Why are we talking about Jesus’ crucifixion this week?
First of all, here in the USA we have televised hearings into the impeachment of President Donald Trump. In Hong Kong student protests against anti-democratic “reforms” have turned more violent. In the Middle East hundreds of thousands of refugees (most notably right now, Syrian Kurds, but certainly not limited to that sad, distressing situation). Speaking of refugees, we need look no farther than the US/Mexican border.
Walk through just about any store at the local mall (yes, some folks apparently still do that in our online age) or drop by Costco 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 the actual Black Friday is so 20th century! There are Hallmark Christmas movies to watch, and I suppose we could give a little time out to observe Thanksgiving (Canadians wisely do that in October, by the way). The crucifixion can wait until Easter, can’t it?
Where are our priorities people?
I need to note this coming Sunday is the final one in the Christian calendar, which completes Year C in the three-year cycle (we start over with Year A and Advent on December 1). 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.
My most recent book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, is up on Amazon in both print and e-book formats: 161-page Book ; Kindle e-book. The ancient Hebrew prophets can serve as guides for modern-day prophetic communities to engage in actions for peace and social justice. Each of the 10 chapters includes questions for reflection and discussion, making this great for class use. My previous book What Was Paul Thinking? is also available on Amazon in both print and Kindle e-book editions.