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The Rev. Dr. Wiley Stephens The Rev. Dr. Wiley Stephens

The Rev. Dr. B. Wiley Stephens is senior minister of Dunwoody United Methodist Church in Dunwoody, GA.

Member of:

United Methodist Church

Representative of:

Dunwoody United Methodist Church, Dunwoody, GA


Thanksgiving in Three Tenses

Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

Christ the King Sunday (Proper 29)

November 23, 2003

How many times have we prayed: Thy kingdom come? The concept of God's kingdom is woven so tightly into the fabric of our faith. But who designs his kingdom? What kind of king rules? While you might say it is obvious that it is God's kingdom, let us be honest that what the kingdom really means is not always easy to answer. We share Pilate's question today, "So you are a king?"

Pilate was confused, for a king in his thinking meant power and grandeur, not a humble, poor teacher. Something in this picture just didn't seem right.

We should not be surprised at the lack of understanding of who Jesus was. John opened his Gospel with a premise that his own knew him not. And after 20 centuries and literally millions of church services and sermons, do we really know either?

Vital to how we answer the question is the realization that our commitments make us who we are. When we pray for the coming of a kingdom, what kind of king are we praying for?

One of the "in" words for today is paradigm. A paradigm is the way we see a reality. There was a paradigm switch when people went from seeing the world not as flat but as round. Industries go through paradigm changes, such as from watches with movements to quartz watches or from records to cassettes to CDs or from VHS tapes to DVDs. We see a paradigm shift at the time of the American Revolution when people started seeing themselves as Americans.

Our Gospel for today sees a paradigm shift. The king doesn't fit the mold to what they'd always thought of as a king. There was no obvious power, no prestige, and a bound prisoner about to be sentenced to death without pomp or circumstance.

What kind of king do we worship? The last Sunday in the liturgical year is designated as the Festival of Christ the King or the Reign of Christ. This is not an ancient festival like Easter or Christmas. In fact, it is less than a century old. It was first called by Pope Pius XI in 1925. Europe was in chaos. Inflation was rampant, and colonialism was at its worst. The seeds of evil that were to produce the terror of the Holocaust and World War II were being planted. Against all this chaos and evil, the Pope established the Festival of Christ the King to declare that Jesus Christ is king. He is the goal of all human history, the joy of all who hear, and the fulfillment of our aspirations.

Throughout our journey of the church's year, we have been building to this point. Since we began our journey with the coming of the Christ child, the baptism of Jesus, the ministry of our Lord in Galilee and Judea, we walked the way to Calvary and the Cross. We spoke of the empty tomb and our resurrected Lord. We've experienced anew the power of the Holy Spirit as on the day of Pentecost. Now we dare to celebrate the future, to give to the world what it needs: a new paradigm, a new kingdom to pray for.

All around us the world is already getting ready for the Christmas season. Stores have been decorated for weeks, and we are busy making plans. This last Sunday of the year before we begin the formal preparation for Christmas is a call to remember that we have more than the baby Jesus of Christmas. We have a sovereign Christ. When we know what kind of king we have, we can sing with great faith, "Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her king."

When we focus on Christ as our king, we see the three tenses of Thanksgiving: the past, the present, and the future. The kingdom we seek has been, is, and will be.

We praise our king for all that has been done. We are his creation. He formed and shaped us and knew us even before we were born. He has provided for us. His mercy and grace have forgiven us and freed us to be who we are.

In the first tense, it is a reminder that what God has done is not to worship the past. God is always leading us forward. Remember the Israelites as they struggled in the wilderness, when at times they longed for the security of Egypt, forgetting the hardships of oppression.

The challenge is to be grateful for the gifts that have brought us this far without allowing them to become burdens. Before we long for the good old days, remember some things that were negative about them. Sure, the pilgrims that came to our shores sought religious freedom, but for many only if you belonged to their church. The founding fathers of our nation wanted the right to vote, but only if you were white, male, and owned property. Before we long too much for the good old days, remember today is one of the good old days of tomorrow.

When Jesus says, "I am Alpha," he is saying all our beginning is in him. No one is self-made. Our very life, our faith, our freedom are ours because of a precious price paid by those who came before us.

The past has a great impact upon us even if we try to ignore it. Two psychiatrists met at a convention. One asked the other, "What was the most difficult case you ever had?" The second one answered, "A patient who lived in a fantasy world. He insisted that he had a rich uncle in South America who would soon die and leave him a fortune. Every day he waited for a letter from an attorney. I treated him with psychotherapy three times a week for eight years." The first asked with great interest, "Did you cure him?" The reply was, "Well, yes and no. Just as I was making progress, that stupid letter came!"

In this season of Thanksgiving, we celebrate the reign of Christ the king. Jesus both announces and exercises the eternal reign of God. Yet who is listening to him? We tend to be like Pilate verbally sparring with Jesus. "What kind of king are you after all? And by the way, what is truth anyway? No one believes in such things any longer." So the witness is not heard, and we wonder why our vision of the future is not clear and why we so easily lose hope.

The only way to clearly see the impact of the kingdom that has been is for Christ to be our king today. What Pilate saw before him made no sense because he had not committed himself to the kingdom.

Frederick Buechner, writing in "Listening to Your Life," says of the kingdom of God:

that it is not a place, of course, but a condition, insofar as here and there, and now and then, God's kingly will is being done in various odd ways among us even at this moment; the kingdom has come already. Insofar as all the odd ways we do his will at the moment at best half-baked and half-hearted, the kingdom is still a long way off.

We have looked for the kingdom in the headlines, but we must find him in our hearts. Peter Berger writes:

Our congregations are full of individuals with a multitude of afflictions and sorrows, very few which have anything to do with the allegedly great issues of history. These individuals come to receive the consolation and solace of the gospel. Instead what they get is a lot of politics.

In a recent Gallup poll, 86 percent of all Americans considered themselves Christians, but less than half knew who preached the Sermon on the Mount. Sixty percent of the country was in church the Easter of that survey, but one out of four people there didn't know what Easter celebrates.

The challenge of the kingdom is for each of us

To let God be God...in you
To let God be God...in your church
To let God be God...in your neighborhood
To let God be God...in your job, in your family, and
...in your world.

As we live in the kingdom, we declare with the psalmist, "This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it." The present tense is a call to live under the reign of Jesus. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "See, now this is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation."

The issue in our Gospel and for our lives is who is really in charge. Do we as Pilate go by the appearance or, as Jesus, by the reality? If we fail to realize who is truly in charge, we pay for our foolishness.

Mary gave a one-line sermon to the attendants at the wedding feast who ran out of wine, "Do whatever he tells you." That is what we need stamped on our morning cups of coffee to be reminded that to find meaning, purpose, and peace, we must keep asking ourselves, "What is Jesus telling me to do with my life?" When we do ask and listen for the answer, then we are experiencing the power of his kingdom in our midst.

An old Native American legend told of a young warrior who found a lone eagle egg. To be helpful, he placed it in the nest of a prairie chicken. The little eagle grew up with prairie chicks, pecking and clucking around the ground for worms, insects, and seeds. Life was one pleasant day after day--no challenges. When the eaglet flew, like the prairie chicks, he never rose more than a few feet off the ground. The years passed by and the eaglet grew and matured.

One day, scratching the ground, the eagle glanced up. Soaring in the clouds was the most splendid bird he'd ever seen. He couldn't take his eyes away from the bird's gorgeous, strong, golden wings. It seemed not to move as it commanded the sky.

The scratcher asked the head prairie chicken what the noble bird was. "That's an eagle, the chief of birds, but he's far above you. Keep scratching." The eagle kept scratching the ground. He died, never realizing that he was not a prairie chicken.

What kind of king are we called to follow? One that will be with us all through our life. In all of our days and all of our ways, He will be present.

Scraped on the wall of a barrack in one of the camps of the Holocaust, underneath a crudely drawn Star of David in rough lettering on a crumbling wall, were these words:

I believe in the sun even when it does not shine.

I believe in love even when it is not shown.

I believe in God even when he does not speak.

Our thanksgiving comes in the future tense as well, for this promise of his reign is not only for today but for tomorrow. Our thanksgiving is not only for what God has done but for what God will do. Jesus said, "I am the Alpha and the Omega." The Pilates of this world will disappear, and most will be forgotten, but the reign of Jesus is forever and ever.

In the Prague demonstrations that sparked the Czech Revolution on Nov. 18, 1989, students began chanting to the Communist party leadership, "You have lost already! You have lost already!" Though victory was in the future, a participant commented, "We knew we could win. We knew it was unstoppable. At the point that we committed ourselves to the struggle, we began to understand that victory was ours." The Communist Party leaders may have sensed their power slipping but probably could not see the total collapse that was coming. They probably had no real understanding of the power of freedom, anymore than Pilate had no real understanding of the power of God. However mighty he thought the Roman Empire was, it too would fade, and the kingdom of Jesus would stand.

John Mansfield, in his play "The Trial of Jesus," pictures Pilate's wife remaining in the judgment hall long after everybody else had left. Finally, a soldier who had taken part in the crucifixion comes in, and she asks him, "Is he dead yet?" The soldier shakes his head and says, "No, lady, he is not dead." She questions him further, "But surely he is dead, he has been hanging there so long now." And the soldier replies, "No, lady, he is not dead. His love is let loose in the world now, and neither Jew nor Roman can stop him."

Our thanksgiving is an awareness of God's abundance through the ages, a sense of his very presence in this moment, but also a declaration that God is also yet to come. When we live with this sense of expectation, today makes a difference.

W. H. Griffith-Thomas gave this advice to young preachers:

Think yourself empty.
Read yourself full.
Write yourself clear.
Pray yourself keen.
Then enter the pulpit and let yourself go...
For the best is yet to come....

Pilate could see no further than what was before his eyes, a prisoner about which some made outlandish claims. Jesus saw beyond that moment to the greater truth. The future, as the past, is in God's hands.

J. Wallace Hamilton reminded us that not only do we overestimate the length of our lives when we act as if we'll live forever. We also underestimate their length. He points it out when people are wrong who say, "A hundred years from now, what's the difference? We'll all be dead." Actually, a hundred years from now we will all be alive, somewhere. And what we have been and done will make a difference. As we celebrate that Christ is king, let us see life in the three tenses of Thanksgiving:

God has loved us and gave us his Son.
Christ walks with us today.
Our Lord awaits us in all our tomorrows.
Rejoice! The Lord is king!

Let us pray.

Gracious God, as we pause to praise thee for the gifts of life, let us set our lives to live worthy of those gifts that in the future to come, you shall reign as our king. Amen.


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