November 24, 2013 Luke 23: 33-43
Rev. Catherine Purves
It used to be that everyone knew where they were and what they were doing on the day that President Kennedy was shot. I certainly remember. But that was a generation ago now, fifty years. For many, that is already assigned to the realm of history. If you were around then, and if you were old enough (I was in 7th grade), then it isn’t history. It doesn’t even seem that long ago – which is the way it is with world-changing, unprecedented, and unforeseen events. For those of you too young to remember November 22, 1963, I expect that the events of 9/11 will be your unforgettable memory. For those of you who are older than I am, perhaps the bombing of Pearl Harbor would have had the same impact as the day when J.F.K. died, the day the ‘king’ was assassinated.
I’ll call him a ‘king’ because of the whole Camelot mystique that surrounded the Kennedy White House. Here was someone in the highest office of the land who was new and different, brash and attractive, young, and a member of what looked more and more like an American royal family. Not that everyone loved him. There were plenty who hated him, mistrusted him, and rejected him. And his was not a fairy tale presidency. It was a time of great fear and even greater risks as the world adjusted to the reality of nuclear weapons and learned how to wage a cold war. Whether you loved him or hated him or feared him, J.F.K. was a president who could not be ignored. And when the ‘king’ was killed that day in Dallas, it was as if nothing would ever be the same again.
It is interesting to read and re-read the story of Jesus’ crucifixion on a day other than Good Friday. That is the one day that we reserve for the upsetting contemplation of the death of our King. We are ready to be sad then. We’re willing to think about the pain and the pathos of it all on that day, while reserving in the back of our minds the knowledge that Easter is only two days away. Jesus’ death is an event of history, and it is hard for us to re-live it and to be shaken by it, as if we were there, hearing the news, or even witnessing the event in real time. It is an event that changed history, but how can we experience and think about it as more than an event in history?
Luke’s account of the crucifixion tries to do just that. This is Luke’s attempt to place us in the crowd so that we can see and feel and begin to understand what the death of a king on a cross really meant. He does that by highlighting the absurd irony of it all while emphasizing that in the death of this king on a cross the promises and prophesies of Scripture were fulfilled. But, did you notice, Luke doesn’t really say anything about the horror or pain of such a death. It is not the nature of the death that interests him, as much as it is the person who was crucified and the response of the people who were there. They would never forget that experience of being there when the king died on a cross.
And yet, their experiences were all different. “The people,” Luke says, “stood by, watching.” I expect that the emotions of those people who watched the death of the king on a cross would have been similar to the reactions of people when they learned that J.F.K. had been assassinated. They might have loved Jesus or hated him. They may have feared Jesus or hoped that he was their Messiah. They could have mistrusted him and his strange teachings, but they somehow couldn’t ignore the man. There was something about him, a uniqueness that made his death somehow more tragic. They were drawn to that place called The Skull, and they watched as the king died.
The leaders, Luke tells us, scoffed at Jesus. “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” What mixed emotions lay behind that statement? Ironically, the Jewish leaders were correctly naming Jesus as the Messiah, as God’s chosen one, and as the one who saved others. Yet, they are also revealing the anger that they felt because he was not the Messiah they wanted. He didn’t fit their vision of what Camelot should be or their sense of who God’s saving king should be. So they were behind the plot and plan that put him on that cross. There is also a note of gloating in their scoffing, as if they had won. Ironically, though, the Jewish leaders were not the directors of the drama that put the king on a cross. They were the bystanders who unwittingly participated in God’s drama of salvation.
The soldiers also participated in the mocking of Jesus. Like the religious leaders, they too correctly named Jesus in their attempts to shame and dishonor him. They cast lots for his clothing, fulfilling an Old Testament prophesy. They called him the King of the Jews and even made a sign that they put on the cross that read, “This is the King of the Jews.” How right they were. They even offered him sour wine, as the mock cupbearers to the king. We get the impression that the soldiers were, however, remarkably detached from the event they were witnessing. Crucifixion was nothing rare; it was a regular part of their duties as soldiers. Amazingly, people were standing there that day who were unaffected by the king dying on a cross. There still are.
Finally, Luke alone records an actual conversation that Jesus had with the two criminals who were crucified with him, and it is a fascinating exchange. Amid all of the varied emotions that were experienced and expressed by those in the crowd, the two criminals, ultimately, seem to represent the only two possible responses to a king on a cross. All people must choose how they will respond to the king on a cross, and so, in a real sense, the two criminals represent all of us.
Again, Luke is making sure that we know that this is not just the historical account of a tragic event, something we might hear about or read about. We are there. This is what Luke is saying. Like the two criminals, we are dying, one on either side of the king on a cross. This is our history, and we are living it. This is a day we must never forget.
The king on a cross was dying for those two criminals. They were both definitely guilty. As the repentant criminal says, “We…have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Yet, still as Jesus looked out at everyone who was there on that hill called the Skull, he said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus was dying with the two guilty criminals while praying that they would be forgiven. He was dying for them, for sinners! He was dying for us.
Three men died on crosses that day for all the world to see. One was a king, the Messiah, God’s chosen one, who would save others. The other two were sinners, like us, who were rightly condemned to die. Now, Luke shows us the choice that we have. Jesus died for both, but one derided and rejected him, while the other reached out and appealed to him. The one criminal died blaspheming against Jesus (this is the actual word that Luke used). The other criminal died with hope, trusting in Jesus’ promise, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
This is the choice we all have, and Luke presents it starkly. There is no ‘in between’ option of reserved judgment, studied indifference, or curious indecisiveness. Remember, you are up there dying beside the king on a cross. Time is short. Your response will either be worship or blasphemy. This is the day that will change all of history. Everyone in that crowd will remember where they were on that day, in that hour when the king died. And no one can afford to be simply a bystander. The king on a cross died for you. How will that fact change the rest of your life?