It is New Year’s Eve of the Christian year. It is Reign of Christ Sunday. It may seem odd that it is right before a season that reaches its climax by celebrating the birth of this One who reigns. Today, we focus on this One who achieved absolute victory and who reigns today. Both of those conclusions seem strange especially on the surface. Victory and reigning/ruling? Are you crazy? Have you seen the news lately?
You may have noticed that nothing is quite what you expect with Jesus. We have already looked at a couple of the highlighted Scripture passages for Reign of Christ Sunday, Jeremiah 23 and Psalm 46. They both address the craziness, the brokenness of the world with God boldly saying, The ones who have been in charge have messed things up, so I’m going to take care of it. Our primary passage out of Luke 23:33-43 tells us how. Jesus does it without intimidation, fear, or violence. It is through a very unexpected way.
33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified [Jesus] there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.”
36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
38 There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews.
39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
I have a question for you. How many orange cars or trucks have you seen on your last drive of over ten minutes? Did you see any? Think about it for a bit. I will come back to it later.
Reign of Christ Sunday (otherwise known as Christ the King Sunday) can be a challenging description. When we say that Christ reigns, rules, or is our king, it can sound like we are just exchanging an earthly ruler for a heavenly one. When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God being near, he wasn’t talking about a change in a government leader. Jesus was talking about the coming of a completely new way to be in relationship with God and with each other. The ruler does not merely change but the realm, dominion, or domain where we live changes.
It represents an entirely new reality where nothing is the same, therefore it can be difficult to see and imagine. Perhaps, that’s why Jesus frequently used parables to describe what the Kingdom of God is like. Parables often don’t match up directly with reality. They come at the topic from a completely different angle to get us thinking in new ways. So Jesus tells us stories like the strange and generous employer who pays the all people the same whether they worked the whole day or just a couple of hours. The people who worked the whole day are a bit put out, but everyone gets what they were promised. It reminds me of the man next to Jesus who asked to be remembered.
Jesus shows us how relationships will change with the story about the father who is willing to humiliate himself by chasing after both the adult son who ran off and squandered all of his money and the son who stayed home and helped his father, resentful that the younger brother is not being punished or shunned.
How are we supposed to act in the new realm? Jesus tells us through a story about a man wounded on the side of the road. The most honorable and well regarded people ignore him while he is helped by the last person you’d expect. These stories don’t tell us everything, but they give us a clue that the realm of God will be very different.
In today’s Scripture we see how Jesus, Son of God, takes his throne. It’s the last way that you’d expect. It is completely counter-cultural. It was then, and it is now, this idea that this One who was crucified reigns. If you really want to be radical and counter-cultural, be a Christian. The one who leads us was executed as a traitor and revolutionary to the state, one who never lifted a finger or encouraged any kind of violence to anyone, ever. He let himself be taken by the state. It is very strange.
The point of the Roman crucifixion was to shame and humiliate the person. A “tribute” was a parade of honor for a formidable hero. A “crucifixion” was a parade of shame for a powerless loser. That is what the Empire did to the Son of God. He was forced to carry his own cross in a parade of shame.
Jesus, the man, had many opportunities to escape this fate. He could have cut and run, but his didn’t. He didn’t even have to go to Jerusalem. In fact, he told his brothers that he would not, but then he showed up anyway. (John 7:1-10) He deliberately walked into the lion’s den, or maybe viper pit is more apropos. He did it with full knowledge and understanding of what he was walking into. He knew what was going to happen and why it needed to happen to accomplish the rescue mission that he came to earth for in the first place. He knew, and he did it anyway.
As the king, as the servant leader, he is taking ultimate responsibility for everything, taking the world’s sin upon himself. He turns everything around. He eats with and teaches the wrong people. He offers peace and hope to the wrong people, and he warns the wrong people about what was to come.
He is finally proclaimed as king, but it is in mockery. He has his royal cupbearer, but it is a Roman soldier with sour wine. He has a sign over his head announcing his kingship, but it is the criminal charge for which he is suffering this painful and humiliating death. Yet, he demonstrates his true royal position through his prayer and his promise. (NT Wright, Luke for Everyone, pg 284) “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do … Today, you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:34, 42)
It’s crazy. It’s preposterous. It is not the way things are done, yet that is how Jesus did it. In Psalm 46 we said, “[The Lord] makes wars cease to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. He says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God.” (vs. 9-10a) Very often when we hear the famous verse, “Be still, and know that I am God,” it is in the context of be quiet and meditative … Find your secret closet and pray to the Lord kind of thing, but in this scriptural context, it is a bit different. It is more, Be still. Stop your striving. I’ll handle it.
How does he handle it? By taking all of the pain and cruelty of this world onto himself in our place. We are called to respond by recognizing that it is the crucified One that reigns. It was just as strange to people when Paul was writing 1 Corinthians. He writes,
20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor 1:20-24)
What we are called to do, like the criminal on the cross, is recognize Jesus as Lord and also beg to be remembered in this unusual manner of the reign of God.
Now, we end our Christian year in the church by announcing the Kingdom of God and the reign of Christ here in the middle of a world where God’s kingdom can seem so so far away and where it seems on the surface that either nobody rules this chaotic world or that some evil force does.
One of the roles of followers of Jesus and the church as a whole is to stand in contrast to that, to counter what the culture sees. We say that despite appearances there is this grace-filled, forgiving, spirit-transforming lord whose reign is both here and still coming. It is all around us, but still not fully present. It breaks in all of the time, and yet we wait for its fullness. There is this tension that we live in even as we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord.
The problem is that fully understanding and living into this tension can be confusing. It can even lead us to a tension causing headache. How can it be true? How can Jesus reign when things are still so bad?
One of the benefits of being married to a Marine is that I learn new perspectives in describing the state of existence we live in. One of them does a great job of illustrating how this tension of already/not yet looks like in the world. Two of the perspectives are the strategic level and the tactical level. The strategic level is the big picture. It is the level of the overall commanders looking at the totality of a war. They are in big rooms with big maps, and they direct what is going on overall. This is where the war starts and where the truces and treaties are decided upon. The tactical level is the personal level or the people who are fighting in the battle in the individual skirmishes and battles day to day.
Sometimes the front line troops are still fighting at the tactical level even after the war is over at the strategic level. In World War II, the Japanese government had surrendered, but communications had been cut off from many of the Japanese units. Some of them kept fighting for years after the wars was over.
As we enter the colder time of the year, I am reminded of another analogy. Winter officially ends around March 21 of each year. When we’re still having to shovel snow into April and May, it still feels like we are having to struggle with winter. The big picture is that astronomically winter ended on March 21st, but our lived reality is that if the snow is still flying, winter is still going strong.
When we take this over to the spiritual side, God is at the strategic level. Big picture. With Jesus’ act on the cross, the war is over. Satan and death are defeated. Through his resurrection, Jesus can take his throne. That would seem to be the end of the story, but we know that it is not. Our lived reality is that we still have to struggle with evil in the world and evil in ourselves on a daily basis. But, we can see evidence of the Kingdom of God if we are willing to look.
So, we come back to orange vehicles. How many do you remember seeing on your last drive? If you are like me, the answer is none. But now, go out. On your next five or six drives, look for orange vehicles. Or yellow ones. Or another unusual color, and you will see them because they are there.
When it comes to seeing the Kingdom of God in this crazy chaotic world, the criminal on the cross is like a person who sees orange vehicles all the time. Once you start looking for orange vehicles, you will see them all over the place.
Once you start looking for the Kingdom of God, you will see it all the time. The Kingdom of God is where God’s desires, God’s dreams for creation, and God’s will for us rules. It is real, and there is evidence for it all over. The Kingdom is present when people pray. It is present when the Holy Spirit transforms us and others to live the way Jesus told us. It is present when people decide not to cut corners on their taxes, or when someone lightens another’s day by speaking a word of peace. It is present when someone stands up to a bully on behalf of others. You will see pointers to the kingdom in daily life. You will see the person who is helping in the midst of tragedy. You will see the sick healed, the oppressed set free. You will see the Good News, but you have to look.
I am reminded of an incident from when I lived in Washington DC. It is a large chaotic city. In many ways it is nothing like the way it is portrayed in the news as the place with broad halls and the centers of federal government power. It is that, but it is also a bustling city with people in a hurry going … everywhere. They are consumed with their responsibilities and their schedules. People rarely make eye contact or greet each other on the street, not because they’re rude or uncaring, but because they simply don’t have the time, or someone else make take it as a threat or an invitation. This is daily life in the big city.
So, one day I am walking on Dupont Circle, one of the major intersections in Washington DC. There is heavy traffic, both with cars and with people. I am waiting for the light to change to cross the street, and I see a woman lose her footing about 15 yards from me and start to fall. It’s one of those slow-mo moments, where I can see that she is about to come down hard. I hurry over to her, but I’m not the only one. These busy frantic people who are unwilling to meet your eye as they pass you on the street are on the spot providing assistance. By the time I arrive (a matter of seconds), there are already five people helping. Administering first-aid, calling an ambulance, and more. They had it under control, so I left them to it. That’s the Kingdom right there for everyone to see if they’re looking for it.
We have to train ourselves. We have to be on the lookout for those signs of the Kingdom to come. For the One who was slain has begun his reign.
As the criminal said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Thanks be to God, he has remembered each one of us, and we are in his kingdom, now. Today.