The Sunday Sermon: Reign of Christ Sunday – November 26, 2017
Scripture: Matthew 22:34-40
Jesus is Lord: Listen to Him
It is the Reign of Christ Sunday, or Christ the King Sunday. I realize that that “Christ the King” is a profoundly patriarchal title, which is perhaps why we have moved toward calling this day “The Reign of Christ” Sunday. I agree with every attempt we can make to be sure that “men,” or the masculine, is not understood as God in any way more fully than women, or the feminine. “God is …” all of that, and more, in spite of our dominant masculine imagery and incessant masculine pronouns. But one thing we do lose when we don’t use “King” is the profoundly political nature of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. To call Jesus “King” and to refer to Heaven as the “Kingdom of God” was a provocative confession in the first century Roman Empire. That’s pretty crucial for this morning’s message, indeed for the whole service. So hold onto those associations.
But before we get to the political, I remind you that whatever we call it this is the last Sunday of the church year. And this year it happens after Thanksgiving, which was of course this past Thursday, on almost the earliest day in November that it can happen. So we have this Sunday between … before Advent starts. On other years, when the Sunday after Thanksgiving is the first Sunday in Advent, the Reign of Christ Sunday kind of gets lost in the Thanksgiving hymns and messages of gratitude that were the focus of last week’s service.
So, it’s nice to have a little extra time again this year and I want us to use it to try to remember something absolutely crucial to our fractured, confused, frustrated, divided, and anxious lives, with all of those adjectives becoming even more descriptive since last November, just over a year ago, no matter what side of the American political aisle you’re on. Here’s that something absolutely crucial we need to remember: Jesus is Lord.
Pray with me …
So, let’s get to it, to this last Sunday of the church year that is absolutely critical to our Christian identity. This day is supposed to make sense of everything that we’ve done for the past year (the past church year, I mean), from last Advent through Christmas day; into the celebrations of Epiphany and Jesus’ Baptism, through the first weeks of “Ordinary Time” and into our Lenten journeys; through Holy Week, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter’s Resurrection; then, the ascension in the 50 days that followed Easter, and the arrival of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost; through the entire summer with our more laid-back gatherings, Rally Day in September, Stewardship Season in October, All Saints’ Remembrance on the first Sunday in November to this Sunday, the last of the month. This day is supposed to remind us of why we did all that and do all that year in and year out.
All of these celebrations and remembrances, everything we have done all year long are celebrations and affirmations of who we are and who we follow, and it comes to a climax today for us in the oldest and the simplest profession of the first communities that gathered to follow the Way: Jesus is Lord. And we are made “One” with that confession. But …
This morning, as we engage one another and the world, as we gather for worship and prepare to hear the scripture reading, we realize we’re not united. We are torn this morning between two groups, two “parties,” with conflicting ideas as regards the implementation of the Law and the role of government in our lives. One party supports the creation and implementation of laws, which would keep us purer in our commitments to God and country. Another, while still holding fast to the authority of the Law, are more open to other nations, other rulers, because they understand the political and economic benefits that maintaining peaceful relations with other ruling governments provides. One group is predominantly made up of the middle-class and the other claims more identity from the aristocracy. One group is more open to the world around them, and to a “secular” worldview and the other sticks to stricter adherence to religious teachings and control. One group is labeled “liberal elitists” while the other considers itself more “religiously committed.”
By now all of you, I’m sure, are aware of who these groups, or “parties,” are in our lives, even today, and you’re maybe even feeling just a bit uncomfortable to be bringing them up again in a Sunday morning worship service. I’m describing of course the two parties we most often refer to as … the Sadducees and the Pharisees. (What were you thinking?!) Two powerful and influential Jewish parties in the first century AD with vastly conflicting philosophies in regards to the implementation of the Law, or the Torah, as they called it and their engagement with the secular governments of their time, from the Roman Empire to the others that surrounded them.
In chapter twenty-two of the Gospel of Matthew, these two powerful groups are actually, and perhaps for the only time in the history of their relationship, engaging in what we have come to call a bipartisan fashion. They are joined in a common cause to engage Jesus.
Jesus has come into Jerusalem for the first time in his public ministry. After his messianic entry into the capitol city (on what we celebrate as Palm Sunday), and his prophetic criticism on the temple administration (what we know as the “cleansing of the temple”), Jesus begins to talk with all those who would listen, using parables to teach them about the nature of God and what Heaven is like. Our two parties become nervous and afraid, even desperate, wondering where this human being finds his authority. And in their desperation they confront him in chapter twenty-two.
They don’t engage him together, that is as “one party.” They do it separately. In verses fifteen and those that follow, the Pharisees ask him if and how they should pay taxes, a vitally important question to all who would call themselves Jewish and commit their loyalty to God, alone. In verse twenty-two we hear that Jesus’ response “amazes them” and “they left him.”
In verses twenty-three and those that follow, it’s the Sadducees turn. They come to Jesus and ask him about the nature and reality of Resurrection. Again, a vitally important issue for both these sects, one of which (the Pharisees) believed in heaven and hell and a resurrection of some sort, and one of which (the Sadducees) did not. In verse thirty-three, those who heard Jesus’ response were “astounded.”
This is the set-up for our scripture reading today, the question about the greatest commandment. Listen for the Word of God. Read Matthew 22:34-40 … The Word of the Lord.
Two voices, two parties (and to be sure they weren’t the only voices claiming to have the best understanding of the mind of God in the early first century: there were the Essene separatists and the Nazarene libertarians, to name only two more religious voices), but two parties in our reading are who are engaging Jesus.
Now, given our own time and the deep division that is part of our political and religious lives, it is worth wondering a bit deeper about “why” the Pharisees and Sadducees are confronting him. We know, of course, what our scriptural interpretation says. The Pharisees, it says, wanted to “entrap him” (22:15) and so we then assume that the Sadducees had similar motives. And then the Pharisees come again, sending the lawyer in our reading, verse thirty-five says, “to test him.”
But we may wonder: Is he really trying to simply trick Jesus? Maybe he’s now trying to prove to the Sadducees (the “other” party) that the Pharisees (his party) are smarter than they are. “This time we’ll get him.” Is he now, perhaps even, trying to recruit Jesus to “their side?” Maybe he feels Jesus would be a good ally. Or …
Is this Pharasaic lawyer, after hearing Jesus’ teachings through his parables and his responses to their questions, genuinely seeking to better understand what the “Law” requires of him? Of them. Of us. Has what he has heard so far inspired him to believe that the Way Jesus just may be able to answer the strongest questions of his heart?
Listen to this. (I know that sermons are wordy things and mine can be too intellectual and this one has already included more history than you’ll remember, but tune back in if you’ve slipped away and listen to this): This is the question of this day, this Sunday where we recognize, celebrate, and profess the “reign of Christ” in our own lives. Is the Way of Jesus able to answer the strongest questions of your own hearts?
Today, as the church year ends and we anticipate beginning again; today, as we make the profession that Jesus is Lord; and as we live our lives as he did his, we answer, “Yes, it is able.” But here’s the catch, here’s what this Sunday is really a reminder of: Our profession, this belief, this identity must infuse every moment of our lives in every place our lives take us. Not just when we’re here in this room on Sunday morning, but when we are in our offices or classrooms; when we’re with our families or with our friends; when we’re at our dinner tables or a part of our social organizations; when we’re in the grocery line or the voting booth; when we’re talking about personal decisions or national policies; Sadducee or Pharisee, Democrat or Republican, Presbyterian or Methodist, as Christians, first, we must always ask: Is the life of Jesus able to answer the strongest questions of our own hearts?
We must seek, in every corner of our lives – personnaly and publicly, religiously and politically – to save ourselves from our own worst impulses, urging all those we charge with ordering the political, religious, communal, and personal parts of our lives to subordinate all decisions and interactions to the sacrificial Way of Jesus, to put our personal lives, our families, our country and all its laws and policies in service to the common good rather to the power of the few.
We’re getting ready to start all over again, to try to “get it right” this time. This reminder, these words, don’t make it easier, we know that. But they give us hope in a promise of a love that does exist – that has existed from the beginning and that echoes through the world still today.
Jesus is Lord: Listen to him …
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.
May it truly be so through our lives. Amen.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church, November 26, 2017