Jeremiah 23:1-6; Luke 23:33-43
November 25, 2001
Today is the last Sunday of the Christian year. If you go to a book store you will find calendars for 2002. Their assumption is that we measure time from January through December. If all we were doing was measuring time that would be as good a model as any.
In the church we are working through time, not just measuring it. Our year runs from the beginning of Advent (the four weeks of getting ready for Christmas so we can celebrate Emmanuel, which means "God is with us." We recognize Jesus as being Emmanuel, the one who helps us see that God is with us day in and day out.
Our year runs to this last Sunday before Advent. The traditional name for this Sunday is Christ the King Sunday. By the time we have gone through a Christian year we should be able to see how the governance of GOD works.
On this Sunday we hear scripture bring together two important concepts of governance -- justice and forgiveness.
If you had to boil good government down to two issues what would they be. In America we might talk about "common defense" and "general welfare."
Even as justice and forgiveness are found together like two sides of a coin, so are the issues of defense and welfare.
Jeremiah talks about the name of the best king being, "The Lord Gives Justice." Jesus talks from the cross under a banner proclaiming him to be king and speaks of Forgiveness and Paradise.
There are those who would say that Justice is a very strong word and Forgiveness is a very weak work. However, if we take both of these passages seriously we will have to find a way to bring justice into a positive relationship with forgiveness so that Justice also has a soft side and Forgiveness is applied universally.
In American terms we usually think of Common Defense as a strong image and General Welfare as a weak one. Simply think about what we fund and how much we fund to both. It becomes quickly apparent that we are much more interested in Defense than we are in Welfare.
In the language of the day we say hard-headed conservatives are in favor of defense and soft-hearted liberals are in favor of welfare.
In reality this is a false division.
We can think of Common Defense and General Welfare from a very narrow perspective of nationalism and patriotism.
We can also think of them as General Defense and Common Welfare. When we do this we can begin to see the need for a World Court as a General issue for all people everywhere, not just ourselves. We can also begin to see international unions and more honest trade relations as a Common interest based on the understanding that it is not just a matter of keeping a better balance between rich and poor in a country but keeping a better balance between rich and poor countries in the world. Wherever the gap between rich and poor individuals or countries grows wider there is a ripe seed bed for revolution and terrorism.
In a similar manner we are called upon to see that the biblical vision of justice and forgiveness need to be able to trade places.
If all we have is hard-headed justice it won't be long before we get into the rules and regulations of fate and consequences. Everyone becomes measured by their conformity to external rules without any consideration of the content of their character.
If all we have is soft-hearted forgiveness it won't be long before we get into the excuses and "I'm sorry" approach to getting away with either figurative or literal murder.
I think that when we begin to rub Jeremiah and Jesus together we get a better look at GOD's intention for the way in which we are to do business with one another.
What we are looking for is a justice which understands and knows its limits as well as forgiveness which is rigorously applied to situation after situation.
If you remember the scene at the capital punishment of Jesus it is recorded that there were two thieves also being killed alongside Jesus. The dialogue is sparse and so we need to fill in some of rest of the story.
The first thing to recognize is Jesus' prayer at the beginning of this scene in the killing field. Jesus' prayer is a command in the original language of Greek. Jesus demands that GOD forgive those who made the decision to kill him, those who carried out that decision, and those, like the mocking thief, who disrespected him.
This is a very hard-headed kind of forgiveness. It is applied in a situation most of would have a hard time with. Through this hard-headed forgiveness everyone is forgiven, whether deserving of it or not, whether it is fair or not.
It is this hard-headed forgiveness that helps us to see what Jeremiah was talking about when he named a future king, "The Lord Gives Justice." This kind of hard-headed forgiveness that goes beyond deserving it is the only kind which would lead to wisdom and peace.
In today's world you can still hear echoes of this when people suggest that the only breakthrough to put people back together again is a preemptive strike of forgiveness. We won't get past the Israel/Palestine split until someone first prays, "GOD, forgive them whether they deserve it or not." Ireland won't find their peace until someone first prays, "GOD, forgive them even if it doesn't seem fair to us." North and South Korea won't be reunified until someone first prays, "GOD, forgive them so we can live again." Afghanistan won't be healed until all someone in the many factions competing for power can pray, "God, forgive them while they are still out of control so they might be open to a new vision of living in a pluralistic world."
This image of hard-headed forgiveness goes on to our own church members and families. Until we are able to forgive in the midst of hurt, we won't be put back together again but will remain fractured people. Jesus gives us a picture of hard-head forgiveness that commands GOD to forgive.
At the end of the scripture we hear this line, "Today you will join me in paradise."
Generally that is understood to be directed at the so-called good thief who asked Jesus to remember him. I think that is a good way to understand it.
An equally good way to understand it is in light of Jesus' commanding GOD to forgive those who are killing him. Jesus can see a larger picture that leaves open the possibility of even horrendous people changing their lives around and being welcomed in paradise.
When Jesus commands GOD to forgive, he opens the gates of paradise for anyone, and I mean anyone, to walk in.
You and I are invited into paradise today. It is as simple as this: Forgiveness is Paradise.
To follow the command of our King Jesus is to hear him command GOD to forgive and to hear him command us to forgive an unlimited amount of time whether it is deserved or fair. When we forgive we join Jesus in Paradise -- right now. We don't have to passively wait for heaven to come someday, we can live in it right now.
Let us pray:
Copyright 2001. Wesley White, Pastor of St. Luke's United Methodist Church. 1022 Caledonia Street, La Crosse, WI 54603.