Here we are at the gate of the year. Traditionally known as Stir up Sunday, the end of one liturgical year and the moment when we begin to think about the next. And next week, Advent Sunday, we begin the Christian story all over again; we’ll prepare for the Incarnation, for the gift of God’s son, for annual celebrations and festivities. But, despite the fact that the shops are stocked up with Christmas goods, we’re not quite there yet. This week we have half an eye on what is to come, but at the same time we look backwards and reflect on the year that has passed. This isn’t the moment to reflect on our personal year, that comes in a few weeks time, but rather a moment to reflect on what we have learned about God in the course of this past year. Our three year cycle of readings tells the stories we know in slightly different ways, year on year, and this year we’ve been engaging with the life and ministry of Jesus Christ through the lens of Luke.
Luke was a physician. He was a Gentile. He writes in a refined and vivid way. At the heart of Luke’s Gospel are people. Luke teaches us about Jesus by telling stories about how Jesus interacted with people, many of whom were not exactly the great and the good.
Luke shows us how Jesus behaved and the impact he had on people as a way of making sure that we understand who Jesus was. On this Sunday when we celebrate the kingship of Jesus, we might have anticipated an upbeat Gospel reading, something that spoke about leadership and strength, stories about power and authority, but instead we find ourselves reading about the events that took place at Calvary. We are pushed immediately into a counter cultural definition of kingship, into allowing our ideas to be challenged – hopefully into a place of curiosity where we want to know more.
Luke’s description of the crucifixion sets out its stall by telling us what the various characters are doing and saying. We are drawn into the story as we are encouraged to both look and listen – to engage as fully as we can with what is unfolding. We are not given a lot of gory detail about crucifixion, Luke’s audience would have known that all too well, but there is plenty going on. In Luke’s Passion narrative, we learn about Jesus primarily by hearing what the other people who were there said and how he responded to them. It’s about what he said, what he chose not to say, and how he treated people, not about what was done to him and how he coped.
The scene we’re concerned with this morning is counter cultural from its opening verses. It begins with Jesus offering forgiveness rather than blame – Father, forgive them. So this is a compassionate king; this is a king who understands the people around him; this is a king who is thinking of others rather than himself. And he quickly becomes a king who is mocked and verbally abused. And what we learn this morning is that he doesn’t engage with that negativity. The leaders and the soldiers did their best to rile him, but there is no recorded response.
And then one of the criminals joined in. It seems as though he picked up the mood of the moment and chose to have his fun. And still, there is no response from Jesus – the rebuke comes from the other criminal. Jesus finally responds, he responds to the positivity of the more honest criminal, the one who recognises him for who and what he is: Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom. And now, this king does respond. He responds with generosity and with a gift of hope – today you will be with me in paradise.
So this is a king who responds to the positive movements around him and who is able to let the negativity pass over. This is a king who brings hope into a hopeless situation, who brings a reminder that there is something more to focus on and to look forward to. A king who is able and willing to invite people into his kingdom. And look at who is being invited. Not the people who might deserve that invitation; not the people who have done their best to get alongside him; not even his closest companions. The invitation is issued to a pair of criminals who, we might assume, he hadn’t met before and who by their own admission deserved to be punished rather than rewarded.
Within these few verses we have learned much about the king whom we celebrate and honour this morning. And in doing so, we can reflect on what we may have learned about the nature of God in the course of a year spent reading about our God through the lens of Luke’s gospel. Time and again, Luke shows us something about God by showing us what happens when Jesus engages with people, people from all sorts of backgrounds and situations.
This has been about relationships. We’ve learned about the relationships that Jesus had with the people he met during the course of his life and ministry. We’ve read about how Jesus responded to people whoever they were – those who had made mistakes, those who were uncertain and those who were in no doubt that their Messiah was in their midst. In each and every situation, he shows us something of the nature of God. He accepts people whoever they are; he hears the voices that repent and responds compassionately to them; he hears the voices of the hypocrites and calls them out. He reminds us time and again that relationship with God is central to our wellbeing and ability to thrive.
This particular Sunday, we are called, yet again, into that relationship with God. We are reminded that no-one is beyond God’s love; that no-one lives without hope. God’s kingdom is the jurisdiction of the king whom we honour today. That king calls each one of us to get alongside him. He responds to our positive words and actions and he allows our negativity to fall by the wayside. That king encourages us to see who he is and to reflect on who we are.
His starting place this morning was to offer forgiveness and his ending place was to offer hope.
We recognise the kingship of Jesus in what he said, what he chose not to say and how he responded to the people around him. We honour that kingship when we are mindful about what we say, what we choose not to say and how we respond to the people around us.