Christ the King C, November 20, 2016

November 21, 2016

The Treacherous Road To Paradise

Luke 23:33-43

33 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. 34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 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!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”


You may be wondering why in the world we would read such a dreadful passage of scripture on the day of our Harvest Festival Potluck. Here we’re about to go stuff ourselves with a wonderful spread of food, and we’re having to think about Jesus being offered sour wine while he’s hanging on a cross. I know I could have found a less distressing passage of scripture to read today, but this is the suggested gospel lesson for today. Today is what’s known as Christ the King Sunday. It’s the last Sunday of the liturgical year. Next Sunday will be the first Sunday of Advent, which may come as a surprise to you, but that’s where we are.


The first Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of a new year of examining ourselves and our relationship with Jesus Christ, but today is the culmination of our current year-long examination of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Today is the day we are invited to declare that he is in fact our glorious king. But, of course, he’s no ordinary king. And he certainly wasn’t treated the way you would expect a king to be received. Today is a day that’s full of contradictions. This man that perfectly embodied the living presence of God on earth was shown perfect hostility by those who claimed to be the closest to God. Jesus was one with God, but he ended up on a cross between two criminals.


It’s a remarkably ugly story on one level, but so beautiful on another. I’m not unaware of the distasteful nature of our story, and I’m sorry if it ruins your appetite, but in order to truly celebrate the royalty of Jesus we need to be clear about the kind of king he is. We have something to celebrate today, but we need to understand the true nature of our king and what it means for us to join him in paradise.


We don’t talk a lot about paradise, but that’s the word Jesus used to describe the place where he and that repentant criminal would be together on that very day. It’s a hellish picture to contemplate – Jesus hanging on a cross between two criminals, but Jesus said they were near paradise. Jesus seems to have a different understanding of paradise than the way we see it portrayed on television. I think most of us are inclined to think that paradise is somewhere down in the Carribean and you get there on a luxury cruise ship, but that’s not the way Jesus understood what paradise is and how you get there.


It’s not easy for us to see that this man who was being tortured and humiliated by ignorant and brutal men was so close to paradise, but Jesus had a far different understanding of what it meant to be in a glorious place than our natural instincts would lead us to believe. Jesus doesn’t want us to associate paradise with comfort and ease – Jesus wants us to associate paradise with being faithful to God and loving to our neighbors. And unfortunately, practicing faithfulness and love is more likely to put us at odds with the forces that rule this world than to land us on an island resort.


I’m not arguing against taking nice vacations. I’d like to spend a week at an all-inclusive beach resort sometime, but I don’t think we should confuse that with the kind of paradise Jesus was talking about. Jesus wants us to see what paradise really looks like and it’s far more wonderful than a beach vacation. We are called to see beyond the way things appear to be and to understand the reality behind the situation.


I was in Walmart one day last week, and as I was walking down the aisle a woman with a small child in one of those large blue carts that has a big seat for a child was coming toward me. The child was looking at me, and as we passed he pointed at me and said, He’s a cowboy. I didn’t know what to make of his words at first, but I realized I was wearing a relatively wide brimmed hat. I was also wearing a vest and jeans and boots. Of course a real cowboy would never wear the kind of hat I was wearing, and my nylon quilted vest isn’t something you would find in a western store. I’ve never known a cowboy to wear round-toed lace-up boots, but that little boy wasn’t out of his mind. I realized that I did look a little bit like a cowboy. That little boy could see something that I had failed to notice about myself. He hadn’t seen enough cowboys to know what they actually look like, but he had seen enough to recognize the similarity between me and a cowboy.


It’s sort of interesting to think of the difference between what we know ourselves to be, and what we look like to other people. We adults don’t generally feel very free to tell other people what they look like, but every once in a while you’ll encounter a child in Walmart who feels free to identify what you look like. I was actually pretty pleased to hear that boy identify me as a cowboy. I always wanted to be a cowboy when I was a child, and it may be that he could see my inner cowboy. Maybe I really am a cowboy.


What we see and what’s really going on don’t always match up very well, and there’s probably not a better example of this than Jesus Christ hanging on the cross. You wouldn’t think that this man we think of as the Lord of Life, the Son of God, and the King of all Creation would end up on a cross between two common criminals, but that is where Jesus spent the last hours of his earthly existence.


Jesus got what some might call the royal treatment. The religious and political rulers of his day were blind to who he was, and they treated him in the worst way possible. But Jesus knew what it would look like to be the actual embodiment of love, and he didn’t let their lack of understanding guide his actions. He wasn’t afraid of being misunderstood by people who had no interest in the truth, but he wanted his actions to be clear to those who sought the truth and are able to see the pure godliness of his sacrifice.


The kingship of Jesus Christ wasn’t an obvious thing to everyone, but it was perfectly clear to others.


We Americans don’t talk very much about kings. I think it’s probably only in the church that we talk about having a king, and there’s a reason for that. The founders of our nation were pretty intent upon not having a king. Our political ancestors had not had a good experience with the King of England, so this nation was founded upon the principle that we would choose our leaders, but this is a relatively new concept. While most of history is driven by the various ways groups of people have been guided by their rulers, we don’t really think of ourselves as being ruled by anyone. As a democracy we tend to think we are out from under the power of autocratic rulers, which is a good thing, but it’s also pretty deceptive.


The fact that we don’t have a king or an emperor doesn’t mean that we aren’t ruled in powerful ways. We think of ourselves as being free, but I’m more inclined to think that we often just don’t see who is ruling our lives. We don’t have a king, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t being guided by powerful hands. And I’m not talking about who’s in charge of our government. We’ve got a new president-elect who’s got a powerful personality, and no doubt he’s going to have a strong impact on the way our nation operates, but I’m not talking about the way in which our nation is ruled. I’m thinking of the ways in which our lives are ruled in very subtle but powerful forces.


Because if we aren’t clear about who we choose to be the ruler of our lives we will be guided by forces that we don’t understand. Are we guided by the Lord of Life who calls for us to allow love to be our ultimate ruler? Or are we being bounced around by little tyrants who want us to think we’ll be happy if we had more of something or less of something else. I dare say we all have these little voices that seek to take charge of our lives and lead us down roads that promise paradise but deliver emptiness.


If we claim Jesus as our king I think it’s important for us to consider what it means for him to be the ruler of our lives. In what ways do we allow him to define who we are and what we do. I don’t think this is ever an easy thing to do. On one hand, I think it’s just easier to be unaware of what it is that guides our lives. It’s not necessarily satisfying to simply do what seems to be expected of us by whoever or whatever, but it’s hard work to live an authentically spiritual life. God doesn’t speak as loudly as those various commercial voices that we hear that tell us what we need and where we should go.


I guess I’m grateful for the fact that we don’t live in a country that has established itself in clear opposition to the reign of Christ in the world. I’m happy not to be living in a place that is so clearly at odds with the love of Jesus Christ that you can’t help but to know what it means to stand with Christ. That’s the place Dietrich Bonhoeffer found himself to be standing as he faced the policies of Nazi Germany. It was very clear to him that he could not be a disciple of Jesus Christ and cooperate with the policies of Adolf Hitler. In regard to that he wrote the following line: When Christ calls a person, he bids them to come and die. And in fact Bonhoeffer did lose his life in resistance to Hitler’s policies.


I’m happy that we aren’t living in such a place with such clearly un-Christian policies, but I don’t believe our path to paradise with Christ is any less challenging. Our physical lives aren’t threatened, but I don’t believe it’s easy for us to live with Jesus Christ as our king. We aren’t threatened, we’re just distracted, and it’s hard for us to see how the false gods of this world lead us here and there and away from the true path that leads to the abundant life that Jesus Christ offers.


I’m not saying that we are hopelessly lost in a spiritual desert. I believe the ring of God’s truth miraculously gets through to us in beautiful ways, but we don’t need to assume that it’s easy to be a follower of our godly king in our spiritually confused society.


Of course the really beautiful thing is that we may well be at our best when we least suspect it. As surely as I was unaware of how much I looked like a cowboy as I was walking through Walmart, we may not be aware of how well we are serving our king when we are going about our daily routines. Certainly we can grow in our ability to serve the Lord of Life, but being a follower of Jesus Christ will always be a grand and mysterious endeavor. None of us will ever be perfect followers of our gracious king, but as that criminal on the cross demonstrated none of us are beyond hope of joining him in paradise. Our primary calling is to trust in the love and grace of our Lord and king, Jesus Christ.


Thanks be to God. Amen


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