When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus 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 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.’
When the Morland Choristers’ Camp was here in the summer, with their production of Alice through the Looking Glass, I said that the Kingdom of Heaven was like a looking glass world. When you look into it, everything is back to front. Its king is born in a stable, its most valued citizens are the meek, the greatest in it are the smallest children.
In God’s kingdom, the richest are the poorest and the poorest the richest, the last are first and the first are last. It all looks back to front. But the more closely you look at that looking glass world, the more you realise that it is the world where everything is the right way around and this is the world where everything is back to front.
And there is no starker demonstration of that than today’s Gospel reading. Today is the feast of Christ the King. It is the culmination of our year-long journey through the Gospel of Luke. For the whole year, we have been journeying with Jesus as he teaches about his kingdom and then journeys to Jerusalem to claim his crown. We have been building up to this moment, straining for it. And now, when it finally comes, the vision we are presented with, of Christ on his throne in all his glory, turns out to be a tortured figure on a Cross, dying as a criminal in a public execution. It could not be further from our notions of kingship.
And yet the very fact that we struggle to identity this figure with kingship tells us how very back to front we have got things. Why is it that we can only conceive of kings as powerful figures arrayed in glittering gold? Even in the Church, we deck our images of Jesus in gold and put his image in the highest stain glass windows, or (in some traditions) in the ceiling far above us all. And yet, in his earthly life, he was never more than a carpenter. And when we meet him face to face, and bow down before him in worship, I believe that we will find him a carpenter still, because that’s who he is. And that’s the kind of king he is.
We struggle to recognise that kind of kingship because we live in a looking glass world, where all our values are back to front. In this world, the rich and powerful are the most important. But Jesus said that in his kingdom the meek would inherit the earth. And Jesus, our king, embodies that meekness.
In this world, power and authority belong to those who can rule over us and bend us to their wills. “But it is not so with you,” Jesus told his disciples, “rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” Our very notions of kingship are all the wrong way about. For Jesus, it is not about bending our wills to his, but in gathering in the true hearts, who yearn to live his way, who have experienced his kindness and gentle rule in such contrast to the ways of this world that we want no other way to live.
Only in Jesus do we see what true kingship is. In Jesus, we see that kingship is about serving us, putting us first and encouraging us to put others first. In Jesus, we see that kingship is about valuing life over objects. In Jesus, we see that kingship is about recognising the true riches of this world, not in material wealth, power and independence, but in mutual dependence, self sacrifice and eternal, life-giving love. The real treasure is found when we recognise the image of God in the least of our fellow human beings and find ourselves able to love and serve them as Christ our king loves and serves us.
Everything about Jesus’ kingship is back to front, because we are living in a looking glass world. That is why our king is presented to us today, dying on the Cross for our sakes, facing the consequences of our back-to-front values, our muddle-headed way of living and our back to front understanding of kingship.
But in all the strangeness of the scene, there is one person who recognises the Jesus on the Cross as the true king – the thief hanging beside him. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” What makes him recognise this broken figure as the king in whose kingdom he longs to live?
The answer lies a few verses before, when the other criminal abuses Jesus. He replies, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”
He is able to recognise the true nature of Jesus because he first recognises the truth about himself. His lifetime of grasping at the expense of others, of putting himself first, of trying to find value in the material world, has left him completely empty. He is naked and dying. Everything he worshipped in life has betrayed him. Everything he tried to build his life upon has failed him. He is the true Christian, because he faces the truth of who he is, renounces the false kingdom of this world and reaches out in longing for the king who is willing to die for him.
The two thieves represent us and present us with the choice that Jesus’ kingship confronts us with. Are we still only able to recognise the kingship of this world, based on money and power? That kingship will never give us meaning or value. Quite the reverse. It will only value us for what it can get out of us. The only meaning it can offer us is the wealth that others long to take from us. Is that the only kingdom we can recognise? Or can we recognise true kingship in the God who, though he needs nothing from us, still values us above his own life, just because he loves us? Who, instead of taking from us, offers his life to save us from the kingdom this world and to give us new life in his kingdom?
And the choice between these two kingdoms is more personal than we might think. Because the secular false king who needs to be deposed turns out to be none other than our own selves. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve are tempted to take the forbidden fruit when they are told that it will make them like God, making themselves kings of their own lives, without the need for God. It turns out to be a terrible lie, leaving them naked, empty and dying – like the thief on the Cross. Their story is a universal human story. The desire to be kings of our own lives is the very thing that impoverishes and destroys us.
At the end of Alice through the Looking Glass, a fed-up Alice decides that she doesn’t want to be queen in the looking glass world after all. She hands the crown back and steps back through the looking glass to home, where she can be herself. That is what the kingship of Jesus invites us to do, as it is revealed on his Cross. Leave the looking glass world behind, hand back the fake crown and become our true selves, as subjects of the only true king and the only true kingdom. Here is a king we can truly want to obey, with all our heart, self in the Cross and Christ upon the throne. What other king could we ever want?
Preached: – Bolton, Morland, 24 November 2019