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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 34 - Proper 29 - Year C
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Luke 1:67-79; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
alt - Psalm 46

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman ( of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

Ordinary 34 (Proper 29) - Year C


Jeremiah 23:1-6; Luke 1:67-79; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
alt - Psalm 46 

     On this last Sunday in the Christian liturgical year, we
     celebrate the Reign of Christ.   The lessons concentrate on the
     anticipated triumph of God in and through the life, death and
     resurrection of Jesus Christ.

JEREMIAH 23:1-6          The shepherd is a standard Old Testament symbol
for the king of Israel.  After condemning Israel's leaders for failing to
provide care for God's flock, this prophecy promises a monarch who will
return Israelites from foreign lands and rule them in prosperity, security
and peace.

LUKE 1:68-79             Known to Christian tradition as The Benedictus
(from the Latin for its first word), this psalm may well have had Jewish
origins long before the birth of Jesus.  It is composed of a series of
familiar Old Testament phrases taken chiefly from the Psalms.  It became an
early Christian hymn and  was incorporated into Luke's Gospel as part of
the poetic narrative of  the Messiah's birth.

PSALM 46                 (Alternate) This psalm celebrates the sovereignty
of Godover all of creation and history.  It offers the people of God a sure
and certain refuge amid disasters of natural and political disasters.

COLOSSIANS 1:11-20       Few passages in the all New Testament letters
reach the majestic heights of this one.  It is at once a joyous affirmation
of what Jesus Christ has done for us  and a vivid statement of the
fundamental belief on which our faith stands: Jesus is the divine Saviour
who died and rose again for us.  The passage also declares the firm
conviction that Jesus is the final and full revelation of God's love and
purpose for all of creation.

LUKE 23:33-43           How appropriate to end the Christian year with the
story of Jesus' promise of eternal life to the repentant thief dying beside
him.  The sovereign Lord of all creation has compassion for every sinner. 
The reign of Christ, the King of Love, is for all who choose to be his

JEREMIAH 23:1-6   As many of us know from painful experience, in every age
and in every tradition political and religious leaders have often created
difficulties for those for whom they had responsibility.  This passage
makes abundantly clear that ancient Israel was no exception.  In these six
verses at least two and possibly three brief oracles dealing with this 
leadership crisis have been grouped together to condemn what had happened
and to promise a better future.

It is likely that these oracles were pronounced against the advisers of
King Zedekiah of Judah (597-586 BCE).  Placed on the throne as a vassal of
the Babylonians, he was the last of the Davidic dynasty to reign.  He
rebelled against his overlords which brought on the invasion of Judah, the
southern kingdom, the siege and destruction of Jerusalem and its temple,
and finally, the exile of the king and the nations' leading citizens to
The fact that there are so many oracles packed into so few lines of poetry
should not surprise us.  Prophetic oracles were more commonly expressed as
ecstatic outbursts fired by a deeply  emotional experience of the presence
and purpose of Yahweh.  The text from 22:1 to 23:8 consists of a whole
series of such oracles against Judah's last three kings and their advisers. 
Some of these oracles may have come from the hand of the Deuteronomic
editor rather than Jeremiah.  Scholars believe that only vss. 1-3 and 5-6
of this chapter came from Jeremiah himself.  Vs. 4 is most likely an
inserted note of encouragement written by a later hand after the return
from the Babylonian exile.

Generally, the term "shepherd" referred only to the kings of Israel.  Here
it is more likely that the reference includes all ruling officials, the
priesthood as well as the king and his court.  Other passages in the Books
Jeremiah and Ezekiel show Zedekiah as weak and vacillating.  Jeremiah
expressed some ambivalence toward the leaders of Judah during this fateful
period and suffered for it.  He hoped Zedekiah would turn out to be a
better king than he proved to be.  However, vss. 1-2 leave little room for
such ambiguity.

Vss. 3-4 imply that the exile had already taken place.  On the other hand,
the idea of a "remnant" had appeared in the prophecies of Amos, and
particularly those of Isaiah.  Although Isaiah prophesied much earlier in
the latter half of the 8th century BCE, Jeremiah and Ezekiel shared his
conviction that a limited number of the faithful would survive the total
destruction of the nation.  After the exile, those who had returned
identified themselves with this "remnant" under Ezra's leadership (late 6th
to 5th century BCE).  It is possible that this oracle could have come from
that later period and from the same editorial hand as Jeremiah 3:15-18
which contains similar ideas of restoration.  Ezekiel 34 also shares this
point of view.
Scholars also debate the authenticity of vss. 5-6 as a prophecy of Jeremiah
because of its specifically messianic references, a concept not prominently
displayed by him.  On the other hand, Jeremiah was both disappointed in
Zedekiah's leadership as well as hopeful of a promising future under a more
stable monarch of the Davidic dynasty.  Vs. 6 ends with a curious name for
Yahweh, "the Lord is our righteousness," which in Hebrew is actually a play
on Zedekiah's name.  This word-play probably was intended to suggest that
some future king would fulfill the promise of Zedekiah's name.  While the
term "a righteous branch" in vs. 5 is thought to be messianic and come from
a later period, in this instance it may not mean more than a different
member of David's line.
Regardless of its varying origins, traditional Christian interpreters have
had  no difficulty in seeing this passage as a distinct reference to Jesus
as Israel's true Messiah.  Such an interpretation, however, ignores the
historical context to which it was obviously related.

LUKE 1:68-79   Writing as long as 50 years afterward, Luke sought to
interpret what the whole of the incarnation-resurrection story of Jesus
meant for a Gentile audience.  The Song of Zechariah, or Benedictus as it
has been known by its liturgical Latin name through the centuries, was an
early Christian hymn which may have had Jewish origins.  Literally, it is a
string of OT phrases and concepts taken largely from the Psalms and given
an explicit messianic reference.  The specifically Christian content comes
only in vss. 76-79 addressing the prophetic ministry of John the Baptist.
Two main ideas stand out in this composite psalm of praise: the
intervention of God on behalf of the covenant people and the fulfilment of
God's covenanted promise to Abraham.  These represent Christian theology
about Jesus of Nazareth which the church was forced to develop following
the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 CE and the exclusion of
Christians from Jewish synagogues a decade or so later.  In selecting these
excerpts from the Psalms, the song lifts up the concept of a messiah of
David's line in the context of the covenant tradition.  Luke may have found
it in use in the synagogues of the Jewish Diaspora where Paul did much of
his missionary work.
Zechariah, of course, was the father of John the Baptist, the prophetic
forerunner of Jesus, whose role it was to prepare the way for the true
messiah by preaching repentance.  Healing and wholeness would come not from
John, but from the Messiah who would forgive sins and thus re-establish the
covenant relationship between God and humanity outlined in the preceding OT
quotations.  The fact that this psalm is uttered by Zechariah, a Levitical
priest in the temple, may actually be the fulfillment of the latest of OT
prophecies in Malachi 3:1 and 4:5-6.

Thus the Song of Zechariah begins the gospel story by placing John and
Jesus within the historical and religious context of Judaism.  Luke did
this to clarify for his audience, presumably consisting almost entirely of
Hellenistic Gentiles, why a Jew should be seen as the saviour-hero of the

COLOSSIANS 1:11-20   Several years ago, a noted Canadian paleontologist
depicted what the human race might have looked like had evolution proceeded
without the extinction of the dinosaurs following the impact of a massive
asteroid with planet Earth about 65 million years ago.  In this passage,
Paul told the Colossians what the human race will be like when the
spiritual evolution which God began with creation and the reconciliation
brought to fulfilment in Jesus.   This final goal will be accomplished when
all creation is brought together in faith under the sovereignty of Jesus
Christ.   Here we have Paul's Christology in a few sentences which are
among the most powerful of all his writing.
In a nutshell, Paul is talking about four elements in the divine purpose:
Jesus, the human manifestation of God; all of us who are the believing
church in every age; the whole of the created universe; and the
relationship to God all may have through faith in Christ Jesus.  But he is
also talking about the specific historical situation in the Colossian
church about thirty years after the resurrection of Jesus.  
Colossae was a thoroughly Hellenistic city in the Lycus River valley about
100 miles east of Ephesus.  Paul did not found the church in Colossae nor
had he visited there.  He knew of them only by reports he had received,
probably from Epaphras, Paul's fellow missionary who appears to have been
in charge of the three churches in the Lycus valley - Colossae, Laodicea 
and Hierapolis.  We do not know for sure whether Jews or Gentiles formed
the majority of the Colossian congregation.  
William Barclay claimed that some of the Colossians had apparently been
followers of the Hellenistic tradition known to us as Gnosticism.  They
totally denied the essential gospel Paul and Epaphras preached.  Gnosticism
separated body and the created universe from spirit and divinity as
exclusive entities.  The Gnostics regarded the  body and creation as evil
and mortal; and the spirit as good and immortal.  Hence they could not
accept the real humanity of Jesus nor regarded him as the full
manifestation of God.  Nor could they accept that Jesus was the only way to
a restored relationship with God through the forgiveness of sins. (Barclay,
William.  "Daily Bible Study: The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians
and Philemon." Edinburgh: Church of Scotland, 1957.)
There also appears to have been both ascetic and mystical elements in this
philosophy akin to the Jewish sectarian traditions of the Essene community
of Qumran who practiced circumcision, ritual ablutions, and even angel
worship to some extent as the spiritual intermediaries who delivered the
law to humankind.  Some Gnostics also followed such practices and this
assured Barclay that the interlopers were of that ilk.  The Swiss scholar,
Eduard Schweizer, on the other hand, believes that the sectarians were
Essenes.  Prof.  George Caird holds that the Colossian sectarians were
primarily Jews with a tendency toward what later became fully developed
Gnosticism.  They also believed that Jesus was just one more of the
countless manifestations of the spiritual world separating God, creation
and humankind.
Vss.  15-20 may be a hymn in praise of Christ in two strophes (vss.15-18a;
18b-20).  Schweizer has given an extensive analysis of this hymn in his
commentary on the letter. (*The Letter to the Colossians: A Commentary.*
Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1982)  The first strophe of the hymn deals with the
problem of the world's existence, a problem not otherwise known in the New
Testament.  The second strophe proclaims the world's reunification and
final stabilization under the sovereignty of God through Christ (p.80) This
Gospel story of the incarnation, resurrection, and exaltation at the right
hand of God provides the evidence on which this Christological statement
stands.  The  reconciliation of the whole of creation (vs. 20) is thus the
exact opposite of the negative view the Gnostics would have preached. 
(Schweizer, 86) 

Caird, on the other hand, discounts the hypothesis of an early Christian
hymn, but does emphasize Pauline Christology wherein the death and
resurrection of Christ denies all other authorities, inaugurates a new  and
universal era of divine sovereignty over all creation and humanity. 
Baptism is the re-enactment of the death and resurrection of Christ.  It
replaces circumcision as the symbol of incorporation into the new
relationship with God made effective for all believers through God's 
What faith in Christ offered the Colossians and all believers since is an
exchange of sovereign who makes this reconciliation with our Creator God a
living reality.  

LUKE 23:33-43   The Garden Tomb located near a cliff face that still
resembles a human skull attracts the attention of countless devout
tourists.  Maps of Jerusalem as it was on crucifixion day, reveal that if
this was the site of the execution and burial of Jesus, this event occurred
near a main road out of the city just beyond the Damascus Gate.  If, as
many also believe, Golgotha was near the present site of the Church of the
Holy Sepulchre, it was also a very public place just beyond the city walls. 
The Romans' purpose in holding executions in such places was to subdue the
populace and so declaring Roman sovereignty through terror.  
Why crucify a king?  Roman citizens were executed by beheading.  Kings were
usually slain in battle against Roman legions.  Despite the claim of the
Jewish authorities that they had no king but Caesar, Jews did not consider
themselves nor were they recognized as citizens by Roman law.  The mob's
outcry for crucifixion, however, persuaded the ruthless governor Pilate to
sacrifice the life of an innocent man for the sake of political
convenience.  The fact that according to the gospel record  Jesus claimed
that his kingdom was spiritual and "not of this world" had no meaning for
Pilate.  As Gregory Riley states, Jesus forfeited his life once he was
accused as a troublemaker by the Jewish authorities.  (Riley, Gregory J. 
*One Jesus, Many Christs,* (Harper, San Francisco, 1997. 190)

By the time Luke wrote his gospel circa 80-85 CE, Romans regarded
Christians as committing treason against the religious and political fabric
of the state.  The penalty for this was death.  (Riley, 196) To authors
like Luke, the story of a martyred hero-king had relevance for the Greco-
Romano culture of his audience.  

The Christian interpretation of Jesus' sovereignty rests exclusively on the
belief that he was indeed the longed-for Saviour Messiah, but of a totally
different kind than that of popular Jewish tradition of a monarch of
David's line who would restore Israel's glory.  Luke did reflect the
popular image of a divinely anointed king and military conqueror when he
recorded the cries of the Jewish leaders and the Roman soldiers, "He saved
others: let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!"
(vs. 35) and "If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself!" (vs. 37)
According to the Christian understanding of the messianic tradition, rooted
as it was in the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, Jesus could not do what
the crowd demanded and fulfill his mission as the real Messiah/Christ.
The key to the Christian view is the more profound theological hope for
God's intervention in human history through ordinary human beings willing
to live and love sacrificially to establish a permanent reign of justice,
security and peace.   As we  celebrate of the Reign of Christ, we call to
mind the whole incarnation-crucifixion-resurrection-ascension story which
the gospels present.  Beyond all other authorities to which we may be
tempted to submit, the Christian story declares once and for all the
absolute sovereignty of God in Jesus Christ in and through human history.  
It gives us hope to live and work in faith embodying this sovereignty in
our living - individually, communally, globally.  We are called to live
under Christ's authority the justice, love and peace that we see in him. 
The circumstances of our present moment in history call us to engage in
this mission as never before.

copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006, 2004
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.

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