Some King of kings! Proper 29C, 21 November 2004, Luke 23:35-43
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Proper 29C 2004 Luke 23:35-43
Some King of kings, nailed up there on that Cross!
When I was a young boy this whole business of Jesus on the Cross seemed very strange to me, almost unbelievable – actually
really unbelievable. I had accepted all the rest of the Christ event – the Nativity, the miracles, and the rest. But
the Crucifixion, the death on the Cross, was hard to swallow. How could this be! Like the Roman soldiers at the foot of
the Cross mocking Jesus, I wondered why a person with power over life and death couldn’t – or wouldn’t –
save himself. I was certain that I would have saved myself. Hard questions for a 12 year old to address – hard at
any age, really.
I hadn’t yet reached the stage at which I began to understand that God loved the whole creation so much he was willing
to die for it. Especially in South Carolina which is in general only slightly less – or slightly more --fundamentalist
now than it was then and from whose pulpits in my little hometown was thundered the message of hell and damnation and perpetual
judgement and punishment. Very little about grace and salvation and almost nothing about divine love.
As a twelve year old I was wrestling with what theologians called the scandal of particularity. It is the question raised
in the gospel lesson for today: “If he is the Messiah, let him save himself,” scoffed the civil leaders. “If
you are the King of the Jews, save yourself,” mocked the soldiers. “Are you not the Messiah?” snarled the
first thief. “Save yourself and us.” In those early years of mine, I wondered why he didn’t. That surely
would have been a totally convincing sign that Jesus was God in Christ.
Saint Paul addressed this question this no less than five times in the first three chapters of his first letter to the young
church in the Greek city of Corinth. The message about the Cross is foolishness to those who cannot or will not believe;
it makes sense only to those who do believe in the everlasting love and graciousness of God. The message about the Cross
is foolishness to those who think Jesus was only and ignorant peasant prophet, only a lowly carpenter, who was conceived under
questionable circumstances. And then for whatever reason he became only a revolutionary against the religious and secular
authorities, couldn’t keep his mouth shut, and was seen as a threat to the good order of the Roman Empire. So he was
executed fittingly between two common thieves in the normal manner the Romans executed such people.
Anything else, any other meaning, is impossible. Foolishness, in fact. Sheer foolishness. The scandal of particularity,
and it plagued the early church during the first century AD. It probably wasn’t settled until the Councils of Nicea
Chalcedon finished its work in 451 AD, over 400 years after the Crucifixion.
In later years my own faith grew and I accepted it as something to believe whether it made sense or not. I think it was when
my own children grew old enough to be read something more than Dr. Seuss -- and that is not to put down the Seuss books as
simple – many are not. In fact, one of the more interesting retreats I’ve been on was one based on a gospel reading
of “Horton Hatches a Who.” But I digress.
Anyway there is a recent book called whose title is “The God Gene”. It is written by Dr. Dean Hamer, a research
geneticist at the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of health. Hamer believes that faith is hardwired
into our genes. “Spirituality”, he writes, “is one of our basic human inheritances. It is, in fact, an
instinct.” He describes the mechanism by which belief itself is biologically nourished. “Through his team’s
analysis of the genetic makeup of over a thousand individuals of various backgrounds and ages, and by comparing their DNA
samples against a scale measuring spirituality”, the identified “a specific ‘God gene’ that appears
to influence spirituality. Furthermore…spiritual beliefs actually offer human beings a clear evolutionary advantage,
providing a sense of purpose, courage, and will, all of which are useful in overcoming hardship and loss.” (1)
It will be interesting to see whether this is foolishness or not. I would like to think not. It explains too much about
the phenomenology of religion as well as the dear God who made us.
In any case, at about the same time as my children and I were transitioning from Seuss to more serious reading, so I thought,
there was a revival of interest in CS Lewis following his death in November 1963. Many of his books were reprinted, including
his brilliant children’s fantasy called “The Chronicles of Narnia”. The first volume, now in several film
and animated versions, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” among other things, tells the story of a great
Lion whose roar shakes the very foundations of the forest. At the beginning of the book four children are playing in their
uncles wardrobe when they discover it is a doorway to Narnia. As they enter Narnia they learn it is under the spell of a
wicked witch. It is a depressing, frozen, ice bound land. Lucy, the youngest of the four, says that in Narnia under the
witch it is always winter but never Christmas.
The children hear rumors that Aslan, the great Lion, will soon return to the forest so they devise a plan to overthrow the
witch. But there is confusion and chaos when the younger boy Edmund decides to become a traitor and join the witch in plunging
all of Narnia deeper under the spell of the wicked Ice Witch. When Aslan returns he frees Edmund from the clutches of the
But that’s not the end of the story at all. The witch requests an audience with Aslan and talks to him about the deep
magic from the dawn of time. She says, “You at least know the magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning.
You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill.”
Aslan agrees and Edmund is to be sacrificed on the Stone Table, a large ritual stone that has always been in Narnia. But
then something unexpected and horrible happens. Aslan offers to be sacrificed in place of Edmund. The witch is delighted to
be rid of Aslan once for all. He is bound, humiliated before the Witches entourage of the Ice Witch, and killed. It appears
to the children that wickedness has won the day and that all is lost.
The Wicked Witch laughs and says to Aslan as he draws his last breath, “You fool! Once you are dead, who is to stop
me from killing the boy too, and all this will be for nothing.”
As the children tearfully leave the scene it is dawn. They hear a great cracking, a deafening noise. They rush back and
find the great table split in two and Aslan gone. Suddenly he appears before them and as they shake in fear he explains to
them “that though the witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she does not know. Her knowledge
goes back only to the Dawn of Time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness
before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who
had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working
In willingly giving himself up to the villainous White Witch in exchange for the life of young Edmund Aslan awakens the “deeper
magic from before the dawn of time.” This “deeper magic from before the dawn of time” gives Aslan the
victory over death and over the power of the witch. He breathes life into creatures she had previously turned to stone. He
wakes a sleeping land of Narnia from its long winter. His life triumphs in the end. (2)
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a wonderful allegory of the fall of mankind and the redemption of the world. It
is one of the great stories because it tells of the worst in us, the best in us, and the grace offered to us all. It helps
us to understand that the message about the Cross is not foolishness at all.
The message about the Cross is that God did and does love us so much that he submitted to crucifixion and death to save us.
Just before he was handed over to suffering and death, Jesus gave his disciples then and now a new commandment: “Love
one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you
love one another.”
1. As reported in History Book Club flyer, “The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes.”
2. Compiled from the story as told in Sermon on Luke 23:33-43 (RCL) by The Revd Dr. Luke Bouman, textweek.com and The Deeper
Magic by Brett Blair and Staff, eSermons.com