Why are we talking about Jesus’ crucifixion this week?
First of all, there’s the post-election shock in the USA to be dealt with (whether the result be happiness or sadness). Or walk through just about any store at the local mall or drop by the Home Depot and you can clearly see that we’re running out of time to get a truly great pre-Christmas shopping season bargain. The idea of waiting until Black Friday is so 20th century! The crucifixion can wait until Eastertime, can’t it?
Where are our priorities people?
Of course, it does make sense to note that this is the final Sunday in the Christian calendar and that this completes Year C in the three-year cycle (we start over with Year A and Advent next week). But who among us really organizes our life–our spiritual life anyway–according to the Christian calendar and the Revised Common Lectionary?
Still, maybe it’s not a bad thing at all before we leap into a “sweet little baby Jesus in the manger” mood that we stop and take a look at the bigger picture, how God’s forest will eventually turn out once all the trees have grown to maturity.
The dominant image in Luke’s Gospel passage is three crosses erected on the craggy rock known as Golgotha. In the middle is Jesus. Note the sign nailed above his head by order of Pontius Pilate: King of the Jews. Perhaps it was meant to be sarcastic but we read it today as ultimate irony, for this man really was “king” of the greatest “kingdom” the world will ever know. Yes, I know that those two words are products of a male-dominant society, so substitute “reign” or something else for “kingdom” if you want.
We can’t forget, though, that there were two other crosses. Each was occupied by a convicted felon. Both knew they were guilty and deserved their fate. One of them demanded a sign from Jesus to prove he was Messiah–to save himself and others with him. The other, however, rebuked his fellow criminal and asked Jesus for forgiveness (“Remember me when you enter your kingdom”). So what we have are three quite different crosses: a cross of rejection, a cross of repentance, and a cross of redemption.
One of my favorite authors, Barbara Brown Taylor, once wrote that it takes three crosses to make a church. Jesus, the man in the middle, and those of us, dying sinners, around him trying to figure out what to do with this “king.” Some of us want to see miraculous signs (whether that be physical healing or churches packed to overflowing with the faithful and obedient). We live in a skeptical world, after all, and nothing will show the power of God (and the church?) quite so much as masses of people united and organized to move mountains.
Others among us know just what sinners and unworthy souls we are–and that the way forward out of that abyss is by God’s power through Jesus Christ. We can’t earn a place in Paradise or the Kingdom or the “Reign of God” or whatever else we want to call it. That’s up to God. All the pleading and praying we do is a sideshow to the real deal.
The psalmist understood this, as evidenced by this week’s selection of Psalm Number 46. A good many of the psalms are, in fact, prayers. They start out with “O God…” in one form or another. Psalm 46 is one of only two that begin simply with “God….” Thus the psalmist makes a statement about God and God’s nature and our relationship with God:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear….
With all the talk and striking imagery we’ll encounter in the coming weeks of baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, shepherds and wise men, and everything else it’s good to remember the “rest of the story,” where things are ultimately headed. It’s why the first words out of angels’ mouths to frightened shepherds were “Fear not!” (Come to think of it, this is not a bad post-election meditation, either.)
Jeremiah proclaimed to a frightened, forlorn people in exile that God had not given up on them and would eventually “raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing….” God kept that promise, to that ancient exiled people and to all of humankind, beginning with a baby and a manger, yes, but in fullness with three crosses, an empty tomb, and the reality of a kingdom the world cannot fully see or understand.
All because God chose.