November 20, 2011

the once and future king

Scripture Reference: Luke 1:67-79

Please pray with me.

Lord, we come here this morning to hear a word from you. To that end, I ask that I would decrease, and that your Spirit in this place would increase. And that the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, would be acceptable in Thy sight, O Thou our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.


Good morning! I am happy to be with you this morning in the new old sanctuary. It looks nice, but it doesn't look that different. Most of the transformation has occurred on the inside of the building, not the outside; I am sure there is a sermon there, but I am not going to preach it. But it is good to be back where we can once again see many more backs of people's heads. It is a good morning this morning, made all that much better by the fact that the right team prevailed in last night's 114th annual Big Game. And in honor of some of my fellow Cardinal alums, and Golden Bear alums, I have a joke for you.

On their way to a church to get married, a couple had a fatal car accident. The couple found themselves sitting outside heaven's gate waiting on St. Peter to do an intake. While waiting, they wondered if they could possibly get married in heaven.

St. Peter finally showed up and they asked him. St. Peter said, "I don't know. This is the first time anyone has asked. Let me go find out." And with that, he left.

The couple sat and waited for an answer for a couple of months and they began to wonder if they really should get married in heaven, what with the eternal aspect of it all. "What if it doesn't work?" they wondered. "Are we stuck together forever?"

St. Peter returned after yet another month, looking somewhat bedraggled. "Yes," he informed the couple. "You can get married in heaven."

"Great!" said the couple. "But what if things don't work out? Could we also get a divorce in heaven? What's the ruling on that?"

St. Peter, red-faced, slammed his clipboard onto the ground.

"What's wrong?" asked the frightened couple.

"COME ON!" St. Peter shouted. "It took me three months to find a preacher up here to do the wedding! Do you have any idea how long it will take me to find a lawyer?"

Again, with a JV preacher you get a JV joke.

Did you know that today is the last day of the year? It is, according to the Christian liturgical calendar. Next week Advent begins, the season of Christmas, which marks the new year for the Church.

So today is the last Sunday of the church year. Do you know what today is called? It is called "Christ the King" Sunday. It seems fitting that we acknowledge the kingship and authority of Christ right before we celebrate his coming into the world to lead us. It is also fitting that we acknowledge the kingship and authority of Christ as the last thing we do in the church year, remembering that at the end of all things, Christ will return as King to make all things new.

I borrowed the title of today's sermon, The Once and Future King, from a book by T.H. White about King Arthur. King Arthur is the sort of person we often think of as a good king, the sort of person that you want to rescue you from danger, to lead you in peacetime, to be there when you need protection or guidance or salvation. He's strong and smart and wily, charismatic and lucky and brave, well-spoken and well-connected and well liked. But is this the sort of king that Jesus is?

Our two Scripture texts this morning are ones that are traditionally linked to Christ the King Sunday. The one that we read earlier was from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, and the one that we are about to read is from the Gospel of Luke. Both of them, unsurprisingly speak of typical kingly stuff - David and salvation and victory and righteousness and things like that. But they also talk about things we might not expect in speaking about royalty - shepherds and mercy and servanthood.

But perhaps what we think of as a good king is not precisely the same thing that God thinks of as a good king. Perhaps what we want to be saved from is not what God sees that we need to be saved from. Perhaps the way we want to be led is not what God thinks is how we need to be led. Perhaps we are looking for our King in all the wrong places.

This morning's New Testament text from Luke is often called the "Song of Zechariah." Zechariah was a priest and was the father of John, who will be intimately connected to another who will soon be born, Jesus. Here, in our text, Zechariah, celebrating his son's birth, sings a song about Israel's coming king.

Reading: Luke 1:67-79

They were kidnapped, scattered and destroyed.

The Israelites had spent hundreds of years in their Promised Land. The people of God had been brought up out of slavery in Egypt to their new home, a land that flowed with milk and honey. Over many generations, they had established homes, towns, and places of worship. Their greatest king, David, ascended to the throne, and he was a gifted and courageous and bright. The kingdom flourished. Israel built a temple. They wrote Psalms and crafted a history.

But as with any growing nation, Israel had its ups and downs. Following the reign of David, there was controversy and contention regarding the royal succession. Following this dispute, the nation split into two - the northern Israel and the southern Judah. The weakness of the divided kingdom invited the attacks of other empires that tried to take over the lands of Palestine. And they succeeded, almost entirely. Three hundred years after the split of Israel, all that remained to the people of God was a small area of land surrounding Jerusalem.

But the remaining Jews, the children of the living Lord, hoped for a return to the greatness of their ancestors, the greatness of David. And then, the hope that they were waiting for arrived. A bright young king assumed the throne of Judah. His name was Josiah. He was able to turn back the ever-encroaching influence of foreign invaders. He brought about religious reform, powerfully reaffirming the covenant of Abraham and Moses. He expunged the pagan cults that had for too long corrupted Jewish worship. He refurbished the Temple. And he brought re-unification to all of Israel, north and south, such as had not been seen since the time of David.

The people of Judah were excited. They were exultant. Was this not the cusp of a new golden age for Israel? Was this not the return of the king for which they had waited? After generations of war and poverty and decline, was this not the long-awaited victory of the Jewish religion, the Jewish people, the Jewish way of life?

But in their exultation, Israel also grew arrogant. They had begun to think that it was not God, but smarts and strength and leaders that had given renewed power to Israel. They began to place more value in the Jewish nation than in the One who had gathered them into that nation. They attempted to gain control and maintain order through military prowess and political machinations. They had put more faith in their kings than in their God. And one thing that Scripture has shown us God will not stand for is when God's beloved children put their faith in people and not God. So when self-assuredness and the arrogance of nationalism came to Israel, so did judgment. And it came quickly, and it came harshly.

They were kidnapped, scattered and destroyed.

An empire to the East had risen and gained power. It was the Babylonians. After Josiah was killed in battle, Babylonia invaded the Jewish nation. They dismantled the country and then took the best and the brightest back with them to Babylon. Other Israelites fled to other lands in order to survive the onslaught. The Jewish Temple, which for centuries had stood as the center of worship for the people of God, was torn down to rubble. And what was left of the Israelites were left to weep and mourn, repenting of their disastrous mistake, wondering how they could be restored, how their religion could be saved, how their families could be reunited.

It is in this hopeless context that we find the prophet Jeremiah, the author of this morning's Old Testament passage. Israel is asking despairingly: Who will save us? Who will deliver the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Who will rebuild the Temple? Who will restore the children of God? Josiah's dead. David is a distant memory. Who will restore Israel? Who will redeem the people of God?

Jeremiah comes to tell the hopeless nation of Israel that the same One that brought them up out of Egypt will deliver them once again. Jeremiah comes to tell the remnants of Judah that the One that preserved the people in the face of corruption and attack for hundreds of years will preserve them once again. Jeremiah comes to tell the children of God that they will survive because they trust in the One that has saved them in the past, and will save them in the future. Israel is asking, "Who will rescue us?" Jeremiah comes to tell them that that is indeed the right question, but they are looking for the answer in the wrong place. Israel is looking for a savior in a king, instead of looking to the King of Kings.

Through Jeremiah, God tells Israel: "I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing." The Jewish people hopelessly lost and scattered across the landscape do not need to count on a political entity or a conquering army. Jeremiah came to tell us, lost and scattered across our own landscape, that sometimes, when we are looking for a king, we should be looking for a shepherd.

Fast-forward 600 years. Israel has indeed been restored as a nation. But those pesky foreign empires just won't leave them alone, and those stubborn Israelites keep waiting for a king to deliver them from oppression. Now, it is the Roman Empire that occupies Israel as the Jewish people wait and wait and wait for their Messiah to liberate them, for a king to save them.

And finally, the coming of that King is at hand! But, of course, it will not be the kind of king that Israel expects. It won't be the kind of King that Israel expects at all. In fact - surprise of surprises - he'll be more of a shepherd than a king. And once again, someone will be needed to remind the Jewish people what kind of savior they are waiting for. So God causes another prophet to rise up in Israel, a prophet just like Jeremiah, a prophet that will prepare the way for the coming of Christ the King.

This prophet would be born to a woman named Elizabeth, who happened to be the cousin of Mary mother of Jesus. Elizabeth's husband was the priest Zechariah. One day while serving in the Temple, which had been rebuilt since Jeremiah's day, Zechariah is visited by the angel Gabriel. The angel tells Zechariah that he and his wife will be the parents of a prophet who will speak truth to Israel, who will teach people once again to trust God, and who will prepare the way of the coming of the Lord, the new King.

Zechariah is a bit incredulous, even doubtful. Allow me to paraphrase what was must have been going on in his mind at the time. "Hey, I'm a priest. It's my job to trust in God. I don't need anyone to teach me how to do that, let alone my own son. Besides, haven't we heard all this before? Haven't my people been waiting a thousand years or so for a king to re-establish Israel? Haven't we been waiting generation upon generation upon generation for someone to vindicate the people of God? And, besides," as he tells Gabriel, "aren't I too old for all of this? And how do I know you are telling the truth?"

The angel assures Zechariah of the good news that the King is coming, and that Zechariah's son will prepare the way of this King. But perhaps to let Zechariah think about all this for a bit, and perhaps to teach him to believe whatever an angel tells you, Gabriel tells the old priest that he won't be able to speak until the promised birth of his son occurs.

Sure enough, Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth become expectant parents, and soon Elizabeth delivers a child, which they name John, later to become known as "the Baptist." After the birth, the muted Zechariah speaks for the first time in nine months, and he bursts into song: "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us ... [just] as he [said] through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved ... [H]e has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors...."

After months of silence, Zechariah sings praises to God - not for the birth of his first child, but for the birth of salvation that will soon be coming from another womb. Zechariah sings that his son will have the honor of being "called the prophet of the Most High; for [he] will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins."

Zechariah finally gets it. After months, after years, after generations of silent waiting, he cannot contain himself: Salvation is coming! Salvation is coming from a King not of political might or military prowess, but a King of grace, and of truth. He will be a King that, like a shepherd, will gather all to his loving embrace, that we might have the light of life in a world of sin and darkness. Zechariah sings: "By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." After hundreds of years of silent waiting, Israel is about to welcome the long awaited King.

Friends, hear the good news of Jeremiah, the good news of Gabriel, the good news of Zechariah, the good news of John the Baptist. Christ the King has come - perhaps not quite the king that you expected - but he has indeed come. He has brought a kingdom of light and truth to we who must stumble along in the darkness. And like a shepherd, he has gathered us to himself that we will never be alone, and never need to fear.

Does that mean that our troubles are over? That there will be no more invasions of sin, no more mistaken idols of salvation, no more false kings, no more doubts of God's deliverance, no more periods of silent waiting? Of course not. But during those times, we can remember what God has done for us in the past, and be sure that God will do the same thing in the future. We can remember that God has saved us, and will save us. We can remember the words of Jeremiah, and the words of Zechariah, that tell us of the coming King.

We do not know what will come in the days ahead of us. We do not know what this next year holds. We do not know what our lives, our futures, our marriages, our families, our friendships, our jobs, or our health will bring. We do not know how many times we will stray to other kings that we think will deliver us. We do not know how many times we will have to silently wait for God's redemption.

We do not know what our future holds. But we know who holds the future. We know that God is good, and we know what God has done, and we know what God has promised. If we look to that promise, if we look to the message of the prophets, the message of the King who has conquered all to be with us, we will be given all that we need. Christ the King has come, and we need no longer be afraid, we need no longer wait in silence, for he has gathered us to himself, and we have been given the light of life. And in that light, we will find our way.

Who is your King? Who is the one that will rescue you, lead you, and give you a future? It isn't your boss or your professor or your parents or your spouse or some prospective spouse. It isn't Bono or Bill Gates or Barack Obama. It isn't even Andrew Luck. You have one King, and it is Christ Jesus, the shepherd king. It is in him that we trust, and him alone. So stop looking elsewhere. Don't do that to yourself.

Christ the King has come. Christ the King is with us. And Christ the King will come again. And again. And again.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.