Happy New Year!
So who thinks I’m totally off my rocker? Its Thanksgiving week, the scriptures are for Good Friday and my sermon title is referencing New Years Resolutions. I must be completely lost!
But does anyone here know what today is? It’s actually a fairly special day in the liturgical calendar. It’s one of the newer celebrations, arriving later in the 20th century, called the Reign of Christ or Christ the King. In 1925 the Roman Catholic Church declared that today was a worldwide celebration of the kingship of Christ over every earthly power.
This Sunday also marks the end of the liturgical year for us. Next week when we start Advent it’s actually a whole new year in the 3-year cycle of lectionary readings. Somewhere between focusing on the gospel lesson and learning about its placement in our liturgical year made me think about New Year’s Resolutions.
A different approach to resolutions
Have you thought about your New Year’s Resolutions yet? Many of you no doubt will look at things like being more organized, spending more time with family and friends, or maybe travel more. You might think about losing weight, getting healthier, getting a new job or buying that new house/car/gadget you’ve had your eye on.
Not that those are bad things to focus on, but what if we took a different approach? What if instead of focusing on the outward things we focus on the inward things? What if one of our new year’s resolutions was to try to better exemplify a characteristic of Christ?
Characteristics of Christ
I’ve done some research and come up with a list of 10 characteristics that Christ embodied. Compassionate, Servant, Loving, Forgiving, Committed, Prayerful, Gentleness, Patience, Self-Control and Humble.
If you were to take each one, in turn, you can see how Jesus showed all of these, even in the worst situation of his life. It is like this story is the final exam, the culmination of everything Jesus taught, exemplified in one situation.
In Luke: 23:33-43 we pick up the Good Friday story after they have arrived at Skull Hill. Jesus is already on the cross hanging between two sinners. He has the sign “King of the Jews” placed above his head. How does Jesus respond to the situation? Time and time again throughout this passage we will see the character of Jesus exemplified through his behavior.
The forgiving love of Christ
Right from the start, we see Jesus’ grace and forgiveness in the prayer that he says to God. “Father forgive them, they do not know what they’re doing.” We see Jesus’ continuing concern for others, even as he hangs on the cross. In this simple prayer, he reenacts the principal taught in the Sermon on the Mount.
“Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time respond with the energies of prayer for that person.”Luke 6:28(MSG)
Is anything more powerful than the forgiving love of Christ? Jesus is hanging on the cross, sentenced to die, being mocked and completely humiliated. Yet here he hangs asking God to forgive everyone else for the ignorance of their actions.
Throughout the next part of the story, we see various players mocking Jesus and his role as King of the Jews. Their mockery mirrors the three challenges with which Satan tempted Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. (Luke 4: 3-12)
Again, the identity and integrity of Jesus are questioned. The hope is that by provoking him he provides a stunning and utterly compelling demonstration of his character as God’s chosen profit. After all, how could we ever receive the Messiah who does not act like a Messiah? How can you see salvation, if no one is being saved? Each time he is mocked the implication is that if he responds he might prove himself a leader and thereby verify the title Messiah, King of the Jews. But Jesus remained silent and steadfast.
The response of a King
In the last part of our story, we see an interesting exchange. Instead of the second criminal joining in the mockery he instead rebukes the first criminal asking him:
“Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong. Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.“Luke 23: 40-42
This seems to be a such a strange and sudden request. Who is this man? How did he know Jesus?
There are many legends about the men on the crosses next to Jesus. One story claims that the second man and Jesus had met during their lives. One story said he was part of a gang of thieves (like Robin Hood) and that shortly after Jesus’s birth Mary and Joseph were stopped by this band of thieves, but they were so amazed at Jesus they let them go. Another story says that they met in prison and had gotten to know each other during the night. Whatever the story, however they met, it doesn’t matter. Clearly, the criminal understood something about Jesus that the rest did not. Because he did not ask to be saved but instead asked to be remembered.
You will be with me in paradise
Clearly, Jesus must have seen something special in this man too. Maybe it was that he stood up to the first criminal because by doing so he followed what Jesus told his disciples to do:
“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.”Luke 17:3 – Faith of a Mustard Seed
Whatever it was Jesus’s response was clear “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
This must have been amazing for the criminal to hear (we want to know that we will have this chance ourselves). Let me break down this phrase for you to help you understand exactly what the criminal heard. The phrase “to be with me in paradise” is a phrase that would commonly be used by royalty, specifically a King. The word paradise is a Persian word meaning a walled garden. If a king wanted to show a friend a great honor he made him a companion of the garden. Which meant that he was chosen to walk in the garden with the King. Jesus is making the promise of a king that this criminal will be an honored guest and walk with him in heaven.
Are you more like Jesus or the thieves that hung next to him on the cross? Don’t we still today challenge God to save us? How often do we want proof that God exists? Taunting God’s power and using his own scripture against him to justify the outcomes we want.
My New Year’s Resolutions
I don’t think its as easy to say we are one or the other. I believe that we are all trying to strive to be like Jesus, but we are fully human after all and prone to missteps from time to time. Especially when we are under pressure.
When I review the story again the characteristic that stands out the most is Jesus’ forgiveness. How easy it was for Jesus to give it to his enemies and even though they didn’t understand its importance.
Forgiveness is something I find I can’t always give. I hold on to anger, which eventually turns to bitterness. I want to let it go, I want to give it to God and let him sort it all out, but I just can’t. So for me, one of my new year’s resolutions will be to forgive those who have trespassed against me (at least I believe that they did) and prayerfully give each situation to God knowing that he will find a way to guide me in repairing the relationship.
The other piece that I found so intriguing, was the integrity of Jesus’s character. So often in life when things are going well we find we can exude any noble character trait that we want. But the minute we are put to the test, the second we are stressed out, we respond the only way we know how to (and most often that isn’t the best way to respond).
But here is Jesus, on the cross, starved, dehydrated, mocked….I can’t imagine a more stressful situation and not once did he act out of character. Not once did he lash out (though we would have all understood if he had). Not once did he break his own honor code and try to prove the power he held. He stayed the course and continued to show us what it means to live in a manner of those who will live in Gods kingdom.
If I’m picking a second new year’s resolution, this would be it, to live my life with integrity. To identify my inner light and drivers and to live a life that is completely in line with those things. And that by doing so the outside pressures and mocking won’t shake me from my core.
Make your resolutions
Here at the end of the Christian year, I challenge you to exam your character and find one area that you believe could be more Christ-like next year and make that your resolution. Let that characteristic overwhelm you. Hunt down the scriptures that will help you understand it better, what Jesus said about it. Pray to God to help you on this journey. Make it your resolution to make that trait so strong it’s no longer a conscious thought but just a part of who are. Let that trait shine to the rest of the world, let them know what it really means to be like Christ.
If you are willing to share your resolutions with us please comment to help encourage others on this journey!
So whether you want me to say Happy Thanksgiving, Blessed Good Friday, Celebrate the Reign of Christ or Happy New Year ..now is the time to start anew.
I delivered this sermon to Rotterdam United Methodist Church in Rotterdam, NY. It was delivered on Christ the King Sunday which is a little-known holiday that is the Sunday before Advent, which is technically the last day of the liturgical year for most Christian faiths…thus the title!