When All Else Fails
Based on Jeremiah 23:1-6, Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:33-43
While building the introduction to this week’s sermon, I put the words “when all else fails” into a Bing search and lo and behold, hundreds of endings to the partial sentence came up. Some were funny like, “eat chocolate”, “take a nap”, “go on vacation”, “hug the dog”, “sprinkle glitter on it”. Some were pragmatic like, “read the instructions”, “do what the captain said”, “call dad” or “try, try again”. The last one reminds me of the great American inventor Thomas Edison. From an early age, Thomas was imaginative and creative. His mother fostered this love of discovery and bought him books on chemistry and science. One of his earliest jobs was a telegraph operator and he ultimately invented three devices to improve the telegraph. He also went on to develop the universal stock ticker which was an extension of his work on the telegraph.
In the late 1880’s he began to experiment with the incandescent lightbulb. In the course of two years, he and his team tried over 3000 different configurations and over 6000 different filament materials made from plants. He finally landed on carbonized cotton fiber as the material that yielded the best glow when heated. Edison said once, “The electric light has caused me the greatest amount of study and has required the most elaborate experiments. I was never myself discouraged or inclined to be hopeless of success. I cannot say the same for all my associates.” That amount of “failure” is staggering in both number and in the short time frame in which it occurred.
Our scriptures today point us to the need for us to look to Christ the King and to the whole of the Trinity, in all things – but especially when we find ourselves at the point where our human leaders and resources and have utterly failed. It is at that point, when all seems lost to us that the God of all creation, of all places and times, can take over and gives us the grace and strength to continue. Let us go to our God on this “Christ the King” Sunday with a prayer of thanksgiving for all God does for us when all else fails…
The prophet Jeremiah tells the people that God has much to say about the poor quality of the leadership in Jerusalem in today’s reading. The shepherd leaders have done a truly awful job tending to the flock that God has given them. Therefore, God will gather up all the scattered sheep and make them fruitful once again. God will raise up a king from the “righteous branch” of David; a king who will not only be righteous, but wise and just as well. The leader/shepherds of Jerusalem and Judah will be dealt with by God for their inability to lead. Everything the shepherds had done had failed miserably because they had exhausted their human resources and still neglected to turn to God for help.
The first chapter of the letter to the Colossians is one big hymn, especially verses 9 through 23. This hymn is based on earlier Jewish resistance psalms that speak to the primacy of God over foreign rulers. The Apostle Paul writes that he prays constantly for the believers in Colossae that they might be wise in the Lord, and lead lives that are fully pleasing, filled with good works and always growing in knowledge of God. Paul prays that the believers would be made strong so that they might endure everything with patience and joyful thanksgiving because they have been redeemed and had their sins forgiven. Starting in verse 15 the hymn reaches its climax speaking clearly of the supremacy of the Christ who is “the image of the invisible God…He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together…For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him God was pleased to reconcile to God [himself] all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of His cross….” When all else fails, Christ alone is more than enough to save.
The last reading from the Gospel of Luke for this liturgical year brings us to the Cross. We are here because this is the place where all has seemed to fail for Jesus and he is being tortured unto death. The rotten shepherds of the people of Israel have turned Jesus over to the equally misguided Romans to eliminate this prophet from their midst. The so-called leaders, soldiers and one of the criminals crucified beside him all mock him – trying to tempt Him to use his divinity to save himself. Yet, Jesus prays for them to be forgiven because they did not really know what they were doing. One of the criminals, however, realized that he was without any recourse for his situation and reached out to Jesus for healing and salvation. When all else in his life failed he looked to Jesus and found Paradise.
“Failure is not an option”…is a phrase that is communicated relentlessly in our world today. No human utterance could be more false and misleading, however, because failure is always an option in any situation. Most of us have failed tests and classes, failed at sports endeavors, failed in our relationships, failed in jobs or failed to live a life that (in the words of the Apostle Paul) “…is worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him,…” We are broken and fallible humans and as such, failure is as much a part of our everyday lives as is breathing, eating and sleeping. In fact, no real human growth or development has ever occurred without failure…without trial and error; without falling and learning to get back up again.
Where have you turned when all else failed? When you had done everything you knew how to do, followed the leaders you once trusted, and still the worst happened? Many of us in those situations will lean on trusted friends or family, life coaches and other professionals, clergy and spiritual counselors, those we find who seem to be knowledgeable about our specific life situation. How many of us lean into our understanding of God and God’s promises to never leave us alone – a God who will shepherd us so that we are not afraid, dismayed or left out? Do we trust in the hymn of praise from Colossians that tells us that the Christ is “the image of the invisible God…He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together…For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him God was pleased to reconcile to God [himself] all things,…”? Many of us will continue our hard-headed ways, forgetting what Einstein so richly observed that the problems we encounter cannot be solved by the thinking and behaviors that created them in the first place!
There is another way. In Jeremiah the prophet says that God will gather us in from where we have been blown by the winds of life. From the places where we have tried and failed and become exhausted and filled with despair. From the place where we have nowhere else to turn. When we have been abandoned by false shepherds or have finally abandoned those persons and ideals that led us to stray, there we discover the love of God still resides with us. This grace is ours to grasp as a lifeline to carry us to a place where we can all have belonging and abundant life. There is a good shepherd who waits to lead us and call us by name. There is a king who will not fail us in His leadership and teaching. A king who teaches unity above partisanship, who provides belonging instead of division, peace instead of conflict, life instead of death, joy instead of sorrow. He is Christ the King and we come once again today to pledge our allegiance to Him over all others who seek to rule our lives.
The reality of human life is that we learn through trial and error – we learn through failing and from our mistakes. We learn not to trust the human “kings” of our time, because like the kings of old, they are most often concerned with their personal gain and power over those whom they are to serve. The Bible teaches us through the narratives of those who have tried and failed before us that Jesus the Christ is the way, the truth and the life. God tells us that before we reach the time in our lives “when all else fails” and life is coming apart, that we should turn to the one in whom all things hold together. Let us turn today to the one true King, Jesus the Christ, the one who never fails to lead us back to right relationship with God and each other. Amen and amen!