Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Miserable Failure as a King

“If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” The sign they tacked above his head while he hung on a cross read:  “This is the King of the Jews.” The thief crucified next to him wanted Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom. And yet, never once did Jesus refer to himself as a king. Not here, not anywhere.

The whole idea of Jesus being a king never came from him. It came from people who lived in a world where the most powerful among them were kings. If you remember the story of God’s people in the Old Testament, you may recall how God led them out of slavery in Egypt into the Promised Land. And, along the way, God formed them into a nation.

In the beginning, God chose people like Moses to lead his people. We can read about this period in the book of Judges. But almost from the get-go, God’s people were whining that they wanted to have a king, like all the other nations. God advised against it, telling them that would be a huge mistake. But they wouldn’t stop whining, so finally God gave them a king. But no king ever solved their problems. In many respects, kings only added to their problems.

Why is it that people long for a king? It’s puzzling. I can understand what’s in it for the king. But what’s in it for the people? Even in a democracy like ours, we have this propensity to long for someone who fills the role of king for us. We’re always looking for the next one to crown. As we remember the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, I think back on those days, and it seems like he came as close as any American could come to royalty. People even refer to the time of his presidency as Camelot. And yet, now, 50 years later, we know a lot more about his presidency and we’re able to look at it more objectively. To say that Kennedy was a flawed man is an understatement. King-making is always dangerous. The basic problem with kings is the power we give them. Is it possible to have a king without power?

If you’re really a king, prove it, Jesus. Now’s your big chance. No king is going to die on a cross if he can help it. Make your move, Jesus. Well, if a king is all about power, Jesus proves that he is no king. And that’s the irony of the Christ story. We call him a king. But his life was as far removed from  the life of a king as a person can get. The only way to recognize Jesus as a king is by flipping the definition of a king on its head. 

First, there is the way that a king would typically deal with those who attack him. He would retaliate. He would obliterate his enemies in a way that showed his strength so that nobody else would dare make a move against him again. That’s the way kings rule. Through fear and intimidation and brute force. But Jesus is the one who taught his followers to turn the other cheek and pray for their enemies; he is put to death by his enemies without a fight. Not only that, but, here’s the kicker. He actually forgave the ones who put him there. They stood there and mocked him, after nailing him to a cross, and instead of lashing out at them, he forgave them.

And then there were the religious leaders and the Roman soldiers, who challenged him to save himself. We know that self preservation is the most basic human response to any threatening situation.  We respond to a threat by fighting back or running away (fight or flight). And yet, Jesus does neither. How is that possible? He refuses to save himself.

Now, saving yourself isn’t only about protecting yourself from those who want to do you bodily harm. So much of the interaction we have with other people is about saving ourselves. We save ourselves whenever we want other people to like us. We want to look good to them. We want to save face. And so we present ourselves in ways that are often deceptive; we cover up the parts of ourselves that might cause others to see us in an unfavorable light. We’re always trying to show how we’re better than other people. We may blame someone else for our mistakes. Or it becomes way too important for us to prove that we’re right and the other person is wrong. It’s all a part of saving ourselves.

We had a good discussion about this in my clergy Bible study last week. One of my colleagues, Tim, recalled what had happened the week we met to go over the texts for All Saints Sunday. That week, I had told them I had a great joke I was going to use in my sermon and they asked to hear it. So, I shared it and they all laughed. And then they got quiet… and I knew there was a problem. Finally, Robin asked if there will be children in the congregation when I tell that joke. And I realized that if I told that joke with children present, I’d be in big trouble. So, I didn’t tell it. So last week, when we had a discussion about saving ourselves, Tim recalled how they had saved me from telling that joke on All Saints Sunday.  

And I had to come back with, “Well, it was early in the week. I’m sure that by Sunday I would have figured it out on my own.” As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I knew they were going to call me on it, and they did. “Yes, save yourself, Nancy.” It was said in good humor, but ouch! That’s exactly what I had done. Rather than admit that I came really close to saying something stupid in a Sunday sermon, I had to save face and insist that I would have figured it out without their assistance. Yep. I just had to save myself.

How is Jesus able to overcome the way we human beings seem to be hard-wired for self-preservation? When he was dying on the cross, he could have at least turned to the ones who put him there and told them off or cursed them as a way of saving himself. But instead, he forgave them. Jesus died  in a way that was consistent with his teaching. Remember how he taught his followers that the if you work hard to save your life, you’re going to end up losing it, and the only way to save your life is by giving it up? So, he didn’t save himself, and in the process, he saved more than himself.

And then we get to the part with the thief on the cross and we can see another example of how Jesus finished his life the way he had lived it. If you had a continuum with a powerful king on one end and the most wretched of the earth on the other end, it would have been enough if Jesus had simply been human and hung out somewhere in the middle, which is pretty much where we are. That would have been enough. But that’s not where he spent his life. He identified with the lowest of the low right up until his death, crucified between two criminals. He was never one to make comments from afar about how we should all be nice to poor people and sinners and the untouchables. He became one of them. He lived and died in a way that is about as far removed from the life of a king that you can imagine, in solidarity with outcasts.

And yet, the thief on the cross seemed to think that Jesus was about to come into his kingdom. Did the thief see something that seemed to elude everyone else? Did he understand that things going on that day at the place called The Skull weren’t what they appeared to be?

Mocked, derided, hung on a cross to die between two thieves. If you’re a king, prove it to us, the crowd jeered. “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing,” he said. They thought he was failing the king test miserably. But the thief who hung beside him seemed to know better. We know better, too. We know he was showing the world what kind of a king he was.

No, he is not like any king this earth has ever known before or since. In many ways, he was more of an anti-king than a king. Because kings are supposed to be powerful. And yet, the irony is that he had a power greater than any earthly king has ever had. By emptying himself of all power and giving himself in love, he showed us what true power looks like.  

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