Setting up the Christmas tree thinking about the cross

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Christ the King, Year C Nov. 24, 2013

Jeremiah 23.1-6; Psalm 46; Colossians 1.11-20; Luke 23.33-43

Pastor Renee Splichal Larson


Grace to you and peace from the One who did not step down off the cross, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

In 2007, when I was in seminary, I had to choose a topic in which to write my Systematic Theology paper.  As a form of torture, I chose to write it on the significance of the death of Jesus.  This in itself became a faith crisis for me because I felt if I concluded that it meant nothing, then I had no business being a pastor.  For the first time in my life I wrestled with what I really believed happened in and as a result of Jesus’ crucifixion, not just what I had been told my whole life.  I had always been told: “Jesus died for you.”  Okay, I certainly appreciate that…but what did it mean?

I would read passages like that of John 3.17: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  How is it that a whole world, including you and me here today, could be saved through a death on a cross that happened 2000 years ago?

Perhaps the challenge here is not how could this happen, but rather, what do we mean by the word, saved?

I am struck by how many times the word “save” is used in our Gospel reading.  The leaders scoffed at Jesus, saying “He saved others; let him save himself…”  The soldiers mocked him saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”  And again, one of the criminals being crucified along with him said, “Are you not the Messiah?  Save yourself and us!”  Save yourself…save us, Jesus.

Imagine if Jesus would have stepped down off the cross that day.  Imagine if he would have called on a band of angels with swords to descend upon those who cast lots for his clothing, the ones who mocked him and nailed his hands and feet to a tree.  It would be like many movies we see these days…the good guy wins out and the bad guys are eliminated.  I have a feeling this is what the one criminal wanted when he asked Jesus to save him.  He wanted to be saved from crucifixion, saved from death, ultimately to die again another day.

But this is not how the story goes.  The three were crucified together at the place of The Skull and died, including Jesus, the Son of God.

It is easy sometimes to get frustrated with God and how God chooses to work in the world.  We could easily join the one criminal in saying, “Aren’t you God?  Then save me from…we could put whatever we want in that blank: save me from cancer, addiction, fear, arthritis, depression, save me from death, the pain of loss, even, save me from myself.”  We ask God: “Why are you not saving me?”  when we continue to struggle, when we continue to suffer, when we will all die anyway.

I greatly appreciate the words of Nicholas Wolterstorff, when he wonders right along with us:

How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us?  You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song—all without lifting a finger that we could see.  You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped.  If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself.

We strain to hear.  But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn.  Through our tears we see the tears of God.

A new and more disturbing question now arises:  Why do you permit yourself to suffer, O God? 

-All Will Be Well: A Gathering of Healing Prayers, Edited by Lyn Klug, pericope written by Nicholas Wolterstorff, p. 67.

God’s explanation does not come in the form of words, but in the form of his own flesh nailed to a cross.  One of the criminals crucified next to Jesus had eyes to see this.  He could see God with him in his dying through Jesus.  He could imagine life after he breathed his last in this world.  He trusted that Jesus would remember him despite all odds.  He did not ask Jesus to save him by coming down from the cross; he simply asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his Kingdom.  It is here where the saving words come from Jesus’ dying lips: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

The irony of the story is that the only way Jesus could really save him and all those gathered round the crosses that day was by dying.  There is no resurrection to eternal life, no being with God in Paradise without the cross, without death.

To most people this doesn’t make sense.  It is almost offensive.  It takes all of our intellect and reason to try and wrap our minds around why God would choose to do it this way, to save all through dying himself.  It doesn’t look anything like what we might think of as “saving.”

We wish God would go about it a different way, like never dying in the first place, like always curing us of our diseases and making us immortal in order that we not have to draw our last breath, yet only by dying can death be defeated.

Last night we put up the Christmas tree in our living room.  We usually don’t put it up this early, but for some reason this year is an exception.  As we were putting out nativity scenes and stringing the tree with lights I kept thinking about the crucifixion of Jesus.  The story seems so out of place.  It feels like Good Friday, yet we are heading into the season of Advent, the season of blessed waiting in which we end up with new life…the birth of Christ.

It is in this collision of seasons in which we all can be reminded of the whole story of God’s saving work in Jesus.  God taking on human skin and coming into the world as an infant.  God walking the earth, teaching, loving, and healing.  God dying on the cross for your sake and for mine.  God rising from the grave after three days to not let death have the last word.

The cross is relevant in every season, not just Holy week.  The cross is how Christ brings us all into the heart of God.  As it says in our second reading today: “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 (Col.1.20).”  Because of the cross, no one is left out.  Everyone is welcomed into the deep love of God.

What if I told you that you have already been saved?  My desire is that all of us here would have the confidence that when asked whether or not you are saved, you can confidently and boldly say, “I, along with the rest of the creation, was saved 2000 years ago when God entered this world in Jesus and when he breathed his last on the cross.”

Salvation doesn’t mean everything’s great in your life, it means realizing that you have already been saved by the incredible grace, love, and mercy of God.  And in this knowing, it is meant to change you life.  We have an example of this when the one hanging on the cross asks Jesus to remember him.

After a number of months of struggle and wrestling with my faith in order to discover whether or not I thought the death of Jesus meant anything, this is where I landed and where I continue to stay:

The death of Jesus means that you don’t have to wonder whether or not God cares about you.  The cross is the love of God for you.

You don’t need to wonder whether or not God is with you, especially when you are hurting.  The cross tells us God does not abandon you.  Jesus did not step down from the cross; he will not walk away from you.

You don’t need to wonder whether or not you belong anywhere or in this church.  The cross draws all people to Jesus…you belong here as a part of Heart River Lutheran and you belong in other faith communities outside of this place.

The cross tells us that Jesus is for everyone, not just some people.

Today we remember and celebrate Christ as king…someone we give our life to, to rule over and transform our hearts.  You are saved, you are forgiven…live in the new life God gives to you in Jesus Christ.