Sunday, November 21, 2010

Who Sees the King?

[This sermon was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today. As I explained this morning, this is an only slightly reworked version of a sermon I preached at Saint Matthew three years ago. Since I don't think it's possible to plagiarize one's own sermon, I guess that's OK.]

Luke 23:33-43
A family was moving to a new town. As they approached the outskirts of the place, they decided to stop at a local filling station and ask the attendant there what the town was like. “Well,” he said, “what was the last place you lived in like?” The family said, “It was awful. Neighbors were unfriendly. Delivery and repair people never showed up on time. Dogs barked at all hours. Our bosses were scrooges and the kids never once had a good teacher.” The attendant considered their answer for a while and said, “This place is pretty much like that. You’d be better off moving on.”

Later that day, the same scenario unfolded. Another family showed up at the filling station and wanted to know what this new town was like. “What was your old town like?” the attendant asked. “It was great,” the family said. “Everyone was friendly. The businesspeople did their best to get things done on time and always went above the call of duty. We had great bosses and the kids’ teachers were fantastic! Even the dogs were quiet.” The attendant considered their answer and said, “This place is pretty much like that. You’re going to love it here!”

Sometimes what we see is the thing we’re looking for. We see it because we’re open to seeing it.

On this Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the Church Year, our Gospel lesson seems, at first, to be out of place. After all, we’re about to celebrate Thanksgiving and are looking ahead to Christmas. But the Gospel lesson is the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, an account of the first Good Friday.

But the lesson seems out of place in another way: Nobody seems less like a king than a man executed on a cross. Not many will look at the crucified Jesus and see a king, let alone the King of kings.

True story: A young woman rediscovered her faith in Jesus while she was a teenager. She bought a simple cross necklace. One morning, her father spotted her wearing the necklace and asked what was going on. She explained that she wanted to be able to see the cross in the mirror every time she washed her hands or combed her hair. It would remind her of Christ.

Her father was repulsed. “Do you have any idea what happened on the cross?” he asked her. He went on to explain in detail what a humiliating and life-crushing experience crucifixion was. To that man, Jesus’ death on a cross was proof that Jesus was no king, just another pathetic victim of the world. To him, the story of Jesus on the cross ended not in the Savior paying the price for our sins nor in His resurrection from the dead so that all who repudiate their sin and believe in Jesus will live with God forever. To him, Jesus’ story ended in death for Jesus and for us all. Intent on making his own way in the world, what that man wanted to see when he thought of Jesus on the cross was exactly what he saw.

In our lesson today, the jealous religious leaders who sought Jesus’ death, the cynical soldiers who gambled for His clothes, and one of the criminals crucified with Him all saw Jesus as they wanted to see Him. Each in their way, taunted Jesus, seeing Him as a loser headed for utter humilation and defeat.

“He saved others,” the religious leaders say. “If He is the son of God, let Him save Himself.”

“If you really are the king,” the soldiers taunt, “save Yourself.”

“Aren’t You the Messiah?” one of the criminals asks, “Then get us off the hook and save yourself too.”

Whether the leaders, the soldiers, or the first criminal harbored notions that Jesus really was the Messiah, God’s anointed King, may not be important. It's clear though, that the religious leaders knew that Jesus was the King, but wanted to get rid of anyone who might threaten their status. The others who taunted Jesus that day were probably just garden-variety cynics who believed, like the father of that young woman, that life must end at the grave.

Even the crowds who gazed on these events in silence appear to see only hopelessness in Jesus’ crucifixion. I suppose most people who take the time to consider Jesus on the cross see hopelessness. They can’t see how Jesus’ crucifixion proves that He is the King of kings.

But we who follow Christ have been helped to see things differently. Paul writes about these two different ways of seeing Jesus on the cross in First Corinthians in the New Testament. If you would, please turn to page 657 in the pew Bibles. Look at 1 Corinthians, chapter 1, verse 18. Read along with me silently. Paul says: “…the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Only one person in today’s Gospel lesson was foolish enough to see the power of God in Christ’s crucifixion. He was one of the criminals. He looked at the suffering Jesus on the cross and saw not a defeated man, but the King of kings. He was so certain of Jesus being the King that he turned to Jesus and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus promised, not because the criminal deserved it, but because he both confessed his sins and professed his faith in Jesus, that he would on that very day be with Him in paradise.

Why did that one man see Jesus as the King of kings that Good Friday?

As good Lutherans who read our Bibles, we all know that it wasn’t because he was smarter than the others, or that he was a better person, or that he had done more good things. None of these things create faith or give us our places in Christ’s kingdom. Faith that saves us from sin and death is a gift from God. In another place in the New Testament, Paul says, “No one can confess ‘Jesus is Lord,’ unless he is guided by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3, TEV). God creates and sustains faith in those who are open to seeing Jesus as their Savior and their King. Today’s Gospel lesson shows us that only one kind of person is open to seeing Christ as King. Only one kind of person will pay attention when God’s Spirit prompts them to confess their sins or follow Jesus Christ.

Michelle Akers was the first American woman to play professional soccer in Europe. After scoring ten goals in five games in the first-ever Women’s Cup in 1991, she signed an endorsement deal that brought her fame and money. She got a tryout to be a place kicker with the Dallas Cowboys, her longest attempt going 52-yards.

But in 1993, she was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome. “When it was really bad,” Akers says, “I couldn’t sit up in a chair. The racking migraines stranded me at home, unable even to get up to brush my teeth or eat.” Five minute walks required two days on the couch to recover.

Strength and hard work, the two kings on whom Akers had relied her entire life, could no longer be called on to help her. She says that it was unbearable to not be the “best in the world” or the person who could always bounce back from any injury. “I was forced to spend a lot of time thinking about who I was. I didn’t like what I saw,” she says. Then, her husband left her.

It was then that Akers was invited by her strength coach to worship with him. She didn’t know why exactly, but Akers accepted the invitation. It was the beginning of a new life with Christ as her king. Looking back, Akers says, she thinks that for years God had been calling her to follow. But, certain that she knew what she was doing, sure that she could make her own decisions, convinced even that she didn’t need forgiveness or help with living her life, she ignored God and the Church. Akers says “It took total devastation before I could [surrender] and say, ‘Okay, God. You can have my life. Please help me.”

Who sees Jesus Christ as King? People who see that their lives are broken without Him.

They see Jesus as King first of all, because they see themselves as they are: as sinners in need of forgiveness, as ordinary human beings who cannot make it without the eternal God.

They're also people who see that at the end of our power to cope or hope is a King Who fills His people with love and gives them the capacity to face any cross in the certainty that they belong to God forever!

Years ago, at a national gathering of Lutheran youth in San Antonio, I met a nurse who worked in a nursing home. She told about caring for a retired pastor who was dying and had, for some time, been in a coma. She knew his favorite song and so, standing by his bed one day, sang it to him: “Yes, Jesus loves me; Yes, Jesus loves me; Yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so.” At that the pastor lifted himself from the bed as far as his weak arms would allow and looked the nurse straight in the eye to tell her, “Don’t you ever forget it!” Then, he fell back on his pillow and died.

In Jesus, the One Who, from His cross, forgave those who killed Him, we see the King...
  • Who stands by us no matter what...
  • Who heals our deepest hurts…
  • Who forgives our sins…
  • Who always loves us…
  • and Who gives all who turn from sin and follow Him paradise.
Today, Christ our King tells us to consider all these things and then gives us a simple message: Don’t you ever forget any of that! Amen

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