In 1922, Helen Howarth Lemmel penned a hymn, a tune that I began to internalize very early in my life, when precisely I can’t even recall. It is a song that many of us here might know by heart. This song is a holdover from the 17th- and 18th-centuries, when pietism held sway over the church’s hymnody. In that era, songs of faith imagined the world as a place of suffering and sorrow, a vale of tears from which the individual is rescued and ushered into heavenly bliss by focusing on Jesus Christ. This song remains much beloved by many, morphing from its simplicity of melody and lyric into today’s highly emotive, even wistful renditions by groups such as Hillsong United.
Lemmel’s inspiration came from another, a gospel tract written by one Lilias Trotter, British missionary to Algeria. The final line of Trotter’s tract reads:
“Turn full your soul’s vision to Jesus, and look and look at Him, and a strange dimness will come over all that is apart from Him”
Lemmel turned this line into lyric:
“Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in His wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”
At the risk of offending those now present who truly love this song, let me say this: I believe the song conveys an anemic and at best incomplete rendering of life in Christ. To be honest, I don’t like the song as it stands.
The world that God loves so much that He gave to us His only begotten Son Jesus the Christ, this world that Jesus fully engaged in all its raw brokenness: this troubled world comes into painful focus as we look to Christ and begin to understand why the Son of God Himself came and dwelt among us.Tweet
We see this in our readings today. Let’s dig in.
We have reached the end of the liturgical year, and we have come upon the last Scripture Readings of Lectionary Cycle C, the Reign of Christ or Christ the King. All our readings today touch on the body politic: the people of a nation or state, citizenry organized at hierarchical levels from small communities to cities and provinces.
A common thread that runs in all of these units is the system of authority, the government, which if it works as intended is a reflection of the society’s ethos: its beliefs, its dreams, its aspirations.
Jeremiah the prophet knew all too well the disaster that was engulfing his nation, Judah. That age saw a litany of bad and manipulative political moves by the last 4 kings of Judah. The monarchy’s alliances with foreign powers would shift like the wind depending on what each king thought was the solution to keeping the throne. Finally, Babylon’s Nebuchadnezzar II had had enough and in 598 BC, deposed Jerusalem’s second to the last king, Jeconiah also known as Jehoiachin and later replaced him with the puppet Zedekiah, Jeconiah’s uncle.
True to the form of his predecessors, Zedekiah shifted his alliance to Egypt when he thought he saw an advantage there. At this provocation, the Babylonians came in full force and destroyed Jerusalem and slaughtered the royal family.
We believe that Jeremiah had Zedekiah in mind when he wrote verses 1-6 of chapter 23. He declared that the name of the Righteous Branch is “The LORD is our righteousness.” This a dig on Zedekiah: the name Zedekiah means “The LORD is my righteousness.”
A year ago I wrote a term paper for my Old Testament professor at McGill, Dr. Gerbern Oegema. It was on dysfunctional leadership. The systematic study of dysfunctional leadership is a relatively new academic discipline, pursued primarily in the business and management schools. It is a complex phenomenon with multiple interconnected layers of index characteristics. Examples of dysfunctional leaders in history are Caligula, Genghis Khan, Ivan the Terrible and Adolf Hitler.
I am almost certain that each one of us here would have our own list of who we deem dysfunctional leaders: from kings and queens to dictators, from presidents and prime ministers to premiers and mayors.
There are six major categories of dysfunctional leadership each with their unique but somewhat overlapping profiles. These are: Toxic leadership; Destructive leadership; Abusive leadership; Tyrannical leadership; Unethical leadership and lastly, Narcissistic leadership. Could these categories be applied to the dysfunctional kings of Judah?
Close examination of relevant texts in the Old Testament revealed that the last four kings of the Judahite monarchy before the Babylonian conquest displayed both the Destructive and Tyrannical categories of dysfunctional leadership. These kings were: Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jeconiah and Zedekiah.
The characteristics of destructive and tyrannical leadership include greed, irritability, arrogance, abusiveness, hate, intransigence, moodiness, inability to persuade, motivate, inspire and negotiate with followers. Of the four mentioned, Jehoiakim and Zedekiah were by far the “stand-out” bad kings, dysfunctional to the utmost. And of the two, Jeremiah chose Zedekiah the last dysfunctional king as emblematic of distorted, broken and godless human governance that dabbled in doomed exercises of trying to make peace apart from God.
Hindsight being 20/20, we nod in agreement with Jeremiah when he prophetically declared “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” These bad dysfunctional kings scattered God’s people, did nothing to defend God’s people, precipitated their suffering and exile.
The people themselves were far from blameless. In verse 3, God flatly states that it was He who drove away the people into exile. Exile was God’s response to a faithless people. Beginning with king Saul, the faithless majority got what they asked for: kings in the style of the neighbouring lands who did not follow or know the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel.
When the body politic chooses the Godless path, championing the godless ruler, relying on human constructs to satisfy the soul; it begins a chain reaction that inevitably end in ruin. Examples come to mind, strewn all over the line of history, noble they might have been in the minds of their champions: the War to end all Wars; the League of Nations; eugenics; even residential schools. And then there are the truly despicable: genocides and massacres in the name of conquest and racial purity. The record of human brokenness has so far been an endless chain of disappointment, grief, suffering, insecurity, exile and loss of life.
If in seeking to go one’s own way mankind always ever messes up, how is God’s way different that makes it the more desirable path?
Jeremiah could only glimpse what God has in store for His people. The eventual return of the exiles to Jerusalem was in effect a prefiguring of the great gathering when finally God makes everything new. The return from exile was not the final chapter of the fulfillment of God’s promise to His people. God’s promise to His people was safety, security, absence of fear. Clearly the descendants of the exiles became subject once more to a tyrannical and abusive power, the Roman Empire. The Jerusalem the exiles rebuilt was once more destroyed. God’s promise as revealed to Jeremiah is still to happen: “the days are coming.”
What Jeremiah’s text reveals to us is that the way of mankind is tragically flawed and inevitably ends in disaster. The way of God is and will be the better way: The Righteous Branch, the promised King, the one who is in complete contrast to Zedekiah, this promised One who is full of wisdom will rule with perfect justice, will keep his people safe. His people will forevermore be free from fear and will never again be in distress. “The days are coming” says the LORD.
When we consider our Gospel reading today, the contrast between human constructs versus God’s way comes into even sharper and painful focus.
Leading up to the crucifixion, Jesus’ opponents framed their accusations as a political power play. The first few verses of chapter 23 saw the religious leaders accuse Jesus of perverting the Jewish nation, advocating for a tax revolt against Rome, and setting himself as the long-awaited Messiah, a king and by implication, an enemy of Caesar.
In his account, Luke accentuated the wide gulf between the singularity of the perfection of Jesus the Christ on the one hand, and disfigured and distorted humanity on the other.Tweet
The religious leaders ridiculed Jesus. They probably thought themselves vindicated in that this man on the cross who saved others from sickness and death, couldn’t save himself. His claim of messiahship is therefore patently false – he couldn’t be the One, they trumpeted. The people simply stood by watching, their sensibilities seemingly unperturbed by this flagrant injustice inflicted on a man whom Pilate the governor himself judged innocent of all charges. The soldiers made fun of him, parroting the sneering religious leaders. There was an inscription above him announcing: “This is the king of the Jews”, an added humiliation.
And even one of the two criminals crucified alongside him had nothing good to say. The original word approximated in English is revile, slander, blaspheme, utter profanities. And this action was in the imperfect tense, meaning that the criminal kept continuously at him with cruel words.
Never in Biblical text has the ways of the world been more intensely contrasted with the way of Christ. On the one hand, the madding crowd foamed at the mouth and the people stood by doing nothing. And on the other hand, here was Jesus, non-retaliatory, forgiving, and alone.Tweet
But not quite alone.
Of everyone who was present, there was this other criminal who was different.
Matthew also described the crucifixion. Verse 34 of Matthew 27 says this: “And the robbers (plural) who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.”
And yet, we have Luke’s account where one of the criminals had a change of heart. How did this happen?
The key perhaps is verse 34 of Luke, where Jesus asked God to forgive his tormentors, because they do not know what they are doing. Assuming that both criminals heard Jesus say these words, one remained in unbelief, while the other understood this cosmic event for what it was. On the one hand, here was the broken world in full fury against this innocent man; on the other hand, here was this innocent man, Jesus, existing and operating from a different dimension unfamiliar to the broken world. Here was displayed the authority of the true King like no other, one who prays for forgiveness for those who revile him, one who does not retaliate in kind, one who is a shepherd even to those who would abuse him.
What this criminal witnessed caused him to admit his guilt and accept his punishment. Did this criminal also remember the metaphor of the temple being torn down and rebuilt in 3 days? Did he see through the mystery and understood it to be this man Jesus’ death and resurrection? If this was so, then this criminal must have understood that it was necessary for Jesus to die so that he might defeat death. If so, his simple plea to Jesus makes perfect sense.
Recapping, from Jeremiah to Luke the text brings into sharp focus the divide between man’s attempts to control the world, and God’s solution which is to redeem the world to Himself and make it new.
The human instinct is for retaliation, revenge, retribution. For example, the prison system began with retributive justice in mind. Lock the criminals away for they deserve to be punished, they said. But Jesus demonstrated God’s much better way: forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration. God demonstrated His love for us in this: while we were still His enemies, Christ died for us.
And so it is somehow strange that we would want that God would veil our eyes from the troubles and brokenness of the world. It is strange that we would think that the imperfect world we live in would grow dim when we look to Jesus, when in fact Jesus himself met evil head on in order to redeem it.Tweet
If we try to escape the reality of our times, ignoring the atrocities and injustice people inflict upon each other, how can we be who God made us to be, the salt and light of the earth? How can we know what to forgive as Christ forgave if we turn our eyes away from that which needs forgiveness? If we are in the kingdom of God in Christ, how can we contemplate wishing that somehow the world outside would fade and disappear? This world, this is the one that God declares He loves.
How can we not also love it and do the best we can to bring hope and a taste of the goodness of heaven to the broken, the dispossessed, the sick, the dying, the marginalized?
Yes, sometimes we might wish that God would finally make everything new, when we will be in His presence, when God will wipe away all tears, where there will no longer be death, nor mourning, nor crying nor pain – yes to all that. But it is not yet. And so therefore we continue to engage our broken world, somehow in a way rehearsing what it would be like in the fully realized kingdom of God, like turning weapons of war into implements of agriculture, like being good stewards of the creation that God entrusted to us. There may be challenges along the way, this is true.
But rather than wishing to escape, we remind ourselves that in all this, God is always our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. As the Psalmist proclaimed, we the people of God will not fear even if the earth gives way, even if mountains are engulfed in roaring waters.
We will be still before God, and we will exalt Him among the nations, among all the earth. The LORD of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our fortress.
Let us therefore continue to engage our imperfect world in the name of Christ. May it be that we will not shy away from the challenges that may come our way, confident that in the end, God who is Sovereign over all, will make all things new.