Thanksgiving comes, and with it an enticement to sing Christmas carols. Soon, we will sing “Joy to the World, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King.” Soon; not yet. Today, we get slapped by the passion gospel. It stops us short in our premature push to celebrate. The gospel asks us to pause as we end one liturgical year; to be still, to think a long thought, before leaping into another one. The gospel this morning sends us back to a place of death and darkness; a place called the Skull. Unsettling on the day we celebrate the reign of Christ; unnerving on this day we proclaim him king. We search for signs of his sovereignty. (Duke)
In Luke’s account of the crucifixion of Jesus, royal language abounds. “If you’re a king, act like one!” the soldiers jeer. “Anointed one of God?” the religious folk are laughing. An inscription hangs above his bleeding head; “This is the king of the Jews.” Pilate means to mock the seemingly helpless one who now reigns from the tree.
And then in a strange and stunning turn of events, one of those who hang there with him turns to Jesus and makes a poignant plea. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” “Remember me.” That’s all he asks. And yet we sense hope rising. This criminal dares to believe something new, something eternal, something redemptive lives in the one who suffers beside him. And Jesus answers. “Truly, you will be with me in paradise.” A Sovereign reigns.
Our readings turn us from the Skull to a small and persecuted church. In one of the most magnificent, sweeping, eloquent hymns in all of Scripture, Paul takes the cross from the Skull and hangs it in the heavens. This one who reigns from the tree, Paul sings to the Colossians, reigns as the glue that holds the entire universe together; defeating the powers of evil; stripping death, distress, and disruption of their sting; bringing order to chaos. This Jesus carries in his being and in his breath the possibilities of new heaven and new earth. (Bruggemann)
And yet, we know all too well the power of the forces of first heaven and first earth to hold us captive: forces that feel well beyond our control. The global economy, political polarization, the national mood—whatever are we to do about them? The psalmist describes our time: a typhoon in the Philippines, melting icecaps and rising oceans. Listen! “The very earth changes, the waters roar and foam, the mountains shake in the heart of the earth.” The whole creation speaks disruption. “Kingdoms totter; nations are in uproar” —Syria, Afghanistan, Newtown. We grow numb to the violence.
Sometimes the darkness gets very close. We get up in the morning; go about our business as usual. Suddenly something happens and our whole world shakes on its foundations.
Fifty years ago this Sunday, the clergy of Dallas struggled to speak to their congregations after the assassination of a president. The Rev. Bill Holmes gave voice to the powers of first heaven and first earth. “Here,” he said, “is the hardest thing to say. There is no city in the United States which in recent months and years has been more acquiescent towards its extremists than Dallas, Texas. We, the majority of citizens, have gone quietly about our work and leisure; forfeiting the city’s image to the hate mongers and reactionaries in our midst.
“The spirit of assassination has been with us for some time. Not manifest in bullets; but in spitting mouths and political invectives.”
As Holmes stepped out of the pulpit, he was handed a note. Assassin Lee Harvey Oswald had just been gunned down. (Washington Post)
The forces of first heaven and first earth remain alive and active among us. In the face of their seeming power, we despair for we feel them quite personally.
“It’s cancer,” says the doctor. “We won’t be needing you anymore,” says the boss. “It’s not you, it’s me,” says our spouse. We feel our world collapsing, life coming apart, chaos close at hand.
Paul sings to the Colossians—and to us—in these moments of profound vulnerability, suffering, and fear. Choose hope! Choose hope! And choose it remembering that God has rescued us from the power of darkness; transferred us into the kingdom of the beloved Son. In Jesus, we have redemption.
Here we find great comfort and deep encouragement. Whatever faith is, whatever it means to yearn for and cling to life in God, whatever it costs to live toward the promise of new heaven and new earth: the vitality, resiliency, and strength of faithful perspective roots itself in the hope of the reign of the beloved Son.
We hunger after this hope. We wonder what prompts the criminal’s pleas from the cross. What inspires Paul’s magnificent hymn written from his prison cell?
Simply put, they experienced Jesus as Sovereign; encountered him as Lord. And then they dared to live as if Christ does, indeed, rule and reign. The living experience of the church across the ages is that in Jesus, all the fullness of God pours into human history. God holds nothing back. God leaves nothing out. In Jesus, the crackling, snapping, quickening source of creation gets loose, making all things new. In him, everything that God is, everything that God loves, everything that God dreams resides and rules and reigns among us.
Our Lord Jesus moves like a firefly through a warm summer evening; a little circle of gentle light glimpsed in the darkness. For a moment, in the tiny circle of light that is Jesus, a leper, a man born blind, a widow woman, a Samaritan, a tax collector, a dying thief, glimpse the new heaven and the new earth.
In a little circle of light like an AA meeting, when a broken and contrite heart welcomes God’s healing truth, new life enters living death.
The Sovereign reigns when a person with great power and influence votes against their own economic self interest and stands with the voiceless poor.
Our texts suggest that Christ’s reign breaks through when someone dares to plead for it. Like Israel reminding God to be God, a criminal prays and sees the face of God, and receives the Sovereign one’s promise of companionship beyond the grave.
My friend Clint Rabb served our Lord Jesus with an abandon few people I have ever known can muster. “I grew up,” Clint said, “knowing that we were meant to make life in our community just a little bit better.” Clint never stopped trying.
Answering God’s call; first as a minister, then as a missionary, Clint lived every day as a plea to Jesus for the poorest of the poor and the weakest of the weak; for the helpless and the lost; for the abandoned and the forgotten.
Passionate, tough, tireless, Clint baptized in the prisons of Russia; inspired churches struggling under the weight of political oppression; preached and prayed new churches into being on the plains of Mongolia. The world was Clint’s parish; his heart and hand upon thousand of churches and house churches across Africa, South and Central Asia, Eastern Europe and Central America. Every time I saw him I was amazed. Clint’s Jesus just kept getting bigger.
On January 2010, Clint arrived at the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to meet some friends for dinner. They were there as a part of a medical mission to improve the health services in this poorest nation in the western hemisphere.
Moments after he entered the hotel lobby, the ground began to shake. The hotel collapsed. Clint and two of his friends were buried in the rubble. Concrete and rebar broke both of Clint’s legs and pinned him in place. Rescue workers found him 55 hours later. It took hours more to free him; and the amputation of both legs. His first thought once freed was of love. “Tell my wife,” he pleaded with rescue workers, “I love her deeply.” They got him to a hospital. Clint died soon after.
More than 700 friends, family, and fellow clergy and missionaries gathered for Clint’s funeral. The bishop who spoke described this man who inspired us all: “Clint was a big man in stature; in spirit; in faith; in advocacy; in his challenge to the entire church. Clint was big in hope. He was and remains a beacon of hope, even in death. “ (Ough)
In the face of death and darkness, Clint lives as a circle of light in which the Lord Jesus reigns.
Soon, we will sing “Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King.” Soon, not yet. Today we pause—we still—we think a long thought. We choose hope. We plead and pray, “Thy kingdom come…” with every fiber of our being. And we sing a hymn to the Sovereign Christ; who reigns, this day, from the tree.
These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell
Washington Post, “Soul Searching in Dallas”, Kevin Eckstrom, 11-23-13
Bishop Bruce R. Ough, funeral sermon remarks, 1-23-10
Pulpit Resource, Vol. 26, #4, 1998
Christian Century, Marty 11-16-94, Bruggemann 10-28-92, Duke 11-8-95
J. Charles Merrill, 8-27-95, sermon manuscript