Coincidentally this week, or maybe not so coincidentally, the confirmation class studied the second article of the Apostles’ Creed, which starts out, “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,” and goes on to say that Jesus was “crucified under Pontius Pilate”. The textbook asked us to read today’s Gospel passage and then reflect on this question: “If this passage were the only thing that we knew about Jesus, what would we know about him?” It’s an interesting question to consider. The first thing, I think, that is worth noting is that Rome considered Jesus enough of a threat and a wrongdoer to crucify him. The Roman Empire did not just crucify people because they felt like it, or because they didn’t have anything better to do that day. Crucifixion was a brutal form of state-sponsored execution and was reserved for those people who rebelled against Rome, so that Rome could maintain control by showing everyone else what would happen to them if they did the same thing. We also note that Jesus was not the only one crucified there that day, which shows that Rome did not consider Jesus’ case anything special or world-changing. This was just another execution of someone who thought he could overturn the Empire. But then, in the next line, we hear Jesus asking for God to forgive those who were killing him. Again, if we knew nothing else about Jesus other than this short passage, this would be our first alert that this crucifixion, contrary to what Rome thought, was not ordinary. In the next lines of the story, we hear the leaders and the soldiers mocking him; making fun of his claim that he is the Messiah, God’s chosen one. We also note that there is a sign saying that Jesus is the king of the Jews, so at some point, we know that people heard Jesus claiming to be a king. So, with this conflicting information that Luke gives us, who then is this Jesus, whom we celebrate today as both Messiah and King?
Let’s look at the first picture of Jesus we get here today: Jesus as a criminal being executed for rebellion against Rome. We Christians, with our two thousand plus years of history, understand and say that Jesus was not really a criminal, that he had done nothing wrong, as one of the real criminals executed with him says. But on that day and in that time, Jesus was regarded by the Romans as a criminal. Sure, the gospels effectively say that Pontius Pilate was bullied into having Jesus crucified. But in the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, we lay the blame for Jesus’ crucifixion squarely at Pilate’s feet. The buck stops here, as the saying goes. Is it any wonder, then, that in the years after Jesus’ crucifixion, Romans and other Gentiles were very confused and perplexed by this “crazy” sect that worshiped a man who had been executed by the state? As we think about this picture of Jesus as an executed criminal, it makes more sense that we are called to pray for and to visit those who are in prison, and to support those pastors whose calling is in prison ministry, like our own Rob Nedbalek, who works with prisoners in Deer Lodge, Montana. We never know which of those prisoners might have been wrongly convicted. And even for those who have been rightly convicted, we have a God who offers second chances.
After the picture of Jesus as a criminal executed by the state, we move on to the picture of Jesus asking God the Father to forgive those who were killing him, because they did not know what they were doing. Such a scene is typical of martyr stories: martyrs always have something memorable to say before they die for their cause. As an example: back in the days of the American Revolution, there was a man named Nathan Hale who spied on the British for the American army. He was captured by the British Army, and just before he was executed, Hale was supposed to have said, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” That statement has gone down in American legend because it is the statement of one who is willing to give his life for a cause greater than himself. Jesus asking for forgiveness for his enemies is just the kind of thing that a martyr would say: since Jesus taught forgiveness during his ministry, and now he is dying on the cross because of the things he has said and done, he is showing that he is a martyr, or a witness, to that cause of forgiveness. Jesus thus gives witness to how we should follow him: to forgive our enemies, even when they are in the process of killing us.
So far we have Jesus as a criminal and Jesus as a martyr. But what about Jesus as Messiah? The word “Messiah” comes to us from the Hebrew, and it means the same thing as “Christ,” which comes to us from the Greek. Both of these words mean “the anointed one”. There were many men in Jewish history who were called “messiah,” or “anointed one”. But what was this anointed one supposed to do? Traditionally, those who were anointed with oil were those who were set apart to lead, either as king or as a priest. In the picture that Luke gives us today of Jesus being crucified, we see the Jewish leadership mocking Jesus, “He saved others; let him save himself if he the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” Now, again, I’m going to ask that we put aside our Christian conception of what Jesus saving us means; our automatic answer is that Jesus saves us from our sins. But I’m not all that certain that that’s what the people watching Jesus die meant when they used the word “save”. “He saved others.” How? Well, Jesus saved others from dying by healing them from their illnesses and raising them to life when they had already died. He saved others by healing them from demon possession and restoring them to their communities. And perhaps he saved still others from a meaningless life by his teachings.
In Jewish tradition, the world is upside down because people go hungry, and homeless, and because they suffer from injustice. The Messiah, God’s anointed one, is supposed to turn the world right-side up again. From all outward appearances, Jesus dying on the cross has not done that. How does one man dying on a cross in the first century turn the world right side up again? It is perfectly understandable that Jesus would be mocked as he died in excruciating agony. Those who were there that day: Jewish leaders, Roman soldiers, and even his followers who watched from a distance, could not understand what was going on. They did not see a Messiah who would save them by his death. Instead, they mourned the death of their teacher and their Lord.
But this is what Luke is showing us, finally: Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one, set apart to be the king. In the height of irony, Luke shows us those who were mocking Jesus giving him his rightful titles of Messiah and King of the Jews, even though they did not know it. And Luke is showing us that Jesus does not rule like human kings do. Human kings, after all, sit on golden thrones and have absolute power. Jesus’s throne is the cross; his crucifixion is his coronation ceremony. Jesus rules in the completely opposite manner from human beings: his power, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, comes from his weakness, from his death on the cross. Jesus rules us by the mystery of his death on the cross. We don’t understand this, and the power of that contradiction is what keeps us coming back to him over and over: this Jesus, who has ruled us for over two thousand years, does so by dying and by asking us to follow him in dying to the world.
So, what does it mean to have Jesus as our king? A survey done in 2015 by the Barna Group asked the question, “Which comes first in your life: God, family, or country?” The top response, at 62%, was family first, followed by “being an American,” at 52%, and then religious faith at 38%. And this question was asked of people who said that they are Christian. Now, the percentage of people who said they were practicing Christians and who put their faith first was higher than non-practicing Christians, but these results are still pretty disturbing. I believe that all of us need to reflect on what it truly means, and what it should mean, to us to have Jesus as our Messiah and as our king. If he is truly our king, then perhaps we should be better at following his example and die to ourselves so that we might live for others. The world might be a better place if more of us Christians were better at doing that.
The confirmation textbook also asked the kids, in this week’s lesson, to draw a pie chart of how much of their time is spent with their various activities, and how much time they spend on their spiritual lives: prayer, coming to worship, Bible study, etc. The kids noted that all of those everyday activities that consume their lives: school and extracurricular activities, for example, took up much more time than the time they spent on their spiritual lives. I have a feeling that, if we all did the same kind of pie chart, we would have similar results. Making Jesus king of our lives isn’t just lip service: it’s a full-time occupation. Today is the last Sunday of the church year, and next Sunday marks the beginning of a new one with the first Sunday of Advent. So let’s make a New Year’s resolution: to examine our lives, to ask forgiveness of Jesus for not allowing him to rule in our lives, and to make a concerted effort to live believing that Jesus’ death on the cross does have an effect on how we live our daily lives. Amen.