This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on November 20th, 2016.
The final few chapters of Luke’s Gospel places an emphasis on reversing the expectations of the hearers. The Gospel reading from last week promised God’s nearness in our troubles, that even when we can’t escape our sufferings, God endures along with us. One of the details we tend to remember of the crucifixion story is when Jesus felt abandoned by God. However, Luke’s narrative excludes that moment, choosing instead to elaborate on the notion of God’s nearness in the midst of suffering. It’s certainly not what one would expect.
Recalling last week’s Gospel reading (Luke 21), Jesus describes the course of events to unfold for his followers. We come to discover in brutally, eerie fashion, that Jesus ends up experiencing much of what he predicted they would experience in the years to come; persecution, trials, and imprisonment. Just as the temple will be torn down, so this week we see the guards tearing down Jesus, garments and all. Not what one would expect of God’s Messiah.
Nor would one expect forgiveness in the midst of such terror and torture. Revenge, sure; retaliation, of course. Forgiveness, never.
The reversals continue—as criminals hang on either side of Jesus, there we find God right in the middle of their pain. Jesus doesn’t escape the suffering, though the people demand it, and he of all people had the ability to do so. Instead, in solidarity with the suffering of humanity, and this criminal in particular, Jesus endures the pain and humiliation.
To reference Jesus’ words in last week’s Gospel reading, it’s not in running for his life, but in the criminal’s endurance that he gains life for his soul.
Naturally, this text poses doctrinal questions about the afterlife. What, when, and where is Paradise? Who lives there? Does it give credence to the idea of an intermediate state? All of these are questions to ponder, as certainly the hearers will have one or another circling in their heads. Even if it isn’t the main point of her sermon, the preacher ought to consider a way to wade into these questions, at least briefly, or else the congregation won’t hear anything else but their own blaring questions. One subtle way, if the preacher explored the Gospel text from two weeks before, could be a simple reference to “I am the God of the living,” that took center stage in Jesus’ debate with the Sadducees in Luke 20.
Even with such an important opportunity to preach on the life to come, it’s worth noting the juxtaposition of this text against the beginning of Advent next week. Perhaps our focus on an afterlife, whether in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16, or the pop quiz by the Sadducees in Luke 20, or even here with this reference to Paradise, is misplaced. In each story, one can find the clear hope for the present life: to make a difference in the here and now, to be reminded that God is with us and for us. After all, even a criminal on death row found God was enduring with him on the cross.
A constructive application for congregations, is one that moves away from a simplistic regurgitation of substitutionary atonement. Instead, reverse their expectations. Ask them to imagine how our churches practice being the presence of God for those who feel alone or terrified? How can we bear our crosses in solidarity with those who are oppressed or marginalized? What does it look like to offer the promise of Paradise to those in desperate need of hope in the midst of their suffering?
With the advent of Advent a week away, a time when we celebrate Emmanuel—God with us—this text can be a powerful way to usher in the anticipation. To end the liturgical calendar with a reminder of God’s presence with us, even within the paradox of the Son of God dying, can leave the congregation both hopeful and longing for God to come quickly.
It can also serve as a challenging reminder for us to remember those—like the man on the cross—who feel left behind; to take up our crosses; and to imagine new and unexpected ways to embody the presence of God in a suffering and unsuspecting world.
Brent A. Newberry
The First Baptist Church of Worcester, Massachusetts
Tags: afterlife, paradise, advent, god with us, reverse expectations