Christ the King

Nov 20, 2016

The Feast of the Reign of Christ. Christ the King: this is the final moment of the Christian year: everything, the birth and the death and the resurrection, the ministry of healing and teaching and the outpouring to the Spirit; the birth of the church; everything leads up to this day. Crown him with many crowns! we sing. Jesus reigning over all creation. Redeem the time; our own lives redeemed. This is the end toward which the year and our whole life as Christians moves.

It is an end we badly need. The news has been full this week of footage from Aleppo. The whole East section of the city is nothing but rubble, and yesterday the last hospital in the city was bombed. Where now to care for the wounded?

The city is being destroyed by rebels and the leaders of the nations. Is it Russia or Syria who is bombing? No one seems to know. The city is being destroyed and the people are scattered. How many million refugees now from Syria alone?

Jeremiah knew about this time.

“Woe to the shepherds,” he cries as Babylon looms on Israel’s horizon. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture, says the Lord” (Jer 23:1). Jeremiah was talking about the siege of Jerusalem and its eventual destruction. The great city of David was, like Aleppo, reduced to rubble, and the temple, the place of God’s presence among the nations, the beacon of God’s presence among the nations, was burned, and the people were carried away from their homes into a long exile.

A voice is heard in Ramah, Jeremiah says;

Weeping and loud lamentation.

Rachel weeping for her children

And she will not be comforted,

For they are no more. (Jer 31:15)

 Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture, says the Lord.

There is a fracturing that runs deep in the history of the world, nation rising against nation and people divided against themselves; children lost and the noblest works of human hands—Solomon’s great temple in 587 BC; ancient Palmyra just a year or so ago—destroyed. In our own time Aleppo, and in our own place, here in Toronto, in our own diocese, the fracturing of the Anglican church.

Jeremiah finds the problem in the failure of the shepherds, because their task is precisely to shepherd: to keep the people close to their God. But in Jeremiah’s time the shepherds are running scared, and they turn to the pagan nations around them, trusting in the power of the secular state rather than in the power of the unseen God. Behind the destruction and the scattering there is a failure to walk with God, and the failure is often quite concrete. The leaders are politicians rather than people of prayer.

And this too, like the fracturing that haunts the world, is a temptation that runs deep. The two are connected. If we are beleaguered and threatened, if our churches are bleeding people, let us turn, we say, to the nation around us. Let us seek our strength in its wisdom; let us follow the mind of a majority that does not know God, and find in their ways our salvation.

Woe to the shepherds, Jeremiah says, who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture.

This way lies only disintegration. It is not here that we will find our help.

Our help, as the psalmist knows, is in God, the Lord of heaven and earth. It is not in the world that does not know God. We are here in the midst of the world for the sake of the world, to stand in its midst as a beacon, a people lit and shining and healed by prayer.

We are the people who proclaim Christ’s reign. Yet we act as if Christ’s reign is not true, as if it were not the culmination of everything we do in the worship of the church, the end toward which all our worship leads.

When we ask, “Where is God in this,” in this fracturing that haunts our world and our church, it is a good idea to remember that we choose often to act as if there were no God.

This day, this Feast of Christ the King, stands here at the culmination of the Christian year to call us back. Remember that it is God who is our shepherd. Remember that we are first of all people of prayer. We are the people who turn to God first of all, and last.

Christ the King is our wake-up call, and it is one we badly need.

But it is also—because after all this is God we are talking about, God who is not only judge but also always shepherd—this day is also our sign of hope.

For Christ rises over the world as King on this day, and his throne has the shape of the cross. Luke sees the hope this day offers, and he offers it to us with characteristic grace.

And when they came to the place called the Skull they crucified him there with two criminals—two wrongdoers, the Greek says—one on his right hand and one on his left (Luke 23:33).

This, the inscription read over his head, This is the King of the Jews.

To the bystanders, to the leaders of the people and the Roman soldiers, it is a joke. Here is the King of the Jews, dying between two criminals on a cross. Some king.

But for Jesus, this is the whole point.

It is on the cross that he is with us. It is the criminals, the wrong-doers, those who have wandered far from God; it is the wrongdoers he cares about. It is precisely when we are at the place of the skull that God is with us.

And when by our turning away from him we bring on ourselves our own destruction, then he is with us to save.

This is what God’s power looks like. It looks like faithfulness, the faithfulness that endures, the love that pours itself out – even to death – for the people who are dying. God is the shepherd who does not destroy and scatter, but gives his very life to save.

Do you not fear God? The second criminal says. We are paying the just penalty for what we have done, but his man has done nothing wrong.

This man has done nothing wrong, and he is standing with us, he is suffering with us, in the place of the cost of the wrong we have done. In the place of our scattering. In the place of our dying. He is suffering with us to save.

This is the love that gives itself, not just to be there with us in the place of disintegration, but to restore. To bring us back. It is not solidarity we are talking about, but salvation. It is Christ the King with whom we have to do.

Jesus, remember me, the wrongdoer says, when you come into your kingdom.

And Jesus, dying there beside him, says, Today. Today you will be with me in Paradise.

For today is the day the kingdom dawns. This is the day of Christ’s reign, this day when he dies between two thieves on a cross. This is the place of his reign, here between the thieves at the place of the Skull.

O love, how deep, how broad, how high.

Luke knows that Christ is king. And he knows that his throne is a cross, because this is where God is with us. To the world it is foolishness. But to us who are being saved, Christ the power and the wisdom of God.

Christ the king. The sun and the moon rise under his lifted arms, his arms lifted on the cross. He holds the whole world in his hands, and the serpent is crushed under his crucified feet: Christ the image of the unseen God, first-born of creation, first-born from the dead (Col 1:15, 18). Here is the power, all the saving power of God. Here in Christ crucified, dying between two thieves on the cross.

So in this time, so in all times of scattering and division, Aleppo’s destruction and the fracturing of the Anglican church, he calls us to turn to him. We come at the end of the Christian year to the Christ: Jesus Christ, rising over time and all things on the cross. Christ with us in our failure and in our great need, Christ holding the sun and the moon in his arms. This day he asks us to be with him.

Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom. Let this be the prayer of our hearts, at the first moment of every day and at the last. Let this be our hope and our guide. Just this: Jesus. Christ our King. Let us turn to him.

Art: Crucifixion of Christ, by Bartolomeo Passerotti.

Holy Cross Day

Italy 2013 1187

Holy Cross.

We are so used to hearing these words together that I’m not sure we hear what a strange pair they make. The cross: Rome’s most terrible sentence of death. Ugly, slow, agonizing; a public humiliation. And now we call it holy? It’s an extraordinary claim: that in Christ even the cross is made better. That this world’s worst may be made better…in the death of Jesus the Christ. Do we get it? I am not sure.

This week I saw a sign as I was walking down the Danforth.

“Make your day better: Buy a graphic tee!”

It struck me this week–because it speaks to the deep-seated longing that we mark on Holy Cross day. Make your day better…make your life better…make your world better. Surely that is what we all want. Such an outpouring of compassion there has been, and of anguish, over the past couple weeks, since the picture of the little boy dying on the other side of the world hit everyone in the heart. Make this day better. Let there be peace. We long for the better day.

It is the other part of that sign on the Danforth that is the problem. Because it is not going to happen that way. No amount of graphic tees, no amount of buying them, can make this the good day, the good world for which we long. And there is, it seems to me, a terrible kind of blindness in the way our real pain for the suffering of the Syrians coexists in our daily life with this other thing, this turn to ourselves (make YOUR day better); this desire to seek a better day in the things that we can have. It is not here that happiness is found: not while a boy lies dead on the Turkish shore; not now and not ever. Because the tee bought for me and my better day ignores the pain that is out there—and so it does not speak of love; there is in it no sign of our love for the suffering people, and it cannot make our day, or anyone’s, better.

Jesus offers us another way. Jesus offers us a different sign, to wear like a t-shirt over the heart. Jesus offers us the cross. It is the sign that is true, for it does not ignore the pain that is out there, even as it announces the better day.

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness: this is where the cross begins. It begins in the place where the people reject God. It begins with the grumbling we do against the difficult purpose of God. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” God’s people say. “For there is no food and no water—certainly no graphic tees—and we detest this miserable food.”

I have always found that line funny: there’s no food here–and it tastes terrible!

It is a ridiculous complaint: God has delivered them from slavery in Egypt and brought them safely through the Red Sea; God has given them manna from heaven and water out of the rock. And they look back to the fleshpots of Egypt, the fish, the melons, the onions and garlic”and now there is nothing at all but this manna to look at” they say, in Numbers 11.

Freedom…or garlic? Which would you choose?

It is ridiculous—and it is human. The rejection of God’s purpose never does make sense. For no matter how difficult God’s way is (and often it is indeed difficult, leading us into a wilderness on our way to worship our God), God is with us always. Our God is the one who can part the Red Sea, a priest said to me in Cuba, in the days of Castro. Our failure, to trust, to follow, to leave behind the old life that binds us, is ridiculous—and worse; it is poisonous, in the face of God’s faithfulness.

“Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many died.” And the people said, “We have sinned against the Lord” (Num 21:6-7, paraphrased).

But it is human.

The newspaper cries pity for the Syrian child, and beside it the sign says “Make your day better: buy a graphic tee.”

And the serpent creeps into the garden, into the wilderness, calling our hearts away from God’s purpose, calling our hearts away from God’s love, turning us in on ourselves. This is sin. And it poisons our lives.

In the wilderness the people die. Is there then any hope?

“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up” (John 3:13). If our inability to follow in God’s way poisons our world; if the cry of the sweatshops and the starving and the fleeing and the lost—a whole culture desperately seeking happiness in a t-shirt—if the cry of the lost still rises from earth to heaven, that is not the final word. For God hears the cry of his people, then and now and always. Precisely in the place where we are lost; precisely in this death we mete out to ourselves and to each other, this wages of sin, God comes to meet us. The Son of Man is lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness, God’s love meeting our agony, this harm that we do.

For there is nothing more cruel than a cross. The cross stands over our world as an indictment, sign and sum of all the evil that we do. Here is the suffering of the Syrians; here is the suffering of the Jews; here is the pain of all the crucified people since the world began and also the will of the world to crucify and to ignore: here it is, written on this wood.

And it is here that God meets us. On the cross God’s Son raised up, the body of Jesus, the beauty of Jesus now covering this wood: covering our sin with his love, covering our pain with hope.

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul? The hymn sings.

What wondrous love is this,

that  caused the Lord of bliss

to bear the dreadful curse for my soul. (Common Praise 400)

On his back bearing the harm that we do, covering our pain with his love.

Holy Cross! Can there be any name stranger and more wonderful? For the instrument of sin has become the instrument of God’s love, and death is swallowed up in victory.

Holy Cross. It is a contradiction in terms. And it is the sound of hope. For it is so true. It does not ignore the pain there is in this world of ours, the harm that we still do. It is to that pain that it speaks. For there, precisely there, the face of Christ rises too, suffering with us, suffering for us, radiant with grace. Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown? Sorrow and love together, in the face of Jesus Christ. That is why the cross is beautiful. For the harm that we do is not the last word, and there is a greenness that leaps at the heart of things.

There is such joy in the cross. Pray that we may wear it always as a sign over our hearts; pray that it may be written on our lives. Lift high the cross. May we find in it this world’s better day.


The Feast of the Epiphany, January 6

Towards the end of the Book of Revelation there is a vision of the New Jerusalem:
And I saw no temple in her, for the Lord God the Pantocrator is her temple, and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine in her, for the glory of the Lord illumines her, and her light is the Lamb. And the Gentiles walk by her light, and the kings of the earth bring their glory to her. (Rev 21:22-24: Daily Office reading for Epiphany)

This is the hope of the prophets, the longing of all the Scriptures of Israel: God reigning in his holy city; the Word very near, and the whole world lit and governed by his light. God reigns and shines, and even the kings of the earth come to pay him homage.

For the prophets, it is a hope for the end-times, for a time of restoration that is not now, when the kings of the East have vanquished Jerusalem and carried her people into exile; when the Romans rule in Palestine and pagan armies trample the temple.

Matthew’s Gospel, however—in full awareness of the violence of the times—proposes a hope that begins now. Already at the birth of Jesus the light of God, spreading abroad over the world. We call this hope the Feast of the Epiphany, the time of the appearing of the King.

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the King, behold Magi from the East arrived in Jerusalem saying, “Where is the one born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star at its rising….” (Matt 2:-1-2)

A star rises in the East at the birth of the child in Bethlehem, and kings come to the brightness of his dawning. This is Israel’s ancient hope, the deliverance promised by Balaam long ago—A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter out of Israel” (Num 24:17)—and it comes to birth now, Matthew says, in Jesus.

Every year choirs sing this hope in Isaiah’s words at Christmas, in church halls and schools and concert halls, everywhere The Messiah is sung:

For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the peoples. But the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee, and the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and Kings to the brightness of thy rising. (Isa 60:2-3)

“Where is the child born King of the Jews?” the Magi ask in Jerusalem. “For we have seen his star at its rising, and we have come to worship him.”

That the pagan East—land of Israel’s exile—should come to worship in Jerusalem the God whose temple they had destroyed was the sign of the turning of the ages. For Israel knew that God reigned in spite of all, and it waited and hoped for the world to know this too.

Israel hoped with poetry and with faith:

Lift up your eyes and see; they all gather together; they come to you.

            Your sons shall come from far away; your daughters carried on their nurses arms.

            Then you shall see and be radiant. (Isa 60:4-5)

Matthew claims this hope for Jesus’ birth. This is the time of the return of the King, the time when the Gentiles, too, shall see the light of the Lord.

And behold the star, which they saw in the East, went before them until it stood over the place where the child was. And when they saw the star they rejoiced—Matthew says with emphasis—with exceeding great joy (Matt 2:10).

This is the time not just of Israel’s hope, but of joy to the world. The gifts of the Magi enact Isaiah’s prophecy: when the nations come to worship the Lord in Jerusalem; when Israel is restored in its holy city, They shall bring gold and frankincense (Isa 60:6; cf. Psalm 72). (And the camels—not there in Matthew, but everywhere in our Epiphany stories—come from Isaiah, too: …the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, Isa 60:5-6).

Gold and frankincense they bring, the nations of the East, pointing to the time of the fulfilment of Israel’s hope.

They bring myrrh, too. And in this gift they point to the story’s end. For myrrh is for anointing, and the stone-cold tomb.

This is a king, and a victory, with a difference.

Matthew hints at this too, already at the child’s birth. The Magi rejoice at the birth of the King of the Jews, but Herod the King in Jerusalem does not. But when he heard (of the child’s birth) Herod was deeply shaken…(Matt 2:3) and contrives a plot, and when he is foiled in his plot, when the Magi warned by an angel return by another way so that he cannot find the child, in his rage…

He sent men to Bethlehem to kill all the children two years old and under, according to the time the magi made known. (Matt 2:16)

Grief rises, right up against joy, Rachel weeping for her children, all the children of Israel suffering the violence of kings and nations who do not know God.

But in her weeping and in the children’s deaths, the shadow too of the cross. These deaths, the innocent children, point to another death, death of the one innocent man. And in this lies the children’s hope, and the possibility, in spite of all, of joy.

Matthew is the great realist, and Epiphany therefore the feast of a hope that is real.

Stars and Eastern sages walk the Gospel pages, and a great joy at the near presence of God.

But so too does rage, and the power of kings to destroy, and the refusal of the reign of God. Herod’s violence is not unique: we see it every week, this week, in our world. When the light of God’s reign rises over the world in the child, in the Lamb, it awakens hostility as much as delight. It uncovers the heart and it demands obeisance.

So there is conflict at its rising, and the weeping of Rachel.

It is a conflict that runs through the life of the Christ and through the witness of God’s people: witness to charity and faith and hope and a refusal of all violence; witness to a fundamental humility. But it is a conflict that is—Matthew tells us—already encompassed by the promise of the star. For the rage of the king and the suffering of the children point straight to the suffering of the Child born King. By his stripes we are healed (Isa 53:5). This too is part of Isaiah’s hope; vision of a reign in which, by the suffering of God’s servant, rage and suffering alike are overturned.

This star—star of wonder, star of night—this star of the Epiphany takes account of the darkness too. Therefore the light it promises has purchase, even now. Christ the morning star, first star of the morning, rising precisely while it is still dark, shining in the darkness so that there may be light.

People look East! Advent 1

Advent I
Nov 30, 2014

People look East! The time is near

So begins one of my favourite Advent hymns; favourite because it catches so well the sense of expectation that is at the heart of this season. Already the wreaths are on the doors and houses glow with Christmas lights; the city has the scent of Christmas. Trim the hearth and set the table. It used to bother me, this early leaning into Christmas, but increasingly I am grateful for the light. For it is a pointer, this light in the winter night, this excitement. It is not Christmas yet—but Christmas is coming. HE is coming, and it is necessary to get ready.

For as it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be in the days of the coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 24:37).

The problem in Noah’s day was that no one got ready. There they were, eating and drinking and getting married, carrying on with daily life, laying up treasure for their own futures, as if everything was all right. As if the violence that plagued the earth in the wake of Cain’s murderous rage was perfectly normal; as if the earth was not bleeding from war and crying out to the gates of heaven from the blood that had been shed upon it. There they were, eating and drinking and marrying, as if all flesh had not corrupted its way upon the earth; as if they had not by the insouciance of their eating and drinking and killing and marrying grieved God to the heart.

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth (Genesis 6:11-12).

File:Kaspar Memberger (I) - Noah's Ark Cycle - 3. The Flood - WGA14802.jpg

Hamas, in the Hebrew: violence. In the days of Noah, the earth grew bleared and smeared and the inclinations of the human heart were no longer true. They ate and drank and married and killed, and did not know that they grieved God to his heart.

As it was in the days of Noah

Genesis 6 hits close to home. For in our day too the earth is bleared and smeared and the voices of the people who have been killed in the wars of this very year cry out from the earth to high heaven. And we eat and drink and marry…and divorce…and turn a blind eye to the suffering of the children…and turn marriage inside out, into an image of ourselves, the place for the satisfaction of the devices and desires of our own hearts, instead of the place of the image of God. And we meet violence with violence, the cruel brutality of ISIS with the sleek cruelty of air strikes.

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight.

We prepare in Advent for the coming of the Lord. It is good to be clear about what this means.

Our God is a God not of darkness but of light. That is why we string our porches with light and make the Christmas tree shine: because we look to the light.

We look East, to the coming of the day.

And it is the property of the day to reveal: to reveal what is wrong, to reveal it as wrong, to establish what is true. Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord: that is the Advent prayer.

We pray it as we hang the Advent lights, light the candles on the wreath, one more each week, light growing toward the light of Christ. We wait for the time of truth.

And where we are in darkness, we grieve, and we pray.

Grieve for the blindness that covers the human heart, for the desires that distort it. Grieve for the blood that is poured out upon the earth, and for our part in it.

There is a time for weeping, and that time is now. There is a time to hear the cry of the earth and its poor people, the cry of the wandering heart. There is a time to hear the answering grief of God.

Advent is a time to listen, and to grieve.

And it is a time to hope.

Because already we get out the candles; already we circle the door with green. Already the night grows light with the coming dawn.

We prepare in Advent for the coming of the Lord.

And that advent has been accomplished among us, and we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth. Into a suffering world the Lord has come, in suffering and in grace. In and for the world, our Lord has come, to draw us to himself. Light in the darkness, to draw us out of darkness into light. Advent is a journey away from the devices and desires of our own hearts, toward the heart of God. Advent leads us to a child, and in the distance three trees upon a hill.

We await a mystery: judgement that is grace. It is judgement—for the heart of God is grieved by the harm that we do—and it is grace, the world’s darkness taken up into the grieving heart of God and there suffered for the world’s sake. Lighten our darkness.

So get out the candles, this Advent, and pray. Weep for the darkness, sing for the light.

People look East: the time is near.