Jesus: Successful Failure as King

A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at

Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, November 24th 2019

The Feast of Christ the King

Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:15-20; Luke 23:33-43

‘’One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him [Jesus] 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? … Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”’ (23:39, 40, 42)

‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Or, on this Sunday where we celebrate the Reign of Christ as King, to put it the other way around:

Your kingdom come;

Remember me;

Jesus.

Your kingdom come: if Jesus has a kingdom then it follows that Jesus is a king, but what sort of king is Jesus? Well, he’s the most spectacular failure of a king that there has ever been.

In Luke’s Gospel there are people who are eager to label Jesus as king, but they don’t mean it as a compliment; they say it scoffingly, with scorn and derision. Luke tells us, ‘there was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”’ (23:38) And who put that placard, that sign, with this inscription at the top of the cross? Pontius Pilate, the representative of the Roman empire. It was he who had it nailed up there, along with Jesus. And he had it – and Jesus – put there as a statement of what a failure he considered Jesus to be. He also put it and Jesus on the cross as a reminder to everyone of what happened to people who claimed kingship without getting Roman imperial consent first: the horrible, horrible death of crucifixion.

And it was the same with his soldiers. Roman soldiers, for only they were authorised to carry out crucifixions, who ‘also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “if you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”’ (23:37) And in making this mockery of Jesus as a failed king, Pilate and his troops were also mocking the Jewish people: “look everyone, this is the nearest thing to a king that the Jews can manage: no political authority, no military power, with an instrument of execution for his royal throne.” What a failure as king Jesus appears to be, hung on his cross, numbered among the criminals, at ‘the place which is called The Skull.’ (23:33) As the Brian Wren hymn puts it:

Here hangs a man discarded,
A scarecrow hoisted high,
A nonsense pointing nowhere
To all who hurry by.

Brian Wren (1936 – ) (R&S 225)

And by the political standards of his day (and our day) as far as being a King or any sort of ruler is concerned, Jesus is indeed, ‘a nonsense pointing nowhere’. He is not rich, he is not powerful, he has no palace, no retinue, no army. What sort of kingship is that?

Remember me: those with power and their representatives might mock Jesus but a criminal on a cross seems to think that Jesus is some sort of king: Jesus, when you come into your kingdom, remember me. This man is at the agonised end of a life that might not have been much to write home about in the first place: ‘we are getting what we deserve for our deeds,’ he tells his companion on the other side of Jesus. (23:41) Yet, at a moment when things are as bad as bad can be for any human being, he is hopeful that Jesus is the sort of king who might remember him. He is hopeful that Jesus is a good-shepherd king, one like those envisaged by the prophet Jeremiah. He hopes Jesus is a good-shepherd king who will seek out and rescue those like him, one who like sheep, have wondered far astray from life as it should be lived. ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’

How amazing would it be if God remembered you and me? In one of the funeral services in the United Reformed Church’s Worship Book we pray ‘while we live, they will not be forgotten among us,’ and also, ‘may the good things of their life leave a trace on earth.’ Humanist funerals, which are increasingly popular these days, work on the basis that any continued existence that we have after death comes by “living on” in the memories of others. Of course, once the others who remember us have died, then … Seen in this light, maybe that’s why so many people nowadays hunger after being a celebrity. Being known and remembered by so many others is the best way we humans can achieve a sort of eternal life … at least, until our show is cancelled.

With God, however, we hope that things are different. To quote again from the URC Worship Book: ‘in your eternal love [O God], they will never be lost.’ Anyone who believes in God probably doesn’t have too much of a problem with seeing God as King of the universe, as the eternal ruler of the ceaseless round of circling planets singing on their way,’ as another hymn writer puts it. (Eternal Ruler of the Ceaseless Round by J. W. Chadwick (1840-1904) R&S 623) What really blows my mind, however, is the idea that the maker and sustainer not only of the singing planets, but the solar systems and the galaxies, which are beyond number, has the time and the inclination, to remember me.

Yet here’s the king of the universe, nailed to the cross in the guise of a failed king, remembering the sort of people to whom most other people wouldn’t give a thought. The image of the invisible God,’ as it says in Colossians, ‘the first born of all creation,’ in or by whom, ‘all things in heaven and earth were created,’ (1:15, 16) expresses forgiveness – ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ (23:34) – and offers salvation: ‘truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (23:43) It rewrites human ideas of what constitutes kingship. From the perspective how human beings have understood and practised kingship, it’s a nonsense and failure, but Jesus’s brand of kingship has long outlived Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas and a whole host of other kings, rulers, emperors and presidents, so Jesus a very successful failure as King.

Kingdom, remembering … Jesus: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Today’s the last Sunday of the Church’s liturgical year. Next Sunday, Advent begins another year of re-telling the story of God’s dealings with God’s creation, including with you and me. It’s a story that ends with a reminder that God is king, but in a way that sets the standard for what constitutes good human kingship, not the other way around. God is mighty, in ways beyond our greatest imaginings, for God is the creator of all that is, all that has been, and all that is to come. Yet, at the same time – and this is the good news – no matter how tiny and insignificant we are, no matter how good or bad we are, God remembers and loves each one of us, now and for ever.

And the way we know that and are able to respond to God’s love is through Jesus Christ. In today’s Gospel reading we’re confronted with that pivotal moment where God’s remembers us even to the point of dying for us. Earlier in the sermon, I said that Jesus was a king without a retinue, but that’s not quite right. We, and the millions of his followers form his retinue. It’s different though, because a king’s retinue follows where the king goes, and King Jesus goes places that earthly kings do not. That’s why it’s appropriate that next week the story starts all over again, and we get to follow in our King’s footsteps from birth onwards.

During the next year it will be Matthew’s Gospel that we hear from the most of the four biblical Gospels. With a spoiler alert here for anyone who has never heard the story of Jesus’s birth, I can tell you that it is Matthew’s Gospel that has visitors come from the east, asking, ‘where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?’ (2:2) And so, we’ll be members of the retinue of that king who teaches us how to live, a king who heals, a king who remembers everyone, the weak and powerful, the good-living and those who have gone astray. He’s a king who forgives and saves; a most spectacular failure as far as normal ideas of kingship go, but just the sort of king that’s needed in this world.

Yes, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’

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