into puppets, controlled by some unknown puppet master. This covenant is actually even more relational, less distant.

Where God’s earlier covenant was intimate, using the metaphor of marriage between God and the people, this covenant goes a bit further.  The people will not just understand intellectually that God cares about their future.

God now promises that the people will know the Lord and be known by him.
God promises that we can know the Lord
God promises that we are known.
And loved.

Yes, even us… generations and half a world away from the continent on which Jeremiah and the Hebrew people lived.

We are known and loved by the God who makes and keeps promises.  Because here’s the most amazing part of this new covenant… and the part that ought to sound a little bit familiar.

It offers a fresh start.  

This is not the promise of heirs more abundant than the stars of the night sky… as amazing as that promise was for Abraham and Sarah

This is not the promise of a land filled with milk and honey… as incredible a promise as that was for a people being led out of captivity in Egypt

This is not the promise of a kingdom that will not perish… as honoring as that promise was for David.

This covenant offers the promise of forgiveness.

The Lord says “They will know me for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

The language of a new covenant should sound a little familiar because they are words we remember every month or so…  

On the night that Jesus was betrayed, first he blessed and shared the bread with his followers, explaining that it was his body, broken for them.

And then he took the cup and blessed it as well, and then he said this cup is the new covenant in my blood, for the forgiveness of sins.

This is a callback from the Jesus to the unique words that only Jeremiah heard and shared from the Lord. The new covenant is fulfilled in the person of Jesus who knew humanity intimately as he lived and walked among us. As one of us. Even as he knew and kept God’s will and God’s laws perfectly, fully divine in his complete humanness.  

What is not unique is the betrayal that came before the words of forgiveness were spoken.
The people had chosen a king over God. The King had chosen to worship his own power, rather than God’s power. His own version of the Law over God’s Law. And in choosing to obey the King, the people had chosen again. Not God, but humanity.

That choice sent them into exile, where they waited and watched for God’s rescue, God’s plan for redemption. The fulfillment of that plan was Jesus, God’s answer to the people’s betrayal.

The one who came to do the things God had expected of the people and their kings all those generations ago

The one who subverted the empire by seeking out the people at the edges, the ones who had the least influence, the least power, the fewest resources.

The dangers we face as the church of Jesus Christ in 21st Century America are not unlike the dangers faced by 1st century Jews living in the Roman Empire.  Not unlike those faced by believers in 1925.

The powerful rulers of this human realm would love to distract us from the work left to us by Jesus.
They would slice off and discard the parts of God’s law that are inconvenient or too difficult
They would sit in comfortable spaces, surrounded by people who are afraid to speak truth
They would silence the voices of those being left behind

And so, on this Christ the King Sunday, we look ahead a bit to Luke’s description of Jesus going to his hometown of Nazareth, where he inaugurated his ministry by reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jesus then sat down and said something utterly shocking: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Fulfilled?  Yes… fulfilled.

The Roman empire was still in charge. Caesar still sat on his throne. As did Herod.

But the Kingdom of God had arrived in the person of Christ. The embodiment of the God who keeps promises.

Christ, the promised one who sought to return the outcast into the community
The Promised One who healed and forgave and set captives free.
The Promised One who embodied the work that every believer is called to do, making the world a more just, more loving, more hope-filled place.

As we live into the laws written on our hearts, the Kingdom of God is here.
In this place, in the Body of Christ
In the church of Jesus Christ
In the people of God who answer the call to make disciples and teach them all that he commands.

The Kingdom of God is here in God’s people who speak truth to power
Who refuse to sit quietly and instead rise up…
choosing to do justice and love mercy,
even as we walk humbly with the God who knows us, forgives us, loves us and sends us.

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