Sermon #159 St. James the Less #66 11/24/19
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots to divide his clothing. The people stood by, watching Jesus on the cross; but the leaders scoffed at him, 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." Luke 23:33-43
Now picture this: the year was 799 AD. Rome was a mess literally and figuratively. There was fighting between the different factions in Rome. If you happened to live in city at the time you were either fighting for or against Pope Leo III. Some unflattering and quite serious charges had been levied against the pope, and supporters of the previous pope were not happy.
It got so serious that a mutiny at one point pulled the pope off his horse during a procession and snuck him to a monastery. His supporters rescued him in the dead of night, and brought him safely back to St. Peter’s.
In desperation, Pope Leo looked for someone to calm the fighting in the streets and bring order back to Rome. He called on the traditional protector of the papacy, the King of the Franks, Charles the Great.
Not long after the call rang out, Charles crossed the Alps with his army and was prepared to bring peace and order. In December of 800 the king presided over a large meeting that included all interested parties that ranged from bishops and nobles, to even the leading rebels. That assembly brought about a much-needed resolution to the conflict, but it ended up not being the most significant thing to happen that December.
“On Christmas Day, [King] Charles came to St. Peter’s with a large [entourage] for the Christmas worship. [Pope] Leo sang the mass and Charles prayed on his knees in front of the crypt of the apostles. Charles saw the pope approach. In his hands was a golden crown. Leo placed it on Charles’ head as the congregation cried, ‘To Charles, the most pious, crowned Augustus by God, to the great peace-making Emperor, long life and victory.’ The pope [then] prostrated himself [before the king]. Charles the Great, King of the Franks, had restored the Christian Roman Empire” (173-174).
But you may know Charles by another name, Charlemagne.
What happened that Christmas Day back in the year 800 was a significant moment not only in church history, but it also shaped the Western world for centuries. Popes and kings needed each other, for similar reasons: power, protection, and to ensure an enduring legacy.
But the pope handing Charlemagne a crown and bowing before him was unlike any other enthronement ceremony before. That moment in Rome changed the course of history.
Hopefully, this idea of enthronement rings a few bells. Last week you may remember we talked about Psalm 98, which scholars have said is one of six Enthronement Psalms. And we discovered that these psalms share a similar theme of praising God as king over all humanity and creation. Because of this we are called to, “Sing to the Lord a new song for he has done marvelous things.”
But this Sunday we shift our attention away from a hymn of praise for our Heavenly King and focus on, of all things, the crucifixion. It may seem odd on Christ the King Sunday to read the text from Good Friday--to relive once again the brutal scene of Jesus’ death.
The regal nature of Charlemagne’s impromptu coronation cannot be found anywhere in our passage from Luke this morning. Rather, in comparison, the story of the crucifixion is stark, hopeless, and filled with people mocking Jesus.
Compared to John’s account of the crucifixion, which focuses on the brutal, gory details of Jesus’ death, one scholar has noted how Luke doesn’t focus on the violence of Jesus’ death as much as he as records the reactions of those watching Jesus die.
“The crowds watched, the leaders scoffed, the soldiers mocked, Rome announced its public position with an inscription, and the criminals being crucified right next to him disagreed over his identity” (Emerson Powery).
Luke records in vivid detail what was happening around Jesus during his darkest hour. And he does this, in part, to show the great irony that the crowds do not understand the magnitude of this situation--that on the cross was none other than God himself, and that what appeared to be a great defeat was actually the greatest triumph this world has ever known.
What they were witnessing was not merely a public execution, but in fact an enthronement ceremony of the King of kings and Lord of lords.
But you may be wondering how in the world can we see Jesus’ crucifixion as a coronation ceremony. The bishop and author N.T. Wright has devoted much of his life to thinking about this.
In his book The Challenge of Jesus Wright says that Israel’s history-everything recorded in the Old Testament-had arrived at its climax and focal point when Jesus went to the cross. “[Jesus] believed that he was the bearer of Israel’s destiny at this critical time [in history]. He was the Messiah who would take that destiny on himself and draw it to its focal point” (89).
Everything the ancient prophets had foretold about Israel’s future rescue and redemption; Jesus took upon himself on the cross. “Jesus had declared that the way of the kingdom was the way of peace, the way of love, and the way of the cross…Jesus determined that it was his task and role, his vocation as Israel’s representative, to [seemingly] lose the battle on Israel’s behalf [through such a humiliating death]. This [self-sacrificial death] would be the means of Israel’s becoming the light, not just of herself…but of the whole world…[Jesus] would thereby do for Israel what Israel could not do for herself. He would fulfill Israel’s vocation that she should be the servant people, the light of the world” (89-90).
And if you think about it, that’s what a good king does. He takes his people’s pain and suffering, and makes it his own pain and suffering. And when the king is victorious, the people share in his victory.
Little did the crowd who was staring at Jesus or the leaders who were scoffing or the soldiers who were mocking him have any idea that they were watching God’s great victory over sin and death--that in seemingly utter defeat and humiliation God was restoring all things.
The cross was not the end of the story, but where Israel’s story-and indeed all of human history-came to its climax and ultimate redemption.
It was the most important enthronement to ever happen in one of the most unlikely of places in the world, on the far eastern edge of the Roman Empire, in a very unlikely and rather quiet time in history. And this was all brought about by a local, Jewish teacher that few outside of Judea and Galilee had ever heard of.
And so, compare Luke’s vision of enthronement and triumph to that of Charlemagne’s. Where the King of the Franks was given a golden crown and praised by the masses, Jesus was given a crown of thorns, nailed to a cross, and ridiculed by the crowd. There is a stark contrast between the two coronations.
If Charlemagne’s coronation changed the course of Western history, how much more so did Jesus’ enthronement on the cross change not only world history, but also our own individual lives? He died for the world, but he also died for each of us as individuals. He is king of everything, and yet is also king of us personally.
What does it mean for us to have a king? For Jesus to be king of our lives?
If we know anything about kings, it’s that they usually require something of their subjects. In this respect Jesus is no different. As both Savior and King, Jesus calls us to turn away from those things that distract us from his kingdom, and instead we should walk with him.
It is our duty as his subjects and disciples to follow the king wherever he shall lead us. He has showed us what walking with him will entail. It is the way of peace, of love, but also the way of the cross. And for the journey of a Christian, there is no other way.
It is in suffering and death that there is hope--that in fact there is resurrection. That failing according to the world’s standards could draw us closer to the very heart of God.
Golden crowns, wealth and power just don’t do it for our king. It is his will for us that we should sacrifice and forgive and boldly love in order to be the light of the world.
What is holding us back from being that light? What is stopping us from drawing closer to the King who died for us, so that we might share in his victory?
Christ is King, and through our faith and baptism we are heirs of his kingdom…and we have work to do. My friends, we have a lot of work to do. We have a message to share, a light to shine, and there will be challenges along the way but don’t lose heart.
We have a King that loves us to no end, and we are his, no matter what comes our way. So, my fellow heirs in Christ, may we boldly walk the way of the cross knowing that it is the way of the King.
Christ the King Sunday. Year C. Luke 23:33-43. Charlemagne story: Church History in Plain Language B. Shelley.