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Thanksgiving and Christ the King

Sermon preached at St. Peter & St. Paul, Marietta, GA

by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, 11/24/19

The Feast of Christ the King (year C): Colossians 1: 11-20; Luke 23:35-43

Colossians 1:11-20 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

          He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers– all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

 Luke 23:35-43 (NRSV): And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

This week, all around the country, friends and families will gather for the Thanksgiving holiday. Thanksgiving often gathers a diverse group from across the land and across the generations. We love the feasting and reconnecting with our relatives, but these gatherings also bring out the fun in dysfunction. Where else can we watch the sparks between the vegan college student and Uncle Bob the hunter? Or Aunt Sue the new ager and the Evangelical cousins? Jill’s fiancée from New York City and the grandparents from Montgomery. Its not just differences, its mood of the country that has forgotten how to talk with each other, how to listen to each other, how to learn from each other while still speaking confidently. Across all these differences and the tensions they can bring, how can we be thankful together?

One thing seems to be true for all of us: we are all disappointed and frustrated with our leaders. Republicans are frustrated, Democrats are frustrated, Libertarian and Socialist and Independents and Tea Partiers are frustrated. We are disappointed with our elected leaders. We are disappointed with those who lead by example in sports or in celebrity. We are disappointed with the news media in how they present the news to us. One response that I often feel is to just turn it off. And yet the news is important, and we only compound the cynicism when we give up on trying to improve things. So how can we be thankful?

Of course, if we give the same scrutiny to ourselves, we can be just as cynical. Quietly, we are aware of our own failings, the way we’ve disappointed our own aspirations and ideals. We’re frustrated with ourselves too. And if we have a lot of practice being cynical about others, its even easier to be cynical about ourselves. So how can we be thankful?

I think that our readings today can give us some insight to answer this question about thankfulness. These passages weren’t written with the Thanksgiving holiday in mind, but I do think that they can help us out of our rut and empower us to be thankful. There are a couple layers here, so bear with me as I chart a course through Paul’s letter to the Colossians and toward our Gospel reading about the crucifixion.

Paul’s letter to the Colossians points toward Jesus, but not before he gives thanks for them and prays for them. The passage we heard a moment ago starts with verse eleven, but let me start from the beginning of the chapter.

 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

          In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God. This you learned from Epaphras, our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, and he has made known to us your love in the Spirit.

          For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

 Do you see what Paul is doing here? He writes, as he often does, to instruct the people of this church on how to follow Jesus more closely. But he starts by thanking God for their faith and for what God has done in them. And he prays for them to be strong, prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to God the Father.

To be sure, the Colossian Christians had plenty of challenges in following Jesus in a hostile world. But Paul calls them to endure these challenges with patience, strength and thanksgiving. And why would they be thankful? Because of what God has done for them and in them. This is God who rescued them from the power of darkness to the kingdom of Jesus, who saved us from our sins. That new life is cause for thanksgiving! Paul goes on to describe Jesus in majestic terms:

 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers– all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

So Paul starts with this majestic picture of Jesus as king of the universe, through whom everything was created, higher than any earthly or spiritual power. And what does this great king do? As Luke describes in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus comes to us in human flesh and dies on the cross for us. He endures suffering to be a sacrifice for us, to put to death on the cross all that frustration and disappointment so that we might live. Jesus prays for the scoffers and the cynics: “Father, forgive them.” Jesus says to a criminal “today you will be with me in paradise.”

All the dysfunction and corruption of the world is no match for the extraordinary self-giving of Jesus for us. In Jesus, all the fullness of God comes to us, and on the cross, Jesus reconciles us to God.

Just think about that for a moment. All that disappointment and frustration that we feel in the leading voices in our culture, all that dysfunction and stress in communication in our family, all that separates us from each other and from God—all of that is no match for the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

If you are looking for a leader that can give you hope and joy—a leader in whom to be thankful, then look to Jesus! This is a picture of Jesus who we celebrate as Christ the King on this Sunday. When all human kings and leaders disappoint us, and when we disappoint ourselves, there is hope! There is hope in God’s power to overcome our failings. This is Christ the King in whose Kingdom we can all be restored.

In a world fraught with confusion, dysfunction and frustration, we can be thankful in Christ our King, and in Jesus’ power to transform us and heal our broken world. This Thanksgiving, rejoice in God’s grace—God’s love for you that is unearned and undeserved. Share that grace with the scoffers and the cynics, with the opinionated and the discouraged. Feast on how much Jesus has embraced you, and then share that feast—that grace and kindness of Jesus—with others. Share that undeserved love even if it seems to make no difference. Show God’s grace because it is good and joyful to do! And in time, you will see the power of Christ the King come to reign.

As Paul said to the Colossians, so I say to you: In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven… May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father.