Today, we come full-circle. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been following Jesus through the gospel according to Luke, as he makes his way to Jerusalem for the last time.
Next week, we’ll begin the season of Advent, which is the start of our church year. In some ways, that makes today kind of like New Year’s Eve, where we remind ourselves where we’ve come from and where we’re going.
As we look forward to the cute baby Jesus, swaddled tightly and lying peacefully on some hay, it’s important for us to remember who this adorable baby grows up to be – the King of Kings, crucified and risen.
Scripture: Luke 23:33-43
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[ Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
final Sunday in the church year is called ‘Christ the King’ Sunday – it’s the
day we remember not only who Jesus was on earth, but that Jesus still lives and
reigns forever at the right hand of God.
And I think this piece of Scripture, perhaps more than any other, demonstrates for us what kind of King we have.
Jesus chose the way of the cross. He chose to die a painful death so that the whole world might be redeemed – every sin forgiven, every mistake washed away. His friends and disciples mostly abandoned him, choosing to save themselves. And while he was dying, the religious leaders mocked him and the Roman soldiers drew straws for his clothes. Even the condemned man next to him couldn’t help joining in.
And still, he asks that they would be forgiven. He doesn’t retaliate. He doesn’t sass them right back. He doesn’t Hulk out.
When the other condemned man asks for mercy, he receives it fully and freely. No one asks what he did or why he did it. There’s no big ceremony. There’s just mercy – and the promise of peace at the last.
The King of Kings is not a tyrant, sitting on a throne somewhere waiting to zap us with lightning bolts when we screw up. The King of Kings is the same man who willingly sacrificed himself for others, who was raised from the dead by the power of God, and who calls each and every one of us to follow in his footsteps.
But we don’t do that just by thinking about how great Jesus is.
It takes some actual shoes to help us live into the life and love of Jesus.
Why are all of my Chucks on the chancel, you ask?
Because these shoes provide us a visual walk-through of the church calendar, which is based on the major events in Jesus’ life. Each season or holiday has its own color to help remind us where we are, and every Sunday, my shoes match those colors.
So I’ve put them in order for us, and we’re going to run through the whole church year in the next ten minutes. Buckle up.
Advent begins the year, and it’s one of my favorite seasons – because we don’t begin the new church year with grand promises of self-improvement that we all know would be forgotten by Christmas anyway. Instead, we start by waiting on God to show up in our midst. I often call purple our ‘waiting color’, because it goes with the seasons where we’re waiting and preparing for something amazing to happen. But purple, in the ancient world, was often associated with royalty – so in a sort of roundabout way, purple also reminds us that Jesus is King, that God is God, and we are not. This gives us space to breathe, to stop our frantic striving for perfection and acceptance, and let God show up for us.
The culmination of Advent is, of course, Christmas – which is celebrated with the color white. At Christmas we celebrate that God isn’t up there somewhere waiting on us to get our acts together, but that God came to us in the most intimate way possible: by becoming one of us. Christmas, where God becomes human and vulnerable, a tiny baby born to working-class parents and laid not in a royal crib but in a feed trough, is the beginning of God’s grand rescue plan. As the gospel of John puts it: God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
So we celebrate Christmas for twelve days, beginning on the 25th and ending on Epiphany – which celebrates the arrival of the wise people bringing baby Jesus gifts fit for a king. Epiphany itself is on January 6th, but we usually celebrate it on the closest Sunday. The color for that day is also white.
After Epiphany comes a growing season, marked by the color green, where we focus on Jesus’ ministry in the world and how God is calling us to grow as God’s people. Because the later part of the calendar shifts each year, this season might be three weeks or seven. It’s a surprise every year!
Then comes Ash Wednesday. On this day, we mark ourselves with a cross made of ash. This is both a reminder of our humanity – that each of us will one day return to ash and dust, and symbol of our desire to repent of all the ways we fail, and to dedicate ourselves to being disciples of Jesus. The ashes we use come from the palms of the previous year’s Palm Sunday, which reminds us of just how fragile and finicky our hearts can be. Ash Wednesday launches us into Lent, which is a purple season.
Lent is modeled on Jesus’ 40 day fast in the wilderness after his baptism and before he began his public ministry. That’s why some choose to fast from something during Lent, and why Lent is 40 days long – not counting Sundays.
Fun fact: Lent was, at one point in the early life of the church, the season where new converts to the faith would go through an intensive period of study and mentoring in preparation for baptism on Easter.
Today, Lent is more popularly known for ‘those people who give up chocolate or swearing or whatever’ and fish fries.
But the goal isn’t just to randomly punish yourself – the goal of Lent for most Protestants is to prepare our hearts for Holy Week and Easter by reminding ourselves what it means to sacrifice something we enjoy for something that’s better.
Holy Week is what we call the week leading up to Easter. It begins with Palm Sunday, where Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey and the people are so excited and delighted that they cut branches off the nearby palm trees to wave around and line the streets. They shout ‘Hosanna!’, which means ‘save us!’
Maundy Thursday has a weird name, but it’s another one of my favorites. This is the celebration of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, where he said: “I give you a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you.” The word ‘Maundy’ comes from the Latin ‘mandatum’, which means ‘commandment.’ This is the day we remember Jesus’ generosity and compassion, and we celebrate the Lord’s Supper together knowing that at the end of that night, Jesus would be betrayed by someone he loved, whom he also fed at that same table.
Good Friday is the consequence of that betrayal, and the climax of God’s redemption plan. Jesus knew that he would die, and he went to the cross willingly on our behalf – enduring everything that came with capital punishment in ancient Israel. We call it ‘Good Friday’ not because what happened to Jesus was good in any sense of the word – but because on that day, as we’ve already heard, Jesus showed just how good and loving and generous and forgiving he really is.
Saturday is sometimes known as ‘Silent Saturday’. It’s the space between Good Friday and Easter morning, where grief and fear are real and present – and that’s okay, because we know what Jesus’ friends didn’t: Sunday’s coming.
After the roller coaster Holy Week, Easter feels explosive. Where there was mourning, now there is dancing. Where there was hate and betrayal, now there is forgiveness and reconciliation. Where there was death, now there is life. The colors for Easter are white and gold – the colors of light and life. Some of us get up to see the sun rise together, waiting for those first rays of light so someone can burst in the door and say ‘Christ is risen!’ We crave Easter all year round, I think, and that’s our heart’s way of reminding us what the new life we have in Christ feels like at its best.
Easter is also a season – seven Sundays of celebrating resurrection, and walking with the disciples as they encounter the resurrected Jesus in many times and places and ways. This is the season where we receive again the great commission: go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. Surely, Jesus says, I am with you always – to the very end of the age.
Jesus fulfills that promise on Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit comes rushing in looking like fire and sounding like a freight train, and the gathered people hear the good news of Jesus’ resurrection for the first time in their own languages. God breaks down every barrier and the church begins to form. The color for Pentecost is red, like fire.
After Pentecost, we enter another growing season, often called Ordinary Time. It’s not called ordinary time because it’s ordinary or boring or doesn’t have any meaning. Originally, ordinary time just meant ‘counting time,’ because we would count the Sundays. These days, I prefer ‘growing time,’ because we get to explore and study and wonder about everything from Jesus’ ministry and the early church in the New Testament to the creation story, the prophets, and the psalms in the Old Testament. It’s the season when we mine the Bible and its stories for all they’re worth to help us cultivate a faith that both sustains and challenges us. That’s why the color is green – to remind us to keep growing, to keep facing the sun.
At the end of this growing season comes Christ the King Sunday, which is where we are today – celebrating the cosmic King who is above all powers.
And so, we come full-circle to start again, walking with Jesus.
The church calendar is never meant to be confining, but instead to give us an opportunity to be formed over and over again by the life of Christ. As scholar and author Henri Nouwen put it: “you don’t think your way into a new way of living; you live your way into a new way of thinking.”
Going through this process over and over again gives us the opportunity not just to tell this story, but to experience it in new and different ways. We get to live the anticipation of Advent and the excitement of Christmas, the long weeks of Lent, the roller coaster of Holy Week, and the joy of Easter. We are commissioned again on Pentecost and planted like seedlings for each growing season.
So as we begin again this week, even as we give thanks for all that God has given us, my prayer for you is a blessing from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
May Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.