Monday, November 23, 2015

Kingly Expectations--a sermon for Christ the King 2015

Rev. Teri C Peterson
Kingly Expectations
Isaiah 5.1-7, 11.1-5
22 November 2015, Christ the King, NL 2-11, Harvest 2-6 (Characters of Faith: Justice & Awe)

Let me sing for my beloved
   my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
   on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
   and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it,
   and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
   but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
   and people of Judah,
judge between me
   and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard
   that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
   why did it yield wild grapes?

And now I will tell you
   what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
   and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
   and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
   it shall not be pruned or hoed,
   and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
   that they rain no rain upon it.

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
   is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
   are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
   but saw bloodshed;
   but heard a cry!

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
   and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
   the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
   the spirit of counsel and might,
   the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
   or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
   and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
   and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
   and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

Here we are: the end of another liturgical year. Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new year of telling the story of Christ, from waiting to birth to life and death and resurrection, to sending the Spirit to the church and sending the church into the world to be his body.

Though when we follow the Narrative Lectionary, it can feel like September is the start of a new year, because it’s when we start telling the story from Genesis—“in the beginning” all the way through the history of God’s people, the prophets and their calls to live according to God’s word, Jesus as the Word come to live with us, and the Spirit doing a new thing.

However we count the time, whether beginning with Advent the way it has for thousands of years, or in September the way it does in our schedule of weekly scripture readings, the point is the same: to help us be immersed in God’s story, to see how God has been at work so that we are better able to see how God is still at work now. It’s about organizing our lives on kingdom time, centered on God’s word, rather than all the other ways we could organize ourselves—by billable hours, chronological age, grade, salary schedules, or national holidays. All of those are secondary to our life lived on God’s time, which is why we follow a calendar that orients us to that different cycle.

We walk through these seasons, with symbols and colors that remind us and teach us, directing our attention always back to the source—the word of God, that was in the beginning and is now and ever shall be. And at the end of them all, the last Sunday of the liturgical calendar, is today: Christ the King Sunday.

As a liturgical holiday, it’s fairly new—it was added to the calendar as a way to cap the year in 1925. Part of the reason for its creation was concern in the church about the rising tide of nationalism, which was dividing people and loyalties, creating hostility and violence. As the world fractured into nations that each had to be the best, that meant citizens of those nations had to find ways to see themselves above others, and political leaders were pushing simultaneous bravado and fear-mongering to maintain their own power in this new world of national pride—whatever the cost.

Into that moment, the church spoke with a new feast day: Christ the King Sunday—a day when we are explicitly reminded where our loyalty as God’s people lies, a day when we affirm our allegiance to God’s kingdom above any earthly nation, and we remember that neither we nor our political leaders have any say in who else God brings in to that kingdom.

And this is the day when the lectionary gives us this text from Isaiah—a word from God, spoken through a prophet in the southern kingdom of Judah during about the same years that Hosea, whom we heard last week, spoke in the northern kingdom. The northern kingdom was about to fall to the Assyrians, but the southern kingdom still had a hundred years to try to get it right. Isaiah speaks in God’s voice, a love song to a people for whom God has done everything—planted and pruned, nurtured and watered and tended. Every way that the people could be provided for, God did. Every way they could experience God’s care and love, God did. And still, in spite of their experience of God’s love and generosity and grace and care and compassion, they did not bear good fruit. God expected sweet grapes, but got rotten grapes instead. God expected them to do justice, and they spilled each others’ blood instead. God expected them to have right relationships with one another, and all that rose to God’s ears were cries of distress.

The people, God’s treasured possession, recipients of amazing grace, still acted as if they were their own ultimate authority. They sought their own gain, they used people for profit, they trampled the poor and ignored the orphan. And worst of all, they neglected hospitality. Where they should have been a refuge, a vineyard garden that provided for all who would come, instead they worked only for themselves. The blood of others did not matter to them. They basically invented the phrase “collateral damage”—seeing people as expendable as they built more prosperity for themselves. Their relationships were unequal, they regarded themselves above others, and maybe even above God, if they ever thought about God at all in relation to their lives outside the Temple. They had no sense of awe and wonder, no understanding of a right relationship with God…and once awe is lost, justice follows close behind, because without awe of God then we are prone to elevating ourselves, our desires and our rules. We become so attached to our own kingdoms, we can’t see God’s.

And God is fed up. Just like last week, when we heard God’s exasperation, here it is again: “what more should I have done for my vineyard? why did this happen? I expected so much…now let it be broken down, overgrown, and trampled.”

God’s sadness permeates every word. “I have given you everything…I love you…I provide…why then do you act as if we’ve never met? How can you take what I offer, but then not offer it to others? I showed my face, I whispered my voice, I poured out my heart…and you just looked after yourselves.”

It isn’t hard to look around our world and feel God’s heartbreak. The very earth is groaning, and the people are crying out in distress, and justice seems far off. Many are concerned about their own well-being, even at the expense of others. Blood soaks the earth, and nations protect themselves with bravado and fearmongering, and the voice of God whispers and thunders and cries and prays: if you love me, love your neighbor as yourself. We need Christ the King Sunday today more than ever, reminding us that our human-made nations are not the kingdom of God, and are not the way God sees or judges.

In the midst of the destruction the people brought on themselves, in the midst of the disappointment and pain of our King’s expectations running up against the reality of human sin….”a shoot is coming out of the stump – there is growth again where something was cut down. The well-tended vineyard failed to produce righteousness and justice, but this little shoot, in an unexpected place, will embody God’s vision. God doesn’t need the whole vineyard – this shoot of new growth will do.”[1] 

Our King doesn’t need fancy pomp and circumstance, Christ our King needs only a seed. New life is always possible. Even when it feels like the destruction is inevitable and there is no hope of justice, even when we are so mired in our own reality that we can’t even see God’s reality and we would rather not let our kingdoms go—even then, a shoot can grow from a dead stump, a hint of green in a dark world, a word can be made flesh.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
   or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
   and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
   and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
   and faithfulness the belt around his loins.”

This is the One to whom we declare our allegiance, this is the One to whom we are loyal. He is the One who transcends our earthly borders and shows us a more excellent way—a way of faith, hope, and love. When all seemed lost, God worked with a tiny new vulnerable thing—a child, who would lead us all to true justice as he fled government violence, grew up poor, ate with sinners, gathered the outcast, called foreigners to follow him, died at the hands of the state, and turned the religious, political, and economic system upside down. Here is our King, loving, serving, and caring for the world with every breath. May we let our kingdoms go, so we can be faithful to his call.


[1] RevGalBlogPals Nov 17 2015, by Mary Austin

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