The Fullness of God
A Homily from Luke 23:33-43
© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
November 21, 2004 (Reign of Christ)
There was a time, not so long ago, when the kings of Israel were not very good kings at all. They did not protect the weak, they did not judge fairly, they did not honor the covenant which their ancestors had made with God. In the time of the prophet Jeremiah God said to the kings of Israel, “Even though I love you and your land, your faithlessness has forced me to destroy you. I will turn your fertile lands into a desert. When people pass through your land, they will wonder, ‘What has happened here.? Who did these guys tick off?’ The short answer will be, ‘This used to be where Israel was. They ticked off God by forgetting what God expects of a just kingdom [Jeremiah 22:6-10].”
What does God expect of a fair kingdom? In the chapter before the one that provides today’s Hebrew Bible lesson, we get at least a hint. Jeremiah chides the leaders of Israel for taking advantage of the poor, for abusing their neighbors, for not providing justice and protection for the weak. The kings of Israel were not very good kings, and finally, God gives up on them.
In our text for today, God says, “My shepherds have failed me. I will have to gather in my sheep myself. My people suffer in fear, and I must rescue them. The day must come when I will raise up a true King, a true leader, someone who brings only justice and righteousness to my frightened and abused flock.”
This text could not have come at a better time. Over the past few months we have been bombarded with images of the rampant injustices in our society. Politicians need work, after all, and the way they get work is by convincing us that something needs fixing and telling us that they have a plan to fix it.
There are certainly plenty of problems to go around. Here are just a few. Democrats warn of us of the dangers of destroying the environment, of failing to meet the needs of the weak and vulnerable, and of engaging in war. Libertarians are concerned that we have sacrificed too much personal liberty and consequently cannot be happy and healthy as a society. Republicans remind us of the threats posed by war and tyrants, of the looming specter of terror, and of the onerous burden of high taxes.
Voters were faced with deciding which problems concerned them the most, and then choosing the candidates who seemed most capable of addressing those problems. When the polls closed on November 2, some of us were jubilant and others of us were despondent. Some of us thought the deepest problems of our nation were going to be fixed, and others of us thought the real problems were going to get much worse.
To make things even more confusing, religion was thrown blatantly into the mix as politicians trumpeted their pet problems and favorite solutions. Several Roman Catholic bishops, for instance, said that the issue of abortion was so important that Roman Catholic voters should consider it above all others. On the opposite end of the spectrum, liberal Protestant leaders who wanted to advocate for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons made protecting the rights of sexual minorities their keystone issue.
For both sides, and for all of the other religious groups who got involved in the last election, these are life-and-death issues. The argument from all sides has been that God has a system of justice, and that it is our obligation to choose and support leaders who will implement that system. We aren’t just arguing about injustice, we are fighting blasphemy.
Our concern is no different from that of Jeremiah. The kings cannot remember their obligation to us and to God’s justice. When will God send us a king who is fair and righteous?
Today’s second reading from Luke answers that question…vividly. We join the King, the righteous Branch from the line of David, the person in whom the fullness of God dwells…we join him on the way to his coronation as he is escorted by his honor guard. Centuries have passed since Jeremiah’s prophecy, and we finally get to see God’s solution to the problem of political corruption, incompetence, and unfairness. As God promised, God has come to set things right.
And so, the King whom God has chosen, the King who has all of the power and authority of God because he is God-in-the-flesh is led to a place called “The Skull,” and there – among rapists and murderers, they nail him to a wooden board and torment him as they watch him die a slow, agonizing death.
How…unexpected. Two thousand years later, after hearing that story countless times, we still haven’t learned the lesson. We wade into political battles as if they have eternal consequences. We shout political rhetoric at one another as if it contains the answers to our problems. We turn to our politicians hoping that they will fix what is broken in our world.
We still don’t get it. Political issues and battles for social justice are important; but there will never be a political party or a political candidate or a piece of legislation that will ever get to the heart of the brokenness of the world or even the brokenness of our lives. The core of that brokenness is a festering wound of selfishness and sin, and only God can step into such an ugly mess to rescue us.
And so, on “Reign of Christ” Sunday we close the Christian Year by honoring the one and only true King the world will ever know. The Sunday used to be called “Christ the King,” but concerns that this reinforced an exclusively masculine image of God caused many denominations and individual churches to change the name of the feast day. I think we do well to remember that God is neither male nor female; but it is equally important to never forget that Jesus – God-in-the-flesh – is indeed our Monarch. The issue is not his gender, the issue is his authority, and that authority is absolute.
And so, on this Sunday, we honor the Christ’s absolute authority over us with our gospel reading. We do not read of Jesus’ preaching. We do not read of his good deeds. We do not read of his birth. We do not read of his return in glory (although we will meditate on that at length in Advent). Instead, we dwell on the unique moment in history at which all creation was restored into the arms of a loving Creator through an act of astonishing sacrifice. It is that sacrifice, and the love that made it possible, that is Christ’s authority.
As we gather to stand at the feet of the cross, we see more than just the awe-inspiring love of God. We get a glimpse of God’s justice as well. Remember the warning of Jeremiah: God will come to restore justice; and that those who preyed upon the poor and the vulnerable would face the impartial verdict of the Most High.
Gasping for breath, Jesus pronounces judgment on his executioners. He prays to Almighty God, “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
Well that’s not very fair at all. Those who crucified Jesus, the soldiers who drove the nails, the leaders who demanded the sentence, all of them represented the very worst kind of violent corruption that God opposes in Jeremiah. Killing an innocent man is a grievous crime that requires the swift response of a righteous king. Yet the King, with all of the power of the universe at his command, simply pleads for mercy for those who torment him.
When Christ’s tormentors hung a sign over his head that proclaimed him as the promised “King of the Jews,” they thought they were being sarcastic. In fact, they were more right than they knew, and it’s a good thing. Any other, lesser king or queen would have punished them indefinitely for so injuring the royal personage. Jesus, however, simply pleads for their exoneration.
Righteousness may not be as much fun as it seems. Justice, it turns out, has more to do with mercy than with punishment. That may not seem very encouraging when we think we have been wronged. On the other hand, I suspect that we are living in glass houses at least as often as we are standing outside them with a bag full of gravel. In the long run, we are probably better off with mercy than we are with getting what we deserve.
There are other lessons to be found at the foot of the cross. Jesus did not die there alone. Hanging on either side of him were two criminals who – at least from the testimony of one of them – deserved to be there. Together, the two of them represent two common responses to hopelessness.
One of them decides that, now that he has nothing to lose, so it doesn’t matter who he ticks off. He’s going to die anyway, so things can’t get any worse. And so, he decides to mock Jesus. “Hey, if you really are the King of the Jews like the sign says, get us out of here! If you’re the Messiah, start working miracles and fix this mess.”
I suspect that the dying man didn’t really think Jesus was the Messiah, or he would probably have had even angrier words for him. After all, we do think Jesus is the Son of God, and we have plenty of demands. Like the thief on the cross, we dangle in messes of our own making pestering Jesus to come and offer some divinely fair solution to our problems.
Sometimes we also hit those moments of hopelessness where it seems like our problems are so great, so overwhelming, so dramatic; that it doesn’t matter what we do. Things can’t get any worse, so we might as well give up and quit trying.
It is then, as we think like the first criminal on the cross, that the warning of the person on the other side of Jesus should come to mind. He asks, “Do you not fear God?”
Do we fear God? When we trust in political systems to solve eternal problems, are we afraid of God? When we think the world has ended because our political party lost; or that the world has been saved because our political party won; do we fear God? When we trust in ourselves rather than the power of the Holy Sprit, do we fear God?
No. I suspect that the real, dangerous, even evil threats to health and hope and happiness in our world have so blinded us to the reality of God’s world, that we often think the problems and priorities of this life are the only things that matter.
The second criminal is able to see beyond that. He has lost his property, his wealth, his social standing. If he ever had any civil rights, they are gone too. Even his life is being taken away from him. Still he turns to Jesus, calls him by name, and rasps out, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answers with another act of divine justice. “Here is the truth:” he says, “today you will be with me in Paradise.”
One criminal thought he had nothing left to lose, and in his cynicism and sarcasm he gave up the only thing that really matters: eternity. The other criminal realized that all of the things he had lost were minor compared to the magnitude of God; and – by placing his trust in Jesus – he gained everything.
I hope you do not hear the comparison as an attempt to minimize the things that we value. As many of you now, I firmly believe that we are called to work diligently for social justice. We are obligated to live out our faith, constantly seeking to make this world a better place.
Even still, we are not an army of social workers or a collective of psychologists. We are Christians, and we have chosen instead to be citizens of a different kind of kingdom. In many ways, “Reign of Christ” Sunday is not unlike Independence Day on the secular calendar. Where our secular nation celebrates the hope of individual freedom on July 4th; on the last Sunday of the Christian Year we celebrate the hope that ultimately things like freedom won’t matter because we will all be restored to unity with our Creator in Paradise.
There’s something a little bit nutty about that, and I think it’s hard for us as mortals to wrap our minds around God’s priorities. So many things seem so important in the here-and-now that thoughts of paradise seem best left to another day.
Reign of Christ Sunday is that day. As Christians we remember that our faith is not in our ability or the ability of humans to restore the brokenness of the world. Our faith is not even that God will step in and magically right the injustices of life. Our faith hangs from the nails of a cross alongside perfect love, perfect mercy, and perfect sacrifice. Hanging also from that cross is a wooden sign that proclaims that the One who died there is our King, and that the day will come for each of us when he draws us into his kingdom.
For those of us lost in hopelessness, frustrated that nothing we do seems to be enough to shore up all the broken walls of life, that paradise is a welcome relief. For those of us who think we are making a difference in the world, that paradise is a reminder that – no matter how good we can make things here – God can and will make them better. Perhaps most importantly that paradise is a place where all of us, the hopeless and the incurably hopeful; Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and Anarchists; can all meet together – for we serve under one King.