Jeremiah 23:1-6 | Colossians 1:11-20
Today we come to the end of the Church year.
Next Sunday, December 1st, is the start of advent, the start of the time of getting ready, as we approach the great mystery of Christmas. This week, the final Sunday of the Church year, we celebrate the festival of Christ the King.
Christ the King is a relatively recent addition to the Church year – it was first declared in 1925. In a Europe that had not long ago been torn apart by the clash of great empires in the First World War, and which, by the mid 1920’s was seeing the rise of the power of facism, with its absolute demand on the loyalty of each citizen to the power of the state, Pope Pius proclaimed the festival of Christ the King as a reminder to believers throughout the world that their ultimate loyalty was owed to another king.
The festival of Christ the King might be new, but in instituting it, and by doing so placing the rule of Christ in opposition to the claims and rule of Mussolini, the Pope was standing in a long tradition of the story of the people of God, in both the Old Testament, and the new. For so much of our story is shaped by the voices of the people of God standing as a challenge, a rebuke, an alternative to the demands of empire.
Jeremiah in his time confronted the great power of his world. In the years before the exile, when Israel was under threat from foreign nations, he dedicated his prophetic voice to a searing critique of the religious leaders of his day; the shepherds who, in the reading we heard today, destroy and scatter God’s sheep. Shepherds – called to be the protectors and guides of the people, following the model of their most famous shepherd, King David – but now doing the complete opposite; misleading, endangering, scattering the people of God.
And Jeremiah declares that these false shepherds stand against the way and truth of God, and that they will fall, they will be replaced.
And when it happens: when the Babylonian empire sacks Jerusalem, destroys the temple, decimates the priesthood; when the people are taken into exile and lay down their harps and stop singing their songs, stop telling their stories: then Jeremiah encourages them to make peace with this foreign empire; to remember who they are as the people of God, and live lives which are a blessing to those in the cities to which they are taken. “For in their welfare,” he tells them “you will find your welfare.”. Better, to Jeremiah’s eyes, a foreign empire in which you rediscover what it means to live as the people of God, than the corrupt religion that had gone before.
But he adds another prophecy: the shepherds that have gone before will be replaced by a true king, a king who will rule wisely and justly, and under whose reign the people will be rescued, and will live in peace.
Words of a king, a king who will set them free, a king who will rule wisely; these set Jeremiah against the injustice and oppression by the new overlords just as his former prophecies had set him against the corrupt religious state. Babylon was not the end of the story; the people of God had something else, something better – a king, a proper, righteous, godly king.
These words, and words like them, words of the king who will come from the line of David, who will rule his people justly and well, who will keep them safe, and rule forever – these words were taken up by the first followers of Jesus as they came to understand what they had experienced in his life and death and resurrection and ascension.
From the very early days of the Church the title began to be used: King Jesus, Jesus King of the Jews, Jesus King of Israel. The King now set not in contrast to the Kings of Babylon, but the King of Rome, the Emporer, Nero, and later Vespasian and his descendants. Just like Jeremiah before them, and like Pope Pius two thousand years later, the title “King Jesus” was a religious, social and political rebuke to the empire; to the corruption of power, and to the abuse of religion in the service of that power.
The festival of Christ the King might be relatively new to our calendar; but it reflects an idea that is as old as the faith: that if God is your king, then no monarch, no state, no system, no empire, can claim your final allegiance. For there is another king, an ultimate king.
In his letter to the Church as Collossae, Paul places this title, that of the ultimate king, clearly on the shoulders of Jesus. He is the image of the invisible God (a claim made by, or on behalf of, several of the Caesers), he is the firstborn of creation. All the powers that exist in creation, all the kings and nations and powers and rulers: all exist through him and for him; and he is the head of them all, before them all, in him they all hold together.
In him, the very fulness of God was pleased to dwell.
To the Church at Collossae, and to us, Paul writes – if there is anything that claims a higher calling on your life than Jesus, then that claim is false. That claim has to be subjected to our first loyalty, our first calling, the calling we aknowledge in baptism and live out in the life of faith; the calling to be the people of God.
Which is all very well: but what does it mean? What does it actually mean for us?
To say that God has a higher claim, that Jesus has a higher claim on our lives than any other power or ruler or kingdom; might be something to aknowledge as a theological concept, but what does it mean?
To answer that is more than the task of a single reflection; it’s the task of a lifetime lived seeking to serve the work of the Kingdom of God, while seeking, at the same time, as Jeremiah told the people, the welfare of the city in which we find ourselves living. Learning how it is that by serving the Kingdom of God we find ourselves at the same time serving the world around us, changing it, making it a better place to live, a more just, more generous, more safe, more beautiful, more fun world. That is the work of a lifetime.
For now, I just want to notice Paul’s final words in our reading: in him, in Jesus, God was pleased to reconcile all things. Whatever else the Kingdom of God looks like, whatever else the true service to Christ the King involves, it will always reflect the fundamental work of God in reconciliation.
God’s work, God’s kingdom, Christ’s kingship, is characterised by reconciliation. Reconciliation of individuals with each other, with creation, and with God; reconciliation of races, nations, faiths, cultures and subcultures.
Of anything we are called upon to do, to say, to believe, or to give our support to, we can ask this question: is this a work of reconciliation, of bridging our differences, of finding ways we can live and work and be together, or does it divide to conquer, use our differences to create divisions, set the ‘us’ against the ‘them’.
Whether the kingdom that calls for our allegiance is our society, our government or our Church, this is one question we can always ask. So that we can place our final allegiance where it truly belongs, in the service of Christ the King, in whom God is reconciling all things to Godself.