There are many things in life that we don’t understand or that don’t make sense to us aren’t there? Things that just don’t quite jive or questions that don’t have a nice, logical and feel good answer. On Facebook this week there was a beautiful video on Huffington Post about a premature baby boy named Ward. Ward’s dad is a photographer and a videographer by vocation and so when he and his wife’s baby was born at 25 weeks at 1 lb. 5 oz. he began to record Ward’s life-however long it may be. On the one year anniversary of Ward coming home, he took all that footage and made a 6 minute video of Ward’s journey to date for his wife. There is no dialog, just some frames with a little background on the situation and a simple song by the Fray. It begins with the first time mom holds Ward at four days old in the NICU. She doesn’t speak even one word as she holds her tiny baby up to her chest but her facial expression speaks volumes. How did we get here? Why are we here? What did we do wrong? What will happen now?
The video goes on to document Ward’s fairly miraculous improvement in NICU, going home after 107 days and the transition to being at home. There are moments of pure joy, amazement and wonder along with the harsher realities of life with a preemie whose future is less certain than most babies. There are still questions and that hang over this little boy and his parents. Questions to which there are not satisfying answers. They daily live in the paradox of what they can know and what they can only hope for.
Our gospel text for this morning-Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday is the crucifixion of Jesus with two criminals. And these ten verses are also ripe with questions for which there are no easy answers. The women and other people who followed Jesus to the cross had to have been asking, “how did this happen? How did we get here? Jesus has not done anything to deserve this.” Essentially why do bad things happen to good people? We hear the soldiers questioning Jesus’ kingship-this is what a king looks like? Hanging on a cross with the common thief? And one of the criminals upon hearing who he was being killed with asked the rather snarky question of “Aren’t you the messiah? Then fix this!” And then there is the other criminal’s rebuttal question of “Don’t you fear questioning God since you have done something wrong and getting what you deserve?”
This short narrative encompasses our daily and real struggle with God in our life and what our culture thinks of God in the world. We struggle because on the one hand we think that in order to be faithful to the idea of Jesus as king, we have to lift up some sort of super hero image of Jesus for society to believe it. Jesus is the victorious king over everything and so therefore Jesus will save the day and my life will be all sunshine and roses. And if I don’t project that idea but question where this king is when I am suffering, then maybe I am denying Jesus as Peter did or I am not grateful.
Yet, as do all the people in this story-we have questions-deep, difficult, “long night of the soul” kind of questions. We read this story and can’t help but to wonder about suffering. We can proclaim to believe that Jesus did die, was raised again and rules this world but yet it can feel like that belief doesn’t put food on the table, finds a job, or heals cancer, or saves a marriage. Like the first criminal we ask: If you are the messiah then save me-fix this immediate mess. And we might even have friends trying to be helpful who say: ” You somehow messed up and deserve your suffering, don’t blame or question God! Aren’t you afraid of what God will do with your doubt?” Someone said to me once that it is ok to be mad at God because we have a big enough God who can take it.
This is the reality of our daily journey with God I think. We wonder, are amazed, question, wrestle, believe, doubt, sometimes all before breakfast! We live in the tension of our questions to God and the truth of the promise that is offered to us by the very one we question. In the midst of the chaos and tension, Jesus offers these words: Today, this day, you will be with me in paradise. Jesus doesn’t condemn the questioners or the questions or try to give pat answers but proclaims the promise of loving us so much that Jesus will be with us in our suffering, pain, even if it is self inflicted. Jesus wants to be with us no matter what and in that presence we can catch a glimpse of what paradise might be like: living in God’s eternal promise of hope and reconciliation.
There is nothing about proclaiming Christ’s reign in the world that is clear or simple. We proclaim a king that the world can’t grasp. Jesus’ kingdom has nothing to do with fanfare, parades, extraordinary buildings, wealth or earthly love of power but Jesus’ kingdom is in the ordinary: the sinners, the tax collectors, the poor, the sick and the lame. Jesus didn’t use weapons to proclaim his presence or power but used water, wine and bread-everyday stuff to show us that God is here. Like baby Wards parents, we are still caught in the brokenness of a creation not yet healed and yet we live in the hope of what we know to be true but can’t fully see, because we can catch glimpses of God’s presence and Jesus’ reign-this promise of paradise right here and right now. We see preemies who go home, food boxes distributed to hungry households, housing, meals and assistance for homeless families, food, water, medical aid, love and support to the people of the Philippines or the people of Illinois, who have lost everything including loved ones. We can wonder and ask why these things happen or why there is not a Disney happy ending for these situations and yet we can also proclaim that Christ’s reign is real in these places and times. We can point to the one who endured real suffering, real death and real resurrection and promises that reality for us all. Christ’s reign encompasses and holds all of these paradoxes in our lives together.
It’s not neat, it’s not clean, it’s not simple but it is real and God’s promises are true and come to us today-this day and everyday through the kind of king who loves us unconditionally and without a second thought is in the suffering with us, walks beside us, holds our questions and doubt and who promises that we will be with him forever. Thanks be to God.