A parent's hope for their child is that he or she will find a place in the world, a place to belong. Sometimes we communicate that through expectations that our son or daughter will be this or that, marry a person who holds a particular set of values or achievements. When life is brought into the world, it comes with all kinds of spoken or unspoken expectations.
The night before my daughter was born, my spouse and I prayed aloud, "God, I hope she will be weird like us." We hoped that she would find a place of belonging in our family, appreciate her dad's nerdy sense of humor, move her body to the strange folk music her mother played in the house, learn to appreciate the kind of life we hold sacred.
Reign of Christ Sunday is the fulfillment of expectation, a fulfillment perhaps most deeply experienced, not by human beings or the church, but by God. We participate in this day, not as a time to say, "Look what we did! Christ's work is completed!" but to see and celebrate a different kind of power ruling this world. The gospel lessons for this Sunday are from Luke 1:68-79, which includes Zechariah's prophecy at the birth of his son John the Baptist, and then Luke's account of the crucifixion in the 23rd chapter. These passages are two gospel bookends of God's power reigning in its most unusual way.
We know the story of Jesus began long before John the Baptist became a twinkle in his parents' eyes, and God's power continues to resurrection and beyond. But at these critical points in the story, we, God's children, find our place in God's values.
Let's take Zechariah's prophecy first--what a pronouncement!
Zechariah, whose tongue has finally been set loose after Elizabeth's pregnancy, is standing around the temple, prophesying about God and who his child will be in God's powerful drama of loving the world, like he's got 9 months of bragging speech to make up for: "You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to God's people, by the forgiveness of their sins." Imagine, hearing that at a baby shower. "What are your dreams for baby John?" "Oh, I hope he's a killer shortstop and prepares the way for the Lord. Some camelhair and locusts would just be the cherry on top."
And yet, deep down, this prophecy makes a place for all who cling to God's saving power in Jesus Christ. The Christian life is one of preparing the way for the Lord, giving knowledge of salvation to God's people and reminding the world that as sinful as it is, the kind of power God possesses is enough for the greatest problems of our time. Zechariah's prophecy is our charge as the body of Christ.
Here is the church, pointing to Christ.
We are prophets, we are change agents; we are reminders to the world of God's tender mercy and forgiveness.
And yet. The other end of Luke's gospel reminds us of this other place we inhabit within Christ's power.
"They came to the place called the Skull; there they crucified Jesus with criminals." In this scene the parents are gone, the days of wondering about a child's potential is long behind them. The Son of Man has come of age, in a place of shame. There they tried to kill the power of Christ, and there it broke into its fullest power. This is Jesus' crowning glory. Here, where power tried to trump love, the first response to this painful violence was sneering. The crowds began with sneering, and then the soldiers mocked him, and then the first criminal begins to lay into him: Well...DO SOMETHING! I mean, you've saved other people, now's your chance!
You've heard the statistic that life is "10% what happens to you, and 90% how you react to it." Watch the reactions to Christ coming to power through weakness. First they sneered at him, then they mocked him, then the firstcriminal doubts him, indicting Jesus with a false sense of his power. How often do we find ourselves doing this to very real power at work in the world?
Luke's scene at the cross highlights the human condition: our first instinct is to sneer, to mock, to remind ourselves and the world that we can always count on being better than some other poor schmuck. Even the criminals there find a way to one-up the lowest of the low.
We sneer and jab and make satire of what has the ability to reach us most deeply. Think about how fun it's been in the recent US election cycle to laugh at comics and faux news about whatever candidate we felt most deserved our loathing. To point the finger at whatever is "other" and strange and inconceivable to say, "Well, at least I'm not that."
I tremble to compare a political candidate's campaign to the reign of Christ, but I wonder if our reactions to these tense moments teach us more about ourselves than they do about what is happening on the world's stage.
The second criminal responds to his partner in crucifixion: Don't you fear God, seeing that you also have been sentenced to death? We are rightly condemned, we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.
And there's the church, doing its job, living its niche, even on the cross next to Christ. Criminal number 2 is there, pointing to Christ, like John the Baptist. There, Criminal 2 prepares a way. Criminal 2 shows the rest of us who are rightly condemned, who carry sin within us, the victory, the reign of Christ beginning, even in the most difficult moment yet.
Here where God's power seems least likely to be found, here where the lowest of the low has sunk down, here God reigns supreme. God's light cannot be put out in this shameful place. Followers of Christ have a place here too--to live into our identity as ones "crucified with Christ." Even in life's most difficult moments, we are called to point to his power being made perfect in weakness.
As we search for proof of Christ's reign now centuries and continents away from Luke's gospel, we find our place of belonging. So, where will we look? Where is the power of Christ? Is it in tall steeples? Is it in focused marketing efforts or Facebook page likes?
The second criminal turns to Jesus and prays, "Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom." We participate in Christ's reign when we let God remember us, when we allow the Holy Spirit to re-member us, put us back to God's self and to each other. There God gives us the strength to point, when we don't know what to expect, to point, when we are in a shame-cycle of sorrow, to point, with our action and our living to Christ present among us. Here is the church, pointing to Christ. We are sinners, we are doubters, we are justly condemned. Here we take part in the drama of Christ's power; that trumps everything else.
Then the second criminal addresses Jesus: Remember me, when you come into your kingdom."
Let us pray. Jesus, re-member us, when you come into your kingdom, by your amazing power, power we often do not recognize. Put us back together, to each other, to our common purpose, and most of all, to you. By the power of Christ we pray. Amen.