A Branch | Proper 29, Christ the King

Jeremiah 23:1-6

1 Watch out, you shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture, declares the LORD. 2 This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, proclaims about the shepherds who “tend to” my people: You are the ones who have scattered my flock and driven them away. You haven’t attended to their needs, so I will take revenge on you for the terrible things you have done to them, declares the LORD. 3 I myself will gather the few remaining sheep from all the countries where I have driven them. I will bring them back to their pasture, and they will be fruitful and multiply. 4 I will place over them shepherds who care for them. Then they will no longer be afraid or dread harm, nor will any be missing, declares the LORD.

5 The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up a righteous descendant from David’s line, and he will rule as a wise king. He will do what is just and right in the land. 6 During his lifetime, Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And his name will be The LORD Is Our Righteousness. (CEB)

A Branch

Today is Christ the King Sunday. It’s the last Sunday of the Christian Year before Advent kicks off the New Year on our church calendar.

The problem with having a holy day called Christ the King is that the kingship of Jesus feels far away, something we relegate to the distant future, a reign that needn’t bother us in the here and now. And there’s the fact that, for us post-modern American people who live in a democratic republic, there is no one wearing a crown with absolute authority. Our Federal governmental system was designed to barely function with its checks and balances of power. It was designed to be inefficient. It was designed to require debate and dialogue so that dissenting voices could be heard instead of ignored. By and large, it seems the founders succeeded. It often appears that our government barely functions.

A kingship with real, absolute authority is a foreign concept to us. We Americans can hardly imagine life under the ancient kings, let alone the power dynamics at play. When the Emperor of Rome commanded a citizen to commit suicide, the citizen did it. That’s one of the many reasons why most of us are glad that we don’t understand those things. That mindset is contrary to our ideals of self-autonomy. The founders of our nation described the authority of kingship as “tyranny” and fought a revolution to rid themselves of it.

In our text, Jeremiah speaks God’s words which are an indictment against the monarchy. Yet, what follows the indictment are two promises (there’s a third promise in verses seven and eight but the lectionary stops at verse 6). In the indictment, God seems to have had enough of kings, described as shepherds, who have scattered God’s people, who are the sheep of God’s flock. When we look at the preceding chapters of Jeremiah, we see prophetic oracles against Judah and its kings.

A further complication to our understanding of Judah’s kings is that the people of Judah accepted the Davidic line as chosen by God. Their kings were anointed, which is the word מָשִׁיחַ [Ma-shi-ach] in Hebrew. In Greek, it’s χριστός [Christos]. In English, we translate the words as Messiah and Christ. The kings of Judah were Messiah’s in that they were anointed. There was a religious dimension to the kingship. In First Samuel, David describes King Saul several times as “The Lord’s anointed.” They were God’s representatives who ruled under God’s authority.

The problem is, they didn’t always represent God very well. Instead, they acted in self-interest and failed to do justice on behalf of the weak and vulnerable. In Jeremiah chapters 21 and 22, we hear words like these: “Begin each morning by administering justice, rescue from their oppressor those who have been robbed, or else my anger will spread like a wildfire, with no one to put it out, because of your evil deeds” (Jer. 21:12b, CEB).

And, “The Lord proclaims: Do what is right and just; rescue the oppressed from the power of the oppressor. Don’t exploit or mistreat the refugee, the orphan, and the widow. Don’t spill the blood of the innocent in this place” (Jer. 22:3, CEB).

And “How terrible for Jehoiakim, who builds his house with corruption and his upper chambers with injustice, working his countrymen for nothing, refusing to give them their wages. He says, ‘I’ll build myself a grand palace, with huge upper chambers, ornate windows, cedar paneling, and rich red decor.’ Is this what makes you a king, having more cedar than anyone else? Didn’t your father eat and drink and still do what was just and right? Then it went well for him! He defended the rights of the poor and needy; then it went well. Isn’t that what it means to know me? declares the LORD. But you set your eyes and heart on nothing but unjust gain; you spill the blood of the innocent; you practice cruelty; you oppress your subjects” (Jer. 22:13-17, CEB).

What God expected of the rulers who governed the people of Judah as his earthly representatives was justice and righteousness. What God saw, instead, was injustice, unrighteousness, cruelty, and oppression. Instead of shepherds who cared for God’s flock, the shepherds destroyed and scattered the sheep of the Lord’s pasture. Their actions were a travesty that God decides to fix.

First, we’re told that God will gather the people. In fact, the wording kind of sounds like God is saying, I just can’t find good help these days. I’ll do it myself. God will facilitate the homecoming. In fact, the use of the word gather negates the word scatter. The greedy and power-hungry kings scattered people to the point that they fled their homeland to Egypt and other neighboring nations. When Jeremiah is dragged off to Egypt, he finds communities of Judahite people already established in some of the cities. The Assyrian Empire had already destroyed the northern Kingdom of Israel and carried off some of its people while settling foreigners in the land. The Babylonian Empire would soon come to finish destroying Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah. Some of the people have already been carried off into exile, and more will soon go. But God will gather the scattered flock from whatever land they are in.

Not only will they be gathered, but God promises prosperity. “They will be fruitful and multiply.” Those words hearken back to God’s intention for women and men in the creation story. They are the same words used in Genesis 1:28. They imply growth and well-being. And God will raise up new shepherds who will do what the original kings were supposed to do: care for their people.

One of my favorite lines from C.S. Lewis’s book, The Horse and His Boy, is toward the end where King Lune of Archenland teaches his long-lost son, Cor, about kingship. “For this is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in you land” (Lewis, 240).

God suggests the duty of kings is to wield authority for the sake of others, not to subject others to themselves as an authority. God intends to raise up shepherds who will act in such a way that the people cannot be afraid, nor dread harm, nor go missing. God has the power to create something new from the mess of old.

The second promise in verse five and six moves from shepherds in the plural to a righteous descendant in the singular. In other translations, it’s a “righteous Branch” (NRSV). God will raise up for David a righteous descendant to be king. This suggests that, despite the past failures of David’s line to rule with the qualities God expected, God has not given up on Davidic kingship. This king will “rule as a wise king. He will do what is just and right in the land” (CEB).

The Hebrew in verse 5 can be translated as “righteous descendant” (CEB) or “rightful descendant,” meaning the king God raises up will be the legitimate king. It was important in Jeremiah’s day, because King Jehoiachin had been deported to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar who then placed his uncle, Zedekiah, on the throne of Judah. Some in Judah still saw Jehoiachin as their rightful king-in-exile. Those who were exiled to Babylon definitely viewed Jehoiachin as their rightful king. The double meaning might be intentional. This descendant whom God will raise up for David will be both righteous and legitimate.

It’s a little ironic that the name of this king will be The Lord is Our Righteousness. In Hebrew, it’s צִדְקֵֽנוּ (Zedeknu). The name of the last king of Judah was (‎צִדְקִיָּ֖הוּ) Zedekiah, meaning, The Lord is Righteous. There is a difference between knowing the Lord is righteous and embodying that righteousness. When the Lord is OUR righteousness, we have a part to play. King Zedekiah bore the name, but the coming king will be the name.

But, like I said, the power dynamics of this kind of kingship can be a little beyond our American understanding. In our post-modern world, power has been so decentralized that it’s almost always up for grabs by anyone who can reach out and take a piece of it. The problem is that we are almost never wise enough to wield it. Human arrogance leads us to think that we can govern the universe, but we can barely manage our own small patch of it.

It might be helpful for us to consider our own personal power. So here are some questions for us to consider: What power do I have? How did I get it? Whose interest am I serving? To whom am I accountable for the power I hold? Our world is constantly torn apart, piece by piece, with war, famine, and shortages of commodities. But if God provides so much, the matter we need to consider in light of God’s expectations of righteousness is whether there are actually shortages or if God’s abundant provision is simply unevenly distributed.

If God’s understanding of righteousness is that we are expected to care for the poor, the weak, the vulnerable, the homeless, the sick, the imprisoned, the oppressed, and the refugee, then how well are we living according to God’s definition of righteousness? What would our Christian community look like if we did a better job of living out God’s expectations of righteousness? Christian community finds the embodiment of this righteous descendant in Jesus Christ. It is not, and cannot, be found in American politics, nor the politics of any other nation.

The Gospel text in the lectionary for this Sunday is Luke 23:33-43, which is the crucifixion. Christ died for us so that we could have life, and live life to the fullest (c.f. John 10:10). But living a full life doesn’t mean we keep God’s abundance for ourselves. Living a full life means giving to others as Christ gave. Accepting others as Christ accepted. Loving others as Christ loved. These are the examples we have of our righteous king. These are the examples of what our legitimate king did for us and all his people. Are we even close to meeting the bar set by Jesus Christ, our king and God? Do we love and accept others? Do we stand up to defend the rights of others and seek justice for those who are suffering injustice? That’s our call to righteousness. The failure of Judah’s kings and other authority figures to do these things is what led to the destruction and scattering of Judah and Israel. Jesus Christ, our king, is calling us to follow his example of selflessness which rectifies those past mistakes.

When the king is looking out for the well-being of his people, human life flourishes, people prosper, and public community thrives. Jesus is our king. Jesus is our shepherd. Jesus is our righteousness and he embodies the righteousness of God in all its fullness. When we follow his example to care for each other and look out for the well-being of our sisters and brothers, that’s when we embody the righteousness of God, too.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

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