Jeremiah 23:1-6; John 18:33-37
The Christian year doesn’t run on the same calendar as the rest of our lives.
There was a time when that annoyed me – keeping track of two different calendars and having to explain the liturgical cycles of the church. It’s a bit like the fiscal calendar not being the same as the yearly calendar. But I‘ve grown to appreciate the difference. It reminds us that there’s a rhythm not bound to the cycle of the everyday – a movement happening in and through us not captive to our schedules.
With the church calendar we break free of the mundane and experience the holy in time, and outside of time. The sacred cycles of the church year connect us to forces that are ineffable and inscrutable and beyond this world that are, paradoxically, as close as our heartbeat and our breath. The transcendent and the immanent come together on Christ the King Sunday.
Today the church year concludes. The story of Jesus on earth is over and his reign begins. He ascends and “sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty,” in the words of the ancient creed.
This day we remember the reign of one whose sovereignty extends not only to earthly life, but to life beyond life. That claim is core to Christian faith; we trust that time is not limited only to place, as we know it – not bound merely to the here and now. At the end of life on this earth comes a new beginning.
I’ve had the privilege as a pastor to be with people nearing the end of life, many times. As death approaches often I see profound courage in the one facing it. They trust in the promises of our faith. They hold fast to the power of God’s love to take them from this life to the next. They are at peace. They know that in their end is a new beginning.
They’ve had a foretaste of the reign of God.
That reign is the subject of a rather curious scene the day after the arrest of Jesus in the Garden. The powerful Roman governor of Judea summons the prisoner Jesus inside for a private conversation. It starts with Pilate’s question.
“Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate asks Jesus, to which he replies with a question: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”
Pilate responds, “I am not a Jew, am I?”
He seems genuinely interested in learning about Jesus.
Knowing he’s a man condemned to die, Jesus replies,
“My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
Pilate asks another question, suggesting he may be convinced Jesus is who he’s rumored to be, “So you are a king?”
“You say that I am a king,” Jesus replies. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world.”
And for this kingdom, Pilate must have thought, you will die.
In that scene, Jesus is teaching a ruler of this age about ineffable things, about time and space, about life and eternity, about things beyond the tangible present, about a love and a life not bound by time and materiality. Jesus is saying he knows his life may be ending, but something far grander is about to get underway.
In his kingdom, endings can be beginnings.
T.S. Eliot’s poem East Coker, part of Four Quartets, written in the time of World War II in Britain, when it seemed as if the world were coming to an end, offers a faint echo of the words of Jesus before Pilate.
“In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth…
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.”
In my beginning is my end.
The poet anticipates death – and then sees beyond it.
“I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God.
As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed.”
What a wonderful way we might think of death, and of life beyond death. The theater goes dark so the set can be rearranged. Then the drama starts again.
The Apostle Paul says something similar to the Corinthians about death:
“Listen! I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye…we will be changed.”
When my grandmother died my first nephew, her great-grandson, was born virtually the next day. In our end is our beginning. When Covid came and shut us up and closed us down, we found a way through the isolation. In our end is our beginning. When the storm overwhelmed, we found shelter to make it through; when the night closed in and we thought dawn had forgotten to break, a hint of light showed in the east. In our end is our beginning.
Our faith looks beyond what the world sees – and peers into a different realm.
“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus says to an inquiring Pilate.
He’s pointing to something the power of Rome cannot contain or control, something not even our chaotic, divided, angry, wounded world can diminish. That something is the power of love to outlast everything. It gives rise to hope, and we, the church – this beloved community to which we belong – we are stewards of that faith.
“But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting,” the poet writes.
“Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.”
Our faith invites us to accept the endings in our lives, trusting that they lead to new beginnings. From the crucifixion on Calvary, we make our way, every year, back through the streets of the city, retracing the via dolorosa, out the gates of Jerusalem on the path to Bethlehem, to find a manger there.
And we begin again, in the twinkling of an eye. That is our witness at every memorial service. It is the hope upon which our faith rests – the conviction of things unseen.
The reign of God offers a counterweight to the way the world operates. The world crashes headlong into the next thing, always pushing forward, always consuming without stopping and always without understanding the rhythm of endings and beginnings.
With the poet, we have learned to wait, trusting in the movement of something not bound by time or place. But our waiting is not passive. In this time between the times, we work, you and I, to hasten the endings that signal the coming reign. The injustices lodged in our systems coming to an end. The cycle of generational poverty coming to an end. The destruction of creation coming to an end. Lies parading as truth coming to end. War and violence, hatred and cruelty coming to an end.
The prophets of old saw what was coming:
“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” Gods says through Jeremiah.
“It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD…The days are surely coming,…when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
The reign for which we wait and for which we work will be ushered in by love and established in justice. For that to happen, some things will need to end. And we who inhabit the kingdom not of this world do not fear endings, for we know they portend new life on the other side.
“Love is most nearly itself ,” the poet writes,
“When here and now cease to matter…
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise.
In my end is my beginning.”
Today is the last day of the church year. Christ the King Sunday, the end of time in the cycle of life in the church. We have made it through the joys and sorrows, the fear and hope, the healing and brokenness.
And now we celebrate that Jesus is Lord of Life, Sovereign over time and space.
With him we look over into what comes next and discover what he knew all along: the cycle turns ‘round until it reaches the stopping place…and then it begins again. We must stop in order to start.
In our end is our beginning.
Thanks be to God.