“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