sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Last Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 29B), November 25, 2018
If you were to tell the story of Jesus to someone who had never heard of him before, where would you start? You might consider starting with the story of Christmas. That would make sense. Or you could start with the Creation stories in Genesis and work your way through Jesus’ back story first. When Mark sat down to write the story of Jesus, he chose to skip Jesus’ birth and go right to his baptism.
These are all fine ways to begin the story of Jesus. But how would you end it?
You know, the word “end” has two meanings: it can mean the final chapter of a story. Or it can mean the ultimate intention or purpose of the story. On this final Sunday of the Christian year, we look to the end of all things—and there we find Christ, the ultimate destination toward which the entire universe is heading. Because of this, the end of a thing, the end of a situation, the end of a person is also the eternal beginning.
There is a great lesson in our children’s curriculum, Godly Play, in which we talk about how we measure time. The storyteller uses a thread to show that time is a line that has a beginning and an end. Then the storyteller ties the ends of the thread together to show that this is how we in the church measure time: Time is not just in a line, but also in a circle. The storyteller takes the thread and lays it on top of a special clock that measures the seasons of the church year. Today we reach the end of a line of time, and then we tie it to the beginning again as, next Sunday, we enter the season of Advent and start over. Every year we tell the story of Jesus. And today we tell the end.
We know how the Bible ends the story of Jesus: with the Revelation to John. I like to say that this book is primarily in Bible because it makes for a good ending. I mean, what if the Bible ended with the Letter of Jude? What a letdown. No, for a story this important, you need a slam-bang ending.
Many of us, when we were kids, attended Sunday school and may even have learned a lot about the order of the books in the Bible. I still remember a little song I learned then for finding my way around the New Testament: “Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, letters to the Romans, First and Second Corinthians, Galatians and Ephesians!” Et cetera. The Old Testament had more books and I never learned a song for it, but I did memorize some: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth. Et cetera, until I lose track, which I still do. You may know that the Old Testament ends with the prophet Malachi. Unless you’re Jewish, in which case it ends with First and Second Chronicles. Did you know that the books in the Jewish Bible are in a different order?
But that order was determined much later. Jesus didn’t have the Christian Bible. Jesus of Nazareth was Jewish. How did his Bible end? In Jesus’ time, the Septuagint, the authoritative Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, ended with the Book of Daniel, the last book to be written before Jesus came along.
Daniel is a very weird book. It starts with folk tales, some of which are probably familiar to many of us: the story with the lions’ den … the story with the fiery furnace, and Daniel’s three friends, Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednego … the story with King Belshazzar and the mysterious hand writing words of doom on the wall. Like the Revelation to John, the Book of Daniel makes for a great ending with all its apocalyptic imagery and dire consequences. And the book itself ends with these words:
“But you, go your way, and rest; you shall rise for your reward at the end of days.”
I was very excited this week to learn that the last words of the Hebrew Scriptures are words of resurrection. The Book of Daniel is the only book in the Hebrew Bible that mentions the resurrection of the dead. What a great way to leave off the first part of the story and to get ready to hear about the birth of a baby.
But just so we don’t get too sidetracked, let’s look at the portion of Daniel we just heard. It’s a vision of the End. The Ancient One is on the throne. It’s a scene of judgment. And then, says Daniel, “I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven.” This writing is so late, so near to Jesus’ time, that it’s not even in Hebrew: it’s in Aramaic, the language that Jesus himself spoke. Daniel sees “one like a human being”—or, for a more literal translation, “one like a son of man.”
Now, “son of man” is an expression that shows up in many places in the Hebrew Bible, and usually it just means “a man”—a human, a regular joe, as opposed to God. But in the Book of Daniel it’s bigger than that, because the Ancient One then gives to the Son of Man “dominion and glory and kingship”—“an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away.” This is a Messianic figure, a descendant of David, the one who will restore the Kingdom of Israel and rule it eternally.
Then, when the phrase “Son of Man” shows up in the story of Jesus, it’s because Jesus is using it to refer to himself.
And by the time we come back around again to the Revelation to John, we hear of the resurrected Jesus Christ, the “firstborn of the dead,” returning and appearing to everybody on earth. And we hear that God, the creator of all, is the Alpha and the Omega—the A to Z—the beginning and the end.
If you were to tell the story of Jesus from the very beginning to the very end, how would you end it?
Would you think to end it with a Kingdom?
We don’t really know much about kings in our country, or any monarchs, really. Though many nations still have royal families, they feel old-fashioned to us—dated, especially since we Americans did away with the whole concept on principle the moment we declared our independence. What good does it do us to talk about Jesus as our king, especially when you consider the images we probably carry in our minds about what kings are really like?
So again I’d like to turn to language from Godly Play to help us out. “The people had been hoping for many years for a Messiah, a special person sent by God who would save them and be their King. A King is coming, but he is not the kind of king that people thought they were hoping for. This King had no army, no great house, and no riches. This King was a baby who was born in a barn.”
Do you hear it? We’re about to turn a corner. The ending is shifting back into a beginning again.
In today’s gospel we find the accused Son of Man, Jesus of Nazareth, standing in trial before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. Pilate is supposed to be judging Jesus. But wait: who is judging whom here? Who has more power? Jesus stands whipped and beaten, bruised and bloody, and with all his dignity still completely intact, he proclaims, “My kingdom is not from this world. In worldly kingdoms, the subjects fight to protect their monarch. But this isn’t like that at all.”
“Wait,” says Pilate, “so you are a king?”
“Your words, governor, not mine. Call me whatever you need to call me if it will help you understand. I’m just doing what I was born to do: to tell God’s truth and to be that truth. Anyone who recognizes and honors truth is actually one of my subjects.”
This doesn’t sound like any king I’ve ever heard of. So maybe “king” isn’t the best title after all. Yet here we are on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, celebrating the Feast of Christ the King, also called the Reign of Christ. Take or leave the metaphor, but hear this: Jesus the Christ is, if nothing else, the icon of the way things are in God’s universe. Jesus is the truth of God’s love … in the flesh!
I have a challenge for all of you in the coming year. Spend as much of it as you can with us at the Church of the Good Shepherd and think about how you would tell the story of Jesus. Think of the stories in the Bible as your starting place, where you’ll find the main raw materials. But then, make the connections. Look at your own life. Look at your own beginnings and endings. What is truth—not just your individualistic version of truth, but your best approximation of ultimate truth? What events in your life speak most deeply of Truth? It is there, in those most truthful places in your story, that you’ll find Jesus.
Don’t be surprised if those places are extremely vulnerable ones. I think this is why we so often make small talk at coffee hour. Ideally, we’re here at church to compare notes on the presence of Jesus in our lives, but that would really require us to drop our guard, even to strangers. We can’t handle that much truth all that often.
But maybe a little bit at a time. Maybe in baby bites. You might get to know some people better in the coming year—develop some friendships—and talk intentionally about Truth. Talk intentionally about whose voice you follow, and why. Talk about your tragedies and your triumphs, your failures and your redemptions. Talk about your vulnerable places. These are the blessed places. These are the pivot points of your life. These are the cracks that let the Light in.
But one thing at a time. Today is the end of the story of Jesus: truths revealed, conclusions reached, promises fulfilled. And we’re also just turning the corner. I hear there’s a baby on the way.