King of the Jews, King of All

The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, November 21, 2010.  The text for this week's message is Luke 23:33-43.

You may or may not remember a couple weeks ago, when I said that the story of Zacchaeus for All Saints’ Day wasn’t going to be the only passage that you might be wondering about this month.  Well, in case you haven’t figured it out, this week is the other week that I was talking about.  After all, who in the world preaches on the crucifixion story on the Sunday before Thanksgiving?  Who does that?  To be honest with you, I never would have thought about it, but after studying this passage all week, I can’t help but think that it is the perfect passage for this Sunday.

You’ve heard me talk from time to time about the Christian calendar.  The Christian calendar is a way to help us remember the different seasons of the Christian year.  You may or may not know that next week begins Advent.  Advent is the four weeks that lead up to Christmas, and actually mark the beginning of the Christian calendar.  This Sunday, then, is kind of like the final Sunday of the year.  The Christian calendar culminates in a celebration of Christ the King.  It is a week in which we remember that Christ reigns.  We may not think about it in our daily lives, but perhaps there is nothing more important for us to remember as we enter into a week in which we celebrate Thanksgiving – that Christ indeed reigns.

What we read in this passage is something fundamental to the Christian life: the element of paradox.  A paradox is a statement or group of statements that points to some kind of inherent contradiction. In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, there is a part that says, “All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others.”  In Hamlet, the title character says, “I must be cruel to be kind,” which is a saying that you may be more familiar with from Nick Lowe’s 1979 song of the same title.

As we really look at the Christian faith, we find that it is full of paradox.  To truly live, you must die to the self.  Love your enemies.  But perhaps there is no greater paradox to the Christian faith than what we read about in today’s passage: a suffering and dying Messiah.  Because the Messiah wasn’t supposed to be killed.  The Messiah was supposed to be the one who led Israel back to its glory days.  The Messiah was supposed to be the one who pushed out the occupying forces and governed Israel as in the days of David.  The idea of a Messiah who would give his life for the people was not even in the realm of possibility.  It was a paradox.

In the first century, there were several figures that claimed to be the Messiah.  They would always try to overthrow the government, but once they were killed, the movement died with them.  Nobody continued to follow a Messiah once he was killed, because if he was killed, then clearly he wasn’t the Messiah, and there was no need to follow him in his death.  But that wasn’t the case for the followers of Jesus.  In fact, his death was the catalyst that helped the movement become a worldwide phenomenon.  It’s a paradox.

We know about the life of Jesus.  We know about his birth, which we will celebrate over the next month.  We know about the miracles, the healings and the teaching.  We know about his innocence and the false trial that caused him to end up where we find him in this passage.  And when we come to today’s passage, we want to know more, but we don’t necessarily get that.  We simply read in verse 33, “they crucified him.”  That’s it – “they crucified him.”

Of course, to crucify a person meant all sorts of torture and degradation.  A crucifixion is quite possibly one of the worst ways to die, not just in the ancient world, but in all of history.  The goal of crucifixion wasn’t just death, but the utter humiliation of the victim, and a warning for those who would follow after that person: don’t do what this person did, or this is where you will end up.  Every element was intended to make a person suffer – whether it was physical pain, emotional pain or psychological pain.  And here, in Luke 23, the Messiah, the Anointed One, is crucified like a common criminal.  In fact, he is crucified between two criminals, one on either side.

In his life, Jesus surrounded himself with a ragtag group of disciples; common people, not the religious elite.  He was criticized over and over again for spending time with the tax collectors, the prostitutes and the sinners.  In response to this criticism, he even says, “It is not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick.”  Jesus dedicated his ministry to reaching those who were left behind; those who were ignored and looked down upon by the rest of society.  And now, in his death, he is surrounded by the same kind of outcasts, the same kind of seedy people that we would like to avoid in our own lives.

The Roman soldiers that were overseeing the execution took his clothes because that’s part of the humiliation of the cross.  You were exposed for all to see.  They took clothes and started casting lots to determine who got what.  The same clothes that, not long before, healed a woman who had been bleeding for several years.  There had been no cure for this woman.  She was permanently outcast because of her condition.  In fact, she was breaking the law just by being around all these people, and by reaching out to touch Jesus’ garments, hoping that she would be healed.  And she was.  She was healed because of her faith.  Now, those same clothes were being divided up between a bunch of Roman soldiers with nothing better to do while they were waiting for the owner of those clothes to die.

The soldiers mocked him.  The people stood by, watching and waiting.  The religious leaders hurled insults at him.  Even one of the criminals who was hanging on the cross beside him railed against him.  It’s part of our story, as Christians.  It’s part of who we are, as followers of this Messiah who is hanging on the cross before us now, but what about this story should cause us to give thanks?  There’s nothing glorious about this type of death.  What about the death of the Messiah should lead us into a time of thanksgiving and even praise?  It is a paradox, isn’t it?

But, we give thanks and praise in spite of what we see happening in this passage, and, in part, because of what else we see going on.  In the midst of all this – the torture, the humiliation, the dehumanizing things that are going on – we see something greater.  In verse 34, right after we are told that Jesus is crucified between two criminals, his words are, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  While, in the context of the passage, it’s pretty clear that Jesus is asking forgiveness for those who are committing these atrocious acts, that forgiveness extends far beyond those people.  That forgiveness extends even today, to us.

Think of all the times in your life that you have let people down.  Think of all the times that you’ve let yourself down.  Think of the times in your life when you lived in sin.  I don’t just mean that you did a few bad things, but that you surrounded yourself in sin.  You breathed it in.  You ingested it; it was a part of every fiber of your being.  Think of those times, because what we see in the crucifixion is what happens when sin controls our lives, and yet… and yet.  In Jesus Christ, there is forgiveness.

Mark 10:45 tells us that the Son of Man, Jesus, did not come so that all would serve him, but that he would serve the world, and give his life as a ransom for sin.  Jesus told his disciples that, but they didn’t know what to make of it.  It didn’t make any sense.  Jesus wasn’t going to die.  Jesus was the Messiah.  But here we are at the end of Luke, and indeed Jesus is giving his life.  While he is surrounded by sinners, while he is surrounded by people who don’t know and don’t care who he is, while he is surrounded by people who are nailing him to the cross, insulting him, and mocking him, he says, “Father, forgive them.”

While this horrible atrocity is playing out before us, what we see is, in fact, an act of love.  Not on the part of those who are nailing, insulting and mocking, but on the part of the one who is being crucified, the one who is being insulted, the one who is being mocked.  The target of all their hatred and sin displays love and forgiveness, and it becomes more personal when we look at another character in the story, the criminal who isn’t railing against Jesus.  The criminal who looks at his life, knowing that Jesus hasn’t done anything to deserve to be here, but has given himself for the sake of others.

Maybe this is the person with whom we can identify more readily.  This is the person who recognizes his faults and failures, and knows that ultimately he is getting what he deserves.  He says that he is receiving the due rewards for his deeds.  And yet, in faith, he asks Jesus to remember him.  In faith.  This man whose story we don’t know.  This man who probably wasn’t that great of a guy, who probably did some things that hurt other people.  He knows that he is getting what he deserves, but he asks for something that he doesn’t deserve – forgiveness.  He asks for forgiveness.  And it is given to him.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we know what we deserve and what we don’t deserve.  I don’t think there is a person here who can honestly look at his/her life and say, “Yes, I deserve to be in Paradise with Jesus.”  Nobody knows our mistakes and faults better than we do.  No matter how hard we try to hide from them or cover them up.  We know that we have fallen short of the ideal.  We know, like the criminal on the cross, that we are getting our due rewards.  And yet, Jesus says, “Father, forgive them.”

One last detail about this passage.  I haven’t touched on it yet, but it is probably the most important detail when we start to look at why this passage on this particular Sunday.  Above Jesus hung a sign: “The King of the Jews.”  Officially, this was his charge.  This was why he was hanging on the cross.  The Romans would do this so that the people would know what he did to deserve this punishment.

The King of the Jews.  He wasn’t treated like a king.  He was nailed to a cross.  Mocked.  Insulted.  His clothes were divided up among the soldiers.  He was beaten.  It’s a paradox, isn’t it?  A dying Messiah.  Other people declared themselves the Messiah.  Few remember their names.  Hundreds, even thousands, of people were crucified in the history of the Roman Empire.  Why would the people of the first century remember this one particular Messiah and this one particular crucifixion?  Because it wasn’t the end of the story.  There was another chapter to be written, yet it was a chapter that was written before the beginning of time.  Another paradox.

Three days later.  The crowd is gone.  The religious rulers were tucked away in their Temple.  The soldiers were back on duty.  The criminals were buried in their shallow grave.  But there was a tomb, a tomb that belonged to a man from Arimathea named Joseph, a tomb that housed the body of Jesus.  A tomb that was empty.  The resurrection happened.  This king of the Jews who was killed, buried and was supposed to be forgotten was raised from the dead.  The forgiveness that he had asked the Father to extend was extended, not just to those who were there, but to all.  No longer was Jesus the king of Jews, as the sign has so appropriately, albeit unintentionally, stated.  He was the king of all.  All who submit themselves to him, and all who refuse to do so.

As Paul says in Philippians, one day every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.  He may have died as king of the Jews, but he was raised to be king of all.  I’d say that is a pretty good reason to give thanks, wouldn’t you?  So Thursday, or Friday, or Saturday, or whatever day you stop to give thanks.  Don’t just give thanks for the four “f’s” – friends, family, food and football.  Give thanks that there is indeed a king who reigns.  A king whose reign is a bit of a paradox, but a king who is indeed Lord of all creation.