Sermon: “The King Turned Upside Down”

November 20, 2016: Twenty-seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Reign of Christ Sunday
Loyalty Sunday
Thanksgiving Sunday

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Luke 23:33-43

To select the Scripture readings for Sunday worship, I follow something called the Revised Common Lectionary, a list of suggested Bible passages for each Sunday of the year. It’s edited by a group of church leaders and scholars, and revised slightly from time to time.

Most of the time, the selections make sense: they follow the storyline of a gospel, and they seem to have something of a common theme.

Some weeks, I take a look at their choices for Sunday and just wonder what on earth they were thinking. This week, for instance. How did they match Jeremiah’s pointed critique of the kings of his day with Luke’s description of Jesus’ crucifixion? The fact that it is Reign of Christ Sunday – a day for considering the authority of Jesus over the world – well, that just makes it stranger.

Or maybe not. Because what we have here in these two readings is not coherence, but contrast. Not similarity, but comparison. Not agreement, but opposition.

Jeremiah lived much of his life as the subject of kings he criticized, and, it has to be said, they turned out to be pretty poor rulers. Quite aside from Jeremiah’s opinion of their righteousness and justice, during those kings’ reigns the nation of Judah was invaded twice, and the second invasion ended its history as an independent nation and saw the destruction of its capital city and temple. They also failed to display the grace and care for their people that Queen Lili’uokalani showed to hers.

Jeremiah wrote these words after Judah had been conquered the first time, when the invading Babylonians removed King Johoiakim and installed his uncle, Zedekiah, to be their client king. In this passage we see what Jeremiah believed was God’s standard for those in authority: Wisdom. Justice. Righteousness. In other parts of his book, we see that Jeremiah particularly urged justice for the poor and the vulnerable.

At the close of this passage, Jeremiah revealed his opinion of Zedekiah himself. “God is our righteousness” is “Yahweh tsedekh” in Hebrew – it’s the reverse of Zedekiah’s name, meaning “Righteous is God.” If you want to know what a great ruler is, says Jeremiah, then just reverse King Zedekiah. Turn the king upside down.

It’s a funny thing about the gospel of Luke. Though Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God repeatedly through the gospel, nobody refers to Jesus with a royal title – until Jesus goes before the priests and the Roman governor for trial. Then it becomes an issue, because Pilate’s sentence of crucifixion means he saw Jesus as a rebel, as a royal pretender.

So here, with Jesus on the cross, suddenly the words “king” and “Messiah” (a royal title) are everywhere: the priests taunt Jesus as Messiah. The Roman soldiers taunt him as King. The charge pinned to the cross reads, “King.” One of the two crucified with him taunts him as Messiah.

And the other asks to be remembered when Jesus comes into his kingdom.

Luke the writer only brought out the royal titles when Jesus went to the cross, when he extended himself in self-sacrifice, in a profound outpouring of self that Christians believe changed the world. Jesus turned royalty, turned power, turned authority, upside down. As the apostle Paul wrote, Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself… and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6b-7a, 8b)

I don’t know, but I don’t think Jeremiah, six hundred years earlier, really imagined that the righteous branch of David would look like Jesus. The idea of kingship going to the cross would have been too alien.

But I do think that he’d have understood it if he saw it.

Eberhard Busch writes: “These last moments of Jesus’ life all seem to be in contrast to what is valued in our world. The world presented to us in newspapers or on television is not poor, but is a world of glamour. In this world, the ideal is to be rich and beautiful and influential. The pressure of this ideal is like an infection that overtakes us as we strive for it. In this world, one has to be successful. In this world, the slogan is, ‘Help yourself!’ and with this slogan you may survive. Those who cannot survive this way do not make a big thing out of it.” (Feasting on the Word Year C, vol. 4)

In the Christian universe, only God has ultimate authority. When we give Christ royal honors, we acknowledge the ultimate authority of the Trinity. That is not the same thing as saying that everything that happens in the world is the will of God. It isn’t. There’s too much sin, and evil, and suffering, and death for that to be a sustainable theology.

There is a freedom in the universe, and that freedom can be used to heal or to harm.

Jeremiah in his preaching and Jesus in his actions set a standard for those in authority. It’s a high standard – Jesus, as was his way, moved the bar even higher! It’s a standard that few human leaders, be they kings, presidents, prime ministers, governors, or mayors, manage to attain.

The standard requires leaders, first and foremost, to work for the welfare of their people, particularly the most vulnerable among them: the poor, the marginalized, and the foreigners. The standard requires leaders to consider their decisions wisely, and to live righteous lives themselves. The standard requires that they place their people’s interests above – not at, but above – their own.

Jeremiah and Jesus also set a standard for those of us who live under others’ authority. They held their leaders accountable. They spoke in public. Jeremiah wrote letters. Jesus cleared the money changes from the Temple. By word and by action, they made their voices heard.

When our leaders don’t meet the standard of justice, and wisdom, and righteousness, we must make our voices heard.

We live in a republic, not an absolute monarchy. Our leaders are structurally more accountable to us than the kings of Jeremiah’s day, or the kings, governors, and emperors of Jesus’ day. This week, a former Congressional staffer named Emily Ellsworth offered this guidance toward making your voices heard in the corridors of power.

Old technology is still more effective than new technology, and the local district office gets more attention than the office in Washington, DC. So write letters on paper, and make phone calls, addressing them to the local offices. Be kind and clear with the staffers, so that they can make your views known to their bosses. To speak directly with a member of Congress, attend their town hall meetings. For that matter, work to put one together if there’s an important issue on your mind.

Jeremiah did. Jesus did.

I’ll be honest. I don’t expect that our leaders will meet the standards of Jeremiah and Jesus. I don’t. I expect that I will be making a lot of phone calls and writing a lot of letters about climate change, and equal rights for immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ people, women, and, if some of the appointments made this week are a sign of things to come, people who have darker skin than mine. I further expect that on many issues, when I speak against the positions of those in power, more often than not I’ll lose.

More often than not I’ll lose.

Jeremiah did. Jesus did.

Here’s where I have to put on my faith and buckle up my courage, and follow the lead of Jesus, who did not waver from his course despite the likelihood of where it would bring him. The Rev. Linda Pepe, noting that we often think of Jesus as someone who had done nothing wrong, says:

“But today, I want to submit to you that Jesus, in the three years before his death did plenty – and he did it intentionally. Jesus was a man who was intentional in his actions from day one –

“Intentional about challenging corruption in authority, intentional about exposing systems that were oppressive.

“Intentional in the telling of his stories and parables – knowing full well that they would antagonize the religious rulers.

“Intentional in healing – casting out demons – raising the dead – picking grain on the Sabbath just in view of the Pharisees –

“Intentional in turning over the tables at the temple, infuriating the vendors, interrupting business as usual status quo of religious profit

“Intentional in his message ‘free the oppressed – give to the poor – include instead of exclude – love instead of judge’ – knowing full well that his message of shalom-building would lead him

“Intentionally to the cross.”

Jesus turned authority upside down. He made royalty into service, privilege into obligation, dominion into donation. The royal Jesus is the suffering servant Jesus, the crucified Jesus, the one who gives, and not the one who takes.

Led by that example, let us insist upon servants in the mayor’s office, and the Council chamber, in the Governor’s house and the state legislature’s chambers. Let us insist upon servants in the halls of Congress, and in the White House.


The commissioning at the close of service went something like this:

People of God, Jeremiah and Jesus have set the highest standard, calling us to righteousness, wisdom, and justice for the poor and the oppressed. Reach for that high bar.

People of God, there are those who have been called to authority and power in the world, and they care called to righteousness, wisdom, and justice for the poor and the oppressed. Hold them accountable, and do not be silent.

People of God, remember that the one with the ultimate authority is the one whose depth of compassion and love was so great that he followed the path to the cross. Remember that that One loves you deeply.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , , | Posted on November 20, 2016

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