The Holy Gospel according to Luke. Glory to you, O Lord.
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)
A popular TV preacher 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.” Instead of a servant king, we want a powerful savior, a helpful God, a conquering Messiah, a King who conquers.
Jeremiah 23:1-6In Jeremiah we are reminded that God’s “shepherds” over his people are the kings and leaders (such as priests and prophets and all.) They are to guide and guard the flock of God’s people in God’s place—on God’s behalf. They have not done well with this task, and God is “woefully” upset with them!
The real point of Jeremiah’s message is that God has come to be THE SHEPHERD of God’s people. By asserting God’s direct shepherd-hood and responsibility, God also lays claim to the ability to raise up a ruler from David’s line who will assume the tasks at which the other shepherds had failed.
Luke 23:33-43Those unfamiliar with the rhythms of the church year and the lectionary are somewhat jarred by the “unexpected” reading of the crucifixion story on this day. Aren’t we supposed to be getting ready for Thanksgiving and the holidays? Why would we read a story from the passion of Christ?
Again, we remember that this Jesus, this King of the Jews, is no ordinary king. He appears powerless—in this story, he speaks only twice. Both of his sayings are of peace and forgiveness, even while he is mocked, tormented, and dying. Hollywood wouldn’t make much of this kind of king. No swords, no chariots, no loyal subjects by the thousands rising up to attend to his victory over incredible odds.
But his is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever! How can this be? Only by the power of God, as Jeremiah and the prophets foretold. It’s quite a story, isn’t it?
Today is Christ the King Sunday. Sometimes referred to as “The Reign of Christ.” It is an odd sort of celebration for this time of year, with this story of Jesus’ crucifixion popping up just before the family feasting and fellowship of Thanksgiving and the anticipatory joy of Advent and Christmas.
And the very idea of kings, and of Jesus as our king, is very hard for us to get a handle on in America in the 21st Century. What do kings have to do with us?
Luke’s statement announcing the crucifixion is very straightforward; “When they came to the place of the Skull, 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. They knew exactly was 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; was executed like a common criminal in the company of a couple of petty criminals. Not very kingly, is it? And then, more indignity, more shame—the soldiers knelt at his feet while he’s still alive; not to worship, but to gamble for his clothes. And the leaders 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, a major sticking point for us now. We don’t want a suffering and dying God. We want a strong and powerful one. We want a Savior who cannot 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. That’s why the leaders 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 this text 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 mocking. 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, reminding the first criminal 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 from 2000 years ago, and see in him not only the savior of the world but also the savior of our souls?
It is because of something the Jewish people 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, that the king was responsible to God for the welfare of the community.
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 that. He said that 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 as King today, not because of his regal-ness, but because of his humility; not because of his power, but because of his compassion; not because of his triumph, but because of his struggles; not because he fixes our lives, but because he shows us how to truly live.