November 24, 2013 Christ the King Sunday "The Good Gift of Jesus Christ"

posted Mar 11, 2014, 10:25 AM by David Hawkins

November 24, 2013

Christ the King Sunday

"The Good Gift of Jesus Christ"

Luke  23:33-43 (Liturgist)

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."

Sermon: "The Good Gift of Jesus Christ"    Rev. David Hawkins

I don’t know if it’s because I grew up farming or not, but I’ve always appreciated the seasons of the church year. The way we intentionally remember the life and ministry of Jesus Christ in our liturgy and in our holy days; it keeps me grounded somehow. There is so much we don’t know about our future, so much we can’t control about our present, so much we regret about our past, and yet the church year keeps going round and round, reminding us of the steadfast love that God has for us.

And the church year is about to change, isn’t it? Next week we are beginning a new cycle, a new spiritual year. Advent is right around the corner, and then we celebrate Christmas. The new year promises new beginnings, new life, new hope.

But before we start a new year, we have to end the old one. For the last few weeks, we’ve been exploring the idea of Thanksgiving, remembering the good gifts that God has given us in faith, hope, and salvation.

And today we come to the end of the Christian year by remembering the gift of Jesus Christ himself. Today is Christ the King Sunday, and it’s kind of a strange celebration. As you heard this morning, the scripture certainly doesn’t sound like a rousing cheer for the reigning King, does it? No, instead, it’s the story of Jesus on the cross, sharing the last words of his life with a criminal. Hardly the uplifting sort of thing we might expect to hear on this day inaugurating the reign of Christ.

But you know what? I don’t think that this is an accident. I don’t think that the folks who put together the scripture readings for the year forgot that this is Christ the King Sunday. In fact, I think their choice is absolutely intentional.

Because it’s like this every year. In our three-year cycle of scripture readings, each year ends with Christ the King Sunday, and each Christ the King Sunday features readings that show Christ in less than Kingly fashion.

For instance, two years ago, Jesus told his followers that if they wanted to see him, they needed to look among the poor, the sick, and the hungry, the stranger, or those in prison. Not on a throne, not exalted, but among the least, the forgotten, the ignored. Not exactly what a king might say.

And last year, Pilate wanted to know if Jesus was a King, and Jesus absolutely denied it. He said if he was a king, then his followers would have been fighting to the death to protect him. Again, hardly an example of a King’s speech.

And so these are the scriptures that we find, year after year, that accompany our celebration of Christ the King Sunday.

It’s kind of a weird thing, isn’t it?

It’s almost as though the lectionary texts are trying to tell us something important about what it means for Christ to be King.

In today’s scripture, we are presented with the picture of king who is in the last excruciating minutes of his life. He has been mocked by the crowds, by the soldiers, mocked even by the criminals who are being crucified next to him. There is no element of society who claims him as king, not the Jews, not the Romans, not the ruling class, not the poor, not the military, not even common criminals recognize him as anything but trash, a tortured, beaten, humiliated shell of a man, hung on a cross to die. Just one more symbol of the power of the Roman Empire, a warning to everyone not to rock the boat, not to step out of line, not to challenge the authority of the status quo

Not a hero, not a messiah, and most certainly not a king.

And this is the paradox of Christ the King Sunday. This is the disconnect between what the world sees as true, and what we confess as truth.

But this paradox should not surprise us too much. After all, in just a few weeks we’re going to celebrate the birth of a savior in a cattle stall. A baby who created the heavens and the earth. A Messiah in a manger, a God who cries in the night for his mother.

In fact it is this recurring theme of paradox that defines our faith. The great and the least. The first and the last. The servant king, the God made man, the Word made flesh. We confess our belief in a savior who dies. A messiah who is executed for treason. A King who is crucified.

The paradox of our faith, is that we confess our belief in a holy mystery,  in a man the world threw away.

But it’s hard to accept this paradox. We don’t want to consider that the man we revere as king lived and died in a way so incompatible with the world’s understanding of what a king is supposed to be.

It’s hard for us to remember that the King of Heaven, ate with sinners, touched the lepers, talked to prostitutes and immigrants, hung out with the scummiest part of society. It’s hard to think of our king as a human being, who threw his lot in with the poor and the sick and the lame.

Because when we think of kings, we think of gold and palaces and courtiers and armies, and yet, here we are today, honoring a king who died with even his clothes stripped away from, far from the palace on the edge of town, with no army, not one, who stepped forward to stop this injustice from taking place. Just a few months before, he had a congregation of thousands. And now, nobody would even admit to knowing his name.

This is not what a king is supposed to look like.

There is no earthly reason that we might worship this man.

And that is precisely the point.

Let us be real with one another for a moment. Our faith in Jesus Christ is not rational. It is not logical. It is not based on evidence, or proof. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Faith is something that is given to us, not something that we earn, or that we decide, or something that we construct.

Now, we might seek to nurture that faith through fellowship with other Christians. We might seek to strengthen that faith through Christian Discipline. We might seek to understand our faith through study of the word.

But faith comes first, and it is a gift.

Today, we see two criminals being crucified with Jesus. One of the criminals mocks Jesus, telling him to save himself. And we can understand him. I mean, really. If there was ever an instance of a slam dunk assessment of the situation, this criminal had a really good reason to think that this Jesus was a hack, a fraud, or some kind of religious lunatic. The crowds are against him, the Romans are against him, and this crucifixion business is proof that God is against him as well.

But the other criminal doesn’t see it that way. Despite everything that points to the contrary, the other criminal sees something else. He sees a king, and he pleads his case before him. This is faith. There is no reason that this criminal should think of Jesus as anything but another two-bit felon who got caught. But he doesn't.

Now theologians have been trying to figure this out for centuries. Why does this man see a King, when all the evidence is against it? Some have tried to create a backstory where the two knew each other when they were kids. Or that they had talked while they were in jail.

Now, I guess that those things are plausible, but, they’re not in the scripture. And we kind of have to deal with the scripture we have, not the scripture we wish we had. And our scripture makes it pretty clear that this criminal, despite the fact that they are about to die a horrible, suffocating death, places his soul in the hands of this unknown man next to him, for absolutely no reason at all.

Except that he had faith that Jesus was king.

This criminal knew that his punishment was appropriate. He knew that his death was imminent, and that he had done enough to deserve it. He was prepared for justice to be done. But that doesn’t mean that he was at peace with it. He was afraid of death, like all of us. He didn’t know what it meant for him, like all of us. He feared being alone, forever. Like all of us.

But against all odds, the man hanging on a cross next to him gave this criminal hope. Hope that transcended his pain, his fear. Because Jesus promised that he would never be alone again. That God was ready for him to come into his arms, and spend the rest of eternity in a house that was especially prepared for just this moment.

And this is the gift of hope that is offered to each of us in Jesus Christ. The hope that, regardless of our mistakes and our sin, Jesus has prepared the way home, that we are welcomed to an everlasting banquet table, fed by the essence of God himself.

And this is the promise is the promise of salvation. That we are cured, saved, at peace, welcomed, fed, whole, loved, forgiven by a love that will never let us go. Nothing can separate us from this love, not hate, not war, not evil, not sin, nor hell, nor death itself can rip us from the arms of God.

We are bound to Jesus Christ by this promise, that today, we will be with him in paradise, regardless of our worthiness, or of our history, or of our works, or our words, or our thoughts, or our doctrines. It doesn’t matter if our faith is a small candle, about to blow out in the windstorm of our lives, or if it is the blinding light-house faith of Mother Theresa, the promise of Jesus Christ tells us that when we reach out for him, when we call out to him, when our heart is breaking with the weight of our world and the burden of our sin, the answer will always be yes, dear child, I am with you, and you will be with me until the end.

An this is why we celebrate Christ the King Sunday in this strange and unsettling way. These scriptures point us to marvel at a true king, and challenge us consider what true power looks like. What true power acts like.

Jesus is not our King because he was the most powerful man on earth. or the richest. Jesus is not our king because we were convinced by proof or logic or because we have in any way earned his favor.

Jesus is our king because of a promise that he made to a criminal on a cross 2000 years ago, a promise that we cling to, a promise that we trust with our very souls: “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”

Thanks be to God for the good gift of Jesus Christ. Amen.