A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 24, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 23: 33-43
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
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.” 
This morning is Christ the King Sunday when we celebrate, honor, and pay witness to the fact that Christ is King, now and forever. I was really surprised last week, when I looked at the lectionary reading for this week and it wasn't the follow up to last week's reading, the conclusion about the coming of the Son of Man. I was surprised because this week, today, is Christ the King Sunday, which is also the last Sunday of the Church calendar, where we commemorate Christ's Eternal Kingship, and that passage was all about the second coming, the coming of the Son of Man, bringing redemption, at the end of all the division and wars and earthquakes and persecutions and all of that stuff, we talked about last week. Christ comes in glory, out of the sky, setting up his reign for all time. It's typical that passages like that are saved and read on Christ the king Sunday, so it left me surprised, but once I looked at what the passage really was for this week, my surprise came to be pleasant because I like it. I like that on Christ the King Sunday we get to look at the way the world views the kingship of Christ because it's much different from what we claim to believe, and the attitude is much more real to us, it surrounds us, and therefore is so much more meaningful.
One of the big truths about the way the world works is that everything has to be practical, and more than that it has to be immediate. We have to be able to connect the dots and say definitively how this is connected to that, how this was caused by that, how that is a direct result of this, and the this's and that's can be anything, as long as we can logically and within reason connect them, we understand and everything makes sense. In this simplified, small perspective view of things, that we as humans seem to fall victim to, we are in control, and we are the judges of what is true and what isn't, but again the key word is perspective, and the individual human perspective is limited, and will always be, it's part of our fallen world, it's what happens when you believe the lies of the world, you can see good and evil, but it blinds you to the truth, God is the cause and source of the all the this's and that's. Let me be more clear and less abstract.
Look at how these representatives of the world talk to Jesus at his trial and crucifixion. Pilate, who is a representative of Rome, the controllers of the world, the placers of kings. . . yeah the Romans decide who is the king of the Jews, the Roman's chose Herod, he's their puppet, not this guy, so Pilate asks, are you the king of the Jews. . . Jesus doesn't answer. . . Then he finds him to be harmless, certainly not a threat to the Roman power, just a religious nut, a fanatic, a local problem, so he gives this king over to the puppet to take a look, he does, he wants him to do miracles, Jesus won't, Herod also doesn't deal with him, sends him back, then Pilate gives him up to the people, they want him crucified. . . some kinda king right. A king can't be a victim, a king must rule, a king must act, a king must protect his own interests, a king must order people around and protect his realm, by always protecting his rule. . . That's a king, that's what we want in a king.
That's what the Jews wanted in a king, back in 1 Samuel. The Jews ask God to give them a king, do you remember this. . . The elders come to Samuel and say: Samuel 8: 5-18
“You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” 6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, 7 and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8 Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. 9 Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
10 So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king.
But a king is no rosy thing, remember self interest, practicality, and limited perspective is at the heart of all human beings, yes even kings. Look at the warning Samuel give them about what exactly having a king will mean.
11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12 and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16 He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
You'll call out, but get no answer, no relief. . . mostly because you'll feel safer, you'll feel safer with a king, because you can touch him and he's there, and will appear to try to solve the issues of the people, not because he necessarily cares, but because it is in his best interest to care. He will promise to save you when the trouble comes, he will promise the world, but will not deliver real help, just enough to make you feel safe. . . because the image of safety is enough to sustain the system. Kings know that, and so do the Romans because they understand the people and they understand the world. . . at least they think so. The story continues back in Samuel's day the same way as in the Romans day, and we can say it is much like this in our day, too. Continuing with v 19:
19 But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20 so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”
Let us be like the other nations, it's safer, we see their kings. . . it seems to work for them, why not us?
So yeah, the world knows what a king is, and there just is no way that this Jesus of Nazareth is a king. So let the mocking begin. They put the crown of thorns on his head, they wrap him in purple, and they write in three different languages "King of the Jews." As if he could really be a king. . . as if the Jews to the Romans could have a king of any substance. . . only a puppet like Herod, no one could stand up to Caesar. . . certainly not. So they mock him, saying "Save yourself." If you are the king, "Save yourself" because that is what kings do, since time immemorial, kings save themselves.
My students have been writing papers on the attitudes of Ancient peoples towards kings, according to ancient writings. There are so many, and they all paint kings as self centered rulers who do for themselves, and if they help out the people its really about helping themselves, for with every new success comes more and more power, more and more riches, more and more glory and greatness. There is the Epic of Gilgamesh, from ancient Babylon, where the king Gilgamesh builds great walls to save his people from outside invasion, but then uses those same walls to imprison them within his tyrannical reign. The Greek king. in The Iliad, Agamemnon, power hungry, brings an army to Troy, but sacrifices the success of his army to satisfy his own selfish desires. Oedipus wants to help, wants to save, but over steps and becomes a tyrant in the process. These kings are all examples of what happens when human beings rule over each other, we become the victims of limited perspective, again and again. Kings save themselves, but yet we continue to fall victim to it because practical power is there, it's visible, we can see it, it makes us feel safe to hear someone real and in power telling us that they are on it, and everything will be ok. We allow them to become tyrants because we can see them reacting to this and doing that. . . ok at least he's trying. And it's better than nothing. Something is always better than nothing. Creon says to Oedipus, "but what if you are wrong?" and the king replies, "Still I must Rule." Doing something, anything, is better than nothing, because it pleases the crowd and calms them down. It is the image of safety.
The Cross is not the image of safety, it's not a kingly image, even with the purple vestments and the sign, and the thorny crown. There is no way to dress up the cross and make it look like Jesus is a king, and he is not saving himself. . . but he's had that chance before. A couple times, he could have done exactly that, save himself. He could have told Pilate the truth, or lied, he could have done something, he could have performed a miracle to prove himself to Herod, but he doesn't. In the desert, too, there with Satan, he could have saved himself. He surely could have turned a stone into bread, he could have jumped off the cliff and been saved, he could have bowed low before Satan and been saved, shoot, Satan even promised him the kingdom, as far as eyes could see, he could have had it all, but he doesn't. No he doesn't save himself. Jesus doesn't save himself. . . instead he saves us. He doesn't save himself, he saves us. . . not in a visible way, in a crown of thorns way, a way that turns over this world and its tangible practical immediate needs, and way that requires faith, and not faith in the illusion that we see around us, but instead in the truth that is in and around us that we don't see. Christ, Jesus, God, remembering that he is the only king, the only deliverance we need. Oh man that takes a lot of faith, sure it does. But if you look at history, and you look at the present, and you still believe that the human alternatives are better, you also have a lot of faith.
A skeptic might say, that we have 2000 plus years of Christian rule and that it has failed, and we might call that failure, God's rule, and God's failure, but no it's not, and no it wasn't, and no it isn't. It is a history of the trappings of faith, taken over and used to sustain human power structures. . . from Constantine to "In God We Trust" to "Yes we Can" it's there. . . G.K. Chesterton said it best, when he said. . . "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried." You know why it's difficult, because we all seek to do what Jesus is unwilling to do, we all seek to save ourselves we keep seeking to save ourselves, individually and collectively, we try and we fail, rather than letting Christ save us. . .
We conclude our lectionary Journey through Luke today. I'm ready, I'm ready to start over and begin Advent next week. . . but there have been some pretty intense passages, some incredible promises, and some harsh truths, and it all seems to culminate in today's and rightly it should, with the cross, but not the cross as an end, the cross as a beginning, not the false, phony and ridiculed king, mocked and beaten, hanging in effigy, but the true king, and savior of the world, Jesus the Christ.
The Romans thought it finished,
The Chief Priests thought they'd won,
They all told him to save himself,
Not thinking it could be done,
But he had other plans,
Which was the will of one,
And saved them all instead he did
At the raising of the sun.
All praise be to Christ the King, may we believe in his rule, and that the Kingdom of Heaven is come. The man next to Jesus says to him, "Jesus, Remember me, when you come into your kingdom." Jesus responds, "Today. . . you will be with me in paradise." "Today." Amen.