Luke 23 33-43 Col. 1: 11-20
Having spent most of my adult life working in healthcare, both in secular positions and latterly as a chaplain, I am somewhat unused to being on the other side of the bed so to speak! These last few weeks have given me a new perspective on what it means to be a recipient of care rather than a giver – and I should at this point say how much I have appreciated all the prayers and good wishes that have surrounded me. I have been very conscious of my vulnerability and also of the way in which not only God has held me but also of the opportunities that he has provided through which I have been able to gently share my faith. One moment that will stick in my mind for some time was when I met the surgeon responsible for my care for the first time. She was a very a brisk and capable woman and as she filled in the requisite form, she asked me whether I was in employment and if so, what my occupation was. I do love that question because nine times out of ten the gasp and look of surprise on people’s faces when they find out I am a priest never ceases to amuse me. On this occasion there was a collective ooo really that came from the consultant, two nurse and medical student (all female I should add) certainly lightened the atmosphere as well of course as the chuckle from Martha, my daughter who had accompanied me to the appointment! I don’t know what they all expect a Church of England vicar to look like but it clearly isn’t me! But God was in that moment and it was good to be able to share something of my ministry with them. I don’t know what that might stir in them, that is God’s business not mine, but I do know that for a few minutes, four women wanted to know what being in Christian ministry meant and how my faith underpinned my life. It’s very easy for us to make assumptions about what we think people in particular roles should look like or how they should behave. When it comes to those in authority we understandably set the bar very high in terms of what a leader should be and in the ancient world the word King conjured up the ultimate image of power and opulence, of strength and authority. It may well have struck you that this is the first time in 70 years that we have celebrated Christ the King when there has been a king on the throne of this nation. I wonder if our King is what people expect a King to look like? At the time that Luke recounts in his Gospel writings the Jewish people were steeped in a history where Kings commanded mighty armies, where success was defined by the extent of the land that they conquered and ruled over. But that was all a distant memory as the land they had fought so hard to retain over centuries was occupied by the hated Romans.
In those days the Jews longed for God to send them a mighty leader who would destroy their enemies and restore them as a people of power. The king they desired would radiate physical strength and be surrounded by a powerful army. The king they desired would overthrow their oppressors through brute force and would restore them as a people to be feared and admired. The king they desired could not have been further in character and demeanour than the one that God knew they needed. Instead of sending a warrior King to His people he sent a Servant King, His only beloved Son, Jesus. Rather than a jewel encrusted throne on which a King is expected to sit this King hangs on a wooden cross. He is not venerated and bowed down to but mocked and humiliated. He is not dressed in beautiful clothes but barely clothed at all. He does not dine on the choicest food and drink the finest wine, He is given sour vinegar to slake his thirst. There is no glory to be witnessed in the bleak wilderness where our Gospel reading is set. There is pain and suffering, there is fear and anguish. The vision of kingship that the Jewish people had clung to for centuries is shattered by the action of total outpouring that Jesus invokes through his death. This is not a king who demands everything from his subjects, this is a King who gives everything, who makes the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of those He loves regardless of whether they reciprocate that love. If we look below the surface of what is described, if we are prepared to forget our preconceptions of what power and authority means, the true vision of Kingship is laid out before us. Jesus turns all our human constructs about what should happen upside down. He compels us to re-imagine our whole belief system when it comes what a King truly is. Jesus does not curse those who harm Him. he does not call down the might of heaven to destroy his persecutors. Instead, he asks His Heavenly Father to forgive them. He radiates love not hate. He does not leap down from the Cross, unharmed, His body unmarked and restored to perfection. He bears unspeakable pain. He endures the agony of the cruellest of executions. Even when he is raised from the dead, he continues to bear the scars of that ordeal so that we are reminded of what he was prepared to undergo for our sakes, to enable us to be restored to a right relationship with our Father in Heaven. And even as He hangs there in the burning heat, being taunted by those who are unable to see what is happening before their very eyes, He brings another to faith. One of those sentenced to die alongside Him has his heart opened and at the very hour of his death is able to accept Jesus as King – “remember me when you come into your kingdom” he says.
We don’t know what crimes the two men who flank Jesus have committed in order to be sentenced to this cruel form of execution and we don’t need to know. It is not our judgment that matters, it is that of God, and in Jesus’s response to the man who shares his ordeal we are shown that whatever sins we may have committed in the past, if we come to Jesus with a fervent desire for forgiveness and with insight into our failings, we too will be invited to join Him in paradise. If we turn to Paul’s letter to the Colossians, we find a beautiful description of who Jesus really is – the image of God, the firstborn of all creation, the head of the body, the church. Paul reminds us of the true reason that God sent his precious son to the world he had created in perfection but which we have corrupted and spoiled. He reminds us that we were alienated from the father who gave us life, not through his actions but through our behaviour. He reminds us of the hope that we have through reconciliation with God, reconciliation that comes through faith and repentance, through belief in the atoning act of Jesus’s death and resurrection. Jesus is indeed the king of kings. He has rescued us from the oppression of evil, to through physical force but through love and forgiveness. He has brought us out of darkness into radiant light.
Today we celebrate his kingship. As the liturgical year draws to a close, we acknowledge the glory of our Saviour, we name him as our King, we submit to his authority in our lives. Next week we will light the first candle on our advent ring and begin the period of anticipation as we wait for the birth of a tiny child in a dirty outhouse surrounded by the most unlikely of attendants. From the moment of his conception within an ordinary young woman, Jesus takes all our preconceptions of what being a King is and shatters them. He offers us an alternative vision of how a King should behave and it is for each of us to discern what that means in our own lives. Jesus calls us to be his subjects and to submit to his will. He does not coerce us to follow him but if we respond to his call, we must be prepared to embrace his kingdom values. Unlike rulers in times gone by, he doesn’t require us to pay disproportionate taxes but he does require us to be generous in our response to the most vulnerable in our community. He doesn’t ask us to prostrate ourselves before him, but he does ask us to model his example of unconditional love and acceptance of those we find it hardest to love.
He doesn’t set himself apart from us, he walks alongside us, he shares our joys and our sorrows. When we find ourselves exhausted by the challenges that life sometimes throws us, he carries us, he takes on our burdens and gives us rest. Christ is indeed our King, He is our Lord and our Saviour.
He has given us the gift of eternal life and the opportunity to be part of the mission that he began during his earthly ministry. He calls us all, he doesn’t care what we look like, what other people’s perceptions of us are. He calls us because he loves us in all our brokenness, despite our many flaws. He calls us because he knows who we truly are and how we can be transformed by his presence in our lives. It is never too late. It wasn’t too late for the man who hung dying on the cross next to Jesus and it isn’t too late for any of us. Jesus is always there, always ready to embrace us, to forgive us, to welcome us into his family. That is the sort of king we all need. That is the sort of king to whom we continually offer our praise and worship.
Thanks be to God