Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Fedderson:
(I have chosen the lessons from Jeremiah, Colossians and Luke 23 — they are also appointed to “Christ the King” Sunday)
This Sunday is a kind of New Year’s Eve — it is the last Sunday in the Church Year. Next Sunday the whole thing starts over with the First Sunday in Advent. The lessons emphasize the reign of Christ. In Jeremiah, God promises a king in David’s line who will rule wisely, maintain law and justice, and be called, “The Lord is our Righteousness.” In Colossians, St. Paul seems to be quoting a hymn or creedal statement that proclaims Jesus as the first of everything and authority over all. Paul concludes by saying that all this took place “when He made peace by His death on the cross.” The Gospel lesson is that story of the cross, with its touching tale of the penitent thief hanging next to our Lord.
As I read these lessons, I see an interesting comparison between force and power. One dark and chilly night, my son Dan and I were driving home from church and, as we approached a railroad crossing, we were greeted by the flashing red lights. I said, “Watch this,” and drove my truck up close to the tracks. (I say “close,” but I’m a big chicken — we were more than ten feet from any part of the train.) As we sat there with the headlights blinking a reflection back at us from various parts of the thundering iron horse, it took courage to look directly forward through the windshield. At that distance, the rolled up windows couldn’t stop the roar. The truck vibrated from the tremors in the earth as the wheels of the colossal mass hammered separations in the crossing. The awesome power of the mechanical beast was unmistakable. We found that we needed to look away more than once to alleviate a shiver in the spine.
That is power. Force is different. To me, a 100-year-old oak represents power. The woodsman’s chain saw and splitting maul represent force. In the book Crowds and Power, Elias Canetti points out that a cat uses force to seize a mouse, to hold it and eventually kill it. He adds, “But while it is playing with it another factor is present.” The game of cat and mouse is to let the prey have enough space to imagine it is free. The cat will even turn around, pretending indifference, but if the mouse attempts to flee, the force returns — because the mouse has remained under the cat’s power.
Canetti goes on to say that many religious people, followers of Islam and Puritanism for example, yearn for God’s force. They are not content to be enveloped in His power. Perhaps this is because it is too distant and leaves them too free. Yet, it is power without force that we see in Jesus. Armed force, hammers and nails, spears and helmets appear to be in control, but the real Power hangs on the cross.
There is a pallid old joke about an executioner who was about to behead a prisoner. Taking his sharpest sword, the executioner made a fast, clean swipe. The condemned man piped up: “Ha! You missed.” The executioner replied, “Oh yeah, wait until you sneeze.” It is a sad commentary, but there are probably a lot of churches that would be in real trouble if they “sneezed.” From time to time, every church needs to take a very hard look in a mirror to see if its Head is still there.
Some statistics make me wonder if the love-power of God — Christ, the Head, is in danger of being severed from His Body, the Church. In 1997, it took 66 LCMS members to bring in one new confirmed adult. At the same time, for every one we brought in, almost two went out some back door. Statistics for the church at large are worse yet. Headless and powerless, the church often turns in against itself. I once read a stunning anecdote about a frontier Methodist who remarked to his neighbor, “We had a revival meetin’ last week and no one was saved. The Baptists down the road had a meetin’ at the same time, but, thank God, they didn’t save anybody either.”
On the other hand, I hold little patience with those who two-step around the outside of the church taking pot-shots at those who are in. The poet, Shelley, once said, “I could believe in Christ, if he did not drag around behind him that leprous body of his, the church.” It is a fantasy to think you can love a disembodied Jesus. A friend once tried to comfort an 80-year-old widow at the loss of her husband: “Don’t cry, Elizabeth, his soul is with Jesus.” The octogenarian replied, “But I want his body here with me.” Christ and His Church go together.
Everyone who writes on a regular basis can appreciate the literary skills that are found in Sunday’s lesson from Jeremiah. No one loves a skillful turn of phrase or a clever use of words more than someone who works hard at turning phrases and using words. The clever parts of Sunday’s lesson are difficult to find and appreciate in some translations. God is renouncing the kings of Israel and Judah for scattering the flocks they were to shepherd and failing to tend them. The NIV translation says, “Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done.”
If a mobster leaves town and tells a colleague: “take care of my mother,” we can expect that she will receive all the help and care she needs. If the same mobster, having been deceived and cheated by an associate, tells one of his thugs: “take care of him,” the associate will probably be fitted for a concrete overcoat! Something similar occurs in Jeremiah with the Hebrew word, “Paqad.” It could be paraphrased with, “Because you have not taken care of my people, I will take care of you!”
Later in the lesson, when God promises to gather the remnant of Israel together again, and place good kings over them, He says, “I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing.” The same word is used. This time, we could say, “nor will any go uncared for.”
Another subtle turn of phrase comes at the end of the lesson. After forcefully deposing the king of the Israelites, the Babylonians appointed a puppet king to rule over them. The so-called king was the nephew of the deposed Jehoiakim and one of the most wicked kings of all. The Babylonians gave the nephew a royal name, “Zedekiah,” which they may have translated as “A Righteous Lord, or Yahu is my Righteousness.” Many Kings, Pharaohs and Caesars claimed to be God, so the first is not unlikely. At the end of the lesson, God promises to “raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land.” That King will be called, “The Lord (Yahweh) is our Righteousness.” In name and in deed, that King is the exact opposite of the weak and sinful rulers the people had endured for so long.
In the New Testament, Jesus is clearly identified as that King. Sunday’s lesson from Colossians is just one place where He is seen as Co-Creator, the fullness of God, and King. In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, the identity of King is made facetiously and mockingly. Most bizarre of all, it is His indictment and verdict, written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek, above Him on the cross: “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” The taunts of the soldiers are filled with satire and irony: “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” Jesus had a different goal: as King of Jews and Gentiles alike, He saved us!
It has been suggested that we should not have just one cross in the chancel area of our churches, but three. Even on Golgotha, Jesus refused to be alone. He came to save sinners, the least, the last and the lost, and even at His moment of truth He was there with them — and at the moment of His victory, He took one with Him! His words to that one are a dramatic contrast to everything else going on. When it appeared that Jesus was defeated, evil had won the day, and sinful humans were in charge, Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Then and there as here and now, One is King; One has the last word, the final say, the ultimate power; One is in charge.
That One has entrusted His mission to His church. In all of life and even in death, let us do as He did. Let us never stop looking around, even among the least likely candidates, for someone to invite to paradise with us. (For some of this material, I am indebted to Glendon Harris and a “Pulpit Resource” he published and edited several years ago.)