Gospel: Luke 23:33-43
1st Reading: Jeremiah 23:1-6
2nd Reading: Colossians 1:11-20
We were talking about how busy families are these days, and one of the neighboring pastors told us a little story. He was visiting one of those busy families and they had five calendars stuck to their refrigerator. One schedule for the mom and one for the dad and one each for the two children. In the center of all four was the church calendar. The pastor was really touched. This was a family they saw at some church activity about once a month, but they had placed that calendar in the center so they could remember they were part of something bigger than themselves and to remind themselves of priorities and their church family.
That got me to wondering what God's calendar looks like. There are some who want God's calendar to be full of things like “Smite my enemies,” or “Find me a parking spot."
However, God's leadership model seems to be more like a shepherd's calendar, like in the first reading for this morning. Guide the sheep to green pastures, keep watch for wolves, clean and bind any wounds on the sheep, stay near the flock. The Israelites wanted a king, begged God for a king. They wanted someone to further their interests, to give them military power, and to lead them to greatness. They wanted a strong leader. Their calendar was full of efforts to this end.
However, God was trying to talk them out of it. Like we tried to explain to Sterling when he begged and begged us to buy him Magic Tracks, it is a cheap toy that doesn't last very long. It breaks easily. Same with the King. It usually doesn't go very well. And as sure as most of the Israelite Kings were crooks which needed to be returned to the store, I found myself in Walmart, exchanging Magic Tracks within one week, because the gears of the car were broken.
It turns out that God's interests and priorities are very different from human interests and priorities. God has little interest in strength and might where people force others to do what they want them to. God is interested in all God's creation and the well being of each creature, so is more interested in sharing power and making sure each one is cared for and receiving basic needs for abundant life.
The last thing the Israelites expected to see on their Messiah's calendar was “Get arrested,” “Be mocked,” or “Die on the cross.” The leaders stood there mocking him, saying, “He saved others, let him save himself.” They thought saving himself would be a priority on Jesus' calendar.
But Jesus showed us from the very beginning of his ministry that wasn't the kind of leader he would be. Do you remember when he was tempted in the wilderness after his baptism? He hadn't eaten a bite in 40 days and Satan encouraged him to make bread out of stones. But Jesus pointed out that one doesn't live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Jesus didn't put it on his calendar to save himself or avoid suffering, however if there was a crowd to feed, he put that on his calendar more than once.
Sometimes Christians believe that to be Christian is to avoid suffering, that we should be spared pain, and even that God promises that to us. We know that God promises us life everlasting and abundant life. We may picture any number of wonders and pleasures in heaven, in the Paradise that Jesus promises to the thief on the cross.
However, Jesus' life teaches us that we don't get special treatment or an easier life because we are Christian. Jesus is our example. He was born in a stable, he didn't have a fancy cradle. He was a traveling preacher, having nowhere to lay his head, often frustrated with his disciples, unconcerned about earthly comforts or riches or power. He didn't need to be treated as more important than other people, maybe because he was fully aware of who he was as the Son of God. We don't need that either. We are God's people—will always be children of God. That doesn't give us any special status or guarantee us an easier life. It does mean we have the comfort of knowing that God is with us even when we find ourselves suffering.
The danger of believing that we should have it easier, if God loves us, is that when we see someone else suffering, we might be tempted to believe they are getting what they deserve. Jesus helped point out again and again the falsehood of that kind of thinking. Remember when someone asked him, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Jesus replied, “Neither this man's sin or that of his parents caused this.” Instead think of this is an opportunity to behold the glory of God, and then Jesus heals the man of his blindness.
Jesus didn't just suffer for suffering's sake. He faced pain because he spoke out against the injustices in his day. He spoke up because the rules against picking even a single stalk of wheat on the sabbath were hurting people who were hungry. He spoke up because people were ready to throw stones at a woman, when they had all committed similar sins. He spoke up when children were pushed aside, when the word of God was misused to keep people down, and when people were rejected by society for arbitrary reasons. He spoke up and he paid the price for crossing those in power. However, the pain he faced on the cross was nothing compared to the pain he felt every time he encountered injustice. Because he was so uncomfortable with the world as it was, the way the powers of this world benefitted some at the expense of others, the way the powers of this world crushed vulnerable people, made their lives miserable and cut their lives short, because of this he had to speak up. This speaking up made him a target, by those who wanted to keep the system benefitting a few, and so he was tortured and executed to try to shut him up.
This is the kind of King Jesus is for us. As one who created this world, he was in pain seeing this world misused, so far from the vision he had for it from the beginning. He could not remain silent or removed. He walked alongside all those whom this world rejected and he paid dearly with his life. The way he was killed was meant to intimidate anyone else threatening the powers of this world—this is what is in store for you, too, if you stand up and express the pain this world brings and stand with those who are hurting and oppressed and dare to say, “This isn't right!” Many of this world's injustices do benefit you and me. We are so removed from the pain we benefit from that often we are unaware. That is why it is important for us to walk side by side with people who are less powerful than we are and to understand their lives and what they go through.
Pain isn't the only thing on our calendar, though. Pain isn't where we stay. Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Paradise—it sounds so good. When the Israelites were asking for a King, paradise was what they wanted to create for themselves—a realm where their interests were furthered, where peace reigned for them, where they would prosper and grow. When Jesus promises paradise, he pictures the Garden of Eden. Paradise is the original view of creation—all creatures in balance, God walking with people, everything created beautiful and good, relationships flourishing, all creatures fruitful and multiplying. But as humans grasped at power, like Adam and Eve in the garden eating of the tree to gain power for themselves, like the kings using force to gain power to further their own interests, like any of us trying to get our way at the expense of someone else, we fell into sin and brokenness and this world was not like the one God created in a lot of ways.
So here's Jesus. Paradise, in his mind, isn't for the few. On the last day of his calendar, he has a vision coming true for all of us. It is abundant life and the interests of all God's creation, and the flourishing of all life. And so pain isn't the vision we're left with, it is part of the path that Jesus walks to bring us Paradise, and the path we walk as Jesus followers as he brings justice and peace and paradise to all that he has created. In some ways, God is still creating us, making us a new people whose priorities are not just ourself anymore, but closer match God's own priorities.
According to my calendar, it is Christ the King Sunday. Christ is our King, not President Obama, not President elect Trump, not fear, not any other ruler but Christ. So pull out your calendars, and put there some opportunities to speak against the powers of death in this world that crush people. Come and volunteer at the pantry. Stand side by side with people who are hungry and hear their stories of pain. Come to our next Social Justice meeting December 13 at 3 pm or our next Clackamas Housing team meeting December 15 at 2 pm at Milwaukie Lutheran, find yourself a soup kitchen to volunteer at, or head down to the senior center and sit with someone who is lonely, visit someone with me this month who is homebound from our congregation. You will find pain there, but you will also find joy and paradise and love and understanding. You will find the Kingdom of God because Jesus' reign has begun.