Today is officially the last Sunday in the churches calendar. Next Sunday is Advent Sunday, and we start to think of preparing for Christmas and the coming of Christ into the world.
And the title that has been given to this Sunday is Christ the King.
We remember that Jesus is the King.
And yet we have this strange reading – Jesus on the cross
You’d think they might choose the passage when the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she is going to have a baby, and that the child to be born to her would be the Son of God and ruler, and that he will be given the throne of David (David was the great king in Israel’s past – a sort of Queen Elizabeth 1st figure – and God had promised that one of David’s descendants would be his special and eternal ruler).
Or they might have chosen one of those many passages which speak of how Jesus had authority over wind and waves, over sickness, over evil spirits, even over death.
Or they might have chosen that passage when Jesus stands in front of Pilate: and Pilate says to him, ‘Don’t you realise I have the power of life and death over you’, and Jesus answers, ‘You would have no authority if it had not been given you from above’.
You’d think they might have chosen that passage at the end of Matthew when the risen Jesus stands in front of his disciples and says to them, ‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go and make disciples of all people’.
Or they might have chosen that passage when Jesus speaks of how he will one day return, in glory, to judge all people.
But they didn’t. The chose the passage where Jesus gets crucified. It is the most unkingly-like thing that you can imagine.
It is madness.
Kings, real kings, do everything in their power not to get themselves crucified.
If they are crucified, then it proves that they were not very effective kings.
Think of the people who mock Jesus as he hangs on the cross:
V35: ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah’ (The Messiah was the name that they gave to the one they longed for would come as God’s king)
V36: ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself’
V39: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’
Kings, real kings, do not forgive the people who reject them.
They mark who they are, and when they come back to power, they get them. They can’t risk having their authority challenged.
And yet today’s reading is inspired.
Because it tells us about the nature of Jesus’ kingship, and it tells us about the choice that we have to make.
a. It tells us about the nature of Jesus’ kingship
All of the things that I have said about Jesus are true:
· He is the eternal Son of God, who was there in the beginning with God.
· He does have complete authority over nature, over sickness, over evil and over death.
· He is the ruler of rulers
· All authority has been given to him
· And one day he will return to judge this creation
But this king is different to all human rulers who we know or have known.
1. He is full of love.
He cries out, ‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do’
I thank God that he says ‘them’ when he prays that prayer. He doesn’t pray, ‘Forgive those who are crucifying me now’ for they do not know what they do. He doesn’t pray, ‘Forgive the Jews’ or ‘forgive the Romans’.
He prays ‘Forgive them because they do not know what they are doing’.
And that ‘them’ can include us.
It is a prayer for all who do not know what we do when we reject Jesus;
It is a prayer for all who are blind to the reality that this one who was nailed to the cross is in fact the eternal Son of God, and God’s ultimate ruler of this world.
It is a prayer for people like you and me who live life as if there is no God, even if we profess to believe in God.
What we are really looking for is a genii in the bottle. Not a ruler, a monarch, but a servant. We want someone who will grant us our wishes, and get us out of trouble; who will be there when we need him – but who will be conveniently invisible and impotent at all other times.
Jesus’ prayer is a prayer for you and me – if we are prepared to include ourselves in the ‘them’.
On that final day, when we stand in front of Jesus Christ, and we see him in his glory: and we fall to our knees and say,
‘I just didn’t realise.
I didn’t realise what I was doing when I lived life as if it all rotated around me and my family. I didn’t realise that you have made us in your image, and that I when I ignored or ridiculed or rejected or used or abused other people, I was ignoring, ridiculing, rejecting, using or abusing you.
I didn’t realise that when I was ashamed to talk about my faith to my neighbour, I was being ashamed of you’.
Most kings would screw us up and throw us away
But our king will say, ‘I died on the cross for you’. And when I hung on the cross, I prayed for you: ‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing’.
And the reason that he prays forgiveness?
This is a king who loves his subjects, who delights in you, who sees what you could become, and who longs that you will be with him in his kingdom.
The hard thing, of course, about this teaching, is that for those of us who – like the demons - do know who Jesus is, and who still choose to reject him, who refuse to live under his loving and life-giving and just rule, who refuse to come to him for mercy, who say that I know you are God’s King and you died for my forgiveness, but I don’t want you to be King and I don’t need your forgiveness - there is no forgiveness.
2. This king shows immense courage
Kings do not usually die for their subjects. Subjects die for their king.
But Jesus did not come so that human beings might do battle for him.
That is what we expect of rulers. If Jesus had reigned in a palace, had absolute power, had all the rulers of the world bow before him, taken the wealth of nations for himself, had peoples sacrificed for him – then we might have recognised him as a true ruler. Because isn’t that what true leadership is all about?
But Jesus did not come so that human beings might be sacrificed for him. He came in order to sacrifice himself for human beings. He came in order to do battle for us. The war he fought was not a war to maintain his sovereignty, his glory, his status and his wealth. The war that he fought was for us. And it was not against people, but against Satan and the power of sin and death.
Jesus came so that he might do battle for them.
And it was a battle. We read of the climax of the battle here. Only he could fight it, because only he was good enough. He stood firm in the face of rejection and hatred and cruelty and unimaginable pain. He did have all power. He could have come down from the cross. But he didn’t. In his own words, he drank the cup of the wrath of God right down to its bitter dregs.
When the criminal says, ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ he didn’t realise what he said.
He could have saved himself. But then he would simply have become a ruler like all other human rulers. But there could have been no forgiveness, and because the Son of God had given in to the fear of death, it would have shown itself a more powerful force than God.
But by being obedient to his Father, by dying on the cross, Jesus brought salvation to millions upon millions. He offers salvation to you and me. We really can begin to be set free from the power of sin and death.
b. This story tells us how we should respond to our king of love and of courage.
All Jesus asks us to do is to turn to him and entrust our lives into his hands.
That is what the other criminal on the cross does.
We don’t know why, but he recognises that Jesus is God’s king, and that although Jesus reigns now, his visible rule will be in the future.
He doesn’t blame the system – even though if anyone had a right to blame the system it was a person who was the system crucified. He doesn’t make any excuses for himself.
He doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what he is: someone who, under the law of that land at that time, deserved to die.
He simply turns to Jesus, and probably in one of the few last lucid moments that he would have had before he finally surrendered to the hell of pain and insanity that crucifixion would have brought on, he places himself in the hands of Jesus.
He doesn’t say, ‘Rescue me’.
He doesn’t say, ‘Forgive me’. Maybe he thought he was beyond forgiveness.
He simply says, ‘Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.’
And Jesus answers him with possibly the most gracious words that are in the New Testament: ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’.
I do hope and pray that you will entrust yourself into the hands of our King of love and our king of courage while you still have many years of service still on this earth.
It is about recognising that you have a ruler, who is bigger than you, and he calls you to follow him. It is not just about you, or about your work, or your family, or about coming home and putting your feet up and going on the computer or watching telly. It is not just about next year’s holiday or one of the children’s weddings or a peaceful retirement when you can do what you want.
It is actually about him. Getting to know him; really getting to know his word; it is about making worship of God with his people not just a priority in your life, but THE priority. It is about reaching out to others, in his name.
And following Jesus will require at times immense courage and perseverance. This is not for wimps. He calls us to follow him, and for some that will lead to a literal cross. And following him will mean that your eyes are opened – you will begin to see things and people in a completely different way – as he sees them. And you will see that you are not on your own. Our King of love and our king of courage is walking beside us.