The people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at [Jesus], saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’ One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
Listening to this gospel lesson appointed for today is not unlike watching a movie on a DVD when you skip ahead a bunch of tracks to see what happens late in the story. The scene captured in this gospel lesson from Luke is at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. Using this DVD image, I want to jump ahead, then backwards, then ahead again to put this gospel lesson into a context of “real time.”
Next Sunday is the beginning of the season of Advent. The word “advent” derives from the Latin, adventus, which means arrival. Advent anticipates the arrival of the Messiah, the Christ, who comes to us not as a reigning king but as a little child of Bethlehem. Now the name “Messiah” comes from the Hebrew, māshīah, which means “the anointed one.” The name “Christ” comes from the Greek, christos, which means the same thing: “the anointed one.” And so, the anticipated Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one, comes to us in the face and form of the child Jesus. This is what we believe as Christians. It will take a long time, many years, for Jesus to grow into his destiny as the Messiah, the Christ. He will have to live a good while to find his voice and to find his way. When he finally does begin his public ministry, we see how it is that he will be the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one.
Being anointed happens for two reasons. In the scriptures, down through history, and into the present day, anointing happens for two reasons. One reason is medicinal. Wounds are anointed. If you are tending to a burn or a tear to the skin, the inflammation or laceration is anointed with healing oil, with a salve. Now the English verbs “to salve” and “to save” come from the same etymological root: to salve and to save. It’s also the same root in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin: to salve and to save. (You’re probably getting the picture that this story line weaves together. It does.) So here’s one picture of the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one, whom we as Christians come to see as Jesus. He is anointed because he is come to salve our wounds and to save our souls. Which is precisely where Jesus begins his public ministry – thirty years or so from his birth. When Jesus begins his public ministry, his first words, his “political platform,” is to claim that he will fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”i
You can understand why one of the titles given to the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one, is the Great Physician, the healer of body and soul. Healers anoint. In the scriptures, down through history, into the present day, anointing happens for the sake of healing. The other reason anointing happens in the scriptures, down through history, and into the present day, is to designate the enthronement of a monarch. When Queen Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1952, she was anointed, as will be her successor, so in the days of old. When the grown-up Jesus claims for himself the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, we also hear the words of a king about the nature of his reign. It is about justice and mercy. As he says for himself, he will “proclaim release to the captives…and let the oppressed go free…”
And this brings us back to real time, this day which the church commemorates as Christ the King. We hear in this gospel lesson from Luke where exactly Jesus’ reign has gotten him: to the cross, of all places. Reigning from the cross, to which he has traveled riding on a donkey, which rather inglorious. So what do we make of all this? Several things come to mind:
- First, we hear in Jesus’ opening words of public ministry – his platform – that he has come to save and salve us. It’s Jesus’ presumption that the reason we show up is not out of virtue but out of need. We are broken people – broken up over all kinds of things: what is happening in our bodies; what is happening in our memories, our history, our relationships, be they with friends, or family of origin, or other loved ones. Jesus comes to us presuming we have a need to be salved in our wounds and saved from our own versions of imprisonment and inner bondage. I greatly admire a number of friends and acquaintances who are in 12-Step programs. If you ever have occasion to attend a 12-Step meeting, you discover that those in attendance introduce themselves by name and by need. They name their need, and that need (not their strengths or virtues but need) is what they find in common with one another. Jesus presumes this very sort of thing. We are persons of great need, and that is Jesus has come and why we respond. Don’t ever be embarrassed about your need. That’s why we’re all here. Prior to my coming to the monastery, I served under a wonderful parish priest who had his own version of what was then a popular school of psychology, “Transactional Analysis” – I’m okay; you’re okay. My rector, Father Lundberg, said Jesus’ version of Transactional Analysis is, “I’m not okay and you’re not okay, and that’s okay!”
- Secondly, we learn about the nature of Jesus’ reign as this so-called King. His reign is characterized by justice-making and mercy. These are his opening words and these are his closing words, what we hear in today’s gospel lesson. His last words are to another person condemned to die who hangs on a cross at Jesus’ side. We hear this condemned man beg Jesus for mercy, and Jesus makes no interrogation of him. Jesus doesn’t press this condemned man whether he is getting what he deserves by hanging on a cross. Jesus finds no need to assess whether this man’s wrongdoing is counterbalanced by other factors in his lifetime. The condemned man asks Jesus for mercy, and Jesus immediately says “yes, of course.” Mercy is the prevailing reason why Jesus speaks and acts. It is about manifesting God’s mercy. And so for us who are his followers. When we pray momentarily the prayer that Jesus taught us – what we call The Lord’s Prayer – we are going to pray about Jesus’ kingdom. We will pray that Jesus’ kingdom come to earth as it shall be in heaven. That kingdom is fore-mostly informed by mercy, tender loving mercy for one another. And when there is a call for justice – whether it is with those condemned by courts of justice or condemned but counsels of injustice (whether state or private) – justice, in Jesus’ kingdom, is always melded by mercy. So it must be for us, as we navigate our way through life, as we make our way through the day.
- Lastly, about this season of Advent that we anticipate beginning next Sunday. The church season of Advent, anticipating the coming of the Messiah, the Christ child Jesus at Christmas, is not an historical reenactment. The point is not simply to dress up like in the days of old and remember ancient words, and feel good about ourselves because we have roots. The point of the season of Advent is not about the past; the point of Advent is about the past informing the future and the present. Advent is a time preparation to receive the Messiah, the Christ, not just in the past, and not just in the future – December 25 – but always. It’s something like what I learned as a Boy Scout, to be prepared, to be prepared always. Advent simply reawakes us, hones our awareness, gets us attentive for how the Messiah, the Christ, comes to us all the time, every day. And I would say that what we are doing today, gathering here today, is a essential piece to our own preparedness. When we are baptized (or when we renew our own baptism), we are asked: “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?”ii This actually is what we are doing here this morning as we gather together: continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers. Why that is so important is that our faith as followers of Jesus is very personal – a very personal relationship with Jesus – but it is not private. We need one another. We need our own needs to be shared by one another, with whom, through whom we will be reminded of Jesus’ coming, and coming again, and coming again every day to us. Advent is something like a tune-up to help remind us how this is so, always.
Here we are this morning on the feast day of Christ the King. We are gathered on American soil, far, far from first-century Palestine. Americans don’t do royalty. For that matter, Americans don’t very easily do neediness. Jesus presents a very different world view. He shows us the nature of leadership – his own leadership and the nature of the leadership we model as his followers, at home and abroad. And he presumes that we show up in need. And keep showing up in need, taking Jesus at his word that he is with us and that he will continue to come to us not just from the past but also from the future, and always in the present, his real presence.
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