I was watching a piece attacking Donald Trump on Facebook, and it pointed out that his problem, but not just his for it is a problem for many US Citizens, is that they think that they are the greatest, even if they aren’t. Statistics, for example, show that they are not so good at Maths as they think they are! Of course, believing in oneself is a good thing. If we do not think we are any good at anything then we lose the will to do anything well. I remember once when I was a student, and desperate to earn some money, so I took a job as a kitchen cleaner; and was given the most awful and boring job of cleaning the walls and shelves of the cold-store. I hated it, BUT I was determined to do it well, because I had been taught to believe that whatever I did, I could and would do to the very best of my ability. But believing in oneself must surely go alongside a certain humility, a realistic appraisal of what we can and cannot achieve, and a knowledge that sometimes failures are more important than successes; because failures, as great scientists say, are where we learn.
This is certainly what Jesus demonstrates in his birth and life and above all in his death, as we just heard in the Gospel (Luke 23:35-43) Crucifixion was so common in the ancient Roman world that the Gospel writers do not need to go into much details for their readers, which can leave us modern people, somehow under playing the utter horror and suffering of it all. If you have seen “The Life of Brian” – a very funny film – it ends with Brian and lots of other people hanging on crosses, as if it didn’t hurt at all, and singing “Always look on the bright side of life”. It is a very valid comic attack on a kind of sentimental Christianity which tries to turn Jesus into a pretty fairy tale with a happy ending.
But the story of Jesus is not a fairy tale, it is the story of a real man who throws away his life and suffers for others. To the world at the time, the story of Jesus was a story of absolute failure. The whole point of the Gospel message is that it is God who succeeds NOT us humans. And Jesus, although in one sense he is of course God himself chooses to take on all the weaknesses of being a real human being, and that includes suffering and dying on the cross. If Jesus did not do this, if he just pretended to suffer and to die, as some have suggested, then the whole Christian Gospel is undermined.
If you know the Lord of The Rings story, a very Christian story indeed (for Tolkien was a devout Catholic) you will know that none of the heroes succeeds. The Hobbits, when they reach Mount Doom after an enormous struggle, almost succeed in destroying the wicked Ring of Power, but at the last moment they fail, and the Ring is actually destroyed by an accident. At the same time, Aragorn, the one destined, to be a great King, leads his army into a Battle he is about to lose, when the Ring is destroyed and with it the Power of Evil that was about to destroy him. He is the King because he is prepared to risk all for the sake of goodness and love and truth. See how Christian it is?
St Paul tells us that we must see the story of the death of Jesus like this, and that we must live our lives in imitation of him. This means no hypocrisy, no pretending we are the greatest when we are not, no pretending we are strong when we are actually weak; for it is only as we acknowledge our need for God’s help, that God can really get to work in us. In our Gospel almost everyone mocks Jesus. They challenge him to show he is a king, by saving himself, because that is what they think kingship is like – someone big and powerful dominating everyone else. You could argue that even the good thief dying beside Jesus gets it wrong, that he thinks there might be a chance at the last minute that this man has this power and will use it to save others as well. But Jesus saves no-one then, for salvation comes beyond his death. He dies almost alone. His disciples have run away for they too think that the whole mission has failed. The story ends with no hope, only a horrible death.
Christians are sometimes accused of going-on about death too much; but actually death – the end of all that we have worked for in life – is the great challenge to all our schemes, and that is why we say that people should live every moment as if it was their last. It is why in the next few weeks in the run-up to Christmas we will hear stories of the end of the world. All our ideas of what we might do next are fine, provided we realise that the only thing that might happen next is that we die, and are face to face with Almighty God. Remember the story Jesus tells of the man who was a great success and who decided to build more places to store all his things in? He tells it to someone who is arguing with his brother about money. The man in Jesus story has these great ideas about all he is gathering in for himself; but God says “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.” (Luke 12:20) To live life to the full is great, but unless we keep quietly in the background the knowledge that tonight we might die than we will live in our own strength rather than in the power of God. The fact that we all have to die is a very important lesson that many sadly fail to listen to.