St. John’s Lutheran Church
26 November 2023 + Christ the King
Last Sunday before Advent
Rev. Josh Evans
INTRODUCTION: Keeping Time
We keep time in different ways. Most of us keep time according to the calendar year, January through December. Anyone connected to academia keeps time according to the school year, roughly Labor Day through Memorial Day. The church, too, has its own way of keeping time.
Think of the church’s year in terms of two cycles – Christmas and Easter – with lots of “Ordinary Time” in between.
The Christmas cycle begins with a season of preparation, called Advent, culminating in the feast day of Christmas, and ending with a period of Sundays after Christmas and, finally, the day of Epiphany. Then we get some downtime, sometimes called “Ordinary Time,” when our liturgical color “defaults” to green.
Then the Easter cycle begins, likewise with a season of preparation, called Lent, culminating in the feast day of Easter, and ending with a period of Sundays after Easter and, finally, the day of Pentecost. Then it’s back to Ordinary Time, before culminating in Christ the King, sometimes called “Reign of Christ,” Sunday, or if you’re Roman Catholic, the “Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe” – and we start all over again.
Of course, there’s a lot more to the church’s year than that, but that’s the basic pattern – and that’s the journey we’ll trace in this morning’s “sermon hymn-sing,” as we remember the reign of Christ and the love of God for us in all seasons and times.
REFLECTION: The Season of Advent
We begin with Advent. Whether we follow the traditional four weeks or the expanded seven weeks, Advent is a season that pushes back against the capitalist consumer culture of secular Christmas and urges us to slow down.
Everything about Advent urges us to wait and watch, to return to ourselves, to each other, and to God, to be intentional about keeping time. On our wreath, we light one candle at a time. Even the blue of the pastor’s vestments and the paraments in our sanctuary is not unlike the expectant deep blue of night just before the coming of the dawn.
In Advent: We wait. We watch. We pray. We look expectantly for the coming of Emmanuel, God-with-us.
HYMN: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (ELW 257, stanza 1)
REFLECTION: The Twelve Days of Christmas
As our namesake saint John the Evangelist writes, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” Not exactly the familiar birth story we get in Luke with the shepherds and the angels and “no room at the inn,” but a loaded statement about the meaning of this day – the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord. The late pastor and biblical scholar Eugene Peterson, best known for his contemporary paraphrase translation of the Bible, The Message, puts it this way: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”
The waiting of Advent blossoms into the joy of Christmas, as we celebrate God moving into our neighborhood. Christmas proclaims the good news of great joy that God loves the world so much that God chose to become one of us and enter into the messiness of our world and our lives. And that is good news worth celebrating not just one day, but an entire twelve-day season!
HYMN: Love Has Come (ELW 292, stanza 1)
REFLECTION: The Epiphany: Ordinary Time, Part I
If Advent is the pushback against Christmas coming too soon, then the feast day of the Epiphany protests how quickly we rush to move on after December 25th. Epiphany marks the conclusion of the twelve days of Christmas, and the gospel read on this day still proclaims the coming of Christ into the whole world, as we retell the familiar story of the “outsider” magi visiting a newborn king.
The psalm appointed for Epiphany every year (Psalm 72) also tells us exactly the kind of king we can expect in Jesus. This king, in stark contrast to earthly monarchs, will judge with righteousness and justice, defend the cause of the poor, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.
Following the example of such a king, we too are called to recommit ourselves to the work of justice and of extending God’s radical love to our neighbors – whoever they are, wherever they come from, whatever language they speak, whomever they love, whatever they look like or believe.
Because this is the message of Epiphany: God’s love born in Bethlehem is made known to all people!
HYMN: Arise, Your Light Has Come! (ELW 314, stanzas 1 & 3)
REFLECTION: The Season of Lent
“What are you ‘giving up’ for Lent this year?” It’s a question many of us who grew up in the church have probably asked and answered many times over the years. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Lent has nothing to do with “giving up” our favorite things, like ice cream or coffee.
In fact, the giving up of material pleasures appears to be more of a “blip” in the history of Christian practice. Instead, as early as the fourth century, Lent was actually observed as a forty-day period of preparation for new converts to Christianity who wished to be baptized at Easter. Only in the medieval era, when adult baptisms declined, did the focus move to fasting as an act of penance to “make up” for one’s personal sinfulness.
But in recent years, the earlier, ancient practice of the church has resurfaced. Easter is again a popular time for baptisms, with Lent as its counterpart both in preparation for baptism and also as an annual renewal of our baptismal covenant for all Christians.
Still, classic expressions of Lenten discipline – giving alms to the poor, praying, and fasting – are common and even encouraged. But the goal here is to stress that these things “are not necessary for gaining God’s approval… [but] are behaviors that we choose to adopt to remind ourselves of the renewal of life that baptism calls forth” (Keeping Time, p. 85).
HYMN: O Lord, throughout These Forty Days (ELW 319, stanzas 1 & 3)
REFLECTION: The Season of Easter
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
(Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!)
This is the core of our Christian proclamation: Christ has been raised! Death and the tomb could not silence God’s message of love and reconciliation. Life, not death, gets the final word.
On Transfiguration Sunday, three days before Ash Wednesday, we bury our “alleluias,” and for forty days, we journey toward the cross. With the crowds on Palm Sunday, we shout “Hosanna! Save us!” as Jesus enters the holy city of Jerusalem in triumph. With the disciples on Maundy Thursday, we struggle to watch and pray as Jesus grows more anguished. With the faithful women at the foot of the cross on Good Friday, we keep vigil until Christ breathes his last. With all creation on Holy Saturday, we stand in the “in-between” place – between death and life, hoping against hope.
Finally, on Easter, our buried “alleluias” burst forth, unable to be contained any longer, as Christ himself bursts forth from the tomb.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
(Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!)
HYMN: Jesus Christ Is Risen Today (ELW 365, stanza 1)
REFLECTION: The Day of Pentecost
At the end of the Easter season comes the Feast of Pentecost. By now we’ve lost the liturgical “high” – and the attendance boost – from our Easter services. Our minds are fixed on wrapping up the end of the program year and looking ahead to summer plans.
But on Pentecost, in comes the Holy Spirit, swooping through the crowd of gathered disciples like tongues of fire, giving them each the ability to speak in as many different languages as there were people gathered in Jerusalem that day.
The Holy Spirit is like that, not bound to any one day or time or season, coming to us in unpredictable ways and stirring us up into action. On this day, we wear fiery colors, reminding us of the unpredictability of the Spirit and her call to stir up the church to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth.
HYMN: God of Tempest, God of Whirlwind (ELW 400, stanza 1)
REFLECTION: Time after Pentecost: Ordinary Time, Part II
Ordinary Time is anything but “ordinary.” The naming of these “green Sundays” after Epiphany and after Pentecost as “ordinary” refers not to their quality but simply to the fact that they are ordered – or numbered.
During this season, we spend an extended amount of time dwelling in Jesus’s teachings and ministry, as told in the primary gospel appointed for that year. This past year, we’ve heard a lot from Matthew’s gospel. This coming year, we’ll hear more from Mark.
The green of these “ordinary” days, many of which fall during the spring and summer months, also calls us to delight in the beauty of God’s creation – the green (and other colors) of our natural world, given not only for our enjoyment but also for our caretaking.
…which brings us to the end, on this Feast of Christ the King, before we turn to begin again. Please stand as you are able for the proclamation of the gospel.
GOSPEL ACCLAMATION & READING: Matthew 25:31-46
REFLECTION: The Reign of Christ
This gospel stands before us as starkly as the contemporary icon of Christ on the cover of your bulletin.
“Do you want to honor Christ’s body? Do not neglect him when he is naked; do not, while you honor him here with silken garments, neglect him perishing outside of cold and nakedness …
“For what is the profit, when his table indeed is full of golden cups, but he perishes with hunger? First fill him, being hungry, and then abundantly deck out his table also. Do you make for him a cup of gold, while you refuse to give him a cup of cold water? And what is the profit? Do you furnish his table with cloths bespangled with gold, while you refuse him even the most basic coverings? And what good comes of it?
“Do not therefore while adorning [God’s] house overlook your [sibling] in distress, for [they are] more properly a temple than the other.”
Just as we learn to recognize the reign of Christ in all seasons and times, so too does this gospel encourage us to recognize the image of Christ in all people – in the hungry, the poor, and the sick, in the imprisoned, the migrant, and the refugee, in the lonely, the grieving, and the fearful.
Thus the end brings us back to the beginning – to Advent, such as the twelfth-century mystic and theologian Bernard of Clairvaux writes of that “middle” Advent between the incarnation and the second coming: “the everyday arrival of Jesus: the knock at the door, the still small voice, the lonely prisoner, the hungry mother, the weary refugee, the migrant worker, the asylum seeker.”
In these Advent days of waiting, watching, and hoping, as the cycle of keeping time begins anew and continues, God calls us to take part in the reign of Christ in all seasons and times:
A reign that is mindful – Keep your lamps trimmed and burning!
A reign that is daring – taking risks and boldly sharing the love made known to us.
A reign that is compassionate – taking notice of “the least of these” and saying to them: You matter, and you belong here.