Kings and Shepherds

This sermon was given on November 24th 2019 (Christ the King Sunday) in Jerusalem.

Readings: Jeremiah 23:1-6 & St Luke 23:33:43

Let us pray:

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen

How do we know who are our Kings and who are our shepherds? How does somebody get power over us? Power by position or formal role is not new, of course. The boss, the parent, the policeman, and the teacher all hold such power, to name just a few. 

J.R.R Tolkien in his Lord of the Rings books poses this question when we first meet the character of Strider. When Frodo and his compatriots first meet him, he is described as a “a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows” not someone you would instantly think of as someone who holds power and wields it for the good of others. After their meeting, strider is bombarded with questions about who he is, how they can know that he is who he says he is, and can he help them, this is all beginning to sound a bit familiar isn’t it? Finally, the hobbits ask the question “How do we know you are the Strider that Gandalf speaks about? … What have you to say to that?” Striders response is to reveal more of himself and give a glimpse of his real kingly self when he says “’But I am the real Strider,’ … ‘I am Aragorn son of Arathorn; and if by life or death I can save you, I will.’”

Even after they have travelled with him for a long period of time and had adventures together, Frodo is surprised to discover that Strider is actually Aragorn, the heir to the throne of men who will help restore order to Middle-earth. 

As the story progresses, we see that Aragorn loves the people. He helps bring them together, and he is willing to sacrifice and risk his life for them and their common freedom. These are the makings of a good king and shepherd.

Our lectionary readings for today help us celebrate Christ as King. They remind us that Christ is a different kind of king. In Jeremiah 23 the people of Ancient Israel have had a lot of failed kings since they begged God to give them their first king with Saul. In the chapter that precedes this passage, Jeremiah delivered words of condemnation against the four earlier kings during whose reign he had also prophesied. That condemnation carries over into our passage for today. These opening verses of chapter 23 don’t name specific kings as the preceding chapter does, but it seems likely that its references to “shepherds” refer to kings as well. According to these opening verses, the “shepherds” in Ancient Israel “destroyed and scattered” their sheep, the Lord’s “flock.” They have “driven them away” and “have not attended to them.” These are not the characteristics of a good king or a good shepherd. While in other Old Testament pastoral passages, the Lord is likened to a good “shepherd” who guides and protects his flock, these shepherds have failed their flock. This passage tells us that the Lord will punish them for the evil that they have done toward his sheep.

In direct contrast to these evil shepherds or kings, this Jeremiah passage promises that God will “raise up” good shepherds who will care for the people properly. But in addition to these proper shepherds or kings, the people are promised that God will also “raise up for David a righteous Branch” who will have qualities of a true king: he will “deal wisely,” and he will “execute justice and righteousness.” He will be Christ the King.

So, we’re being told today that we have a king. What do we do with a king? What does it do to us to have a king? How do we celebrate Christ as King today and every day if we don’t really know what to do with kings? For us, today, our ‘kings’ are best represented by those who call themselves world leaders. 

There are world leaders whose promises are in opposition to Jesus’ promises. Leaders who promise to deport neighbours based on their religious identity or race flaunt leadership antithetical to Jesus’ vision. Leaders who objectify women and promise tax breaks to the wealthiest at the expense of the most vulnerable practice a style of rule completely contrary to the Christian vocation expressed in Luke 23.

As long as such rulers exist, Luke 23 will ring in the ears of Christians—a clarion call to resist oppressive forces of injustice. Injustice can come in many forms: xenophobia, racism, sexism, and re-inscribed cycles of poverty, to name a few. However, Christians, who know that Jesus’ inbreakings into the cycles of everyday life bring the fullest selfhood to all creation, will name injustice as wrong and contrary to the Christian way of life.

What does it look like for immigrants to arrive at fullest selfhood? What does it look like in Christian-Muslim or Christian-Jewish dialog to seek one another’s fullest selfhood? What does it mean for the water sources flowing into springs throughout this land to be honoured for the fullness of their creation?

Just as Jeremiah calls us to do; German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer brings together the responsibility and function of a leader in his writings by saying “If he [the leader] understands his function in any other way than as it is rooted in fact, if he does not continually tell his followers quite clearly of the limited nature of his task and of their own responsibility, if he allows himself to surrender to the wishes of his followers…then the image of the leader will pass over into the image of the mis-leader.” It is not leadership if those in positions of power surrender to the wishes of those of their community rather than doing what is right, in all senses of the word: if a shepherd was to let their sheep wander as they wished, they would be very difficult to bring back to the sheepfold. Those who are the best shepherds are also leaders, they care for the needs of their sheep but are careful that they do not allow them to scatter.

We need to be prepared to ask questions of our leaders, our kings and shepherds, otherwise they risk losing their grip on the realities and responsibilities of their role. They must follow the leadership model of Jesus, keep silent and do what is just and right to those around them. 

Are the leaders around your community and nation ‘kings’ as well as ‘shepherds’ or do threaten the fullness of life for those who are poor and vulnerable? How are you called to confront leaders whose actions are unjust? How will you and your assembly stand in solidarity with the poor and vulnerable, proclaiming “you will be with me” in a way that announces the reality of Jesus’ eschatological coming, the coming that transforms all creation into its fullest self?

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning is now, and evermore shall be. Amen.

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