A Sign for the Times
Do you ever see a road sign when you’re driving along and think, “Thanks for letting me know but what am I meant to do about it?” I mean, if I see a road sign with a 30 on it, then I know what that means – I’m meant to drive at no more than 30mph or I might get my picture taken. Or, if I see a sign with a squiggly line on it then I know that there are sharp bends in the road, and I ought to consider driving a bit more slowly or else my wife will shout at me. But what am I meant to do about that sign with the falling rocks on it. I understand the information that it’s communicating – there is a higher risk of landslides in this area, but I am not sure what I’m meant to do about it. No amount of keeping my eyes peeled for falling rocks or being extra careful in my driving is going to do a bit of good if a large rock has my name on it. I reckon that the most rational response would be to drive as quickly as possible to get past any possible danger.
This morning I’d like us to think about another sign. I’d like us to think about what information that sign gives us, what that information means, and what we’re going to do about it.
Very often, when we read a part of the Bible, the thing that the section is all about is to be found right in the middle. Our gospel reading this morning is like that. We find the main point of the passage right in the middle, on a sign. It’s on a sign above Jesus’ head. It says “This is the King of the Jews.”
At first sight, that sign is a bit of a puzzle. What it is and what it says seem to contradict each other. What the sign is, is a notice telling everybody what crime this person has committed. On the crosses either side of Jesus, the signs would have read “thief” or “murderer”. What the sign says is that this man is a King. How can both be true? How can He be a King and a criminal worthy of death by crucifixion?
The rest of the passage teases out this apparent contradiction. It is about what that sign really means. What does it really mean for Jesus to be King? How can Jesus be crucified and be King? As we read we hear different voices. What are they telling us?
Immediately around the sign, we find three misunderstandings of the sign. We hear three voices speaking who have not got it, who have not seen the reality of Jesus’ Kingship, nor understood how that Kingship is seen most clearly on the cross.
The first voice we hear is that of the rulers, most likely the religious rulers. These people thought that if Jesus really was King, if He really was the one that God had chosen to rescue God’s people, then He would be able to prove this by rescuing Himself from the cross. They were expecting a rescuing King, and if He could not rescue himself, then He was not a King.
The second voice we hear is that of the soldiers, Roman soldiers. In their experience Kings and Emperors were people who had great power, and they used that power for themselves. Their Kings fought many wars in order to extend their Empire. If this were a true King, then He would be a warrior King who would use His power to free himself. If He did not do this, then He was not a King.
The third voice we hear is that of one of the criminals being crucified with him. This man wanted Jesus to use His power against the authority that had put them on crosses. This one wanted someone to overturn the laws of the land, to take on the ruling classes, he was looking for a revolutionary King.
The owners of these three voices looked at the sign and misunderstood it and so doubted the truth of what it said. They saw what it was, a death notice, and so could not believe the words that were written on it. So, they responded to it with mocking, with sneering, and with anger.
Next we hear another voice, the voice of someone who had read the sign, understood what it said correctly and had responded to it in faith. Despite what the sign was, and all the evidence that seemed to say something else, the other criminal read the words and believed them. He believed that Jesus was a King, who would come into a Kingdom, and so asked for mercy.
And Jesus promised it to him. The final voice that we hear is the one that we heard at the beginning of the reading as well, and it is saying the same thing as it was saying there. It is the voice of the King, of Jesus, showing mercy and forgiving those around Him. It is this voice that solves for us the mismatch between what the sign was and the words written on the sign.
The words of the sign tell us that this is the King of the Jews. The nature of the sign tells us that this man is going to die.
Jesus is a rescuing King, but in order to rescue others from death, He had to submit to death before defeating it in resurrection.
Jesus is a warrior King. But not one who fights for His own life, but for the lives of others. He leads us in battle against the forces of darkness, against injustice and cruelty.
Jesus is a revolutionary King. But not one who overturns righteousness. His revolution is one of radical forgiveness.
So, we’ve found out the information that the sign gives. Jesus is King. He is the King who rescues, wars, and brings revolution to peoples’ lives. What is our response to this information going to be?
In Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae we find out what some of that response should be. Our response to this King is to bear fruit, to grow in the knowledge of God, and to be strengthened in patience and endurance.
But, what does this mean, and how do we do it?
It is an idea that crops up many times in the Bible, this idea of bearing fruit. One of the things it means is that there needs to be some evidence that what someone says isn’t just words, but is reflected in their actions. In my garden I can hang a label that says “apple tree” on any old tree. But the sign doesn’t make it an apple tree, and doesn’t prove it to be an apple tree. The only thing that can prove it is an apple tree is if it grows apples. If the fruit match up to the words then we know that the words are true. The sign on Jesus’ tree said “this is the King of the Jews”. He showed that was true by defeating death on that cross. We might hang the sign “Christian” on our lives, but unless we bear the fruit that a Christian should bear, then the sign is not shown to be true. We have to be growing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the fruit, to be shown in practical ways, which we are called to bear.
Our second response is to grow in the knowledge of God. This isn’t about storing information in our heads; it’s about knowing God more deeply in our hearts. Jesus, our King, calls us to get to know God better. How can we do this? Well, in some ways it’s just like getting to know anybody better. We spend time with them. We can do this by reading our Bibles. God has caused this book to be written for us. When we read it we find out more about what God is like. As we talk about it with each other, we see things from other angles that help us to discover more of who God is. Whenever we read from our Bibles a really useful question to have in mind is, “What does this show me about God.” We can also spend time with God in prayer. Telling God about our lives and concerns, being still and asking God to speak to us. We can share stories about how God is working in our lives, this is one of the reasons that meeting together in small groups during the week is so helpful. We can read books that tell how God has worked in other people’s lives. There are many, many ways of growing in the knowledge of God, if we really want to.
Our third response is to be strengthened in patience and endurance. Jesus never said that it would be easy following him. He said that it would be difficult and costly. He promised that the rewards would be huge, but He warned that they would require patient endurance. In any part of life, if we want to develop patient and enduring strength then we need to exercise. When I was training for the Potter’s Arf marathon, I had to develop running endurance by running lots. There were no short cuts. Similarly, if we are to develop patient, enduring, spiritual strength then we need to exercise. We need to keep on praying for people to come to faith, even when it seems like nothing’s happening, and God has abandoned them. We need to keep on loving people and speaking well of them, even when they are being hateful to us. We need to keep on reaching out to those around us with hope and generousity, even when we can’t feel any warmth coming back. As we do these things, our strength will be built up, and our knowledge of God will grow, and we will see fruit growing.
The sign above Jesus’ head read, “This is the King of the Jews” He wasn’t the self serving King that the leaders, the soldiers, or the unrepentant thief expected. He was the servant King. A true rescuing, warrior, revolutionary King whose motto is “forgive them”. Because we have been rescued and forgiven by this King, we join Him in battle. We seek to bear fruit for Him, to grow in the knowledge of God, and to build our enduring strength. We do this because we love our King, are grateful to Him, and because we want others to experience His Kingdom, the Kingdom in which they also can be rescued and forgiven.