- Last Sunday.16 “King” Luke 23:27-43
Save yourself. Did you notice how often this refrain occurs in our reading this morning? Three times actually (a usually significant number in the Scriptures). First, the rulers, sneering at Him, tell Jesus: “save Yourself, if you are the Christ, the chosen of God”. Next, the soldiers say “save Yourself if You are the King of the Jews”. Finally, one of the criminals repeats it “If You are the Christ, save Yourself (and us!). And this, it strikes me, is the notion of power, Kingship, rule, authority in this old world of ours: if you are really a King, really someone powerful, then you will show it by looking out for #1 first of all! You’ll save yourself, and maybe if you are generous you’ll give a hand to a few others, make America great again…
It seems to be the notion of Christianity that has been popular (though wrong, I would say) throughout history. Jesus saves Himself by His Resurrection from the dead and saves others too who are worthy and deserving. It’s what Kings do. So we look to the End of the Story expecting Jesus to come in glory with power and might—demonstrating how well He’s done for Himself, and then rescuing the deserving, taking them to heaven for a well earned respite.
Which is why it strikes many as supremely odd that the Gospel for the Last Sunday of the Church Year (which this is) should be the crucifixion of Jesus. What? That’s how it ends? I thought that was the unfortunate snafu which Jesus overcame for Himself on Easter Sunday and is working even now to iron out for the rest of us and will return when He’s got it straight to raise us from the dead and take us to heaven with Him. Isn’t that how it Ends?
A common misconception! No, the Resurrection is more epilogue than End. This is the End, right here, Golgotha (Calvary in Greek/Latin), the Cross, the darkness from noon to three, the bleeding, the dying, the temple veil ripped in two, the Body hastily buried in Joseph’s new tomb, everyone shaken, sad, not stirred. This is the End and it’s a good one. It’s why the Church calls this Good Friday; and yet, modern liturgies make it Bad Friday, Sad Friday, Black Friday. Anything but good. Because how can dying horribly and painfully and unresistingly be good?
Great questions. Answering them gets close to the heart of the Mystery. In a way, it’s not that mysterious. This is real power on display, right here. This is how the real King of Kings acts. It’s easy to appear powerful, strong, happy when things go well for you. If you have billions of dollars, an army, nice private plane, tower with your name on it, of course you look regal. But how regal was Caesar with all those stab wounds, bleeding out in the Senate? Or Alexander “the Great” dying of boredom, heavy drinking (or poisoned) in Babylon trying to expand his empire? Or Lincoln or Kennedy after the play/parade? Or FDR, sick, weak, feeble, dying in office? Fred Buechner recalls as a little boy in a hotel in Washington in the mid 30s actually seeing FDR emerge from the elevator. Buechner thought FDR was this powerful wizard and he was stunned to see that his two sons had to hold him up, that he couldn’t even walk, feeble, frail. A very good man, perhaps; but not much of a wizard, really. Not as strong as a little boy.
The trappings of earthly kings conceal their real weakness. So they bluster and preen and prance and fly around in private jets and comb over and make sure the camera always gets their good side. They fight wars and pass legislation and get cash rich themselves telling us what to do and how to think. And we take that as real power, the ways they save themselves, look out for #1. And they do their dying off-camera hidden away and forgotten as soon as they exit the stage.
Jesus shows us real power by dying on a cross(!). This is the secret of His Kingdom: He welcomes what others scorn. This is how His Story ends, quite happily for us all. By not saving Himself! By giving Himself all away, uncomplaining, into death and the grave for you, for me. Jesus does His dying center stage, heart of the Story, signature move, for all to see. It is the one thing He wants you to know about Him, this dying and cross thing. He wants no other throne than this one. Because, for Him, this is what it is to be King: you don’t save Yourself. You invite the worst and take it regally, when it comes. You forgive them for doing it to You. You invite any who’d like to come on this great roller coaster ride with You. “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.” And the Cross is the door. Check it out!
Until Jesus showed us, did this, we did not know what a real King looked like. We were all fooled (and badly!) by the petty tyrants who grab the reigns of earthly power. Still are, I would judge. But Jesus is different from the start isn’t He? He showed His divine power by having no Father but God, and choosing for His mother the virgin Mary, a poor and humble woman. He did not grow up in a palace. Did not even own a house. He wandered around like some surfer-dude, or dirt-bag rock climber living out of an old van.
But from day one, there was something regal about Him. He healed the sick with a word, a touch. He commanded the forces of nature like servants, turning water into the finest wine, stilling storms on the sea, catching fish with no net or pole, feeding thousands with five loaves and two fish, paying taxes with gold from a fish’s mouth. And dismissing all that stuff as nothing at all, promising the only sign of His Kingship was the sign of Jonah—three days dead! Sign of the Fish, sign of the cross…
See, a Real King is stronger than Death. He shakes His head at it and goes “Really? That’s the best you got?” Look how everyone is losing their cool here: Pilate is freaked out. Herod is beside himself. The soldiers are shaken not stirred. The crowd is frantic. But, Jesus? The calm center in the midst of the storm. “Do your worst, sin, death, and hell. I’ll be fine. This leads to Paradise for Me—and anyone who wants to tag along…”
It is not what He gains that makes a real King. It’s what He looses, the way He suffers, how He dies. And this King Jesus, by dying, destroys Death itself. When the steel maw of the grave closes on Him, the jaws of death are broken. The spring is sprung and can’t hold Him, can’t hold anyone else anymore, either. He ruined it completely (Death, that is) Jesus did…
Would you like to face death unafraid? That’s real Power isn’t it? That’s a real King, right there. What if the worst the world could do to you would only speed you to Paradise with your King? What if you could believe that? You’d be kingly too, right?
Here is the only King worthy of the Name, Jesus. Because He does what no other King ever has or ever could do—He does not save Himself. He gives Himself entirely over into death and hell and the devil’s hands (which are ruined and broken by clamping down on Him!). And there’s room for you next to Him too… “Jesus, remember me…” and He will! Dying with Jesus, forgiven by Jesus, means rising with Jesus above all the fray. “He who loses his life for My sake will ever surely find it.” The pain and loss are fleeting. The Peace, surpassing understanding, guards heart and mind in Christ Jesus, forever. Amen.