Lectionary blog for Nov. 24, 2013
Christ the King Sunday
Texts: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 46;
Colossians 1:13-20; Luke 23:33-43
Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is an odd sort of celebration for this time of year, with this story of Jesus’ crucifixion popping up just before the feasting of Thanksgiving and the joy of Advent and Christmas. And the very idea of kings, and Jesus as our King, is very hard for us to get a handle on in America in 2013. After all, we got rid of kings in this country over 200 years ago. What do kings have to do with us?
Luke’s story of the crucifixion is very spare and simple: “they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his left and one on his right.” That’s it. Very simple, very plain and very clear to the people to whom Luke was writing. Luke was a Greek, his main audience was Greco-Roman in culture, not Jewish, and they knew exactly what a crucifixion was. They didn’t need to have it explained to them. It was very common throughout the empire, which was Luke’s point.
Jesus, the supposed Son of God, Lord of Lord and King of Kings, executed like a common criminal with a couple of petty criminals. Not very kingly, is it? And then, more indignity, more shame — the soldiers kneel at his feet while he’s still alive. Not to worship, but to gamble for his clothes. And people laughed at him: “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen One.” There it is, the crux of the matter for the people then, and if we’re honest for us now.
We don’t want a suffering and dying God. We want a strong and powerful one. We want a savior who can not only forgive our sins but who will make us richer and prettier and more popular and help ensure that all our plans work out for the best.
One of the popular TV preachers was interviewed on National Public Radio a few years ago. After the pastor talked about his books and sermons, the interviewer pointed out that there was almost nothing in his preaching and writing that had to do with God, or theology, or Christ or death and resurrection. The interviewer said, “It seems to be mostly pop psychology with a Bible verse attached.” And all the preacher could think to say was, “Well, what I teach them helps people.”
Yes, we want a powerful savior, a helpful God, a conquering messiah, a king who conquers. That’s why they were mocking him. And the Romans made fun of him too, for different reasons. It amused them to see this carpenter, this rustic preacher wrapped in purple, with people claiming he was the king of the Jews, the rightful king, the representative of God on earth.
It amused them because they were Romans, and they knew what a real king looked like, and this definitely was not it. A real king had power and arrogance and a hint of cruelty, and this Jesus had none of that. So they mocked him. This first part of the Scripture shows us a man who is not anything like what anyone believes a king should be, not the Romans, not the Jews, not us.
The second part, verses 39 through 43, shows us what kind of king Jesus was and is. One of the criminals crucified with Jesus joins in the derision. He sees Jesus the same way everyone else does, as a self-deluded failure, as a pitifully deranged religious fanatic, as a nut.
But for some reason, the other thief sees Jesus with the eyes of faith. He starts out simply by reminding the other man that, while they are guilty, Jesus himself is innocent and does not deserve to die. So far, just a compassionate and honest thief taking pity on another condemned man.
Then he does this astounding thing. He turns to Jesus and says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Where did that come from? How can he hang there on the cross and look over at a man dying beside him, and see in him a savior, a messiah, a king with a kingdom?
More importantly, how can we look upon this same man, this same small-town carpenter and preacher, this same little Jew from 2,000 years ago, and see in him not only the savior of the world but the savior of our souls?
It is because of something the Jews introduced to the world, something that Jesus taught and lived out and died for, something that has become a part of our modern world — the idea that the true leader, the true king, is the one who serves, the one who suffers for the people.
The Jewish idea of a king was that the king ruled under God, not as a God, and that the king was responsible to God, as were the subjects. This idea was taken further by the prophets, in particular Isaiah, who saw the king, the messiah as the one who suffers on behalf of the people, as a suffering servant.
Jesus frequently said things like the true leader is the one who serves others. The one who takes up the burdens of others is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Particularly in the upper room, when he got down on his knees and washed the disciples’ feet, Jesus showed what true leadership, true kingship, is about.
And somehow, the second thief got it, saw what Jesus was doing, saw that here was the lord of the universe, the king of kings, refusing to swat his oppressors, dying so that they could be forgiven, dying so that by his suffering their suffering would be healed.
We celebrate Christ the King today, not because of his regalness, but because of his humility; not because of his power, but because of his compassion; not because of his triumph, but because of his travail; not because he fixes our lives, but because he shows us the way to live.
Amen and amen.