Text: Luke 23:33-43
See if you can find the thread in these. The movies Fight Club and The Crying Game. The headline of the Chicago Daily Tribune on November 3, 1948, Dewey Defeats Truman. The book Life of Pi. The Cubs winning the World Series. The Battle of Trenton, 1776. Pearl Harbor. The presidential election of 2016. Can you guess what all these things have in common? All elicit the response: Wow, I didn’t see that coming. In literature, it’s called a plot twist—that moment when something surprising happens at the conclusion of a story or event. These surprise endings can leave us disoriented and scratching our heads to make sense of what just happened.
I have been preaching from the lectionary most of my preaching career. And every year, when I read the lectionary text for this Sunday, I have that moment of saying, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming.” On the eve of getting geared up to go through the process of birthing baby Jesus, we are asked to stop first and experience the grown-up Jesus hanging on a cross—crucified for his resistance to the powers and principalities of the world; crucified for empowering the oppressed and the marginalized; put to death for subverting social systems that designate some worthy and others unworthy. For us people of faith, it is the ultimate surprise ending right here before advent and Christmas. As we prepare for the season of advent, that time of anticipation of God coming into the world in human form, we are faced with this plot twist. Today, we stand in that thin place between the crucified Jesus and the baby Jesus. This is the Sunday in the church year that the lectionary text both disorients and discomforts us. So maybe in our disorientation and discomfort is it good to consider what this text has to say to us.
Following the description in verses 33-38 of the actual crucifixion, the narrative turns to the two men being crucified on either side of Jesus. Despite their suffering and their exhaustion, these two men cannot help but look at Jesus, just like the people and the friends of Jesus do. For them, like us today, Jesus on the cross remains a challenge; when considering his death, it is hard for anyone to remain indifferent.
“One of the men insults Jesus. Why doesn’t Jesus save him, if he has the power to do so? That man asks Jesus to use what he has received from God for his well-being, to make his life easier. And also to accomplish quickly his mission to save others: if he is the Messiah, why doesn’t he help those two crucified men at the end of their life, as he helped so many sick people? If he is the Messiah, why doesn’t he save these two poor dying men…? “Save us,” asks the man on the cross. The other man rebukes the first one. He speaks of a ‘fear of God’ that leads him to recognize his own guilt and Jesus’ innocence. A fear that, far from paralyzing him, opens up for him a hope. At the cross, he finds the courage to think of the future and the strength to pray to Jesus, asking him not to forget him in his kingdom. But his prayer is humble; it does not demand anything. It is an honest prayer; his words show his sincerity: he does not hide the [wrong] he has done. And it is a prayer full of trust…even if before him he only sees a crucified man about to die. This second man has no illusions about his own abilities; he needs Jesus to remember him in order to support him and take care of him. He knows that Jesus’ remembering will be enough to save him. He too asks to be saved.” (Taizé, Meditations and Reflections)
Luke’s narrative depicts two people in the direst moments of their lives with two very different responses. What can we learn from this story that might help our faith in these days? Who hasn’t heard the saying, “life is 10% of what happens and 90% of how we react to it.” Our response to life’s happenings, especially in adverse times, is everything: it is what shapes our ability to shape the world around us. Difficult times are something that we all face at some point in our lives. But it is not the difficult times that define us. It is the way in which we react to them that reveals our true character. All of us can feel defeated when life doesn’t go as planned, but how we respond in those times is what truly defines us. But consider this: how we respond to what happens in our lives not only reveals our character but also actually shapes our quality of life. Yes, it is true what the Greek philosopher said: “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.
In his remarks this year on the anniversary of 9/11, President Barack Obama urged Americans to examine how they have responded and will respond to the threats of terror in our nation. After paying tribute to both military and civilian patriots, he spoke these words:
Perhaps most of all, we stay true to the spirit of this day by defending not only our country, but also our ideals. Fifteen years into this fight, the threat has evolved. With our stronger defenses, terrorists often attempt attacks on a smaller, but still deadly, scale. Hateful ideologies urge people in their own country to commit unspeakable violence. We’ve mourned the loss of innocents from Boston to San Bernardino to Orlando.
Groups like al Qaeda, like ISIL, know that we will never be able — they will never be able to defeat a nation as great and as strong as America. So, instead, they’ve tried to terrorize in the hopes that they can stoke enough fear that we turn on each other and that we change who we are or how we live. And that’s why it is so important today that we reaffirm our character as a nation — a people drawn from every corner of the world, every color, every religion, every background — bound by a creed as old as our founding, e pluribus unum. Out of many, we are one. For we know that our diversity — our patchwork heritage — is not a weakness; it is still, and always will be, one of our greatest strengths…This is the America that we must remain true to.
How we respond matters. It will determine who we are and who we will be as individuals. How we respond matters. It will determine who we are and who we will be as a nation. How we respond matters. It will determine who we are and who we will be as one humanity.
This coming week many of us will visit our families—families that are deeply divided on the state of our nation and the leaders that will lead us over the next four years. Some of us are fortunate to have family members who share our worldview, our values and our fears. But many of us do not have that luxury, or at least not completely. Instead we go home to houses that are as divided as the nation, to families who share our DNA and our history, but who, to our pained bewilderment, stand opposed to our very identity. What will we say? How will we respond?
As we gather in our families, where often there is disagreement, we’re not called to silence our voices in the name of peace, or to temper our conviction and ideals for the purpose of playing nice. Just the opposite. We are called to be clear and to speak with clarity our conviction, our intentions and our interest. And how we do that has the potential to place us on one or the other side of Jesus. We can speak out of fear and blame and desperation; or we can speak first and foremost with humility, and then with faith and hope.
Jim Wallis, Christian writer and political activist, is best known as the founder and editor of Sojourners magazine and the founder of the Washington, D.C.-based community of the same name. In his latest post he writes of 10 commitments for Christians to consider as we live in these chaotic and uncertain times. I share them with you to offer some practical guidance for conversations that no doubt we will all engage in in the coming days.
- Go deeper in faith. Our times require a moral compass. We must replace certainty with reflection. Go from simply belief to actual practice. Seek both courage and humility. Read, study, and live the words of Jesus.
- Lift up truth. Replace fear with facts.
- Reject White Nationalism. Name racism and xenophobia as sins against our neighbors and against the God who made us all in God’s image.
- Love our neighbors by protecting them from hate speech and attacks. Act in support of people who belong to groups who are afraid because they have been targeted.
- Welcome the stranger, as our Scriptures instruct.
- Expose and oppose racial profiling in policing. Reach out to local police departments to make that commitment clear form the faith community.
- Defend religious liberty.
- Work to end misogyny that enables rape culture. Make every effort to replace misogyny with mutual respect.
- Protest with our best values—dignity, discipline, and non-violence.
- Listen. The nation is more divided and polarized than most of us can remember at any time in our lifetimes. If we desire healing, we will need to all listen to each other.
In the end, the only environment we can control is our internal one. Every day we are presented with a variety of situations—emotions, feelings, thoughts, experiences and interactions— and it is up to us how we respond. And how we respond matters—it matters deeply. For those of us who seek to live into the Jesus narrative, we must care for our internal spirit and soul in a way that nurtures compassion, love, mercy while standing firm in the ideals of our faith—truth, justice, and ultimately freedom.
“In each of us there are many different voices that try to express themselves. Among them there are the cries of these two [humans who find themselves on either side of Jesus]. Following the first voice leads to an attitude of accusation, to withdrawal into ourselves and to distancing ourselves from God and from others. Listening to the second voice and giving it precedence can help us to open our eyes in order better to accept what we are, to recognize God’s presence where we did not expect to find it and to ask [for God’s help].” It is true: How we respond matters!
Are you open to a surprise ending?