Last Pentecost—Proper 29-C
November 24, 2013
Today is called Christ the King Sunday—you’ll notice the images of Kingship especially in the hymns.
Of course “King” is an odd image for Americans who stopped believing in their authority when George III was King of England.
But in its day King was a powerful image because it put before the people a radical choice: Shall we serve the king or God as the absolute authority over our lives? In our land that translates into “shall we serve the Military-Industrial-Economic Complex or Jesus as our Lord and Master?
Our images matter because they put before us who we really trust with our lives.
In the book Escaping the Matrix: Setting Your Mind Free to Experience Real Life in Christ, Seminary professor and pastor Gregory Boyd tells of one of his bright students, named Jill, who had a perfectly orthodox view of God, but she complained of having no passion for God like many of the other students.
She “knew her creeds and confessions of the church well” yet she wondered “why was it that some of her friends seemed to get excited about God, seemed to have a passion for doing his work, and seemed to even get emotional once in a while during worship services while she felt flat?
She wondered, if “God had perhaps given up on her because of her carnal preoccupation with her looks and with eating issues.” Page 211-212
It’s a thought most of us in this room have had ourselves: Maybe God has given up on me because I’ve got issues that make me unlovable.
In Church theology we know God loves us unconditionally, yet on a deeper level we too often have a mental image of God as someone who could easily grow tired of us.
And this is a problem because our mental images are far faster and more powerful than our thinking. We can see this by looking at what scares us: there are rational people who know that a 4 ounce mouse is no immediate threat to their existence, but because of unconscious images of rodents the moment they see a mouse they start sweating and then screaming.
(Mice don’t bother me a bit—but, like Indiana Jones, snakes do me in!)
So the right thoughts are no match for the wrong images.
Professor Boyd wanted Jill to see what inner pictures of God might be controlling her response.
So Jill closes her eyes and after a few moments says: “I’m seeing a large canyon, like the Grand Canyon…majestic, rocky, barren, dry. The wind is blowing my hair…I’m at the edge and I see another person on the other side…He’s facing away from me. But I know it is Jesus…”
She got quiet and Boyd asked her, “Tell me what’s going on, Jill.”
She said, “I feel so lonely. Why won’t he turn and face me? I feel like I want to call to him, ‘I’m over here.” But he’s not interested. He hears my voice from a distance…but he just looks out into the distance. He even seems annoyed by my calling to him.”
Boyd writes, “It is not surprising that Jill felt no passion for God, is it? Anyone who represented God the way Jill did would find it impossible to feel passionate about him…Jill had a lot of correct conceptual information about God, [but] her actual mental re-presentation was far from the truth” and this re-presentation determined how she felt and how she lived.
If we’re into therapy we would explore how this image of a distant Jesus got in her psyche, but the more important task is exploring how we process our images and create a false reality for ourselves in the here and now.
When we are trapped by our false images “we experience as real things that are not true.” Boyd claims, “All mental and spiritual sickness is the result of the gap between what we experience as real and what is in fact true. To move toward wholeness, we have to close the gap. We have to ‘take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ’ (2 Corinthians 10:5). We have to cease experiencing lies and start experiencing truth.” Page 101
Left to ourselves, that is, home alone on Sundays and imbibing the images of the World 24/7 we will develop images of God that are untrue and that will dis-equip us for experiencing the God who is.
But when we gather with the church every week and pray every day we are allowing the Holy Spirit to correct our false images and to install true images that put us on the path of wholeness.
Take the images the readings give us today: Through the Prophet Second Isaiah God says: “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.”
Shepherd is a synonym for King in the Bible—Both Moses and David are shepherds. When Jesus takes it up in his parable of the shepherd who leaves the 99 in search of the one lost sheep, the people know he is talking about God who is King. John’s Gospel would remind us that Jesus is “the Good Shepherd.”
In Colossians we are shown that Jesus is not just another spiritually gifted man, but “He is the image of the invisible God…in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
Jesus has come from the heart of God to confront us with the overwhelming love that is God.
“While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
But it isn’t enough merely to hear about these images. They must be worked deep within our souls, through prayer, sacrament, song, and Scripture. That is how the Holy Spirit deletes the false images and installs the true images of God.
Professor Boyd said, “Jill needed to learn how to collapse her deceptive re-presentation of God and learn how to see and experience the true God revealed in Jesus Christ.” 101
So today we sit with the image of Christ as King, not sitting on a throne in a palace in Rome, but on a cross on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Jesus dies on his throne alongside two criminals and the mocking leaders and people—a failed prophet, a disgraced king.
Yet, throughout the centuries this cross has had the power to transform men and women like Jill who felt God had turn away.
The Church has never defined exactly how the cross works, though it has lots of theories about it. Rather the Church has experienced the power of God’s forgiveness and salvation flowing through Jesus on the cross.
We see that forgiveness coming from the cross when he proclaims, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”
Then we see sheer grace for the suffering of others when he says to the second criminal: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
Note, he doesn’t say, today you will be in paradise but today you will be with me in Paradise.
Surely no one feels more alone on the face of the planet than that man hanging in disgrace and shame with only time to contemplate the utter failure of his life. And yet Jesus assures him that he is not alone now and never will be again.
This man doesn’t deserve this honor. All he has done is acknowledge his failed life and prayed, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Paradise begins for that man the moment he believes what Jesus says to him.
The path to paradise also begins for us as we believe Jesus our Crucified King is saying the same thing to us.