The Conversion of a Terrorist
A sermon on Jeremiah 23: 1-6,Luke 1:68-79, Luke 23:33-43, Col :11-20
by Jill Friebel, 21 November 2004

This week I felt deeper despair than usual at the never-ending vortex of darkness the Iraqi war is dragging us into. I feel frustrated at the rhetoric and sham from the Bush regime that claims to be liberating a people but uses violence to justify their actions. All in the name and desire to “promote good.” This week in the news we saw images of a marine caught on video shooting an unarmed Iraqi and they call for an inquest. Yet in another part of town the National Iraqi Guard is tying up the doctors who were treating wounded patients and ejecting them from the hospital. Later the hospital is shelled by marines and guards and 3 young doctors die along with many patients. Then the news comes through of the assassination of Margaret Hassan a CARE worker who has given her life for the Iraqi people and has lived there for 30 years. The terrorist’s message is clear – there will be no immunity for anyone working with an infidel. None of us are untouched but we feel helpless. Humanity after thousands of years still can’t find peaceful ways of existing together. It is complex, but the wars aren’t only at international and national levels, they are in our families and churches and communities. Every one of us struggles with our own unconscious violent urges and actions against each other.

Where is God in all this? It seems we are powerless to help ourselves in our own distortions about others and ourselves. If we don’t know what motivates us, if we don’t know what motivates the other the violence will continue. Where is God in all this to help us as a human race to live with one another in peace? Peace between countries, peace between ethnic groups, peace in fractured churches, between warring couples and within broken families.

Today is Christ the King Sunday. We celebrate Jesus as the King who has come to rule over his people and bring in justice and liberation for all. Where is it? What has happened? Colossians describes Jesus Christ as the spitting image of the God we cannot see. Christ is the genuine original the blueprint for all creation. Everything else that exists had its origin in Christ; he is the glue that holds everything together. The reading from Luke tells the story of this same Christ exposed and naked hanging on a cross at the mercy of the people he came to liberate. History seems to keep repeating itself. The struggle of the Iraqi people has remarkable similarities to the first Century Jewish people.

Their land had been invaded by the Romans. Similar to the Iraqis they also had insurrectionists and opposing parties all working towards liberating their own particular cause and using violent means against the Romans and against each other as well. There were injustices within their own social structure and religious leaders controlled the masses under the guise of promoting good and obeying God while lining their own pockets. There was little justice for the powerless. Jeremiah described what God thought of these sort of leaders that committed crimes against their own people.

Into this mayhem a good priest gets a visit from a messenger from God. He is told that the Lord God of Israel is finally going to act. After decades of exile, killings and now the oppressive powers of Rome God and was going to save his people. Zechariah’s joy spills over into a song about a hero coming from the Kingly line of the house of David with the power to liberate them.

But 30 years later this promised liberator – Jesus King of the Jews – was hanging on a cross with spikes of metal, bruised, beaten and humiliated. What sort of King is this who does not use his power, who does not use his divine connections, to get himself off the cross? Now all the promises, the potential was in tatters, everything was ashes. The darkness never seemed darker. Where was God, even Jesus felt the utter abandonment deep within his being crying out “My God my God why have you forsaken me?”

As I prepared this message I prayed that God would speak into this story which has become familiar to me over the decades and make it strange for me. In the process of the preparation I discover so much which unravels and challenges me and I always feel overwhelmed by how much I don’t know and simply can’t grasp. Along the way I often have those “aha experiences” which just bowl me over again and again. Several of those happened again this time. I found that only Luke mentions the repentant thief on the cross and wondered perhaps if this again is another example of him drawing attention to the insignificant and the outcast as he is known to do or was there something bigger behind this. It sent me on a search. The other 3 gospels refer to both the criminals hurling abuse along with the soldiers, the passers by, and the religious leaders. Each one of the gospel writers is telling the story from their perspective and tells it is such a way as to emphasise different aspects.

So why was Luke drawing attention to this no good thief who was being hung for his own crimes and which legend has since given him the name of Dismas? I have often felt a sense of indignation and bit irritated when I have read this account that he could by pass all the effort it takes to be a disciple and still end up with the same reward. It didn’t fit with my sense of fairness and it would be much more comfortable if Luke had left it out like the others. However he is a highly regarded historian as well as a doctor and set out to write an orderly and accurate narrative. So perhaps there is more to this than I was getting. Luke is known for his particular emphasis on the kindness of Jesus toward women, the poor, the outcasts, the weak and those who were suffering in different ways. He wanted his readers to know that the coming of this King meant that God was present in and through Jesus to save all people now.

I discovered the word he used for the two men crucified with Jesus is the same one used to describe Barabbas who ‘committed murder during the uprising’ and means a guerrilla not a thief. The word terrorist probably conveys the best sense for us today. It was a word used to describe someone involved in violent activity more or less organised and which was always about redistribution of wealth. Bar-abbas name means ‘son of a father’ and the Jews choose him and his cause over Jesus, whose name means ‘Son of the Father’, and his cause unjustly accusing Him of being a terrorist and claiming they “have no king but Caesar”. The religious Jews were claiming Caesar as King – the ruler of the invading country! Then one terrorist hanging on his cross turns to his mate and tells him to put a sock it because they are all accused of the same crime, sedition, but only they are guilty.

Something had connected inside this terrorist’s heart as he hung on his own cross and experienced intimately the person of Jesus hanging beside him innocent of any crime of his own. His abuse changed to a confession and then he made a staggering request, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom”.

For some reason the lights turned on – God gave him insight to recognise what not even the disciples had got at this stage. They had fled in fear and confusion. They were facing their own crises of disappointment and despair that the Kingdom hope was all but gone. Dismas instead realised he was hanging beside a King of a different kind, whose Kingdom was stronger and more powerful than any violent insurrection could ever achieve. He was witnessing and experiencing a love he had never encountered before and probably couldn’t explain but knew he could trust. Jesus welcomes him into paradise, and it is the same word used for the Garden of Eden. The imagery is a place of magnificent creation and grace where there is justice for all and communion with God and each other and it was beginning now.

Jesus forgives him for the anger, hate and resentment that got where he was. Who knows what how much he had suffered in his lifetime that had humiliated him enough to join a violent insurrection movement. We know what injustice and abuse does to people. At the same time Jesus offered forgiveness to those who created the unjust society that produced criminals like this. He offered forgiveness to those who hung him there for they didn’t know what they were doing.

Most of the time we don’t know what we are doing. Unless I know myself well, I am always in danger of trying to promote good for selfish reasons. Unless I am more self aware of what drives my behaviour I will act in ways that are harmful towards others. We cannot hope to bring peace to people in this troubled world until we know ourselves and the violence that is within us that is ready to boil over when we get upset. Dismas in his greatest hour of need, in his darkest moment came face to face with Jesus whose love and forgiveness disarmed him of his destructive urges. He was stripped bare of his defences and in his vulnerability saw this King sharing in his vulnerability that removed all fear and liberated him from his past. Jesus had overcome the evil forces that had caused his alienation and blindness.

How is this relevant to us today? The mystery is that the way of Jesus is not just for the future. It is grounded in the present. Salvation is not only a promise for the world to come. It is for the present world. It is in our darkest moments, the times when we feel most vulnerable and needy that we can see what Dismas saw if we can stop defending ourselves long enough and invite Jesus into that place. Jesus comes to disarm us of our defences and gives us grace to heal the wounds and hurts of lives. Our feet are set on solid ground and the air is clearer to breath than the altitudes we want to soar at. It is in from this place that God renews us with hope again and again and gives us courage to live out the Kingdom in the smallest and greatest ways available to us in the power of his resurrected life.

God was fully present in Christ the King reconciling everything in creation with its creator; bearing the cost personally in the blood shed on the cross, to restore the peace between heaven and earth.