Sunday, November 24, 2019

Is This the King?

[This message was shared earlier today during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Luke 23:27-43
Two things seem, more than others, to show us a lot about who we are and what we believe: how we live and how we die

Some people live and die with arrogance or resentment or fear being the prevailing themes of their living and dying. 

A few live and die with the faith, humility, love, and hope they have been given by Jesus Christ. 

Jesus Himself lived and died with faith, humility, love, and hope, of course. But, on this Christ the King Sunday, we also remember that He lived, died, rose, and lives still as the King and Lord, the Savior and God of the universe.

Kings and other power-holders of the world, you know, like to advertise their power, their supposed strength. They have symbols of their power: homes and offices, jets and helicopters, official seals and aides at their constant beck-and-call.

Jesus, in fact, divested Himself of the power and authority that has belonged to Him from all eternity, in order to reclaim His fallen subjects--you and me--so that all who repent and believe in Him will live in His kingdom forever. He didn't look like a king to most of the people who came in contact with Him.

As Luke tells it in today’s Gospel lesson, Luke 23:27-43, on the day of Jesus' crucifixion only one person--a κακοῦργος in Luke’s manuscript: a doer of bad or of evil, a criminal--saw that even as He died on a cross, Jesus was and is the King. Only this one man saw that Jesus holds life, death, and eternity in His hands. 

When we look to Jesus on the cross, do we see our King? 

And should we? 

Let’s follow Jesus to His cross today to find the answers to these questions.

Our lesson begins by telling us about the grim procession that followed Jesus to a spot called the Skull, apparently a common site for criminal executions outside Jerusalem’s walls. Women, following after Jesus along with the crowds out to see the spectacle of Jesus’ death, weep. Jesus tells them that one day if Jerusalem and the rest of God’s people continue to reject God and His Messiah, destruction will come. Jesus says that the destruction will be so horrible--and that destruction did come to Jerusalem, Israel’s pretensions to nationhood, and the temple in 70 AD--that Jewish women, who always aspired to motherhood, will be considered blessed for not having brought their children into a world of such pain. Jesus says: “...if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (verse 31). 

In other words, “If the Romans do this to one they pronounce innocent, what will they do to a rebellious city.” Or, “...if God [hasn’t] spared His innocent Son, how much worse will it be when the Romans inflict [God’s] judgment on the city?”*

Even on the brink of the agonies of the cross, Jesus isn’t thinking of Himself, but of others. This is a characteristic of a true King, One Who understands that power is never to be used selfishly, but only for the benefit of others.

Beginning in verse 32, we see Jesus being taken to His cross, suspended between two criminals, evildoers.

In ancient times, those who were thought to be righteous or blameless spent their dying breaths cursing those who wronged them or killed them. 

Not Christ the King. 

“Father” Jesus prays, “forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (verse 34) 

And, lest we think that this is the prayer of a defeated idealist, we learn in the book of Acts that Jesus, once crucified and now risen, shares His kingly power over sin, death, and darkness to those who believe in Him. The first martyr of the Christian faith was a Greek-cutured Jew named Stephen. Filled with the Holy Spirit sent by Jesus to His disciples, Stephen prayed for his murderers, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60) 

I don’t know about you, but I am sure that in my own power, I am incapable of forgiving others as Jesus forgives me

This  is why Jesus tells Christians to pray for His power in our living and dying: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Alexander Pope famously said, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” Only King Jesus, God the Son, Who lives in those who have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, can help us to forgive those who have wounded us the way He has forgiven us for the wounds we have inflicted on Him by our sin.

Do you remember that when, at the beginning of Jesus' ministry when He was tempted by the devil, the devil left Jesus vowing to tempt Him again at a more opportune time? Clearly, Satan regarded Jesus' crucifixion as that more opportune time, a time to try to prevent Jesus from fulfilling His mission of dying on the cross for you and me.

At the cross, Jesus is taunted several times at the cross. Each taunt represents a temptation to sin for Jesus, to depart from the will of God the Father. 

Taunt number one: Referring to Jesus’ many miracles, the crowds and the rulers of Jewish religious life say, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” (verse 35) But Christ the King didn’t come to save Himself. He had already been safe and sound in His heavenly Kingdom. Instead, He stripped Himself of His advantages as our King to live as one one of us, although He never sinned, to become the perfect sacrifice for our sins. 

Taunt number two: The soldiers mocked Jesus and, playing the part of a king’s cup-bearer, they offered Jesus wine. Only this wine was bitter, like that drunk by the poorest and weakest. “If you are the king of the Jews,” the soldiers tell Jesus, “save yourself.” (verse 37) “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” Jesus had asked His disciples at the garden of Gethsemane. “But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?" (Matthew 26:53-54) Jesus kept His eyes on the prize, saving us from sin and death by dying on the cross on our behalf. He wanted to save you and me for His kingdom. 

Taunt number three: Verse 38: “There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” Pilate had said Jesus was innocent. Yet He had so little regard for Jesus’ life that He sent Him to the cross anyway. In those days, the crimes of the executed were posted on signs above their heads. Pilate mocked both Jesus and God’s people by labeling Jesus the King of the Jews. Yet, Jesus Who could have escaped all the taunting and death itself, chose to remain on His cross.

Taunt number four: Verse 39: “One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’” Be honest: When you’re shown pictures of yourself with family members or friends, who do you look for first? We are born prisoners of self, sinners. There’s no one that we trust more than ourselves. Yet, dead and dying people, we can’t save ourselves from ourselves. Only the King with the love and self-discipline to forget about Himself can save us. Jesus is that King. Jesus says of Himself that “...the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost." (Luke 19:10)

Amid this scene in which the whole world--Jewish and Gentile, religious and secular, rulers and common people--rejects Jesus, one person sees what no one else, not even Jesus’ closest followers, sees. 

He sees how Jesus lives and dies. 

He hears the gentle, powerful Word and witness of Jesus and by it, the Holy Spirit creates within him faith in Jesus. He sees that Christ is the King, the King, Lord of heaven and earth. 

That one person who sees and hears is one of the evil-doers, one of the criminals. 

He confesses his sin as he tells the other criminal, “Don’t you fear God...since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:40-41) You can’t have Jesus as your Lord and King if you refuse to first own your need of being saved from your sin. 

And then, this man convicted of a capital crime, turns to Jesus and confesses faith: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (verse 42)

Jesus is bloodied, beaten, battered, pierced, on the brink of death. He doesn't look like someone who could save anyone. He doesn't look like the kings or power-holders of this world. 

But even at this moment, the criminal sees that Jesus is His King: The Word, powered by the Holy Spirit, gives him saving faith in Jesus. He welcomes that Word that tells us--no matter how crazy or painful our lives get--that Jesus is “the Messiah [the Christ, the Anointed King], the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16)

Some who heard the exchange between the criminal and Jesus may have thought, “Everyone else is against Jesus and the only one who believes in Him is this thug. Some king!” But Jesus, the Word of God, had done His life-saving work in the criminal. The criminal clung to the truth that Saint Paul would later experience and write about, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’” (Romans 10:9)

The criminal’s faith in Jesus is rewarded instantly. After his confession of faith, Jesus tells Him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (verse 43) In Jewish thought, Paradise was a garden, like Eden, where God’s people, the subjects of Christ the King, went before their resurrections. And even now, in this moment and in all the moments of this life, as we receive Jesus in faith, we are part of His eternal kingdom. As we confess our faith in Him, Jesus says as He did that day in the house of the repentant sinner Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man [this woman, this child], too, is a son [is a daughter] of Abraham,” a child of God’s promise that “the righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17)

In John 3:31, the apostle writes: “The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all.” Jesus, the One Who comes from heaven is above all. He is Christ the King, the One Who destroys the power of sin, death, and the devil over our lives

We can see this is true in how He lived, how He died, how He rose, and how, even today, He comes to us in Word and Sacrament and the life of His Church

Turn to Him when He calls you to repentance. Turn to Him when He calls you to faith. Each time you turn to Him, you will live as His subject, His child, His chosen, His friend, now and forever. Amen

*The Lutheran Study Bible

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]