Christ the King: Service planning for the last six Sundays of the church year

According to the church calendar, the church year ends on Christ the King Sunday. This year that Sunday falls just before the U.S. Thanksgiving Day. Although Ascension Day would seem the most appropriate place in the church year to celebrate the reign of Christ, the Revised Common Lectionary does a good job of helping us prepare for this end-of-the-year celebration by suggesting lessons from the epistle to the Hebrews for the concluding Sundays of Year B. These passages help to put Christ's kingship into its proper context, recognizing his threefold office of prophet, priest, and king.

These service plans for the final six Sundays of the church year are based mainly on those Hebrews passages. A dominant theme in these services is the high-priestly work of Christ.

You will notice that portions of the Scripture recommended for the final Sunday are used lirurgically in the five previous Sundays. That's because the services are meant to climax with the final Sunday in the series: Christ the King Sunday These portions of Scripture are introduced early in the series and are repeated over the weeks in order to provide familiarity and to yield their full flavors. The chief example of this repetition is Ralph Vaughan Williams's musical setting of Revelation 1:5-6, "Unto Christ, Who Loved Us." Note that this musical response is to be used in the final three services as an 'Ascription of Glory" directly after the sermon.

Certain preaching themes are developed over the six weeks as well. These themes are nicely intertwined in Q & A's 31 and 32 of the Heidelberg Catechism, which not only teach the prophet-priest-king motif, but also show Christians how to apply this motif to their lives. If these answers are repeated during the series, perhaps responsively the congregation will not only get better acquainted with some of the best parts of the catechism but will also gain useful hooks on which to hang a whole tapestry played out from the pulpit. Pastors will also find these answers to be excellent homiletical guides.

In the very same way Isaac Watts's magnificent evangelical hymn, "Join All the Glorious Names," can be used as a theme song for the series. You might use the whole hymn in the first and last services and one or two stanzas in each of the intervening weeks.

In a way the first five services in this series are all rehearsals for the sixth service—the final service of the church year. That's why certain liturgical items keep getting repeated. This repetition may help remind us that every Christian worship service is a rehearsal for what we'll be doing in eternity.

REPEATED SERVICE ELEMENTS
1. Opening Sentences and Salutation

[repeated every week]

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
For this I was born,
and for this I have come into the world,
to bear witness to the truth.

Grace and peace to you from the God who is, and who was, and who is to come ... and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
[Rev. 1:4]
Amen.

2. Prayer for Illumination

[repeated every week]

Most gracious God, send upon us your sevenfold Spirit, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ, that in the Scriptures we may recognize his voice and delight in his word.
[Isaiah 11:2]
Amen.

3. Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 12

[to be used responsively before the sermon every week]

31 Q. Why is he called "Christ," meaning "anointed"?

A. Because he has been ordained by God the Father
and has been anointed with the Holy Spirit
to be
our chief prophet and teacher
who perfectly reveals to us
the secret counsel and will of God for our
deliverance;
our only high priest
who has set us free by the one sacrifice of his body,
and who continually pleads our cause with the
Father;
and our eternal king
who governs us by his Word and Spirit,
and who guards us and keeps us
in the freedom he has won for us.

32 Q. But why are you called a Christian?

Because by faith I am a member of Christ
and so I share in his anointing.
I am anointed
to confess his name, [prophet]
to present myself to him as a living sacrifice of thanks,
[priest]
to strive with a good conscience against sin and the
devil
in this life,
and afterward to reign with Christ
over all creation
for all eternity, [king]

4. Ascription of Glory

[following the sermon; said the first three zveeks by the pastor sung by the congregation the last three weeks (PsH 623):]

Unto Christ, who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power forever and ever! Amen.
[Rev. 1:5-6]

5. Theme Hymn: "Join All the Glorious Names"

[On the first and last weeks, use the complete hymn; in the intervening zoeeks, use the first stanza and select another.]

Join all the glorious names
of wisdom, love, and power,
that ever mortals knew
or angels ever bore;
all are too weak to speak his worth
too weak to set my Savior forth.

Great prophet of my God,
my tongue would bless thy name;
by thee the joyful news
of our salvation came;
the joyful news of sins forgiven,
of hell subdued, and peace with heaven.

Jesus, my great High Priest,
offered his blood and died;
my guilty conscience seeks
no sacrifice beside;
his powerful blood did once atone,
and now it pleads before the throne.

My dear almighty Lord,
my Conqueror and my King,
thy scepter and thy sword,
thy reigning grace I sing.
Thine is the power; behold I sit
in willing bonds before thy feet.

[optional]

Then rise, my soul, arise
and put the Tempter down;
my Captain leads me forth
to conquest and a crown.
A feeble saint shall win the day
though death and hell obstruct the way.

Text: Isaac Watts

Tune: DAFWALL'S 148th (PsH 408, PH 155, EL 110, TH 181) or CROFT'S 136th (RL 369)

SERVICE 1: OCTOBER 16

Scripture Lessons

Isaiah 53:4-12, Psalm 91:9-16, Hebrews 5:1-10, Mark 10:35-45

Hymns

'Alleluia, Sing to Jesus"
[PsH 406 PH 144, RL 346 (Hebrews)]

"Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying"
[PsH 625]

"O Sacred Head, Now Wounded"
[PsH 383, PH 98, RL 300, TH 247 (Isaiah)]

"See, the Conqueror Mounts in Triumph"
[PsH 414, RL 334, TH 291 (Hebrews)]

Psalter
[PsH 91, PH 212, TH 90, RL 115 (tune: HYFKYDOL)]

Ritual Notes

Make the congregational prayer the climax of this service by having several "priests" come forward from the congregation to join the pastor. At a point during the prayer, these priests can each pray their own lists of intercessions. The rest of the congregation might follow the pastor's lead in saying the Amen after each section of intercessions.

Children

The priestly work of intercession can be the focus of the children's time. The children should actually be given a chance to pray in church on behalf of others—standing, perhaps, around the communion table.

Homiletical Notes

Christ's threefold office of prophet, priest, and king often takes form in combinations of two of the three, such as priest-king. Melchizedek was a priest-king; the Aaronic priests were not.

It would be good to teach the functions of the priesthood. Old Testament priests offered sacrifices on behalf of the people, led prayers, interceded for the people, and did some teaching. Hebrews 5 emphasizes Christ's intercession on our behalf, but his was far more than a ritual intercession. Christ was passionately invested in those for whom he interceded—especially since, as king, he was responsible for them. The depth of his investment was displayed by the nature of his sacrificial victim: Not an animal, but himself—"Christ the victim, Christ the priest."

Those who wish to rule with Christ—that is, share his royal priesthood—must also be willing to suffer with him. Our suffering, however, is not redemptive; only Christ's is. Rather, our suffering is the sign of our allegiance and obedience to him and our willingness to lovingly serve all those whom Christ is responsible for. By baptism we are incorporated into Christ. We become a royal priesthood and a holy nation, responsible to pray for all the world.

The Isaiah text can be used to explore Jesus' suffering, especially with an eye toward seeing what motivated that suffering: Identification with and substitution for the transgressors as well as intercession for them.

Hebrews 5 surprises us with this motive: Our Lord learned obedience through his suffering. We tend to think of Jesus' perfect righteousness as effortless and automatic.

The sermon does not necessarily have to wrap everything up tight. It can leave some questions open for pious wonder.

SERVICE 2: OCTOBER 23

Scripture Lessons

Jeremiah 31:7-9, Psalm 126, Hebrews 7:23-28, Mark 10:46-52

Hymns

"All Glory Be to God on High"
[PsH 247, PH 133, RL 620, TH 102 (Hebrews)]

"Christ the Lord Is Risen Today"
[PsH 388, PH 113, RL 323, TH 277 (Hebrews)]

"Hail, O Once Despised Jesus"
[PsH 395, RL 333, TH 176 (Hebrews)]

"Open My Eyes That I May See"
[PH 324]

Psalter
[PsH 126 (see RW25, pp. 26-27) PH 237; RL 126, TH 360]

Ritual Notes

Emphasize intercessory prayers again. A brief service of reconciliation can take place after the first hymn:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us from all unrighteousness.

Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.

He is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for us.

Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.

With weeping you shall come, and with consolations I will lead you back. I will make you walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which you shall not stumble; for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.

Master, let me receive my sight.

Go your way; your faith has made you whole.

Children

Gather the children in a circle and tell the story of Barti-maeus slowly and simply, without commentary.

Homiletical Notes

The priest-king theme continues in this week. The "oath" in Hebrews 7:28 refers to Psalm 110:4. Psalm 110 is one of the Old Testament passages most often quoted by the New. The passage points out the unique character of Christ's high priesthood, and the fact that he pleads for us on the basis of his once-for-all sacrifice.

Christian congregations can always profit from hearing the evangelical doctrine of our justification: "His oath, his covenant, his blood." The ground of our justification is not our faith or our continuing negotiations with God. Rather, we put our faith in God's oath to forgive us, sealed by Christ's blood. God's faithfulness, not ours, is what is required.

In the same way Bartimaeus energetically zeroed in on Christ, fastening on him, depending completely on his good will. The gospel gives an example of the epistle: "Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him." Jesus expresses the heart of God, as predicted by Jeremiah. The "Son of David" is "the father of Israel."

SERVICE 3: OCTOBER 30

Scripture Lessons

Deuteronomy 6:1-9, Psalm 119:1-8, Hebrews 9:11-14, Mark 12:28-34

Hymns

"A Mighty Fortress Is Our God"
[PsH 469, PH 260, RL 179, TH 92]

"Love Divine, All Loves Excelling"
[PsH 568, PH 376, RL 464, TH 529]

"Love God with All Your Soul and Strength"
[PsH 155]

"O God, My Faithful God"
[PsH 574, RL 69, TH 602]

Psalter
[PsH 119:1-3, 276, 584; PH 233; TH 148]

Ritual Notes

This would be a good day for baptism, with an emphasis on "sprinkling." Otherwise, use this brief service of reconciliation after the first hymn:

Let us pray.

Almighty God, we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought word, and deed,
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart,
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your son Jesus Christ
have mercy on us and forgive us
that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways
to the glory of your name, Amen.

May the blood of Jesus Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, thus securing an eternal redemption, purify your conscience to serve the living God (Hebrews).
Amen.

Which commandment is the first of all?

The first is, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength."

The second is this, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

There is no other commandment greater than these.

Children

If you include baptism as part of this service, consider gathering the children around the font before the sacrament. Show them the water inside the font and briefly and simply explain how the sacrament is a sign that we are part of God's family. God promises to love us and wants us to love him too. If practical, you may want to let the children remain near the front of the sanctuary during the sacrament.

Homiletical Notes

Moses was of the priestly tribe of Levi, but he was a prophet-priest. Even in ancient Israel, it was always understood that the Word itself gave life, and that the ritual expressed and celebrated the Word. The "Shema" functioned as a creed. Not only is God "one, single, and simple," (Bel-gic Confession, Article 1) but so is the ethical and moral responsibility of humankind. The ethical life has its single foundation in the nature of God.

A Reformation Day sermon on the Word can also make use of Psalm 119. Or you might choose the Reformation theme in the closing thought of the epistle: The "purification of our consciences" through Christ's once-for-all self-offering, which frees us to live the joyfully obedient life, carrying God's law written on our hearts. In this week's gospel, Christ is a prophet-priest like Moses. He is the teacher of the law, authoritatively instructing the scribe and judging him.

SERVICE 4: NOVEMBER 6

Scripture Lessons

1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

Hymns

"I Come with Joy to Meet My Lord"
[PsH 311, PH 507, RL 534]

"Father, We Give You Thanks, Who Planted"
[PsH 314, PH 502, RL551, TH425]

"Lift Up Your Hearts Unto the Lord"
[PsH 309]

"The Church's One Foundation"
[PsH 502, PH 442, RL 394, TH 347]

Psalter
[PsH 146, PH 253, RL 140, TH 57]

Ritual Notes

Holy Communion would fit well with today's lessons.

Children

Gathering the children around the communion table, tell the Elijah story with props. Use the table as the widow's table, and seat three children there as the characters. Make sure to use a cruet and a jar (and leave them there throughout the celebration of Communion). At the end of the story, have the congregation join in reading Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 54 (or have a soloist or choir sing the setting of the Q&A found in Psalter Hymnal 507).

Homiletical Notes

The Elijah story is wonderfully poignant as well as theologically rich. Picture a hungry threesome in a poor hovel, sitting at a humble table set with cruet, jar, and pieces of bread, but with a Rembrandt-sort of light brightening the table. It's not so much that this meal was "eucharistic," it's that when we celebrate communion, we can participate in such biblical meals.

The unending supply of oil and meal is due to God being the "overflowing fountain of all good" (Belgic Confession, Article 1). The widow prophesies when she confesses, 'As the Lord your God lives," which is a play on the name "Elijah."

We see the threefold combination of prophet-priest-king in Elijah and the widow. These two are God's true royalty, unlike the empty royalty of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Jezebel and the widow are both Gentile Sidonians, but the widow has obviously been gathered into God's community and there God will preserve and protect her.

Once again the epistle mentions Christ's priestly work in heaven. The gospel shows Christ as a prophet who reads the hearts of men and women.

SERVICE 5: NOVEMBER 13

Scripture Lessons

Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8

Hymns

"By the Sea of Crystal"
[PsH 620, TH 549 (Daniel)]

"Hail the Day That Sees Him Rise"
[PsH 409, RL 331, TH 290]

"How Firm a Foundation"
[PsH 500, PH 361, RL 172, TH 94 (Daniel, Mark)]

Psalter
[PsH 16 (see RW 23, p. 43) PH 165, RL 84 or 85, TH 692]

Ritual Notes

This would be a good day for a baptism, with a sermon on the epistle. After a prayer of confession, use this Assurance of Pardon (Absolution):

This is the covenant I have made with you, says the Lord; I have put my laws on your hearts, and write them on your minds. I will remember your sins and misdeeds no more. Amen.

Hear God's law for us: Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful;

and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

Children

Bring out the church register and show each child his or her name "written in the book." Show the children another empty ledger-type book, open it, and sign your name. Explain that you put your name in that book because you believe God loves you. Give the children the chance to enter their names in that book too (or do so for them, if needed). Leave it at that; don't try to draw any more lessons out.

Homiletical Notes

The epistle continues the theme of Christ the priest-king. He has the right to rule because he has established redemption. We are reminded that sanctification is not our own spiritual achievement, but also God's gracious gift to us. Sanctification is the real work God does in us by the power of the Spirit. And even though sin still lives in us, we are truly sanctified for all time because of Christ's single offering.

Assurance of faith is an important gift to accept from God, because we will find ourselves experiencing the upheaval and turmoil that comes as a result of God even now winnowing and separating out the human race. The process of the last judgment has already begun, but it is not a time for retreating and hiding and keeping safe and righteous by avoiding evil. It is a time for being active, confident that God is faithful to us and to the status we are called to. It is a time for shining with the righteousness that belongs to Christ. We are to exercise our threefold office as "little Christs" (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 32).

SERVIVE 6: SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 20

Christ the King

Scripture Lessons

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Psalm 93; Revelation 1:4b-8 John 18:33-37

Hymns

"Crown Him with Many Crowns"
[PsH 410, PH 151, RL 600, TH 295]

"Lo! He Comes, with Clouds Descending"
[PsH 612, PH 6, RL 605, TH 318]

"Rejoice, the Lord Is King!"
[PsH 408, PH 155, RL 596-597 TH 309-310]

Psalter
[PsH 93 or 172, PH 213, RL 117, TH 64 or 70]

Ritual Notes

U.S. congregations, because of the upcoming holiday, may want to emphasize various thanksgivings during the general prayers—especially for the benefits of Christ's rule. This can be done, as with the intercessions above, both by the children as a group and by representatives from the congregation (especially deacons) during the general prayers.

Homiletical Notes

Christians have often understood Daniel's dream as a prediction of the second coming. However, it may point more closely to the ascension, when "the cloud lifted him up." In his vision at Patmos John sees that Daniel's dream has been fulfilled. The identity of the Son of Man as God is conveyed (in Rev. 1:12-17) through the similarity of his appearance to the Ancient of Days in Daniel. The Revelation passage suggests that the ascension and the second coming are actually the same thing as far as heaven is concerned. But earth has not experienced the final reality of the triumph yet.

In the gospel, Pilate, as Roman governor, is trying to figure out the political implications: Is this one more local oriental small-fry king that Pilate has power over and Rome has to deal with in order to keep the peace? The reality is just the opposite. If Daniel saw correctly, Jesus' kingdom, though not from the world, is very much concerned with the world. That kingdom concern includes Pilate and Rome. But it is not a kingdom that can be acquired through earthly power.

The kingdom Jesus establishes is the "kingdom of priests" to which we belong—we who find hope, not judgment, in his wounds. His kingdom is for us to exercise our offices of witnessing to the truth, offering our lives in sacrifices of thanksgiving and intercession, fighting sin, and governing the world in his love.

Daniel Meeter is pastor of Old First Reformed Church, Brooklyn, New York.