The Irony of Ignorance

Wesley Chapel Episcopal Church, Wesley Chapel, FL
Preacher: The Rev. Adrienne R. Hymes
November 24, 2019 ● Christ the King Sunday
Gospel: Luke 23:33-43

The Irony of Ignorance

Mother Hymes’ sermon, “The Irony of Ignorance,” (Luke 23:33-43). Christ the King Sunday.

Posted by Wesley Chapel Episcopal Church on Sunday, November 24, 2019

As a first-year at the University of Virginia, I attended the convocation. The convocation, held soon after the new students arrived, was one of the first ceremonies that the incoming class would attend. The speaker’s message to us centered around focus. Focusing on the main thing—which, of course, is to successfully graduate. Then, the speaker said to us, “Look to your left” and everyone did. “Look to your right,” and everyone did. “One of the people you looked at will not graduate with you.” Well, everyone realized that in that exercise, everyone could potentially be that person who would not be with the class until the end. “Don’t lose your focus from the main thing. Graduate!”

Luke’s gospel today gathers us at the foot of the cross. Luke does not give an elaborate account of the actual crucifixion. Instead, Luke focuses our attention, not on the action of the human executioners and the wooden instrument of torture and death, but on the divine action of Jesus which transformed the cross into a vehicle for liberation and everlasting life. Jesus’ purpose in God’s plan for human salvation continued to move forward even as his human body hanged, dying on the cross.

But who could perceive the truth of this invisible reality beyond that which is visible by the human eye? Many are familiar with the statement, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Recall in John’s gospel, Thomas’ encounter with the post-resurrection Jesus.  Without seeing for himself and touching the wounds in Jesus’ hands and his side, Thomas was unwilling to believe that Jesus had come amongst the disciples when he was not present.

When Jesus came to Thomas, and let him touch his wounds, he said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”[1] This scripture reminds those who believe in Christ, that seeing is not believing. Moreover, the limited human sense of sight can act as a barrier to perceiving the invisible, divine reality of God. This blindness of sighted people plays out in the way Luke repeatedly captures the irony of ignorance for the onlookers at the execution site.

First, we learn that the crowd of people stood by, but it was the religious leaders’ scoffing that stamps them, for us, as ironically ignorant.  “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God…”[2] How ironic, that because Jesus did not save himself, his work on the cross would continue to save others—just not in the visually-perceptible way that the leaders had witnessed through his public ministry.

Second, the soldiers mocked him and challenged him to save himself, if he was truly the King of the Jews. Of course, underlying the mocking was this challenge to “show us your power, oh mighty one.”

How can a king die a scandalous death on a cross? Unless they saw kingly power in action, with their own eyes, they would not believe. The irony of ignorance was at work—they could never be saved had Jesus denied the cross.

Third, the taunting by the leaders and the soldiers was compounded by the taunting of one of the two criminals who hanged on either side of Jesus. “If you’re the so-called Messiah, save yourself and us,” said the criminal.[3]

The irony of his demand, of course, is that it was exactly what Jesus had already set in motion by embracing the cross.  The irony of ignorance is glaring, as the criminal’s unbelief kept him from that which he demanded. But who could perceive the truth of this invisible reality of Jesus’ true identity and purpose beyond that which is visible by the human eye?

It was the other crucified criminal who rebuked the other, expressed repentance for his wrongdoing, and with an assurance of belief, said to Jesus, “…Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”[4] He didn’t say, if you come into your kingdom; he said when, affirming Jesus’ kingship.

Surely, Jesus must have looked to his right and looked to his left. And, surely he knew that one of the crucified men would be with him in paradise and one would not. The penitent criminal kept the main thing, the main thing—his focus was being with Jesus in his kingdom.

It is significant to note that the only time Jesus speaks in this passage is when his identity is affirmed through the criminal’s statement alluding to his belief, to which Jesus responded, “…Today you will be with me in Paradise.”[5]

We can certainly claim that in order for Jesus to be taken seriously and affirmed as the Messiah and King, the leaders, soldiers and criminal expected him to show actions of power that would physically free him and the two criminals from the cross. Their expectation of physical “saving” blinded them to the invisible, soul-saving action of God already in motion on the cosmic plane.

Jesus came into the world because there was kingdom-building work to be done. He had work to do through his healing, teaching and preaching from town to town which culminated on the cross. He had work to do in the formation of the disciples.

It was his life-restoring work up to the cross, and his life-saving work on the cross which compels us—TODAY—to do the work that we have been given to do on this side of the cross. Builders in God’s kingdom, must be clear about the heavenly king we serve. We see reminders all around us and in the media that this world is visibly dangerous and broken. We see the corruption of power by those in leadership. We see how peoples’ lives are affected by the unjust structures of society. In all of that, it is challenging to see the reflection of the kingdom of God.

But, faith empowers God’s people to perceive His kingdom now, while these earthly kingdoms are passing away. And, it is by faith that those same faithful people live in the hope of God’s kingdom to come. Like the repentant criminal, we must affirm with assurance, that Jesus Christ is King. He is a loving king, whom, we believe by faith, responds by blessing those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

Blessed are you who have not seen the King of kings and Lord of lords, and yet have come to believe.

Amen.

[1] John 20:24-29

[2] Luke 23:35

[3] Luke 23:39

[4] Luke 23:42

[5] Luke 23:43