written by Cory Driver
It is easy, in the run up to Christmas, to skip over important dates and even whole seasons like Advent, in our focus on celebrating the birth of the Christ Child. But as we look forward to this coming Sunday, in which we celebrate Christ as King, it is worth reflecting on just what sort of King Jesus is.
Hundreds of years before the Incarnation of Jesus, the people of God were being harassed and persecuted, both by foreign enemies, and by abusive rulers who looked out for themselves, rather than for the good of their people. God, through the prophet Jeremiah, pronounced woe on the evil leaders who hurt and scattered God’s beloved, vulnerable people. In addition to cursing wicked leaders, God promised to raise up good shepherds to protect the people and care for them (Jeremiah 23:1-4).
One such good leader was Saint Edmund, King of East Anglia, whose feast we celebrate today. When his kingdom was under threat by the Viking army, headed by Ivar, son of Ragnar, King Edmund was advised by his bishop to either abandon the people and save himself, or submit to the rule of Ivar, which would include banning Christianity among his subjects. Saint Edmund decided that he could neither abandon his people to be persecuted by the Danes, nor could he force his people to turn their backs on their God. He embraced the path of martyrdom, rather than mislead his people. According to Abbo of Fleury’s Life of St. Edmund, the sainted king informed the Vikings, “Almighty God knows that I will not ever turn from worship of Him, nor from love of His truth. If I die, I live.” Rather than taking up arms in defense of his country, “King Edmund, against whom Ivar advanced, stood inside his hall, and mindful of the Savior, threw out his weapons. He wanted to match the example of Christ… [who chose peace in the face of violent empires].” Saint Edmund was tortured and executed on a tree, saving his people from certain defeat if they had chosen to fight against the far superior Viking forces.
Saint Edmund truly followed the example of Jesus, who chose to undermine the evil and seductive power of empire not by taking up the sword, but by dying on a tree – and then overcoming death. Jesus is the ultimate good shepherd as he shows us the path toward peace, toward neighbor love, and toward worship of God. As we mark Christ the King Sunday later this week, we celebrate Jesus who did not use military might to overthrow Rome or the Herodians, but who used some of his dying breaths to welcome a humble convicted criminal into his kingdom (Luke 23:39-43).
As we look around the world, and read the news, where do we see good shepherds today? I believe there are leaders in the church, in classrooms, in the halls of political power, and in our homes, who emulate Jesus (and Saint Edmund) and sacrifice on behalf of their people. They choose the path of peace instead of the path of violence, and in so doing reject and undermine the promise of empire that might makes right. Who might those people be in our own lives, and how can we celebrate them and life up their influence? As we think about Christlike good shepherding, the Psalmist reminds us:
Come now and look upon the works of the Lord,
what awesome things he has done on earth.
It is he who makes war to cease in all the world;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear,
and burns the shields with fire. (Psalm 46:9-10)
Let us look upon the works of the Lord, through the centuries. Where the power of violence is undermined, where empire is shunned, and where people are treated with compassion instead of contempt, the reign of Christ the King has already begun. As we celebrate Saint Edmund and look forward to this Sunday, let us be grateful for all the good shepherds in our lives.
Dr. Cory Driver is an ordained Deacon in the ELCA and earned his Ph.D. in Jewish Religious Cultures from Emory University. He is the Director of the Transformational Leadership Academy in the Indiana-Kentucky Synod, ELCA. His weekly Lectionary blog is hosted at LivingLutheran.com