Beginning and Ending
I’ve almost always been a lectionary preacher – that is, I’ve usually chosen to preach from the texts assigned to a given Sunday as part of what is called the Revised Common Lectionary – four texts – a history text, a psalm or poetry text, an epistle lesson, a gospel lesson. These texts are used by many Christian church, so if you visited a Lutheran church or Episcopal or Catholic church today, you might well hear the same texts as we’ve read today. But it isn’t required – many pastors choose their own texts to use for preaching each week. I’m my years of ministry I’ve done this only very rarely. There are good arguments for either strategy, but for me, I feel like choosing my own texts is telling God what I’m going to say, and using the lectionary helps me be open to God speaking to me. Beyond that, I feel like the lectionary provides an ebb and flow, brings us so carefully and thoughtfully through the seasons of the church year.
Today is a perfect example. Today is the last Sunday of the year – the church year. Next Sunday, Advent begins, and that’s our Christian New Year. We start with waiting for Christ to come. But today, the end of the year, is a special Sunday. We celebrate Thanksgiving Sunday today, and I hope you will come on Wednesday night to celebrate Thanksgiving fully. But Thanksgiving isn’t actually in the liturgical calendar. Today, in the church year, we celebrate Reign of Christ, or Christ the King Sunday. And the texts in the lectionary for Reign of Christ always bring us right to the crucifixion of Christ. It’s jarring, and it is meant to be. We’re nowhere near Lent and Holy Week, when we expect this text. We’re waiting for the baby Jesus, not the crucified Christ. But the text drops us into the crucifixion scene and tells us to figure it out. Beginnings and endings get all mixed up, until we’re reminded that our beginnings are endings, and endings are always beginnings in God.
For me, this Sunday, Reign of Christ, is the perfect last Sunday before the beginning of Advent. Advent is a journey, and it is always wise, before you take a long journey, to look ahead to where you are ultimately going. Even if you have many stops and legs of travel and twists along the way, even if you take it piece by piece, it’s a good idea to know what you expect at the end. In Advent, we might think of Christmas as the end – but today reminds us that we celebrate Jesus’ birth because of who he becomes, and where he takes us. Today, we stop and ask - who is the Christ that we're about to celebrate? Who is this man - this god - this king - that we will spend the next month or more anticipating his birth?
Our reading today takes us to Golgotha, the place of the skull. Here, in Luke's account, the actual process of crucifying Jesus merits just a passing phrase: "they crucified Jesus there with the criminals." But the details come from those who watch Jesus dying: the religious leaders, the soldiers, and the two criminals with whom he is crucified. From most, there’s a repeated refrain: Why doesn’t Jesus save himself? “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, the chosen one!” from the leaders. “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” from the soldiers. “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” from one of the criminals. Only from the other criminal do we hear anything different. He declares that the two criminals are only justly paying the price for their crimes but that Jesus "has done nothing wrong." He then asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom, and Jesus responds that truly that day the man will be with him in Paradise.
For our celebration of the Reign of Christ Sunday, for Christ the King Sunday, we have a Jesus who seems most un-kingly. He's mocked, beaten, suffering, harassed, murdered. How is Jesus a King? The inscription that was placed above him – his sentence, the crime for which he was being crucified read, “This is the King of the Jews.” But it was meant as a mockery. A man being crucified with criminals was hardly a king. The sentence poked fun at Jesus, at his disciples and followers. But yet, we believe Jesus reigns. So how is Jesus king? Well, today, for us, it is about putting the emphasis in the right place. So this Sunday is perhaps not about the fact that Jesus is King, but about the fact that Jesus is King. (1) Do you hear the difference? This Sunday is not about the fact that one characteristic of Jesus is his Kingship, his divine royal status, one characteristic among many others. Instead, this Sunday celebrates the fact that it is Christ who is supposed to be placed as King, or highest authority, in our lives. Jenee Woodard writes, "It keeps occurring to me that at this time, there WAS a King of the Jews - Herod - who may have been unpopular among Galileans and some others, but had done some pretty good business on behalf of Rome and Jerusalem . . . He was the "rightful" king. I hear, maybe, Pilate asking [Jesus at the trial], "You think that YOU are the king of the Jews? I KNOW the King of the Jews, and he's nothing like you!" as a reversal-[thing] - a deconstruction of kingship and power as understood in any then-contemporary terms." (1) Jesus is King.
Going back through the text, the interaction between Jesus and the two criminals especially catches my attention. We read that the first criminal "derides" Jesus, saying, "are not you the Messiah? Save yourself and us." The Greek word used here has an interesting connotation. This word we read as "deride" comes from a word that is also often translated as "to blaspheme," but means specifically, "to speak lightly of sacred things." What does it mean to speak lightly of sacred things? We don't know what else this criminal might have been saying to Jesus, but we know he says, "aren't you the Messiah? Why don't you save us and yourself then!" Are his questions, echoed by all the other in the passage, so strange? Are his questions of Jesus so unwarranted? Here, next to him, is the one some have been calling the Messiah, God's son, King of the Jews, as the inscription with the charge against Jesus reads. And yet, he is somehow speaking lightly of sacred things. He's missing the point, or ignoring it, not seeing or refusing to see the situation before him for what it really is.
We have that repeated phrase in this passage – Jesus, why don’t yourself? The religious leaders, the soldiers, the criminal – they all say it. And maybe we wonder. What does it mean to be saved? What would it have meant for Jesus to save himself? Would he save himself by calling down the angels to take him away from the suffering on the cross? Would he be saving himself if he claimed the charges against him were false, and just went back to Galilee? Imagine - Jesus was only in his thirties when he was put to death. Wouldn't it have been great if he could have taught for decades more, taught us more, set us straight and made sure we had it right before he was killed? But I imagine that even by avoiding death on the cross, even if he had escaped these charges, Jesus would not have been saving himself, but destroying himself. Jesus' constant message to anyone who would listen was to love God and love neighbor. He taught a way of peace that radically urged a complete change of lifestyle for those who truly wanted to be disciples. What would it mean, then, to abandon it all for his own personal safety? A true leader must walk the walk, and practice what he or she preaches. Jesus did just that.
And then we have the second criminal. I'm not sure what he saw in Jesus, how we was able to recognize who Jesus was. We know, by his own admission, that he was not a perfect man. But he recognizes his faults, and Jesus' innocence. And he seems to know something about Jesus' identity, because he says, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." But Jesus response is even better than this man could have hoped. Jesus answers, "today you will be with me in paradise." Jesus, it seems, speaks of a present and right-now paradise that he can offer this man. Now, we know that Jesus’ resurrection isn’t until the third day, and that Jesus ascends to be with God much later on in our biblical accounts. So for Jesus to promise this immediate paradise, he must have something different in mind than we would usually consider. What would Jesus mean by offering paradise today? Jesus has been preaching about God's kingdom, God's reign, being at hand, already present. In his last interaction with this man, he confirms it - paradise is now - if we see it, usher it in. On a day like Thanksgiving Sunday, perhaps we are especially tuned to understanding Jesus' perspective. Paradise is for today.
The reign of Christ. Jesus is King. What does that mean for us? What do we take away with us on this last Sunday in the Christian Year? First, foremost, we find grounding for our lives. It is Christ who is our king. Christ who is the foundation of our being. Christ the king. Christ who reigns. When we remember where our center is, who our center is, we aren't so easily distracted by the other things that want to claim our attention and allegiance. We know who we are and who leads us in the decisions we make, in the paths we choose, in the lives we live.
Second, we are reminded again about what it means to be saved. Our own salvation doesn't always mean our personal safety, or a place reserved for us in the clouds of heaven. Jesus' teachings were full of paradoxes, and so were his actions. Sometimes, he taught, the way to save your life was to lose it. And he did just that. Sometimes, to experience life, death is necessary. Sometimes, the only way to be saved is the hard way - by giving ourselves up. Perhaps we don't need to suffer the death that Christ suffered. But we can seek to live as Christ live, to do as he taught. The paradox is that by putting others first, by caring for our neighbors, by loving others, we save ourselves in the best way possible.
Third, we are reminded to be very careful when it comes to speaking lightly of the things we hold sacred. In the Advent season fast approaching, we'll be pressured day after day to make light of what we hold sacred, by letting the meaning of Christmas be obscured. We make light of the sacred whenever we let other things overrule the faithful celebration of Christmas. Be on guard - do not make light of sacred things. Don't water down your faith and our story for a cheaper imitation that will lose its luster by the time New Year rolls around.
And finally, take heart. We don't have to wait to experience the paradise that the second criminal asks Jesus about. Today, Jesus says. Today, we can enter paradise. Here-and-now, we can experience God's kingdom made present on earth, the good news made manifest among us. Rejoice, God is here, right now, in this very place. Rejoice, Christ is reigning over us. Jesus, remember us, when you come into your kingdom. Amen.
(1) Jenee Woodard, The Text This Week Weblog, http://textweek.blogs.com/textweek/