In the course of the liturgical year — the church year — today, we are at the end. This morning we celebrate the reign of Christ, and next Sunday we begin the Season of Advent, the time of waiting for the birth of Christ into our world. But for many of us, we’re already starting to get ourselves ready for Christmas.
When I went to lead worship at one of the retirement homes on Wednesday, the first question I was asked as I was setting up for worship was, “Are you going to talk about Christmas today?” I said, “No, it’s a bit early to talk about Christmas today. It’s still November!” But then just yesterday we did have our annual Christmas Tea and Bake Sale here at the church, our children are starting to practice their Christmas Pageant this morning, and look, we even have a Christmas tree (or at least an Advent tree) lit up this morning.
We’ve got “baby Jesus” on the brain already in November, but the lectionary this morning jumps us forward in time, past the angels and shepherds, past the childhood and baptism of Jesus, past his ministry in Galilee, all the way to the very end of his life. This morning we read Luke’s account of Jesus’ death on a cross. We heard how he was mocked and taunted and crucified between two criminals.
It’s not too difficult to figure out why we get this particular story today. This is “Reign of Christ” Sunday, and in our Gospel reading Jesus is named the “King of the Jews.” Even as he dies like a criminal on a cross, an inscription over his head declares, “This is the King of the Jews.”
This is not the first time in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus is called a king. Way back at the beginning of the story at the annunciation, the angel declared that Jesus would receive “the throne of his ancestor David… and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Later, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the multitude greeted him and the author of Luke has them chanting, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!”
The early Christian community in which Luke’s Gospel was written shared a belief that Jesus was the King of kings and Lord of lords, as we sang today. They saw in Jesus’ life and ministry the fulfilment of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Prophesies of people like Jeremiah coming true. “The days are coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety.”
The people who first met and interacted with Jesus must have had such high hopes for what he would become. Like a political candidate with fresh ideas and a new energy and charisma, Jesus was embraced and heralded by so many of the “regular” people that he met in the course of his ministry. They were inspired by his teaching and enthralled by his miracles. He showed care and concern for each person that he met, and those who were used to being judged and excluded were amazed by his forgiveness and love.
It’s not surprising that people were ready to name him as their new king. He was wise, powerful, and loving. He would be the king FOR the people, the kind of king that David had once been. Finally, a righteous Branch, a king who would deal wisely and execute justice and righteousness in the land. Finally, a leader who would care about the poor and the outcast and the women and the foreigners and the disabled, and who would treat us all like people.
Luke’s Gospel is clear in pointing to Jesus’ identity as the rightful King of the Jews. But as we get to this part of the story, most of those who thought Jesus was pretty special are back-peddling and assuming they must have been mistaken. You see, the story isn’t turning out how they expected.
Jesus rode into Jerusalem like a king. But rather than being proclaimed king, being anointed, and claiming his authority to rule, Jesus loses most of his friends and supporters. Jesus entered Jerusalem in an authoritative way and began to clean up the temple and pronounce judgement against the hypocritical religious leaders. But the leaders have responded by challenging his authority, accusing him of blasphemy, and plotting to have him killed.
Jesus’ inner circle of followers has scattered in fear and confusion, as Jesus is arrested, tried, and sentenced to death. Those who once looked to him to be their king, now admit their disappointment. “We had hoped,” they tell a stranger on the road to Emmaus, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
In this morning’s text, in which Jesus is crucified between two criminals, the people stand by watching as Jesus is mocked and made fun of by the Jewish leaders, the Roman soldiers, and one of the criminals hanging beside him on another cross. The kingship of Jesus has become a big joke, and the taunts all make fun of the fact that Jesus was hailed as a king, and now he’s dying on a cross like a criminal.
“He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, God’s chosen one!”
“If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”
“Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
Jesus is mocked like a man who has lied and been caught. They taunt him like an imposter who has been found out. No one, whether Jewish or Roman or even the poor and outcast to whom Jesus was a friend, no one sticks by him. No one believes in him. No one hangs on to the hope they once proclaimed so loudly that one day his kingdom would come. No one, that is, except that second criminal, the one on the other side of Jesus, the one who rebuked the first for joining in the mockery.
Everyone else has given up the idea that Jesus has any power or authority. There he is, dying on a cross, helpless and powerless. Even his closest friends have turned away in disappointment. But one nameless criminal believes that his kingdom will come. “Jesus,” he pleads, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Many of the commentaries get into tricky questions around what Jesus meant by “Paradise” and what he meant by “today.” Is he talking about heaven? Will they be going straight there? And why does Jesus suddenly mention Paradise? Why doesn’t he stick to the question about the kingdom? — That was, after all, one of the main themes in his own preaching, according to Luke’s Gospel.
But I am less concerned with the details about the Paradise Jesus speaks of, and more simply amazed at the faith of the criminal. Jesus is dying on a cross, and this man still believes that his kingdom will come. Jesus is being scoffed at and mocked and derided, and this man still believes that his kingdom will come. This man is suffering beyond belief because of his crimes, whatever they were, and still he hopes for the forgiving love of Jesus to give him a place within the kingdom.
It’s the kind of faith and trust in God that I can only hope to gain by God’s grace. I must admit that I often look around at the world and the people in it and I can hardly believe that God’s kingdom is coming. It’s difficult to believe in God’s power and authority when tragedy and hatred, violence and greed seem to rule the world. I feel so much more like Jesus’ friends who gave up in disappointment. “I had hoped that he was the one, but I guess I was wrong.” Like them, I am inclined not to notice much evidence of God’s being in charge in our world. It looks more like he’s getting crucified.
The thing about kingdoms is, they’re only kingdoms when they have servants. Kings can only rule when there are people to obey. Whether by force or by willing obedience, the people have to do the will of the king, or effectively, he has no kingdom. A kingdom is a realm where the effective will of the king determines what happens.
In a sense, we all have our own little kingdoms in life — those places where what we want happens. If we say it, it goes. Maybe this is in our household, maybe it happens at work in the department of which you are the manager. But wherever a person can say, “Well, that’s the way I want it and so that’s the way it is going to be,” then that is in a real sense a kingdom, a place where your influence rules and makes stuff happen.
But that is why our faith in God, God’s gift of faith to us, is so important. God’s kingdom comes today, like it did for that hopeful criminal, when we start believing and acting like God is the one who is in charge. The kingdom comes wherever people pray the way Jesus taught us to pray. The kingdom comes wherever people live according to Jesus’ teachings, wherever there is love and forgiveness, humility and servanthood enacted. The kingdom comes wherever there is patience, kindness, healing, and care, wherever people choose right over wrong, wherever people choose goodness over evil, wherever people choose the more difficult way of Jesus over the way that is easy and convenient.
Whenever and wherever all such things are done because all these people believe there is a cosmic Lord named Jesus, then there — right there and right here and now — the kingdom of God is not only coming, it is present and active because the effective will of Jesus is calling the shots.
When the Son of God came to this earth, he announced the arrival of the kingdom. He wasn’t wrong. He wasn’t conquered. And when we choose to follow him, to live in his way, and to be his people, God’s kingdom comes and it is here. “Today, you will be with me in Paradise,” Jesus promised. Through us and through all of God’s people, may the kingdom come in its fullness. Amen.