King of the Cracks: Luke 23:33-43

27th Sunday of Pentecost: Nov. 20, 2016

Luke 23:33-43 - 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. The Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 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!” The soldiers mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

This Sunday – the last Sunday of Pentecost before we enter the Advent Season – is commonly celebrated as Christ the King Sunday. There are very good biblical and theological reasons for this designation… but it can still be a challenge for 21st Century American Christians to really connect with the imagery. We don’t generally encounter any Kings in our actual lives, and so our most frequent associations with Kings are probably from the fairy tales of our childhoods.

So, as I thought about Christ the King Sunday, I wondered whether a modern fairy tale might help us to engage with the idea of kingship in a less archaic way. So here goes…

Once upon a time, in the far-away land of California, there lived a young girl. She was a good and obedient girl, who loved her family, and who was loved by them in return. But her father had some strange ideas about authority, and math. As he would frequently remind his wife and daughters, when it came to family decisions: each of the three little girls had one vote, their mother had four votes, and he had eight votes. They could all have a vote, but they couldn’t have a say.

And so, the little girl learned that leadership means making unilateral decisions.

This little girl loved God intensely, and her favorite place to be was at church. So much so that she would beg to be taken to church even when she was sick, so as not to miss the music and the message. As she grew, the girl began to feel the insistent tugging of the Spirit’s voice in her heart, calling her to make the ministry of the church her life’s work. But she had never seen a woman in the pulpit, and her church taught her that God had decreed that women must never be in leadership over men.

And so, the growing girl learned that leadership means looking like a leader is supposed to look.

The girl continued to grow, and she discovered that God had given her a nimble and articulate mind that allowed her to excel in school. Her college professors gave her responsibilities and leadership roles, and she enjoyed these opportunities, but there were social costs. A friend once told her that he knew several young men who had told him they might like to date the girl, if she weren’t so smart.

And so, the young woman learned that leadership means the isolation of being unapproachable.

Strong-arm authority, fitting into the status quo system, separation from the masses…we may not know any kings, but we all have experiences of the way that power gets wielded in our lives, whether in our families, our churches, or the world at large. The characteristics of the fairy tale king are not really so foreign to contemporary life experience, are they? Power if a very familiar medium.

But into the frame of this all-too familiar story, today’s gospel breaks in as an utterly disruptive anachronism. Because Jesus is an UTTERLY different kind of king.

Jesus is the kind of king whose “power is made perfect in weakness”[1]…

a king who “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be exploited, but emptied himself”[2]...

And, of course, a king that shows up in our gospel reading today hanging on a cross, forgiving those who are murdering him, and offering love to one whom society has cast out.

In fact, the king we see in this gospel reading violates all the rules for authority that we learn from fairy tales, and from our own lives. And if we are going to worship Christ as king, it is important that we understand what kind of king he is.

  1. First, King Jesus operates from a position of weakness.

Power is the most obvious thing we expect from our kings – power, authority, the ability to impose their will on their subjects. Whether benevolent or otherwise, a king is not a king if he lacks power. This is why so many groups in our gospel story mock Jesus’s position of apparent helplessness. The religious leaders, and the soldiers, and the first criminal all scoff that he should “save himself.” The soldiers even ironically call him “king” and offer him “honor” with the sour wine to underscore his helplessness. “If you are the King of the Jews….” But obviously you aren’t.

And – against all our expectations for a king - Jesus takes it all, without retort, and without rising to the bait. Just as he refused his three temptations in the wilderness at the start of his public ministry, Jesus DOES NOT save himself from death upon the cross.

And so, he violates our expectations of kingship by enduring suffering, rather than wielding his power.

2. Second, King Jesus sees the needs, not the faults, or his attackers.

We expect our leaders to know how to defend themselves - to make a strong case for their own leadership, and to point out all the problems with their opponents. Much as we decry attack ads in the political sphere, we all enjoy a secret smile at the very least when we see a really juicy meme attacking “the other side.”

But when Jesus’ opponents are actually, physically murdering him, he goes the other way. Even without falling to the temptation to save himself, he have claimed the moral high ground of – he could have hung in judgment over them and called them out for their refusal to receive God’s prophet, as he had done before.

But instead, he rejects even that act of defiance, and instead he cries out to God to forgive them. To Forgive Them!

For those of us who have heard this story over and over again it might have lost some of its shock value, but just think about it! He released his fully-defensible right to anger at their abuse, and their injustice. He absolved them of their obvious sin, and said it wasn’t their fault.

“Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

This is not what we expect from our leaders. We expect our leaders to be out front in the fight, sticking it to their enemies, not making excuses and offering forgiveness.

And so, Jesus breaks another expectation of leaders by seeking the good for his enemies.

3. Third, and perhaps most profoundly, Jesus comes close to the broken.

Distance is a hidden requirement we make of powerful, strong, hero leaders. We might think we want them to be accessible, but how can they be? If they are going to meet our pattern of perfection, our requirements of always having an answer for every problem – then they can’t really know what it feels like in our shoes: where life is so often confusing, and overwhelming, and out of our control.

The problem with this expectation of perfection is that it means our ideal king can’t really see us when we are most in need: in our pain and desperation. A king defined by power and strength, in his very inviolability, is unapproachable and removed from our needs.

But Jesus on the cross, the king who shows up in weakness, with forgiveness on his lips, this is a king that even a dying criminal can approach, with the hope that he will be seen. "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

And this is a king who can respond, not just with recognition, but with welcome. A welcome that transcends the shame and torment of crucifixion, to make a promise of Paradise.

Weakness, Forgiveness, Welcome. This is a very different kind of king - any maybe it’s a scary kind.

What happens if our God is not Superman, flying in to save the day when we screw things up?

What happens if God is not a grand puppet master pulling all the strings, but is actually hanging on the cross next to us?

What happens then?

Maybe, what happens then, is that our illusions about what we need from our king crack open, and through that brokenness, we can see the light of the kingdom to which we really belong.

As the late Leonard Cohen said “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

The light of Jesus’s kingship shines through the cracks of our broken expectations for what we think we need.

And that light also lights our way to FOLLOW our true king.

To follow him in doing the work God gives us to do, even if that work is self-sacrifice and what we really want is safety.

To follow him in offering forgiveness to our enemies, whether or not they deserve it.

To follow him in looking into the eyes every other human being, including those we could justifiably judge, and then offering them welcome.

To follow him in living as faithful citizens of HIS kingdom, because he is our true king.

Jesus is not the King the world has taught us to admire, but Jesus is so much better than the fairy tale. Jesus is the king who knows our suffering, and who offers forgiveness, and who promises welcome.

I don’t know about you, but this is the kind of King I need, and kind of King I can really worship. The King who knows what it is to be broken – because only that king can reach into the cracks and let the light in.

Thanks be to God. Amen

[1] 2 Corinthians 12:9

[2] Philippians 2:6-7.

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