[This was prepared for delivery during this morning's worship with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio. But it barely resembles the actual sermon delivered. If you visit the Living Water web site in the next several days, you should be able to listen to the sermon.]
Today, the last day of the Church Year, is Christ the King Sunday.
Our Gospel lesson this morning may seem like a strange text to use on a day devoted to declaring Jesus to be the King of kings. It’s Luke’s sparse account of Jesus’ crucifixion on the first Good Friday.
Kings are treated with honor by their subjects. They get parades, 21-gun salutes, brass bands, palaces. The person sentenced to crucifixion, by contrast, was not only killed, but also labeled as nobodies, the refuse of the world.
On Good Friday, Jesus doesn’t fit our usual picture of a king.
And yet on that day, one man at least, did understand that Jesus Christ is King.
Please go to Luke 23:33-43 (page 737 in the pew Bibles). It begins: “When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals--one on his right, the other on his left.”
It’s interesting how Luke describes the two men between whom Jesus was crucified. The other gospel writers use words to describe them that can be translated as bandits, revolutionaries, or thieves.
But the word used by Luke, which is translated in our Bible as criminals, is, in the original Greek, kakourgous. It’s a compound word which means simply doers of bad.
To me, this is a clever word choice by Luke because we have to admit that we all can be doers of bad. Look, please, at Romans 3:10-12, page 784 in the pew Bibles. It says: "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good [not good-doers, in other words, but evildoers] [And, lest we think we can get off the hook, the passage says again] “no not one." Sinless Jesus was crucified between two sinners who weren’t Osama bin-Laden or Adolf Hitler. They were doers of bad things, just like you and me. That’s important to remember on this Christ the King Sunday.
Next, we’re told: “Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’"
In those days executed people usually prayed something like, “May my death atone for all My sins.” But Jesus, supremely confident that He has led a sinless life, is concerned for the sins of others. He in essence prayed this His death might atone for their sins.
This isn’t a man at the mercy of His accusers or executioners, but a man in control, in charge. A king. On a cross. Willing to accept the punishment that His people--the whole human race--deserve in order to set the free to live in God’s kingdom.
Let's face it though, giving of self to the point of death for the benefit of others is not the way we usually see kings--be they magnates, the superstars of film, music, and sports, presidents, prime ministers, and royalty--act.
Their usual M.O. is built on a simple consideration: What’s in it for me?
Three different times, Jesus is challenged--mocked, really--to act like a king, to look out for Himself at the expense of others.
At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, He was tempted by the devil in the wilderness. Three times the devil went after Jesus to behave like an earthly king, to take power over the world without first conquering our sin and death through His cross and empty tomb. “If you are the Son of God...” the devil had taunted Jesus, “then turn this stone to bread, worship me and you’ll be on easy street, throw Yourself from the temple and give the world a convincing demonstration of Your power that will wow the crowds and do no good for them.” Jesus had resisted every temptation, you’ll remember.
But remember how that encounter between Jesus and the devil ended. Luke 4:13 (page 718): “When the devil had finished all his tempting, he left [Jesus] until an opportune time.”
Good Friday was that opportune time.
Jesus, suffering so much and knowing, because He was also God, how much more there was yet for Him to suffer in fulfilling His mission as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of every doer of bad things on the planet, was deemed ripe for temptation by the devil and those who worked for him in the world.
The devil, through his agents, once more tempted Jesus three times on that Good Friday.
And each time, the temptations were the same as those of the devil in the wilderness: "If you’re King, act like the kings we know. Take the easy way. Look out for number one. Wow us with your power. Seize control of this world."
In verse 35, we’re told that “the rulers [that’s the religious elites of the time] even sneered at [Jesus]. They said, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.’" In verses 36 and 37, we read: “The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.’" And verse 39 tells us: “One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’"
What’s interesting is that in two of these temptations, there’s an acknowledgment that Jesus had the power to save!
They knew that Jesus had raised people from the dead, saving them from death.
That He had given given fresh starts and new lives to notorious sinners, saving them from the consequences of their sin.
They knew that Jesus had fed thousands with a few bits of bread and fish, saving them from weakness and hunger.
They knew that Jesus had healed many diseases and infirmities, saving them from calamity.
But that wasn’t what Kings did! Kings only did things for others as a way of buying their loyalty, their gratitude, their subservience.
And maybe those who mocked and taunted Jesus, like the devil himself, really knew the truth about Jesus, that He was and is the King.
In that case, they might have really wondered, why Jesus didn't save His own neck, take control of the world by power wielded for whatever ends He chose?
That’s the way kings have behaved for centuries. The Roman emperors gave the people bread and circuses in order to keep the reins of power.
The moguls of the entertainment industry are committed to giving people what they want.
They want a king who will look out for number one and to placate them, give them what they want and who will never tell them that they’re sinners lost from God, sinners in need of God's grace and salvation. Kings are egotists who through the wily use of lies, feed human egos!
But Jesus Christ came to bring God’s kingdom not to those who are confident of their own goodness or righteousness.
He doesn’t play to our egos. “...the Son of Man came,” He says in Luke 19:10, “to seek and to save the lost."
If we don’t know that we’re lost without the forgiveness and new life that Jesus died and rose to make possible for all who believe in Him and know that things of this world that earthly kings might give us are dead and useless, we will never see Jesus as our King.
And, absent that soul-shaking realization, none of us can ever see His kingdom or be part of its. Until we understand that we need Jesus and His cross, we remain outside of the Kingdom.
No one--not the religious leaders, not the soldiers, not the first of the two criminals quoted in our lesson--understood this.
In verse 40 though, we hear though from the second criminal: “But the other criminal rebuked [the first]. ‘Don't you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence [as Jesus]? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’"
I love this man more than almost anyone we meet in Scripture! He is so honest, so humble, so open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, so ready to enter the Kingdom of God!
This man knows that Jesus is the King.
And he understands that the only way any of us can see the Kingdom is if we first see that we are sinners in need of a Savior and can confess that Jesus is that Savior, allowing Him to be our King, to reign over us with His forgiveness and grace.
But, notice, he does not ask Jesus to take away his cross!
He understood somehow what we must all understand if we are to have Jesus as our King. Jesus calls all of us to take up our crosses and follow Him.
The wages of sin is still death and those of us born into sin will, unless Jesus returns during our earthly lives, die.
And even in this life, we will face all sorts of crosses, all manner of death.
We must, like the second criminal, own our sins and crucify them through daily confession, repentance, and renewal through the crucified and risen Jesus.
And along life’s way, we must refuse to follow the path of ease and self-glorification.
In this world, we can only follow Jesus on the narrow path of the cross and self-denial.
On this path, we are called to resist the temptation to please ourselves, instead of God.
We’re called to forgo the applause of the world in order to one day hear the “well done” of our Savior.
We’re called to live according to God’s will even at those times when God’s will is the last thing we want in our lives.
We’re called to keep trusting in God even when our prayers seem unanswered or are answered in ways that leave us grieving and inconsolable.
And we are called each day to confess our sins and, like the second evildoer, ask for mercy without any pretense that we deserve it and in the full conviction that we cannot live without God or the mercy He gives through Jesus Christ alone.
Each day, we have before us the way of death or the way of life. Jesus is the way of life. Like the second criminal, we must see that there is life only in Jesus!
In verse 43, Jesus responds to the confessions of the second criminal: “Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’"
This self-confessed evildoer was assured by Jesus that because of his faith in Jesus, he would not be lost to God forever. By repentance, his old sinful self had been crucified and by his faith, Jesus assured him, wherever Jesus is, there is His kingdom and there are those who have become citizens of that kingdom by faith in Christ the King!
And when does that happen for us?
Today! Salvation and life with God comes and is revived within us whenever we confess our sins and confess our faith in Christ the King.
At the very moments we repent and trust in Christ and at every moment we are renewed through repentance and God’s gracious forgiveness, we are in the Kingdom!
The kingdom of God can come to us through every today of our lives, no matter what’s going on in our lives or in the world.
The angels announced at Christmas, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you...”
In the synagogue of Nazareth after reading Isaiah’s prophecy about the messiah, Jesus said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
To the tax collector who turned from his sin and trusted in Christ, Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
God wants us in His Kingdom, even now in this imperfect and dying world.
But you know what?
We can know that Jesus is King.
We can know what the Kingdom of God is.
We can even know how we become part of Jesus’ Kingdom.
But the real question for each of us is this: Is Jesus Christ our King?
Are we daily reclaiming our faith in Him as the only Lord over our lives, priorities, and decisions?
Are we daily turning to Him in humble recognition of our sins and our need of His forgiveness?
Is Jesus Christ our King?
I ask the question not to incite guilt or fear. That would be presumptuous on my part because I know that I am a sinful human being who falls way short of the glory of God!
Instead, I ask the question to give hope.
You see, the God we know in Jesus Christ is the King Who gives second chances.
And third chances.
And unnumbered chances.
To an evildoer who was being justly executed for his sin, but who sought a new chance, a new life, Jesus eagerly and lovingly gave not just the promise of eternity, but also the promise of being with him today, now, in all the remaining moments of this life.
If you’re anything like me, I know that you need those second chances.
Not breads and circuses.
Not tax breaks or the latest bauble or googog the world offers.
You need Jesus Christ.
Today, Christ our King offers no less than life eternal with God, beginning with His stubborn, loving presence with us today, right now, to all who turn from sin and latch onto Him as their only God.
May Jesus Christ be our King every day we live! Amen