For those who want a change from the Gospel
Christ the King – Jeremiah 23:1-6
First a bit of housekeeping: if you’re a follower of the revjohnleachblog OT Lectionary blog, you’ll be used to seeing them on Saturday mornings. From now on I’m going to aim to get the posts up on Tuesdays (no promises!) just in case any preachers would like a bit of inspiration earlier in the week. When I have been in parish ministry it was my habit to use Tuesdays to prepare for the following Sundays, so in the unlikely event that anyone uses my ideas, you might want a bit more notice than Saturday mornings. So here goes.
There is an interesting dynamic between the two readings for Christ the King (my favourite festival of all, by the way). Jeremiah tells Israel that a new king is coming, and Colossians says that we already have one. Israel had been suffering for years under corrupt kings: Jeremiah’s previous chapter gives clear details. Kings who ought to have cared for their people like good shepherds, leading them to prosper and flourish, are neglecting the most vulnerable and needy, refusing fair pay for workers, and shedding innocent blood, and all the while accumulating riches for themselves and rejoicing in their opulent lifestyles (sound familiar?). Jer 22 contains oracles of judgement against such rulers, but that is only half the solution. Sometimes even a bad king is better than no king at all. So God’s plan is revealed in Jer 23, our passage. The false leaders are cursed (‘Woe!’) and will be removed and replaced with a new king, who will rule in equity and justice, and under whom the people will thrive. Christians know, of course, that God himself coming to reign is a promise fulfilled in Jesus, although Jeremiah didn’t understand that: he could only refer back to great David’s greater son. But the fact remains that 2500 years later we still live in a world where the picture painted in Jer 22 seems pretty accurate, and that is without the aggression and bullying of some countries towards others. The fact that Colossians tells us that Jesus is the supreme monarch doesn’t actually help much when you’re the one being oppressed. So what exactly was Jeremiah prophesying and hoping for?
There are four characteristics of the reign of God himself to come which are spelt out in v.5-6.
A reign of Righteousness
We use that word a lot, and not always positively, as for example in ‘self-righteousness’, a most unattractive characteristic in anyone’s book. So it’s worth reminding ourselves what that actually means. A righteous God is one who is completely incapable of doing anything wrong, or of ‘tolerating’ evil in any shape or form. A righteous reign, therefore, will be one from which anything at all evil will be banished. This is the kind of era pictured in the famous passage from Rev 21.
A reign of Wisdom
The new Davidic king, Jeremiah tells us, will rule wisely. Sometimes evil comes not because people are bad, but because they are stupid. Like the city of Jerusalem which Jesus criticises, they simply don’t understand what’s good for them, what will lead to peace. Evil does not always come from a conspiracy: cock-ups happen too!
A reign of Salvation
Again, as Christians we think of salvation in terms of individual salvation from the judgement of God, which guarantees us a place in heaven. The OT usage of the term, though, is much more prosaic. Ukraine needs saving from Russia, and any power which dares to come and fight with them or for them is their saviour. This is about national rescue and security, not a place in heaven because our sins have been atoned for.
A reign of Safety
Finally, living under our new king will bring safety as well as rescue, like a confidence in Ukraine that never again will Russia, or anyone else, be allowed to come against them or harm them. If rescue or salvation is the immediate benefit, then safety is the ongoing assurance of security.
Quite a promise, then, all in all. But like the Jews under Babylonian reign because of their own corrupt Jewish rulers, like the early Christians living under Roman and Jewish persecution, we today in our own difficult times can ask the question ‘But when?’ Where is this new King? What guarantee is there that these promises are anything other than wishful thinking? Doesn’t every society living through hard times invent a hope of a better world to come? Just look at the black slave spirituality which gave us songs like ‘Swing low, sweet chariot’. The worse things get, the more Christians have hung onto the hope of heaven. But is it just that, a hope, which, like the hope that we’ll have nicer weather next week, is probably not going to come true?
Christ the King Sunday reminds us that in fact that hope has already come true. Christ is reigning already, and although righteousness, wisdom, salvation and security seem far away, they are already in place in God’s plan, and one day will be manifested here on the new earth. What does it mean that Christ is king? It is the assurance that all these promises will one day be seen to have come true. There is nothing going on in our world which takes God by surprise, and which he is not capable of changing. It is that hope of the coming kingdom which has kept Christians faithful down the centuries. Today may it bring us the same certainty.