When the End is the Beginning

christ-the-king-1“The Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist,” art glass detail , FPCE …. Sermon for the Christ the King Sunday …. Luke 23:33-38, 44-46 …..

When is the end the beginning? On the face of it, today’s sermon title looks like some kind of riddle. But if you think about it a moment, I believe that you’ll agree that it describes one of life’s strange-but-true ironies. The end of one thing often signals a new beginning.  As children we learn about the caterpillar that enters its cocoon to emerge as a butterfly.  We know about dry seeds that go into the dirt in the fall to emerge as green plants in the spring.

An ending leading to a new beginning is certainly a part of our pattern of worship.

First Presbyterian Church uses the “Revised Common Lectionary,” essentially an orderly plan for navigating through the major themes and stories of the Bible over a three-year period. Each new liturgical year begins not on January 1, but according to the church’s seasonal calendar, on the first Sunday of Advent.  Advent begins next Sunday, and the new worship year will slowly shift from the Advent and Christmas stories toward readings from the Gospel of Matthew.

Today, as our trip through Luke ends, we hear the familiar story of Jesus’ crucifixion. We’re used to hearing it during the days before Easter; it seems odd to read the story in November.  But when you remember the way that one finish of one thing often leads to the start of another thing, it’s not so odd.  The end is the beginning in terms of Jesus’ crucifixion leading to his resurrection, of course.

Bible scholars also tell us that in some important ways, the end of Jesus’ days on earth also are the beginning of the story about how the New Testament was written. The New Testament accounts of Jesus’ birth are found only in Matthew and Luke, both written in the last twenty years of the first century.  Paul, the earliest New Testament author, whose letters were written between approximately 48 and 62, does not mention Jesus being born in a special way.  Neither does Mark, the earliest gospel, written around the year 70.  Nor does the Gospel of John, written even later than Matthew and Luke. During the first fifty years of the Church, stories about the birth of Jesus were not a central focus. Early on, Jesus crucified and resurrected was the focus on the disciples’ attention. In relation to the writing and editing of the New Testament, it is the ending of Jesus’ earthly experience – his sacrificial death and glorious resurrection – that inspired the disciples to write down the beginning.

On this Christ the King Sunday, I’m wearing the clergy tartan stole I received while serving a former congregation. The stole with its eight-striped pattern, representing a rank superior to the stripes of nobility, was a powerful symbol for Scottish ministers. In the spirit of the prophetic tradition, the tartan displayed their conviction that Christ was Lord and Master, and no earthly power deserved greater allegiance.

Those of you who’ve visited my office may recall the watercolor prints I purchased during my trip to the 2003 Summer Institute of Theology in St. Andrew’s, Scotland.  The ruins of the great cathedral are a focal point in these renderings. I walked in and among them daily. If you know your Scottish history, then you may recall that the cathedral’s days as a center for ministry ended suddenly and violently in 1559, when it became the object of the wrath of rioting crowds.  The people who engaged in its destruction were enraged by the abuses of the Church.  They actions were instigated by the fiery sermon of 46-year-old John Knox, father of the Scottish Presbyterian Church.

Once or twice I’ve told you the strange feelings I have about these ruins. I lament the destruction of what was a grand and glorious building dedicated to the worship of God.  But I understand the context surrounding the conflict. The Church in Scotland had succumbed to temptations of greed and power.  The Scottish Reformation marked the end an old religious system that derived its authority from allegiance to bishops and kings. It lead to the birth of a new Presbyterian system of church government that eventually was carried to America, and influenced the system of government eventually reflected in the U.S. Constitution. The death of the beautiful old cathedral represented a new beginning for the Church.

In our context, and if the way be clear, then this is the final Christ the King worship service that will be celebrated in this beloved church building. The reasons for the transition are far different, and the pace is slower. But I know some of you already are feeling the sort of feelings that I experienced walking among the ruins in St. Andrews, thinking about the ending of one thing, and the beginning of another.

This Christ the King Sunday also happens to coincide with the annual election of officers, as usual a very fine group of candidates. Pray that Christ will always be king in their deliberations and deeds, that Christ will bless them with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love, as they join with others in leading us on this once in a lifetime journey to a new home for First Presbyterian Church.

As I wrote this week’s sermon, there was a particular situation often on my mind and in my heart. Some of you who follow the happenings of high school marching bands may have heard about the tragic accident that took place this past Saturday evening in Indiana, as a family was returning from the Bands of America competition in Indianapolis. A deer was struck, which did some damage. But it was the truck behind that crushed the car, killing three members of the Rinehart family: young Sophie, her father Dave, and her grandmother Ruth.  Sophie was a student of my daughter-in-law Jocelyn, and Dave the music minister at her home church. More than that, the Rineharts are longtime close friends to Jocelyn and her family.

The response to this tragedy has included many expressions of love and support. Bands near and far have paid tribute to the Castle High School marching band, expressing their solidarity with phrases like, “We are Castle.” The Rinehart family, in the midst of a grief difficult to imagine, have been vocal in their expressions of thanksgiving, and in voicing their belief that Sophie, Dave, and Ruth are with the Lord. Sophie’s solo was at the center of an award-winning performance that occurred on the night of her death. In the wake of her death, many people are vowing to “sing for Sophie,” to live in faith and make as difference, as she lived in faith and made a difference. In this ending, horrible and tragic as it certainly is, some are already vowing to make a new beginning.

It reminds me of the simple way we sum up the message of Christ the King Sunday, and it’s the thought I leave you with today:  Jesus Christ will never be King of this earth, until Christ is the King in you.

To the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and power, before all time, and now, and forever. AMEN.

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~ by JohnH1962 on November 20, 2016.