How God defeats evil…
Sunnyside Mennonite Church
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Luke 23:33-43
Rayford Steele was born in Belvidere, Illinois to working-class parents. While growing up, Rayford is embarrassed by his family’s low socioeconomic status, and he makes it his goal to attend college and become either a professional athlete or a pilot. When he attended Belvidere High School, he was voted homecoming king, He eventually obtains an Air Force ROTC scholarship to attend Purdue University; while there, he meets a fellow ROTC cadet two years his junior, Irene. They fall in love, get married and over time have two children—daughter, Chloe, and then a son, Raymie.
He eventually leaves the Air Force and begins working as a pilot for Pan-Continental Airlines. It is during an overnight flight to London that something strange happens. He returns home amidst chaos to find Irene and Raymie missing. His wife had often told him how she anticipated Jesus “calling his people home.” Now his fears are realized. The rapture has happened and he has been left behind.
This is how the plot begins in the overwhelmingly successful bestselling Left Behind books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. The vision of the end times in these books is of a small group of people who are fighting evil. The lucky ones are raptured by Christ into heaven and thus are saved while the countdown toward total annihilation of the globe ticks mercilessly on. The majority of the earth’s population will, however, be left behind.
Many Christians subscribe to the worldview of these novels: that we are living in the end-times and that all sorts of “catastrophes,” from September 11 to Hurricane Katrina and the East Asian Tsunami, prove that the end is near. These things must happen so that a few can be snatched away by Christ and rescued. Wars and famine are not seen as events produced by human actions, but as steps in God’s final plan.
On the last Sunday of the church year we are invited to consider once again what it means for Christ to be King. Here is the question: How does Christ reign? How is it that King Jesus fights and defeats evil?
The lectionary texts assigned for today help us consider these questions. In Jeremiah we read how Jesus is a king who gathers rather than scatters (Jeremiah 23). Instead of waging war, “he makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire.” (Psalm 46:9). Jesus the king welcomes criminals (Luke 23:43). In the mission and message of Jesus, says Paul, God intends to “reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood” (Colossians 1:20). Peace and reconciliation for all of creation are the signs of the kingdom of God in Jesus. This is quite a contrast from the Left Behind version of salvation.
If we study history, we see that the Left Behind series is not the first time Christians have envisioned salvation coming through Jesus the righteous warrior. From Constantine to Christian America we have taken the cross of Jesus and made it the brand insignia of righteous empire. We are convinced that to be responsible citizens in this world we have to accept the myth of redemptive violence. We cannot even imagine that Jesus defeats evil in another way.
In our text Jesus is mockingly asked three times why he does not save himself—by the leaders in the crowd, by the soldiers, by the criminal at his side. Jesus rejects the messiah as superhero strategy. He does not come down off the cross and save himself and us by sorting everyone out into categories of good and evil and then killing those who are evil. This is not the way Jesus defeats evil.
Our texts remind us that salvation is not just personal. Through Christ God is actually saving the world. It is for Judah and Israel we read in Jeremiah. In fact, it is God’s intent through Christ to reconcile all things we read in Colossians. Salvation is not just about heaven in the by and by. It’s actually more about heaven on earth. So we are reminded of this when we sing…Not in the dark of buildings confining, not in some heaven, light years away, but here in this place, the new light is shining, now is the kingdom, now is the day.
Salvation comes through the shepherd who gathers the sheep to the fold, not through force or coercion, not through conquest and domination, not through bloody crusades and redemptive violence. He gathers with open arms nailed to the cross of empire. He does not try to take over Caesar’s throne to bring about his kingdom agenda on earth through a Holy Roman Empire. Rather, his throne is a cross. The word of the cross is that the kingdom comes through death and resurrection, not through fear, self-preservation, control and violence. This is foolishness to the world’s way of thinking. This is totally impractical when you are trying to run governments and empires.
If we believe this, than the most responsible thing to do is worship the slain Lamb who sits on the throne. We will worship and follow Jesus in loving the world, laying down our lives, and letting God raise us up.
The reign of Jesus is expressed as sheep are gathered—not scattered.
In recent weeks American military documents have been leaked to the press and we read over 90,000 logs which chronicle bloody encounters and civilian killings in the Afghan war. We have read about sheep scattered in Iraq and Afghanistan as a result of torture, executions and war crimes. When we read in the news that British, U.S., and Iraqi forces have killed over 66,000 civilians we know that sheep have been scattered.
Christ the King is the one who gathers the sheep to the fold from every nation. The song we sing we sing as children—Jesus love the little children, all the children of the world, red, brown, yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world—is a song that reminds us that Jesus has sheep all over the world. Iraqi sheep, American soldier sheep, rich sheep, poor sheep, cradle Mennonite sheep and widows and orphan sheep.
When we believe that Jesus reigns through cross-bearing love, we are bold to hope for resurrection of a new way of life in this world. We are bold to ask discerning questions. Questions about the conflict formerly known as the Global War on Terror which is now entering its tenth year. We will ask: When, where, and how will the war end? Are we almost there yet?
The word from the cross is radical mercy and love. Through the cross God not only defeats evil, but welcomes enemies—which is all of us. So we like the repentant criminal are welcomed. This vision of love makes it very difficult to imagine that Jesus reigns by killing any life. The word of the cross is that there is room at God’s table for criminals and enemies.
I heard a story Friday of a platoon of soldiers encountering a single enemy soldier. The platoon leader gave instructions that before they kill this enemy that they all pray the Lord’s Prayer together. After they prayed the prayer—including the petition to forgive us our debts as we forgive our enemies—they found that they could not kill the prisoner of war, so they released him.
On the cross, Christ disarms the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it. That triumph does not hinge on the results of the last election, or if Sarah Palin will restore honor to America in 2012. God’s victory does not depend on Obama, Kim Jong-il, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. God’s victory over evil does not come through Caesar, Herod, Pharaoh, Pilate or the Market.
The victory of God, rather, comes through a king who is willing to die so that love triumphs over hate. Which salvation story are we living into? The Left Behind version or the one we will begin to retell and live into again next week with the beginning of Advent. It is a story of hope and expectation. It is a story of God’s vulnerable Advent into this world filled with violence as a defenseless baby.
Because we believe and confess that on the cross Jesus has defeated the powers it is with boldness and irrepressible hope that we pray and live into the prayer that Jesus teaches us. Let’s pray that together.
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…
“Christians practice their faith by expecting God’s advent in this world filled with violence. Living into the anticipation that the future of God’s reign will turn this planet into the dwelling place of God’s glory leads to a practice in communities of faith that shows something of the newness that Christ will complete on his Day.”
~Andrea Bieler & Luisa Schottroff, The Eucharist: Bodies, Bread & Resurrection
May we go to express the newness that Christ brings as we share bags of groceries, play on the playground and invent new electric cars that get 120 miles per gallon…as we discern how to respond to evil in all its forms, may the Spirit of wisdom empower us to respond as Jesus would to the glory of God the Father. AMEN