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Clowns and Jokers

By Jared Warner

Willow Creek Friends Church

November 20, 2022

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Luke 23:33–43 (ESV)

33 And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. 35 And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

The past couple of weeks I have come down hard on the Evangelical Church. I do this knowing that this is the tradition that I have been reared. It is among the Evangelicals that I have formed my ideas of who God is and where I stand with God. As much as we would like to believe that we are influenced by culture and tradition, the reality is that these things influence a great deal.

Two weeks ago, I spoke about marriage. I said that marriage at its base form is about survival, and I was actually surprised that I did not have an email box full of responses. But I wanted us to consider things from a different perspective. I wanted us to do this because by making definitions based on our contemporary understanding of scripture, we end up condemning most of the heroes of faith. Most of the Patriarchs of the Old Testament would not be accepted under most Evangelical definitions of marriage. King David would have been condemned by the contemporary church. These are just a few. If we looked deeper into church history, we would see even greater issues. St. Augustine, who is considered  one of the doctors of the church, lived his entire adult life with a mistress. Why do we not see him as being defiled by this activity. Because he was living a lifestyle accepted within his contemporary culture. He did not marry his mistress because she was of a lower class than him in his culture. He was not allowed to marry her, in fact it would have been considered sinful if he had.

I bring this up not because I want to debate our understandings of marriage, but because this is probably the one area where we can see how culture has been influential in our understanding of faith. This is why I made the case that marriage is for survival. Our definition of marriage is based on the survival of our contemporary understanding of life and faith.

Last week we discussed another issue that has changed throughout church history. Eschatology and apocalypse. I mentioned how prevalent studies on this topic have been within my lifetime, and it is becoming divisive.  The most prevalent understanding of eschatology among American Evangelicals is called Dispensationalism. This understanding of eschatology, although it is often taught as Biblical truth accepted from the early church until today, did not exist until the late 19th century.

When this concept of eschatology first emerged it was not widely accepted but early in the 20th century something else happened. Christian Fundamentalism began to take hold. Things that we take as being gospel truths today draw their roots from this movement. But along with the fundamentalist movement came the idea of personal bible study. Everyone was encouraged to study scripture on their own. This study prompted many great movements, including the Evangelical church. What we may not realize is that because of the great encouragement to study for yourself, people realized that portions of scripture were difficult to understand. So they went out to find resources that could assist in that study. In the early 20th century there very few marketed study bibles, or a bible with notes that help clarify those troublesome passages. But two that were available were the Darby Bible and the Scofield bible. Both of these study bibles were published in the effort to prove that dispensational eschatology was biblical, despite what church history taught.

Through the great desire of devout followers of Christ, wanting to deepen the foundations of their faith, we began to study. And as we bought resources to aid in that study, we purchased publications that had notes that were biased. And as we read these notes along with scripture, we began to think that this had always been the belief. But it has not. We were influenced by culture, and well meaning teachers to believe something.

We live in an era that tells us that culture is at war with the church. I am not denying this. The culture has always opposed the church. That is the nature of sin. If the culture did not war with the church there would not be sin, and we would be living in Eden. But sin misses the mark. Sin distracts us from what we should be looking at and takes us down a different path. Repentance is the return from sin.

The Sadducees brought Jesus the question about marriage. They brought this question because there was an internal debate among the faithful about the reality of the Resurrection. The Sadducees we are told did not believe in the resurrection, so they had no problem with the levirate marriage. But if there was a resurrection and if in the resurrection things were as they are on Earth, there is a real problem. The woman was married to seven men, they could logically explain a man with seven wives, but how can we prove inheritance if a child might be from one of seven?

Let us consider another question that was posed. In Matthew 22 the Pharisees went with the Herodians and asked, “Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words.  And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ They said, ‘Caesar’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.” (Matthew 22:15-22 ESV)

I pulled just one question out of the sixty some odd questions asked of Jesus. But again, we notice something within the context of the question. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” People often tell me that I should just simply read scripture and not put so much effort in looking deeper, but this is important. Two groups ask this question, the Pharisees and the Herodians. This is again two groups that make up the cultural identities of the first century Jewish faith. Both would be seen on the outside as being Israel, but internally there is a debate. By asking this question we can see the sides that each might take. One side says it is not lawful to pay taxes. And the other is stating that it is lawful. We could venture to say which is which by the names given the Herodians, by their very name are supporters of the Herodian dynasty. Herod was given his position by the grace of Rome. The Pharisees on the other hand were from a school of thought, that they should make the nation righteous, and how could we be righteous if Gentiles ruled over us?

Should we conform to the government or are we sanctified, or set apart from it? About this time someone should start yelling, “Paul tells us in Romans that we should submit to the government, because God allowed them to rule and to reject this is to reject God.” Do you get a sense as to why it is difficult to study scripture alone. Jesus tells those that questioned him to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Have you ever just stopped to really consider the implications of this?

These various groups were arguing among themselves. We are told by Jesus, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:39–40 ESV). They search the Scriptures, they can quote scripture references to support their various positions. Yet they do not know the source of life is standing before them.

And then after they were done asking questions. They came to an agreement. They made peace between their various factions, and they plotted.

John 11:47–50 (ESV)

47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” 49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. 50 Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.”

One man for the whole nation. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation. Did you hear those words? Do you understand what they are saying, what they imply. This is a war, a divide between religion and culture. And the various groups are making alliances not on what they teach or believe, but based on the maintenance of political influence.

“And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals,  one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’”

I have sat with this passage in mind all week. I have had this prayer of Jesus echoing in my mind as I sleep. I also had the song lyrics , “Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with you.”

“Forgive them,” Jesus says, “For they know not what they do.” As far as they were concerned, they knew exactly what they were doing. They were placing all their political division onto one person, with the hopes that if they just got rid of this one divisive voice, they would be able to work through their problems. But this did not work. They did not know what they were doing. We often say if they had recognized him as the Messiah they would not have crucified him. The fact is, they would have. If the Roman knew that Jesus had no dynastic ambitions they would not have crucified him. The truth is they would have. If they only knew. We know, and yet we still divide.

“And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up, and offering him sour wine and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’’ They mock and they jeer. They create no-win situations and expect an answer. What would have happened if Jesus came off the cross? A riot would have ensued, a war would have started, and nothing would have changed.

Nothing would have changed. When we think of the crucifixion do we see it as the love of God? Do we see it as Jesus taking on our sin and our shame? Do we see it as the selfless act that it was and is?

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that selfishness leads to destruction. I want you to think of all the ambitions of mankind. What often is left in the wake? What do we see in the wake of an individual’s pursuit of power? What is left behind in our pursuit of wealth? It is usually not difficult to see, when these ambitions are pursued in a selfish manner there is destruction and desolation left in the wake. There can only be destruction in the wake, because to not destroy would mean there would be empathy and selfless concern. War leaves cities in ruins, even if a nation uses precision rockets. And often companies will hoard away wealth and file for bankruptcy if they are required to do anything that does not directly result in profit.

I am not anti-profit by any means. I am not even anti-military although I am a conscientious objector. All I am saying is that selfishness always leads to destruction in some form. Selfishness leaves families broken, it leaves relationships cold, it leaves tables empty, and schools without books. And the religious leaders plotted with each other against a man that taught us to live selflessly because he threatened their power.

Marriage is about survival. It is the selfless giving of what you have available to you to another, with the hope that they will selflessly give what they have available to them to you. We do this so that we both survive. And this spreads to the wider family, and to the tribe and to the nation. This is what the Old Testament law taught. Live selflessly. But we tend to twist the law, and we begin to twist our relationships, and we begin to justify our actions. I need this and they will not give it to me so I will take it instead of asking, neglect sharing, or failing to consider their opinion.

Or when Jesus said that we should not listen to those that make apocalyptic claims. Why would he say this, because it is clearly a theme throughout scripture. That if we do not repent bad things will happen. It is throughout the teachings of the prophets, and it is in Revelation. It is in scripture so we should teach it. Jesus tells us not to listen to them, because they are using our fear to manipulate our actions, or to sell products. It is not out of concern for others, but it is for selfishness. Churches preach the apocalypse because it brings more people in. When we have had our fill of apocalypse many do not know what to teach, because they already made the claim the end was going to happen, and it did not. They sold fear, and they will continue to sell fear. And as long as we live in fear they control us.

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Those that put Jesus on trial genuinely thought they were doing the right thing. The Roman soldiers that place the nails in his hand genuinely thought that if they did not execute this man that society would crumble. They all thought, they all believed that they were doing what is best, because in their mind as long as they maintained power all would be good. Jesus told the Pharisees and the Herodians give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. He said this after they handed him a coin that bore the image of Caesar. The coin represented the tax, the authority of the state the status quo, but what did Jesus leave open? What are the things of God? What bears the image of God?

In all the power brokering that lead to Jesus hanging on the cross, the righteous and the powerful forgot the most important thing. What is a nation? What is a congregation? A nation is people. It always has been and always will be. People. This is what Jesus means when he says give unto God what is God’s. We are created in God’s image. We bear the image of God. We were created to reflect the nature of God into the world around us. How do we do this?

Marriage is survival. It is survival because marriages are families and families are to take care of one another. If we say we support the sanctity of marriage, then what that means is that we support selfless giving for mutual profit. And this by nature must extend beyond into the nation, and from the nation to the world. That was the command that God gave our first parents, and that was the command that they broke when they ate of the fruit.

Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right here I am stuck in the middle with you. Jesus hangs on the cross between two criminals. He hangs there crying out to the Father to forgive them for they do not know what they are doing, and one of the criminals starts mocking him as well. We lash out in our pain; we want others to feel our misery. If we cannot have it good, no one should. We see this throughout our cultures. It is again a form of selfishness, called jealousy and greed. The inability to see our own self as part of the problem is the true pandemic in our culture.  But one of those that hung on the cross, recognized something. He rebuked his fellow condemned man, and looked to Jesus and said remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Have you ever really considered the silliness of that statement at face value. The three of them are hanging on crosses. Their future is numbered in minutes not days, and this man says remember me when you come into your kingdom. What kingdom does a condemned man have? This is before the resurrection and before the church. And yet this man realized something that so many of us miss. The kingdom is already here, and Jesus in that moment on the cross established it. The Kingdom is selfless giving for mutual profit. The kingdom is taking care of those around you. The Kingdom is honoring that of God in the person siting next to you, and honoring that of God in the person that politically opposes you. That criminal listened to Jesus’s prayer, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” That criminal might have been in the crowd listening to the answers posed by the various debating factions within the nation of Israel, and something changed in that man’s mind. He knew what he had done, he knew that he was receiving just compensation for what he had done, but Jesus had done nothing but speak words that caused people to become uncomfortable. And the actions that Jesus took were always for the benefit of others and the larger community. He healed, he fed, he taught, and encouraged. He told the wealthy to use their wealth to assist those that did not have a voice in their society. He treated those that were marginalized with respect and restored their dignity. Even those caught in sin or living outside the community of God, Jesus encouraged. And yet he hung on the tree between the clown and the joker. And all he said is, “Forgive them.”

We are living in a culture at war with ourselves. We are living in a community that is so blinded by selfishness. We try to place the blame on others, it’s the rich, or some other faction within our nation. We plot and we conspire, we vote and we sell. We argue and we take up arms. We think we know what we are doing and Jesus is hanging on the cross between us. Us clowns and jokers. And he says forgive them for they do not know what they do. As we argue do we love God, embrace the Holy Spirit, and live the love of Christ with others? As we buy and sell are we loving God with everything that we have and our neighbor as ourselves. As we build and as we tear down are we bringing the earth into Eden? Or are we just acting foolish? Each of us should be on that cross, and yet it is not I but Christ. And because he took up the cross, he looks at us and says, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” We can live in the kingdom today. We can experience God and see his glory today. We could if we turned. If we turn from self and live for others.


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