Preaching Text: “Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold…” (Jeremiah 23:3)
As I stated in this month’s Beacon, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Aside from a weird appreciation for November, a month many find to be irredeemably glum and moody (though I love it), the holiday is, for me, more noticeably religious.
This may sound odd given the overtly religious implications of Easter and, to a lesser extent, Christmas. Yet Thanksgiving still retains a kind of low key, non-commercial feel about it (only then to be crushed the very next day by Black Friday and the start of the unabashed buying Christmas frenzy).
But perhaps especially here on Cape Cod, we are reminded of the first Thanksgiving and the fervent desire among the first European settlers to give God thanks for the promises and provisions of this land. Herein a quiet, contemplative piety marks the occasion. And God is the focus.
The great challenge of Thanksgiving, however, is in naming all the manifold blessings God has given us, not just a free country and a material abundance unprecedented in human history, but to give voice to the most basic aspects of human existence.
This is a daunting task, for we are very good at taking for granted our blessings. Daily we live as if immune to the countless mysteries and wonders of life, a life God alone has granted us. All around us exists ample evidence of these miracles, miracles our dulled eyes either ignore or deny, often as we’re scanning the horizon for something else, something more, as if life itself weren’t enough.
When I sit down with my family this Thursday, I’m certain I will fail in my obligation to properly give God thanks, thanks for family, for church, for country, and for the infinite and often subtle ways my life is blessed.
Worse still, I’ll probably get up from the table and soon shunt any thoughts of gratitude aside as I pursue other self-directed interests.
I’m always reminding the Bible Study of something John Calvin once said. “The human mind,” he observed, “is an idol factory.” We end up oblivious to the power and might of God as we create our own worlds.
And of all the ways in which we discount the divine, perhaps none is greater than the occasion we are observing today – Christ the King Sunday. Every year, on the last Sunday of the liturgical year, we dutifully nod to it. But its meaning remains curiously elusive.
Its meaning, that is to say, is about Christ’s Second Coming. It’s a concept that’s largely lost on most contemporary Christians, myself included. For what it says is that all suffering, pain, and death, all sin, injustice, and evil, realities that besmirch and desecrate the magnificent and wondrous world God created, shall one day end…completely.
Last week I talked about the pie-in-the-sky aspect of the gospel. Christ’s Second Coming just may be the veritable motherlode of all pie-in-the-sky concepts.
In short, biblically-speaking, the history of the world goes like this: God created all things perfectly, as represented by the mythological story of the Garden of Eden.
The reason the Garden of Eden is portrayed as paradise is not only because it is created by God, but its denizens, in their innocence, know nothing but God’s goodness. This is because their primal relationship with their Creator is all they know.
But after the serpent tempts them to eat of the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they fall from grace, effectively rejecting their primal relationship with God. Now they must live east of Eden, having made themselves gods – all to an unseemly result.
Beginning in Genesis 12, with God’s calling of Abraham, God takes preliminary steps to reverse this fall from grace, to restore this broken relationship, to reconcile human beings and human history back to their Creator.
Christianity, of course, argues that this was accomplished by Jesus Christ. And the offer given in and through him is salvation, i.e. rescue from the manifold predations of our world by means of reconciliation.
In early Christian thinking, Christ’s initial incarnation, as well as his earthly life, death, and resurrection, were understood to be the “first fruits” in the completion of God’s plan for salvation.
After the resurrection, and emboldened by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the church was tasked as the sole mechanism by which the “Good News” of this salvation would be spread to the world, all in preparation for Christ’s “second” coming, God’s final act, which they believed was imminent and would occur within their very lifetime.
As we know, this didn’t happen, and over time the church learned to accommodate to the world around it. While this has ushered forth much good, with Christian love and Christian values undoubtedly having altered our world for the better, the stubborn fact of sin and evil, suffering and death, nonetheless remains.
In the Book of Revelation, with which the Bible Study has struggled mightily over the last few months, we’ve encountered some of the most disturbing and difficult prophetic visions in all of scripture. Written at a time (around 90 A.D.) of the widespread and utterly barbaric persecution of the church by Rome, the Book of Revelation posits a future violent struggle between God/Christ and the powers of evil
At its end, there is indeed a final decisive battle, what I’ve referred to as the “showdown at the O.K. Corral,” the battle between good and evil. At its conclusion, good is triumphant, or as a child once put it, “God wins!”
Though one needs to be careful in interpreting this text, not to take it too literally, it does raise significant questions. Why did the early church and its theologians decide to include it in the final canon? At the very least, they must have concluded that it fit in with the general theme of the gospel.
But what it that general theme? In short, it is the fulfillment of the deepest desire of the human heart – perfect peace, perfect love, and a perfect existence. For no matter how dejected we might become over the things we witness in our world, nothing can obliterate our primal desire for God’s perfect paradise, for Eden restored. Here is God’s promise to Abraham fulfilled, the reconciliation of creation back to its Maker.
This is, it seems, a bit too much for us. It is, in a sense, too hopeful. In other words, it’s pure pie-in-the-sky. It doesn’t accord at all with our hard-nosed, everyday sense of things.
Yet in our biblical faith, it’s the whole point! It is the fulfillment of God’s promise that creation shall know perfect peace and shall live it wholly. It is “the heavenly harvest,” the greatest harvest of all, for which we should not only fervently hope, but for which we should give unalloyed, heartfelt thanks. Amen.