Sermon – King of the Jews

Luke 23:33-43

Sermon preached in Bishopton Parish Church, on 21st November 2010, the twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost – Christ the King.

Today is the last Sunday in the Christian Lectionary Calendar before Advent, when we start preparing for Christmas. And as we think about what’s coming in the next few weeks, I’m sure everyone is trying to figure out how they can buy the most gifts with the least amount of money possible. And we don’t do that because we’re tight for cash; we do it because we do our best to resist the temptation of giving into consumerism…

I know that toy stores will become dangerous territories for the coming weeks! When I walk into a toy store I cannot help but be amazed at the variety of toys available these days. You can buy a costume and be anyone you want, from a Star Wars trooper to Robin Hood and King Kong. I still remember when I was a child I had to build my swords from wooden sticks, and my shields from discarded cardboard. There was no ‘made in China’ sticker within a mile of the toys I played with.

But that didn’t stop me from being fully immersed into the role of a powerful warrior king who led his army into victory after victory against his enemies, riding on a white horse and waving his sword without fear. I laughed in the face of danger, there was no army big enough to scare me, and I just knew I was powerful enough to annihilate any threat to my kingdom.

I remember reading stories and watching countless films about heroes and warrior kings who saved their countries from foreign threats. The history we were taught in school focused on heroic princes and kings who defeated ridiculously large armies with only a few thousand men. Every nation has these stories. We just love our heroes! We want to either grow up to be like them, or marry them! No little girl dreams of marrying the stable boy. They all want the prince!

And I know what you’re going to say: ‘Oh, these are children’s fantasies!’ But actually, this expectation for a powerful warrior king to save the day and lead the nation into victory and freedom is not exclusive to the day dreaming of 6 year olds. Perhaps the expectation is not expressed in such romantic and militaristic terms, but people of all ages still believe that the terrible situation they find themselves in could be turned around if only the right person would intervene and save the day.

For many people in the world and for most of us, the hope for release from whatever predicament we find ourselves in always comes from an external source. We tend to assign such messianic roles to different people at different times, depending on whatever issue we are dealing with.

If we are in terrible financial debt, all we need is someone who would give us the money to right it off, or at least give us a rock solid solution to emerge from it. If we are terribly sick, all we need is a genius doctor who knows exactly what medication to prescribe or what operation to perform, and make us whole again.

The whole industry of advertisement takes advantage of this mindset, telling us daily that if we want to solve various problems in our lives, all we have to do is to buy a certain product or service, and we will be alright. The solution is always ‘out there’ for us.

In many ways, this is what the Jews expected Jesus to be for them. They found themselves under Roman occupation and oppression and they needed a Messiah, a saving king who would lead them in a battle against their oppressors. They needed a liberator, a warrior king who would defeat their enemies and free their country.

And here we have Jesus dying on the cross. What a major disappointment he must have been for them! They must have been baffled by what was happening. Surely, dying by the hand of the enemy in a shameful public execution was not in the job description of a Messiah!

No nation under occupation wants to see their hope of liberation being executed in their sight, while their enemies are mocking them. The sign placed by the Romans above the cross was meant to mock the Jews, not just Jesus. “You wanted a king? Here he is! Behold your saving king! He can’t even save himself!…”

I know it is easy for us to judge the Jews today and to say they were so wrong, and they misunderstood everything. But if we put ourselves in their place, under foreign occupation, we may have been just as baffled as they were. Jesus was revolutionary, but not in a way that they expected. Jesus is revolutionary today, but not in a way that people often expect.

Other kings learned how to wield a sword and how to lead an army into battle from an early age. Jesus learned how to speak to ordinary people and engage them in conversations about life.

Other kings wore expensive clothes and rode on white horses, marching in front of their armies against their enemies. Jesus owned simple clothes, he rode a donkey and taught people to reach out to the lost and marginalized.

Other kings extended and protected their kingdoms by using force and military power. Jesus established his kingdom by preaching forgiveness and reconciliation, even for their enemies.

Other kings expected their subjects to serve them and die for them in their battles. Jesus was a servant to his disciples and sacrificed his own life for their sake.

Jesus was a revolutionary king. He was a different kind of king. As he was being crucified, this king did not cry out to his Father to send armies of angels to wipe out the Romans, but instead he prayed that the Father may forgive them. By choosing not to retaliate against his executioners, Jesus inaugurated a new way of breaking the cycle of violence, by refusing to use the same methods as his opponents used.

The bystanders could not understand, and neither could the criminal on the cross next to him. He asked Jesus: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” They couldn’t understand why a saving king, a Messiah wouldn’t crush his enemies, which is what they thought salvation was about.

But what they misunderstood, and what we often continue to misunderstand is that the solution is not external, but internal. What we need is not someone from the outside to come and fix our problems for us. What we need is someone to lead us on an internal journey of transformation.

The problem of violence cannot be solved by more violence. The Jews expected a Messiah who would wipe out their enemies. Instead, they got a Messiah who reached out into the depths of their beings and exposed the source of the problem.

When the other criminal on the cross admitted that he deserved death for his crimes while Jesus was innocent, in that moment he reached the salvation he needed. Instead of looking at Jesus as a potential rescuer from his enemies, he looked at Jesus as a rescuer from his own darkness. That criminal on the cross understood more about Jesus and his kingdom than all the religious leaders who were mocking him below. He understood that Jesus was a different kind of king.

It is perhaps surprising that after two thousand years of Christianity we still tend to misunderstand the kind of King Jesus is. We still expect him to somehow come down from heaven and solve our problems from the outside. We still expect him to swoop down like an eagle from heaven and handle our enemies for us.

We are having a terribly tough time understanding that the salvation which Jesus brings is not external. He never promised to solve our problems for us. Humanity will never grow unless it assumes responsibility for its own problems. The salvation that Jesus brings is internal. The world will not be changed by some kind of external agent swooping down from on high and then leaving when the job is done. The world will be changed by the people living in it who are transformed from the depths of their beings into a new way of being.

We should never assume that such a transformation from the inside out will make us safe or popular in the world. It did cost Jesus his life. When we begin to change from the inside out, we also become revolutionary as we begin to oppose injustice and violence in our world.

It does not come naturally to many of us to choose the way of peace when everyone else is obsessed with revenge, with settling scores and waging war.

But after we have encountered and experienced the way of peace that Jesus preached, lived and died for, we cannot go back. When we understand that we are all empowered by Jesus to counteract the destructive systems of our world, by living lives of non-violence and reconciliation, then we discover the true value of the salvation at work in us.

That is why we celebrate our King and Saviour! His name be praised forever. Amen.

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