I preached this sermon on Sunday, November 20, 2022, the Feast of Christ the King. The lectionary texts cited are Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Luke 23:33-43.
Maybe it’s the holidays, or the winter setting in, or maybe it’s the fact that we have arrived at the final Sunday of the Church’s liturgical year, but around this time each November I get a little bit nostalgic. The smell of familiar foods and the melody of old songs and the sight of candles glowing in the darkness behind icy windows—it takes me back.
Maybe it takes you back, too. Back to memories of childhood, or to when you were first in love, or maybe even just a few years ago; nostalgia connects us to those periods of our lives that contained some measure of simplicity, a special sweetness. And while we know that “the good old days” were never actually as simple or perfect as we might recall them to be, it remains true that the pull of the past is powerful, and the longing we experience for it is real: longing for the faces and the places we once knew and even the versions of our selves that we used to be.
Every so often a certain memory wells up in us and we feel the gap between then and now and we cry out “Take me back!” Though we always say with a bit of irony, for we know that it’s not possible: we can’t go back, because time unfolds in only one direction, and our memories are windows into a land we can’t reenter.
If I ever get a bit self-conscious, though, about my tendency towards this November nostalgia, I remind myself that it’s simply part of the human condition. People have been haunted by their memories in every age. In Scripture we encounter generations of people caught between the past and the future, strugglng to make sense of both. Think of Israel in exile, longing for Jerusalem. Think of Jesus’ contemporaries, agitating to overthow the Empire and restore the political glory of their nation. Think of how such impulses both console and plague us, even now.
Going back in time—or at least wanting to—has been written upon the human heart since Adam and Eve stumbled out of Eden and the gates were closed to them. From that day, it seems, we have been looking over our shoulders, longing for the time “before”, longing for the people we were back then. You might even say that nostalgia is one of the most prevalent themes throughout the Bible, and while it doesn’t always serve people especially well in those stories (I am reminded of Lot’s wife), I find some reassurance in the fact that it is not just our generation that feels like it’s a long way from where it started.
But what struck me for the very first time, as I was reflecting on the passages for this Christ the King Sunday, is that we humans aren’t the only ones who feel nostalgia, why cry out “take me back.” God, too, seems to long for the time before. The time before kings and conquests. The time before we and God lost sight of one another on the long road through the centuries.
Now it’s true that the words of the Lord spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, which we heard this morning, like most prophetic writings, are all future tense—I will do this, and this will happen, and the days are surely coming, but implicit in them is God’s desire that things should return back to the way they were supposed to be—namely, to when God was the shepherd, the provider, the one who would not abandon his people or exploit them or lead them astray. God wants to go back to when there were no mortal kings of Israel, back to when God was their only sovereign, when God’s heart spoke directly to theirs.
God longs for unmediated intimacy with his people. He remembers how he walked alongside them, leading them in a pillar of flame through the deep night of the desert wilderness. God remembers how he made his dwelling place in their midst, how they sang hymns of liberation to him on the other side of the Red sea, how he fed them from his own hands with manna. And God remembers even farther back still, back to Paradise, when he walked among the trees in the cool of the evening and his creation knew the sound of his voice and the fruit still trembled, unpicked, upon the branch. Yes, God remembers it all: the smell of the familiar foods and the old songs and the fire glowing in the darkness. And he longs for it as much as we do.
Take me back, he says, without any irony. Take me back. Take me back.
How humbling that the King of Glory, the Creator of the Cosmos, would ask such a thing. That he would ask us such a thing.
Of course, we could not go back—neither back in time, nor back to him, for it seems that we are made only to tumble forward into the future. Gone, the food and song and fire. We could not recover it. We could not undo what had been done. We could not pry open the gates to Paradise. At least, not by ourselves. Not without help.
But we are here this morning, on Christ the King Sunday, because help did arrive. God determined, in the end, how to move beyond nostalgia, his own and ours, how to finally reclaim the past. He did the only thing, perhaps, that was left to do: he brought all that we had lost directly to us, in the flesh. In Jesus.
He showed up with the food in his own hands and the song on his own lips and the fire in his own eyes. He came as a different sort of king—a king who would not engage any power except the powers of love and mercy and justice. A king who would die rather than compromise his commitment to those things. One who would rise again to show us that these are the only things that are truly powerful.
And so he was born into the margins and stood at the margins, and he broke down the thin margin between heaven and earth with the force of his love, and he died, this image of the Invisible God, with a name affixed above him: The King of the Jews.
And whatever the authorities intended for him, there was no irony in that title.
For this is what he was and is: the one true King—the last king of his people, and the first king of all people. The Alpha and the Omega. The one who, from his throne on the cross, forgives us for all that has been lost, and who promises that nothing, and no one, ever need be lost. The king reopening the gates into Paradise, which is really just the gate into his heart.
Take me back, says Christ, our King.
Take me back, we reply.
And for once, maybe for the first time, it is possible.