Sunday, November 20, 2016

Revised and Expansive: A sermon on the Reign of Christ

What’s a preacher to do when the scripture for the day – several weeks in a row - cuts a little too close to what’s going on in the world? The same thing one does any other Sunday: preach the text. Preach the Gospel. We are people of faith. And if we shy away from our sacred stories because they bear an uncomfortable word, then we are no better than the king who fed a scroll bearing forty years’ worth of prophetic words into the flames.

This is the Word the Spirit has brought to the church this day: a perilous time, when the nation is under threat. The Prophet Jeremiah under house arrest, confined, prevented from gathering with God’s people. God’s word snatched from Baruch’s hand - and in a section we skipped over for length today - God’s prophets had to go into hiding. The scroll with these holy, subversive words taken to the palace and read in private quarters amid the king’s closest advisers, and then deliberately, section by section, consigned to the fire. Burned because the king did not like what he was hearing. Because he wanted to suppress the message being spread by the prophet.

What we have in today’s scripture is tantamount to a book burning. We’re not talking about a single speech here. We are talking about a scroll containing forty years of Jeremiah’s life’s work - his heart and soul, everything God had given him for the good of the nation of Israel, the shining days and the terrible days and everything in between. A masterwork, destroyed.

It would be easy, after such a disaster, to give up. It would be natural — particularly for Jeremiah, who was already prone to depression, and lived in difficult times — to give in to the inner voice of doom. To stand there in judgment, shaking one’s head, saying, “I told you so.” Worse: to entertain fantasies of revenge, as if salvation is to be found there.  But the prophet doesn’t give up, although it would have been so easy to do so. Instead, he stayed rooted in his call, offering us a model of faithful resistance to a world that just wants to get back to normal when it’s everything but business as usual:
First, the prophet speaks the word given by God.

Over and over again, the prophet spoke the words. Sometimes it offended people. But he kept going. Then, the prophet passes the word on to others, so they are equipped to share it. When Jeremiah couldn’t go himself, Jeremiah taught Baruch. Baruch wrote it down so it could be shared. And Baruch spoke it in the temple. And then - I love this part - when the powers of this world try to shut down the transmission of God’s word (because when does that ever work, people?) - the prophet steps up again. This is when God germinates the seeds of the Word that are planted in the weary heart of the prophet, and it cracks wide open again. You may think you have seen it all and done it all and by all that is holy you are tired, but the word of the Lord comes to you and here it comes again:
“Write down all the words that were in the first scroll that was burned.”

Write down all of the words...and more. The scroll was burned. The powerful ones shut it down. Has the message been lost? No. Just delayed. Write the revised and expanded edition, God says.[1]

They're not going to like hearing this one any better, but it’s still worth saying. Justice is justice. Write it. Speak it. Send My Word forth, instructs God — so the prophet continues to raise the uncomfortable questions before the nation as a whole, not neglecting to confront the powerful, not neglecting to speak in the public square:
Do you treat each other justly? Do you follow the Lord’s ways? Stop taking advantage of the immigrant, orphan, or widow. Stop shedding the blood of the innocent,… going after other gods to your own ruin…[2]
And are you caring for God’s creation?
“I will weep and wail for the mountains, and lament for the grazing lands in the wilderness. They are dried up and deserted; no sound of the flocks is heard; no sign of birds or animals is seen; all have vanished.”[3]
Are the rich and powerful growing fat and sleek, prospering, indifferent to the plight of the orphan, the rights of the poor?[4]
From the least to the greatest, all are eager to profit. From prophet to priest, all trade in falsehood. they treat the wound of my people as if were nothing: “All is well, all is well,” they insist, when in fact nothing is well.”[5]
Do you treat the worker with justice?

And do you allow room, in your economic life for rest, as God commanded?[6]

 And to whom do you give supremacy?
“The Lord is the true God! He’s the living God and the everlasting King!”[7]
“God made the earth by his might; he shaped the world by his wisdom, crafted the skies by his knowledge.”[8]
“Stop at the crossroads and look around; ask for the ancient paths. Where is the good way? Then walk in it.”[9]
It is words such as these the prophet carried to the nation, which had him banned from the temple, confined, his words burned, and eventually killed in exile. It is words such as these which Jesus used to confront the powers of his time, words that got him killed.

Today is Reign of Christ Sunday, when we remember who rules supreme. When we remember the kingdom - or kindom - to which we belong. We are in the middle of a challenging time in the life of our nation, and a challenging run of texts from the Hebrew Prophets, to be followed by a challenging run of texts about the imminent arrival of Jesus, Emmanuel, God-With-Us. We may come to church looking for comfort. But the comfort in the Gospel is inseparable from its challenge, inseparable from Christ’s claim upon our lives.

Our Christian life leads from font, to table, to cross: We baptized a baby last week, and set her on the road to discipleship. Remember all the things we said about the water: water is washing, and soothing, and slaking thirst, and drowning. It is death and it is life. Remember all the things we say at the communion table: it is a meal, where we nourish our bodies, where we celebrate the great banquet where none are excluded, where there is always enough, and it is also a funeral meal, where we remember that it is a gift offered to those Christ already knows will abandon him before he dies. Even the first resurrection story is filled with challenge, more than comfort.

King Jehoiakim wants to enjoy his comfortable winter chambers by the firepit. The nation would like it very much if things could get back to normal. It’s a lovely dream; but that’s all “normal” ever was, a dream. Because “comfort” was only comfortable for some, and “peace” only “peace” for some. To abandon them for our own comfort is to abandon the Gospel.

Prophets, attend! We have been given a Word for our time. Though there may be those in our nation who say, "Hush! Your Word disturbs our peace," and urge us to quiet ourselves, we are called to proclaim it again, more boldly. For here is the way our God works: never settling for a retread of the past, but going beyond, calling us to speak and work for the revised, expansive vision of human community, a community ruled according to kindness, justice, and righteousness.
“I am the Lord who acts with kindness, justice, and righteousness in the world, and I delight in these things, declares the Lord.”[10]
God is writing the revised and expansive edition. ​It’s gonna take a while. There’s still time to get involved. Prophets, are you in?


[1] Jeremiah 36:32 [2] Jeremiah 7:5-6 [3] Jeremiah 9:10 [4] Jeremiah 5:28 [5] Jeremiah 8:10-11 
[6] Jeremiah 17:19-24 [7] Jeremiah 10:10 [8] Jeremiah 10:12 [9] Jeremiah 6:16 [10] Jeremiah 9:24

Text: Jeremiah 36:1-8, 21-23, 27-38 then 31:31-34.  Preached at McFarland UCC