The Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
Christ was the king whom no one had expected.
In our gospel reading this morning, Luke tells us that when Jesus is crucified at Golgotha – the place of the skull – He is crucified alongside two criminals: one on His right, and one on His left. But we should be careful not to let our English translations fool us. These criminals were no mere shoplifters from the Jerusalem marketplace; these men were Zealots.
So, what’s a Zealot? In first century Palestine, Zealots were Jewish ultra-nationalists and insurrectionists. They considered themselves to be Sons of Abraham in a nation overrun by Gentiles. In their eyes, the Rome Empire had trampled their religious and political freedoms, and so they were fighting against Roman occupation in order to reclaim what was rightfully theirs.
These Zealots would commonly enter into crowded areas in Jerusalem where Roman soldiers were stationed, and they would sneak up behind them, pull out long-bladed knives from their robes, and plunge them into the backs of these unsuspecting soldiers. For the Zealots, to feel the life of a Roman soldier ebbing away as they twisted the blade was to feel their own way of life returning. In the same way, when ships would dock at Caesarea on the northern coast to unload their cargo, Zealots would lie in wait to ambush the caravans heading south. They would kill everyone and steal all that they could. These men were assassins and they were thieves. And these were the men with whom Jesus was crucified.
But they had a reason for doing what they did. By their actions these Zealots hopped to usher in the Messianic Age. They thought that starting small fringe conflicts throughout Jerusalem would serve as the catalyst for God sending his Messiah. They anticipated that God would send a warrior-king to overthrow Rome. He would come on the clouds with legions of angels, and he would conquer all of Israel’s enemies in war, and he would establish Israel as the world power. The Zealots hoped for the king foretold by the prophet Jeremiah, who would be a righteous branch from the line of David. He would be a king who would deal wisely and would execute justice and righteousness in the land of Judah. Their Messiah, that is, their Christ, would be a conqueror and a divinely appointed secular king.
But Christ was the king whom no on had expected.
As Jesus is being crucified, Luke tells us that He prays for those who are crucifying Him. He looks up to heaven and says, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they don’t, do they? Because if they did, they probably wouldn’t be crucifying Him. For as St. Paul says in his epistle to the Colossians, “[In Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” Unbeknownst to the Roman soldiers, the hands they were nailing to the cross were the very same hands that formed mankind from the dust at the beginning of time.
As Luke continues to paint this picture of the crucifixion, he tells us that the religious leaders begin to mock Jesus: “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one.” If this Jesus is supposed to save Israel from Rome, why is it that he can’t save himself from a few Roman soldiers? The Jewish people had an expectation of a political liberator, but this Jesus couldn’t even liberate himself from the cross. But amid all the mockery, Luke records a very ironic detail: despite all the wrong ideas and misguided expectations that the people have about the Messiah and about Jesus, the inscription above His head on the cross declares the truth of the matter. “This is the King of the Jews.” Though they didn’t know it, the one whom they had been expecting for centuries was nailed to the cross before them. Jesus hadn’t come to conquer Rome, but to conquer death. And He hadn’t come to liberate His people from political oppression, but from the oppression of sin. What looked like a crushing defeat by Rome was in fact the fulfillment of God’s plan for ultimate victory. Jesus was not a warrior king who had come to spill human blood; He came to shed His own blood upon the cross so that all things might be reconciled to God. Jesus hadn’t come to make war on Rome, but to make war cease in all the world. It was only by being shamed on the cross that the Messiah would be exalted among the nations. In Jesus the Messiah became manifest and the ruler of God’s people had drawn near.
But Christ was the king whom no one had expected.
Finally Luke records the dialogue between the two criminals and Jesus. The first Zealot still expects the Messiah to be a warrior-king who will conquer Rome. So he derides Jesus saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” Because he knows the word on the street; what people are saying about this Jesus character. He’s the one we’ve been waiting for, the Messiah, the king of Israel! But in the Zealot’s eyes, that’s not what Jesus looks like. So he demands that Jesus do something if He is who people claim He is. But the second Zealot, in a moment of realization, rebukes the first. “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly…” He realizes the weight of their sin. They’ve killed people and stolen so much, but this Jesus has done nothing to warrant death; He is the Righteous One. His old ideas and expectations about the Messiah start to fade away, and in their place a new vision is forming. This Jesus is the king that Israel has been waiting for, but He’s not at all what they thought he would look like. So he turns to Jesus and says, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And then Jesus, in one of the most beautiful statements in all of scripture, looks back at this Zealot, knowing full well how many people he’s killed and how much he’s stolen, and in this moment of absolute grace says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
The political Messiah that the Zealot had been expecting his whole life could never have saved him, but this crucified man named Jesus could. Despite His outward appearance, Jesus was the awaited Christ and the King. Although Jesus was not what he had expected, He was exactly what the Zealot needed to truly be saved.
The Zealots and the religious leaders in Luke’s account of the crucifixion had some wrong ideas and misguided expectations about what the Messiah would look like and about who Jesus was. But they are not the only one’s to make such a mistake. We, as Christians, sometimes have some wrong ideas about who Jesus is, too. Think about how many Jesus’s are out there; how many different ways people think about Jesus. For people like me, there’s Social Gospel Jesus. This is the Jesus that teaches we should love our neighbor and that those who have much should give to those who have little. I like Social Gospel Jesus. But then other people like Personal Savior Jesus. This is the Jesus that you invite into your heart at one time in your life and then never talk to again because you’re saved now and there’s nothing left you need to do as a Christian. And then there is Moral Teacher Jesus. He wasn’t God; let’s not go that far. But he was a great moral teacher and he demonstrated how to live a good human life. And then there’s Butler Jesus. We all love Butler Jesus. This is the Jesus that we pray to when we’ve made a mess of our lives and we need Him to come in a clean up our mess.
There are all kinds of Jesus’s out there, but the problem is that the Jesus that we’ve created in our minds is not necessarily the Jesus that is. The Zealots had their idea of who the Messiah was down to a tee, but their expectations were way off. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have these ideas about who Jesus is, because Jesus is all those things to varying degrees. But what I am saying is that we need to be careful not to over-emphasize one aspect of who Jesus is so much so that it becomes the totality of who we think He is. We all have our expectations about Jesus, but Jesus came to the world not to meet human expectations, but to shatter them and exceed them. We need to remember that the Jesus who is and who is capable of saving us, is not necessarily the Jesus that we like most.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us study our scriptures well, and seek Christ as he truly is. For when we do, He will meet us where we are, and He will shatter and exceed all of our expectations. And the Christ that we find may not be the king we expected, but he will certainly be the one that we need. Amen.