Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
Jeremiah writes against a backdrop of crisis in political leadership. The ‘shepherds of Israel’ – the royal house of David and other members of the ruling party in Jerusalem – scatter the sheep and drive them away. Those in charge make misjudged alliances. They impose heavy burdens of taxation on the people, even imposing compulsory labour on some of them. They build grand houses for themselves, using their office for personal gain. They are self-serving, vain, and weak.
And their actions do scatter the people. In 587 BC the Babylonians took Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and carried off many of the people into exile. The Davidic kingship was brought to an end. At a stroke, two of the central pillars of Jewish self-understanding were gone: the temple and the king. In these the people had invested their identity as God’s chosen people. Without them, and scattered abroad, the people had to do a complete rethink about the nature of their relationship with God.
And yet Jeremiah’s message is one of hope. In the midst of terrible political leadership; beyond the ruins of the temple and the humiliations of exile is the promise of a new king, a righteous Branch, who shall rule wisely and execute justice in the land.
In time, the restoration of the Davidic king became part of the hope for a messiah, one who would save Israel and restore its fortunes. In our Gospel reading today, we hear of the death of one considered a pretender to this throne: Jesus of Nazareth, mockingly derided as the king of the Jews.
For the Jews at the time, the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion is all the evidence they need that for all his lofty claims to divine Sonship or regal authority he is simply a troublesome rabble-rouser. Crucifixion was the worst form of death – reserved for slaves and criminals – and cursed under Jewish Law. No anointed one of the Lord could possibly be found hanging on a cross.
Yet this is the scene as Luke shows it. Crucified between two criminals, convicted in a sham trial and strung up as a public spectacle to discourage anyone else who had ideas about challenging Roman rule, Jesus is a humiliated, broken figure, condemned by Jewish and Roman leaders, watched mutely by the crowd, and scorned by one of his neighbours in crucifixion. Stripped even of his clothes, this is a scene designed to reduce him to nothing. This is where proclamation of his kingdom has brought him.
And he is scorned for it: ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ scoff the leaders. ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself’, taunt the soldiers. ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself, and us’ cries the criminal at Jesus’ side. Do you hear the echoes of an earlier taunt? ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here…’ (Luke 4.9). This is the voice of the devil, and the echoes in this scene show who is on which side. For those who scorn Jesus the only way in which his claims can be judged to be true is if he miraculously saves himself from the death of the cross. A crucified Messiah makes no kind of sense. So on their lips the titles of Messiah and King of the Jews and chosen one are designed to mock and ridicule. But they are true. ‘Save yourself, and us’ says the criminal. And Jesus is saving them – all of them – but not without giving himself up to death.
For those who see in the crucifixion all the evidence they need that Jesus was wrong-headed or delusional, Luke gives a contrary narrative. Firstly, the way he depicts the crucifixion shows it as a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy: in the language he uses and in the events he describes he draws on various Old Testament passages to show that this is all in accordance with God’s plan. And then in Jesus’ actions we see further confirmation of his regal status. From the depths of humiliation he prays to his Father, he forgives those who have put him there, and he promises Paradise to the penitent thief. These are all the actions of the Messiah, the true King of the Jews.
So what Luke’s saying is that here, on the cross, Jesus is king. It isn’t an awful aberration, a catastrophic wrong turn in the divine plan. This is Jesus, the king who will save his people – but he will not save them from death, but through death.
Here Jeremiah’s prophecy finally comes to fulfilment. ‘I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.’ This is what divine kingship looks like. For all that Jesus reigns over the whole creation as Lord and King, it is the same Jesus who reigns from the cross. Here, he reconciles the scattered people of God, drawing them back not into a political and national entity but to God’s kingdom. Jesus’ promise to the penitent thief is the promise he makes to all who will trust in him: paradise, a new creation. It is entirely in keeping with Jesus’ ministry as Luke tells it that the true confession of faith in this scene comes from a criminal, an outsider, from one rejected and condemned.
All that we see of Jesus in this scene shows us the pattern of God’s authority. This is how he reigns. The one to whom all glory, majesty, power and authority belongs subjects himself to the power and authority of the world, in all its grubbiness, compromise, and sin. Accepting insults, enduring contempt, misunderstood by those he came to save, he uses his authority not to escape suffering, nor to exact retribution, but to forgive, to save, to draw into his kingdom those who’ve always been told they don’t belong.
This is what true authority, God’s authority, looks like. Amid the shepherds of every age who would divide and scatter, who would use their authority to shore up their own positions and disdain the poor, Jesus stands as the king who shows us God’s heart, and who sets a pattern for us to follow. In the midst of all the competing claims and clamour of our politicians, it is Christ the King and his call for which we must listen; it is his kingdom which we must seek first.