“Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” Luke 23:39
We begin at the end of the story. It’s strange, I know. It’s hard enough as we enter this time of year to stay focused on the story of the birth of Jesus. The whole cast of characters – baby, Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds – can easily get lost in the lights and the shopping and the 427th time you’ve heard Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You.” But today, as we close out one church year and look to the next, the gospel takes us right to the cross.
I don’t do a lot of decorating at home because I’m not there very much at this time of year. But one of the decorations that always gets unpacked is my nativity set. A colleague in South Carolina gave it to me years ago when she was my Secret Santa, and it has traveled with me ever since. I arrange the pieces right where I can see them every day – baby, Mary, Joseph, angel, shepherds, cows, sheep. (I save the wise men until Epiphany like the church nerd that I am.)
It occurred to me this week that I’ve seen countless variations of the nativity set, but I’ve never seen a crucifixion set. No one sets up a display in the living room with a hill and three crosses. We don’t much want to arrange figurines of the bloodthirsty soldiers or the crying women or the trembling disciples. We certainly don’t want to place the tortured body of Jesus there – with the wound in his side, nails in his hands and feet.
And yet – and yet – there he is. This is our King. Our King: dying, bleeding, broken.
Even if we did have such a display, the part that would be hardest to capture is the mockery.
There’s the inscription over Jesus’ head: “This is the King of the Jews.” It’s a statement dripping with scorn. How could an actual king end up in such a position?
Here’s what the leaders say: “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” If he is the Messiah. They don’t believe for a minute that Jesus is the chosen one of God. All they know is that Jesus has attracted a lot of attention. He’s healed people and fed people and brought back a couple of people from the dead, and he’s become too much of a threat to ignore any longer. The powers of this world do not know what to do with Jesus, and so they kill him.
Then there are the soldiers: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” They somehow manage to combine the doubt about his identity – If you are… – with the scorn of the inscription – “If you are the King of the Jews…” From a soldier’s point of view, a real king would do anything to save himself from this torment. A real king would fight back, would summon an army to his defense. A real king would not have gotten arrested in the first place.
Even the criminal hanging joins in: “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” The criminal must be thinking: What good is being God’s chosen one if you can’t get yourself out of this situation and help me out too?”
The people just watch. They watch. I’m guessing this isn’t how they expected the story to end either.
It’s only the second criminal who seems able to see some part of who Jesus really is. He says: “We are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” None of the others get it right, but this criminal knows that he is witnessing the execution of an innocent man.
I just started watching the third season of The Crown on Netflix, which picks up with the life of Queen Elizabeth starting in 1964. No longer is she struggling to grow into the role of queen that she was forced to assume at the young age of 25. She’s older now, more confident. The current season opens with a headshot of the queen in silhouette, viewed from behind as she’s wearing her crown. It’s a striking image of royal power as we expect it to look. When the newly elected Prime Minister Wilson comes to meet with the queen for the first time, he’s instructed in all the protocols: Bow your head at the neck. The first time you address her, say “Your Majesty,” but after that say “ma’am.” Only shake her hand if she extends her hand first. Don’t sit down until she does. Royal power demands deference.
In this life Jesus did not fit anyone’s notion of a king. There were no fancy robes or royal jewels, no armies to summon and send into war, no throne from which to issue proclamations. His only crown was a crown of thorns.
But Jesus reveals power in a different way. Jesus shows us power in the form of forgiveness. He looks at his tormenters from the cross and says: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
Jesus shows us a power beyond death. Jesus says to that second criminal: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” I said earlier that we begin at the end of the story – except it’s not really the end, is it? On the other side of the cross is an empty tomb. That empty tomb says that none of the things that make this life so very hard – death, grief, illness, pain, suffering, conflict, worry, addiction, struggle – none of those will have the final word. Remember all that mockery, all of those voices that taunt Jesus with “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”? Well, that’s exactly what Jesus does. He saves us. He gives us hope. He gives us life.
We’re all about to spend some time around Thanksgiving tables. Many of you will be missing people who used to be at those tables. Some of you may be dreading the drama that inevitably unfolds when family gets together. Even as we gather in gratitude and love, our own human brokenness can get in the way. No amount of screen time or football-watching can distract us from that part of ourselves.
In those moments – and in every moment where we feel pulled into empty power struggles or pulled under by despair – know this: We have a king who is far more powerful than all of that. We have a king who shows us how to forgive in the worst of circumstances. We have a king who always remembers us – in this life and the next. We have a king who saves us from bitterness, from temptation, and from death itself.
So let’s live as followers of that king, transformed by the new life that only he can bring. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” Luke 20:38
Dennis Volstad of Ripon, Wisconsin, had a surprise for the people who came to his funeral. A short time after that funeral, each of those in attendance received an unexpected letter from Dennis’ attorney. [i] It seems that Dennis, a quiet man who owned the local dry cleaner, had amassed something of a small fortune during his life. In his will he left this provision: The sum of $500,000 was to be divided equally among the people who attended his funeral. 270 people had shown up, so each of them received $1851.
That gift of money came as a complete shock to the people who were at the funeral. And while it’s not a vast sum, I wonder what it made possible for the people who received it. A trip they’d wanted to take? The payment of a bill they were really worried about? A doctor’s visit they’d been putting off?
Don Jorgenson was the executor of the estate, and he mentioned a detail that I found both beautiful and heartbreaking. Among Dennis’ papers, Don found Dennis’ New Year’s resolutions. They were: (1) Live a life that is pleasing to God and (2) Find true friends – and not be lonely.
I love the idea of Dennis’ generosity breaking into people’s lives from beyond the grave in ways that they never expected. I’m also haunted by his loneliness in this life – and the missed opportunities to have the kind of relationships he longed for.
The reporter who shared the piece closed with this reminder: “Although a funeral is an important time to show someone you care, there is one time better – sooner.”
Dennis’ story gets at a question that arises from today’s gospel. What does life after death have to do with life now?
The Sadducees come to Jesus with a ridiculous question. They set up a hypothetical situation based on a practice called levirate marriage, in which the brother of a deceased man was obligated to marry his brother’s widow. There’s some scholarly debate about how widespread this practice actually was, but to the extent that it existed, it did serve as a kind of protection and economic support for widows. As we’ve discussed before, widows in the ancient world would otherwise have had few practical or financial resources for survival.
But the Sadducees spin out a wild scenario – a woman who is married off not just once to her dead husband’s brother, but again and again and again as one after another, her husbands die. By the time the seventh one kicks the bucket in this bizarre tale, the Sadducees get to their question: “In the resurrection…whose wife will the woman be?”
The Sadducees are a group of religious leaders who, unlike their counterparts the Pharisees, do not believe in resurrection. Which begs the question: Why are they even asking Jesus about this if they don’t believe in resurrection? It seems clear that they are trying to get Jesus to say something controversial on the record.
And what does Jesus say? First, he says that resurrection is real. He doesn’t give us many details about what that time looks like, but he speaks with the assumption that it exists.
Jesus also says in his own way that our categories in this life are limited. They have their place, but they have their limits. If you’re single, be single. If you’re married, be married. Both can be sacred paths. But we do not know what those paths look like beyond death. That might be unsettling, but it’s a reminder that our human imagination is limited when it comes to what God makes possible. The best we can do is imagine resurrection as the best version of this life, but God’s imagination is so much bigger and bolder than our own.
Think about the woman in the situation that the Sadducees describe. Thankfully she seems to be hypothetical, but imagine if she were real, and she happened to be there listening what Jesus says to the Sadducees. Jesus would be saying that in the next life she would be free of the human laws and traditions that had so confined her in this life. No more being passed from one man to the next regardless of what she wanted. No more being defined by whether or not she’d given birth to children. No more fear about her economic insecurity. To that woman Jesus’ words would have sounded like blessed freedom.
So much about life after death is unknown to us, but here’s what Jesus tells us to trust. It is in God’s hands. God is the God of the living, and to God all of us are alive, even those who have already died. And God desires something more for all of us, something far beyond what this life offers.
Here’s the challenge for us today. If we follow a God who is a God of the living, how do we make sure that all people have a chance at living fully before they die? If God is about resurrection, how might we be about life breaking into death on this side of the grave? We do it by making sure that people like Dennis don’t feel lonely in this life. We make sure that no one goes hungry in this life. We care for the planet that has been entrusted to us in this life. We provide medical care for people’s minds and bodies in this life – including for our veterans who have faithfully served this country. We honor the inherent dignity of each human being in this life.
Today we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Baptism for Breana. We remember that in baptism we are joined to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that nothing can ever change that. Breana belongs to God. No matter what other identities she holds in this life – spouse, parent, friend, whatever profession she might choose, whatever artistic or athletic endeavors she might pursue – she will always be a child of God first and foremost. Today we pray that God’s promises to us in baptism shape the promises we make to the people around us in this life.
I’ve been reading a new memoir by Sister Helen Prejean.[ii] She’s the nun who served as a spiritual advisor to death row inmates and became a fierce advocate against the death penalty. The movie Dead Man Walking is based on her work.
At one point very early in Sister Helen’s training she writes a paper in which she explores what it really means to live one’s faith. It leads her to ponder questions of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. She knows that resurrection is at the core of the Christian faith, but she asks: “What does that mean?”
Maybe the mystery of life coming from death is not only about end-of-life-on-earth death but also part of our ordinary experiences of loving and losing, of feeling our life is taking shape, getting purpose, drive, zing, only to plummet, sometimes, into confusion, darkness, and despair. Soar and plummet, soar and plummet…What does it all mean?…Whom do I love?…Who really loves me?…Time is running out.
Eventually Sister Helen says this: “We’re talking resurrection? Meaning life after death? What about life before death?”
So what about life before death? The God of the living calls us to live and to love in such a way that all people might know life abundantly.
Resurrection begins now. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ