(Church) Year in Review

Preacher’s Note: Drawing inspiration from a liturgy we did at my internship congregation, this year for Christ the King Sunday we did a special liturgy in which we traced the liturgical year, season by season, in a pattern of hymn stanza-reading-reflection. What follows are my short reflections for each season, in order from Advent through Ordinary Time, culminating in Christ the King. The full liturgy is available upon request via the contact form on this site.


Unity Lutheran Church + Christ the King Campus
24 November 2019 + Christ the King / Reign of Christ
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching


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. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the church 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/Reign of Christ Sunday (today) – 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 liturgy through singing, scripture, and brief reflections.


ADVENT

It’s not even Thanksgiving yet, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to the radio or shopping in pretty much every big-box retailer or department store. From the moment the last trick-or-treaters left our front porches, it’s been Christmas 24/7. But the season of Advent is a powerful counter-cultural pushback against this hurried rush to Christmas. While all around us we’ve seen Santas and candy canes and holiday greenery for weeks, the church defiantly declares: not yet!

Everything about Advent urges us to wait, to slow down, to return to ourselves and to God. 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.

So in Advent: We wait. We watch. We pray. We look expectantly for the coming of Emmanuel, God-with-us.


CHRISTMAS

“The Word became flesh and lived among us.” Not exactly the familiar birth story we get in Luke with the shepherds and the angels, 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, perhaps best known for his contemporary paraphrase translation of the Bible, The Message, says 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!


EPIPHANY

If Advent is the pushback against Christmas coming too soon, then the feast day of 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 world, as we retell the familiar story of the 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. (Those are the Bible’s words, not mine!) 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!


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 liturgical 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 but also an annual renewal of baptism 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).


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 – toward the events of Holy Week. 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 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!)


PENTECOST

At the end of the Easter season comes the Feast of Pentecost. By now we’ve lost the attendance boost from our Easter services, and since Pentecost typically falls somewhere in late May/early June, we’ve probably also lost the attention of most of the people in our pews (and, if we’re being honest, in our pulpits!). 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, coming to us in unpredictable ways and stirring us up into action, as we sing in another favorite Pentecost hymn: “Spirit of restlessness, stir me from placidness, wind on the sea” (ELW #396).

On this day, we wear fiery colors – reds, oranges, yellows, even pinks – 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.


ORDINARY TIME

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 Luke’s gospel. This coming year, we’ll hear more from Matthew.

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, as one hymn-writer puts it:

Touch the earth lightly,
use the earth gently,
nourish the life of the world in our care:
gift of great wonder,
ours to surrender,
trust for the children tomorrow will bear.

(ELW #739)

CHRIST THE KING + Luke 23.33-43

There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

It’s puzzling, at first glance, that we read a gospel lesson on Christ the King Sunday that has our so-called “king” hanging on a cross, dying. It’s certainly not the image of a king I would choose to use if I were trying to make some grand claim about Jesus.

But I think that’s exactly the point: Luke’s gospel is full of subversions and reversals. This is another one: Christ the King is so unlike any earthly monarch we can imagine. Recall way back at the beginning of our journey through the church year this morning to my reflection on Epiphany. The psalm on that day speaks of a king who will judge with righteousness and justice, defend the cause of the poor, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.

Our gospel text today adds another element to Christ’s kingly qualities: solidarity with those who suffer. As Karoline Lewis writes, salvation for the second criminal here means:

…that there was someone who saw his suffering, who was willing to stand in that suffering with him… That someone was Jesus. The criminal died knowing that someone was with him in his suffering.

This year, I’ve been leaning into the words of one of my favorite hymns that I think captures the meaning of Christ the King Sunday well, words we’ll soon sing together. Christ is not the king we would come to expect, but instead something much bigger and much more powerful. Notice the paradoxes and subversions in the words as we sing: God’s glory most sublime entering into human time; power revealed in weakness; beauty despised, rejected, and scorned; wisdom choosing the way of folly; life and love shown by dying.

Christ is the king who reigns not from a throne but from the cross, lifted up, arms extended, drawing all people into the wide embrace of God’s love. Lifted up on the cross, we behold Christ our living king.


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