Today is one of those special days in the Christian calendar – and also one of the challenging ones for preachers. Christ the King raises all kinds of questions. What kind of King, is one of the main ones for me.
One thing we can say for sure, and based on this reading, is that we may need to redraw our idea of what Kingship is. Jesus in this context, in this frame, is a very odd, almost tragic king. He is waiting to be executed, ragged and beaten. He could have called on a legion of angels to free him and kill his persecutors; but no he is here with his fate, his mission, to save the world, to defeat evil and violence and give us a way to the life we all want, need and crave.
He was certainly not the King the Jewish people thought they needed. They wanted a warrior, an alpha male a rabble-rouser to sweep away the oppressors. They felt that God had promised them this. But no, that’s not the kind of King God is. It reminds me a bit of Ukraine. Who would have thought that they needed a comedian?
Cometh the hour, cometh the king.
What we can say is that Jesus, the almighty king, has the power to save us. That seems a rather loaded phrase in today’s world and I think I understand why.
I had two encounters with the idea of being saved and neither were satisfactory.
The first happened at a holiday camp in Minehead. My wife and I were staying there at my parents’ caravan when a big Christian event was also on. We attended. Interested and open. At one rather fevered event a pastor from the front said – ‘If you are saved stand up and raise your hands.’ Everyone stood up except Christine and I. It seemed preposterous and denigrating for the rest of us.
And then there was encounter with the grammar of salvation in another context. In this one we had to recite a precise set of words to be saved – they covered every eventuality. I was left thinking – can this be true?
So what does it take to be saved? Number one is the trigger.
Here are a few. Knowing that we need some help, want to be better, need peace, fed up with struggling, full of gratitude, happiness, wonder at the birth of a child or the natural world. There are many, many more.
The second thing is knowing what Jesus can do for us.
So we get to Jesus on the cross. Devastating. Or is it? Let’s inhabit it. It is a bit odd. The three on the cross – with nails through their wrists are debating a bit of theology. Now I know that theological debates can be painful, but this is pretty extreme.
The questions are – who is this Jesus fellow and what could he do for us in this dire situation? Pretty contemporary questions.
The first thief – robber – just wants something for himself. His selfishness is understandable – but he totally misunderstands who he is dealing with. Like meeting Superman and thinking he’s pretty boring.
But then comes the other thief. He has real self-awareness. Awareness about his condition and not just the misdemeanour that got him in the situation he is in.
He knows that he is in the presence of someone so special. He sticks up for Jesus. He acknowledges that he deserves no better than the punishment he is suffering. No wriggling or self-justification. He simply says this – please look out for me.
How beautiful his turning is. It is a small, vulnerable, modest turning. It is offered not in a fawning way, or a calculating way. It comes from vulnerability – more in hope than expectation.
And the King of Kings does something wonderful. He doesn’t just offer eternal life. He offers a place in paradise – paradise, a Persian word, meaning a walled garden owned by the king. Jesus offers this thief, this failure, this broken man the chance not just to go into that garden but to be the Kings walking companion.
So, my friends. I in no way denigrate the big turning, the set-piece savings, the formulas of words. They are beautiful too.
But here is the saving moment for those who are doubtful, sad, stuck and not really sure. I find this very hopeful, for who hasn’t at one point in their life, even the moist committed atheist, turned to God and wondered and asked or been thankful. We are all a hair’s breadth from God.