A new knowing
The Gospel: Luke 23:33-43, 44-49
33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified him there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[34Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine 37and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ 38There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’
39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding [blaspheming] him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ 40But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ 42Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ 43He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last. 47When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent.’ 48And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. 49But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.
When my daughter was about 4 she would ask lots of questions. Sometimes we'd have 20 questions in a row. One day, after many, many questions, I was stumped. I said, "I don't know," because… I didn't. She must have thought I didn't hear her properly, because she asked the same question again, and again. And when I said, a bit wearily, "Deb, I really don't know! I don't know how that works," she exploded at me: "Of course you know," she shouted. "You know everything."
It's a very scary world when we don't know, and when no one else knows either. Deb, like many kids starting school, soon attached her affections to the prep teacher, Ms. D. And each night during tea we would hear Mrs D. this, Mrs D. that, Mrs D. said….
So one night I said, "Nah… what would Mrs D. know about that? She's just a school teacher." This was a very smart just-five year old. She knew I was trolling her. She didn't bite. But she gave me a death stare that would have frightened Julie Bishop. And behind that, I think, there was a little fear: "What will happen in my world if Mrs D really doesn't know everything!? Surely somebody knows?"
But we don't. We spend our lives trying to find out how life works. We spend our lives afraid of death because that's the worst kind of unknowing of all. No one knows what will happen. And so we do our best to avoid it—at any cost.
And if we're brave enough, or obsessive enough, to look more closely at life, we realise that when it comes to the meaning of things, and the purpose of things, we mostly… don't know. We struggle on in life taking it on faith that something, somewhere, sometime, will make sense. What else can you do? We sort of get used to it. It looks like we’ve forgotten, and that we are not afraid. But it dogs us. It hounds us in our times of fear and weakness. It is a terrible thing not to know.
In Israel, in all its suffering and pain, and in all the oppression of the Empire, there was a hope that that the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, the One many translations call The Christ—there was a hope that the Messiah would change this.
Through the Messiah, Israel "would be saved from [its] enemies and from the hand of all who hated" it. There was a hope that
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
You'll recognise the words we read from Luke Chapter 1 a few minutes ago.
Of course the last thing that would happen was that the Messiah would die. How can the conquering Messiah die? How can the one who will bring Israel to glory die? The Messiah is meant to save us from dying, to give us a long life, to make life good.
And yet here are talking about the Messiah—the Christ, and saying that the Messiah must suffer and die. Almost the last words in Luke's gospel which we have studied this year have Jesus saying
Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations… Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? (Luke 24)
The Messiah must die. It's very clear in our Gospel reading. Three times people talk about dying and being saved.
The leaders say
‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’
The soldiers say
If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!
And the first criminal says:
Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself… and us!
Are you not… is another way of saying, If you are…
And Luke uses that threefold repetition… If you are… to remind us of the tempting of Jesus by the devil, the diabolos, back near the beginning of the gospel. If you are the son of God... said diabolos. The temptation was to ignore God, and to use human power, to avoid death and help the nation. Essentially, the diabolical devil was saying to Jesus, "You don't have to die to be the Messiah. You can do fantastic things without dying. You don't have to know death, you don't have to know about death… you can avoid that."
And so the leaders—understand they are scoffing at Jesus—but the leaders are also, unwittingly, repeating the temptations: If you are the Messiah, you don't have to die. Save yourself. Come down off the cross.
And the soldiers—understand they are scoffing at Jesus, too— the soldiers are also, unwittingly, repeating the temptations of the devil: If you are the Messiah, you don't have to die. Save yourself. Come down off the cross.
And the criminal—well that's interesting. He thinks that if Jesus comes down off the cross then Jesus can be a proper sort of Messiah… and save him. Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!
And that brings us to the other criminal, who speaks Gospel. He doesn't repeat the diabolical common sense of the devil; he speaks for God. He says "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Rev Mark Davis says
This criminal asks to be remembered when he and Jesus had completed their journeys toward death, in contrast to the other criminal who wanted Jesus to save them from death.
The man who repented on the cross understood that it was only through death, only by going through it, that he could be saved. The scholar Fred Craddock said about this, If Jesus is "to save others, he cannot save himself."
What Faith means is that we give up on being sure and certain. Faith means we trust Jesus to bring us through life, and to bring us through death. Not by saying the right words—some sort of magicking ourselves into God's favour—we trust him by living life the way he shows us: the life of love, forgiveness, compassion, and risk. The life that says, if it comes to it, "I will do this even if it kills me, because this is where Jesus calls me." It's the kind of life that stops trying to save itself and, like Jesus, gives itself to others.
Of course, this can all sound rather grim and joyless. We go through life not knowing—we can't know—and it may even be that Jesus will call us into something that means death comes even sooner than it needs to. How does that save us?
Here is the joy. When we stop trying to nail down all the answers; when we stop trying to make our-self safe at all costs; when we stop insisting on being the one in charge of our life, who can stare down death… something changes. We find we are given a new way of seeing the same world, of seeing what is really going on. We have new eyes. We begin to see that death does not own us; there is something greater than death.
When the second criminal gave up trying to save himself Jesus was able to say, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise." Not sometime in the future. Not sometime when you've done the right thing. Not only unless you jump through these hoops… but now, today. Paul said to the Colossians that God
has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Now. It's done…. It's done. Slowly, as life goes on, we are brought to understand this: Life is safe. This world is our place. We will be, and we are, saved. And the more we open ourselves to God, the more we do that by choosing to live like Jesus lived, the easier and more quickly we will have the eyes to see- the easier and more quickly God can give the eyes to see. We won't be able to prove it; there is a not written contract to get our money back if God doesn't perform. But there is a new way of seeing.
When I was four or five, I wheedled my Mum into letting me go on a hike to a neighbour's farm—several miles away. And Mum watched me crossing the home paddocks and then trusted God for me to arrive at Mrs. McNeil's once I was out of sight.
I reached the Huddlestone Road on a hot, absolutely silent afternoon. There's a place down there—a hollow in the road—where, when you're only four or five you can't see anything. No home, no farms—you can't see our place, or Heaslip's, or Uncle Des's. And there, on the road, I had a moment of panic: I didn't know. I couldn't see. There wasn't even the sound of a tractor somewhere off in a paddock; not even the noise of sheep. I was absolutely alone in the world.
And I remember the sudden knowledge that all I had to do was keep going, even though I couldn't see the way, and I would get there. That's the first memory I have of the reality of God, who comes to us even when we are unrecognising, who will bring us through life, and through death, so that we find we are back in Paradise. We don't have to know. We are called simply to trust, and to follow the Way before us. And then we will know:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
So Paul says in Colossians 1. May peace be upon you… Amen.
Andrew Prior (2019)
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