Sunday, November 20, 2022

The King on the Cross

[Below you'll find the message shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville Ohio, earlier today. You'll also be able to view both worship services. Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the Church Year.]

Luke 23:27-43

In today’s Gospel lesson, we read what may be the unlikeliest prayer ever. One of the criminals crucified with Jesus says to the Lord, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42)

Here, the second criminal to speak at Jesus’ crucifixion confesses his belief that Jesus is the King of all kings.

More than that, we see he believes that Jesus, beyond death, will claim His eternal kingdom.

There are two things that make this prayer so unlikely.

The first is that a dying man, like Jesus, doesn’t look like someone about to claim a crown.

The second is that at this moment, the whole world seems to be mocking Jesus. The Jewish religious authorities, the Roman soldiers, and the other criminal being crucified all mock Him, challenging Jesus to save Himself as He had saved others. Even the sign on Jesus’ cross mocks Him. “I-N-R-I,” it says, abbreviating the Latin phrase, “Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum,” “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”

Yet, the second criminal prays to Jesus as his King, God the Son, and asks to be part of Jesus’ eternal kingdom. How does this man know that Jesus is King and that even he, who Luke describes in the Greek in which he wrote his gospel, as an “evil doer,” can be part of Jesus’ kingdom?

The second criminal knows these things for the same reason you and I–and anyone else–can know that Jesus is King and that we can be part of His kingdom. On the cross, Jesus preached the good news of new and everlasting life with God for all who repent and believe in Him. This happened when Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

Now, it’s obvious that this is an incredibly gracious prayer. Jesus is praying that the Father will forgive those who are killing Him! But who exactly is killing Jesus?

We find our answer in the three predictions Jesus makes of His crucifixion as recorded by Luke.

In the first, Jesus says that His fellow Jews will crucify Him. (Luke 9:22)

In the second, He says that “men,” that is, all humanity, will put Him on the cross. (Luke 9:44)

In the third, Jesus says that Gentiles, non-Jews like you and me, represented by the Romans, will crucify Him. (Luke 18:32)

Every one of us, by our sinful natures, by the sins we commit and the righteous thoughts we fail to hold and the righteous deeds we fail to do, are responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion.

So, in this prayer, Jesus prays for the forgiveness of us all, the whole human race, including you and me. Jesus prays that all of us who crucify Him will be sheltered in the grace that He, the sinless King Who died and rose for sinners, can give. Jesus prays for you!

In Jesus’ prayer, the second criminal heard both the Law that condemns sin and the Gospel that sets those who believe in Him free from our common human slavery to sin. In response to the conviction of his sins by God’s Law by confessing his sin, just as we do every time we gather to worship. “We are punished justly,” he tells the other criminal, “for we are getting what our deeds deserve.” (Luke 23:41)

But in Jesus’ prayer, this man also heard the words of the King of all creation, “the image of the invisible God,” according to our lesson from Colossians for today, the One through Whom “all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:13, 16-17)

He knew that Jesus had power over everything! In the Word of Gospel Jesus spoke in His prayer, although His body was bloodied and broken, the second criminal saw the King and Maker of all things Who would not be deterred from loving His children or dying for our salvation even as He was dying at our hands. And so, the criminal confesses faith in Jesus, asking Jesus to remember him when He claims His Kingdom, which Jesus will do on Easter Sunday morning.

To this man, an inveterate evildoer and a criminal his whole life, Jesus speaks a Word of gospel promise: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) Notice that Jesus lays down no pre-conditions for the man to earn his salvation. The Word of God from Jesus has led the man to believe and that is all that sinners like you and me need to be assured that one day, we too will be with Jesus in paradise

The two criminals in our gospel lesson show us that there are really only two possible ways we can respond to Jesus on the cross. 

The first possible response is for us to hate Jesus. You see, if my sin and your sin is so serious that it requires the sinless Son of God to die for me, there’s no way I can deny that I’m a sinner. The death of the innocent Savior Jesus shows us that we all are, as the apostle Paul writes in Romans, “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity…full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice…gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; [inventors of] evil;…[people with] no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.” (Romans 1:29-31)

I’ve read that passage to some people and heard them say, “Sounds like Congress.” But I say, we all need to look in the mirror. In truth, it sounds like every single one of us. 

You may say you don’t know anybody who hates Jesus. But, friends, have you ever heard anybody say—or, have you yourself ever said—“Jesus was a great teacher” or “Jesus was a good man” or some such nonsense? When human beings say things like this, they’re really saying they reject God’s verdict on the sinful nature into which each and every one of us was born.

The ancient saints knew this.

David, called out for adultery and murder, knew that while he was made a saint by God’s grace through faith in God, he was nonetheless a sinner. “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5)

And Job, despite his faith in God, knew that he had inherited sinful impulses from a fallen human race: “Who can bring what is pure from the impure?” he asks, then answers, “No one!” (Job 14:4)

You see, we like to delude ourselves that we’re just good enough to earn God’s forgiveness, just righteous enough to earn a place in His kingdom. The King of all kings blows that foolishness to bits. You and I, folks, by our sinful nature and the sins we commit because of it are what drove the nails into Jesus’ hands and feet!

But, there is a second response we can have to Jesus hanging on the cross: We can hate our sins.

This was the response of the second evildoer. He knew that he deserved to die for his sins. He was horrified that his sins required Jesus to suffer so much. He was overwhelmed with gratitude that God would stoop all the way down to a cross because of His love for us. The man hated what he, by the decisions he’d made, the wrongs he’d done, and the good he’d failed to do, all of which had brought Jesus to this place of torment, mockery, and death.

When, by the power of God’s Word, we hate our sins enough to see the King on the cross as our God and Savior, we know to pray, “Jesus, remember me in Your Kingdom.”

And we can know that Jesus will remember us and does remember us even now!

God’s Word is clear: “…the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

Dear friends in Christ, this gospel word is for you too.

Christ the King has died for you.

He offered Himself up as the perfect sacrifice for your sin.

He prayed and still prays that you might know God’s forgiveness.

And to those who turn to Him in repentant faith, He offers life with God that never ends.

Elsewhere, Jesus says, “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)

May we daily listen to God’s Word that leads us to hate our sin and to love our King, Jesus, and so be assured of our place in His kingdom always. Amen