The gospel of Luke, which we have been reading since last Advent; the gospel of Luke, from its beginning to its end, is about a revolution, the quiet revolution of the Magnificat, the secret story of a young woman who finds herself pregnant and knows it to be a blessing, not only for herself, but in the day of the Lord’s favour, hope for the helpless, food for the hungry, freedom for the captive. It is fitting that the climax of the story that Luke tells finds a king crucified; the turnabout predicted in that opening song.
And yet it is all wrong. This is not the king that we expect to see hung on the cross to die. This is not the rich man reversed, or the proud man scattered in the imagination of his heart. This is not the revolution we were looking for. This is all wrong.
I suspect that most of us have more sympathy for the point of view of the “bad” thief than we would care to admit in polite company. What is the point, he asks, of a king, a Messiah, a superhero who cannot save himself in time to cut the cords binding us to the cross? The king that we celebrate on this Christ the King Sunday is one who has been relegated to the realms of mockery by the powers that be, one who has been betrayed and abandoned by his own people, one who has been assassinated in accordance with the laws of the land. Can you see the political cartoonists gathered around the foot of the cross, furiously sketching their crowns of thorns in time for publication in the Sunday papers?
It is not the revolution anyone expected. It is not the sudden reversal of fortunes, the routing of the Romans, the reestablishment of the Davidic King in the heart of Jerusalem that some hoped for, longed for; it is a revolution, nonetheless. It is a quiet revolution that began in the synagogues of Galilee, when Jesus stood before the congregation and took up the scroll of Isaiah the prophet, and declared,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:16-19)
Here, at the end, Jesus is still turning the tables, fulfilling the prophet’s word, proclaiming to the captive release, liberty to the oppressed, the acceptable year of the Lord. The Oxford Bible Commentary makes the point that the welcome that Jesus extends to the criminal crucified next to him is a continuation of the very same work that he has been doing throughout the gospel, including the outcast, bringing good news to the tax collectors, embracing sinners; that quiet revolution in which the Pharisees and the scribes are left scratching their heads while Jesus parties with the disreputable crowd, the unsophisticated hosts, the penitent whores.
Even here at the end, as one thief reaches out in hope against hope to Jesus, Jesus still reaches back and promises, against all the odds, from the jaws of death itself, he promises life. He promises, from the heart of a violent and dangerous kingdom, peace. He promises, from a hillside called The Skull, from an instrument of torture, from a place of pain and suffering, he promises Paradise.
The quiet revolution of the Magnificat, the coming of God’s kingdom: it’s a little too quiet, sometimes, for our taste. We, with the first thief, would prefer the dramatic descent from the cross, the action-filled finale in which Pilate receives his comeuppance and Herod and Caiaphas their just desserts. We want to see vindication, preferably in Technicolor. We are impatient for the acceptable year of the Lord.
And yet, listen to the promise of Jesus from the cross: Today, you will be with me in Paradise.
There is a difference between the kind of God who breaks history in order to bring about his kingdom, who hurls thunderbolts and crumbles crosses and causes unlikely deus ex machina endings in order to achieve his purposes; there is a difference between the gods of the old stories who break history, and the kind of God who breaks into history in order to be with us, to live with us, as one of us, to remake history around us, to allow us to live into the promise of a godly kingdom for ourselves, as free and whole and human beings. The kind of God who brings about a quiet revolution, good news for the poor, liberty to the oppressed, the year of the Lord’s favour. The kind of God who acts less upon us as through us, with us, alongside us; even hanging on the cross next to us.
Rudolf Bultmann says, “God as acting does not refer to an event which can be perceived by me without myself being drawn into the event as into God’s action, without myself taking part in it as being acted upon. In other words, to speak of God as acting involves the events of personal existence.”
In other, other words, we perceive the quiet revolution of God by participating in it; we receive God’s love by recognizing what it is to love another; we acknowledge Christ’s kingship by realizing that we long for the kingdom of God. Discipleship has always meant doing the work of following Jesus; it is not a spectator sport, any more than a revolution is an entertainment event. Jesus did not destroy the cross but led the way through it, so that those of us who face our own perils and pains and trials might find a way through them, too, and, and so that we might help the others who hang beside us.
Today, you will be with me in Paradise.
For a first-century Jew, that promise was not one of endings but of respite, a place of rest and peace before the final resurrection. A place to regroup, regather, rest up. Because the real revolution didn’t happen that day on the cross. I mean, yes, of course that was part of it; but what about this revolution:
“On the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices which they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel; and as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead?’” (Luke 24:1-5)
As we turn our faces towards Advent, we wait not for a king who lived and died long ago, relegated the history books full of revolutions and empires and kingdoms. We do not look among the dead for the living God, but we look into our own lives and see where God has been all along, and we recognize the signs of the coming Christ in the reminders that God has been with us all along, and we hear him whisper, Today, you will be with me in Paradise.