Sunday, November 25, 2007

See the King?

[This sermon was shared with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church, Logan, Ohio, during worship this morning.]

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, same scenario. 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 so 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.

I bring all of this up because 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’ve just come through Thanksgiving and Black Friday and are looking ahead to Christmas and all the January bills. But the Gospel lesson is the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, an account of the first Good Friday.

But the lesson seems out of place for an even more important reason: 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. A young woman our daughter Sarah knows rediscovered her faith in Jesus while she was a teenager. When that happened, she bought a simple cross necklace and put it on. One morning, her father spotted her wearing it and asked what was going on. (After all, he'd raised her to be a good little agnostic.) 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. He went on to explain in detail what a humiliating and life-crushing experience crucifixion was.

To that young woman’s father, 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 and 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 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.”

Whether the leaders, the soldiers, or the first criminal harbored notions that Jesus really was the Messiah, God’s anointed King, it’s hard to say. One suspects that the religious leaders knew that Jesus was the King, but wanted to get rid of anyone who might threaten their guilt-tripping stranglehold over the people of first century Judea.

And I think that the others who taunted Jesus that day were cynics who believed, like the father of our daughter’s friend, 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 things that way. 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. The “message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” he says. “But to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Only one person in today’s lesson saw the power of God in Christ’s crucifixion. He looked at the suffering Jesus on the cross and saw not a defeated man, but the King.

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 him not because the criminal deserved it, but because he had confessed both his sins and 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).

And in his explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed, Martin Luther, says, “I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy, and kept me in the true faith…”

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 even 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 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 conference 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, sang it to him. (You know the song, too. So, sing the refrain with me now.) “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 and looked the nurse straight in the eyes 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.
On this Christ the King Sunday, my message to you is simple: Don’t you ever forget any of that! Amen

[The image above incorporates the crown of a king with the first two letters of Jesus' title, Christ, from the Greek alphabet. Greek, being the language of international trade and discourse in the first century, is the language in the New Testament was written. Greek then occupied a place in the world that English does today.]

[Michelle Akers' story is recounted in Perfect Illustrations for Every Topic and Occasion, where it's taken from an article that appeared in Christian Reader in 2000.]

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