Sermon for End Time 4(c)
Luke 23:35-43 + Genesis 49:8-12 + Colossians 1:13-20
There are two outstanding images of Christ the King that Scripture holds before our eyes. The one is an image of a great and mighty king, all-glorious, sitting on a sapphire throne, wearing a royal crown on his head. The other is the image of Luke’s Gospel – a broken and bleeding king, weak, hanging on a cross, wearing a crown of thorns on his head. Which image do you prefer?
You don’t have to prefer either. Both images are true. Both images are perfect. The image of Christ the glorious King is for later – no one living on earth has ever seen that image, except through the eyes of faith. Our Father is waiting for the Last Day to reveal it openly to the world.
Until then, the image that is stamped on the Church and on our hearts is the image of Christ, the dying King. That image of Christ was seen by many people long ago, and most of them stumbled over it. Most of them were looking only for Christ the glorious King and so they missed the reality that only one man saw in our Gospel today: that Christ becomes the glorious King because Christ was the dying King. Because while the world looks for a fast-food kind of King who will take our orders for a happy and safe life on earth and serve them up within minutes, the thief on the cross was looking for a King who could keep him safe before the judgment seat of God and grant him a happy life beyond this life. To that thief dying next to Jesus on the cross, and to everyone who realizes what our biggest enemy really is, a King who saves from sin is the only kind of King worth having.
There are six groups of people mentioned (or alluded to) in our Gospel today. The first five stumbled at the image of Christ, the dying King.
First, you had the people who just stood there watching. They didn’t say anything. They didn’t have to. They had heard about Jesus, or maybe even followed Jesus for a few years, and all they could see when they looked up at Jesus on the cross – was a great big disappointment. All the many miracles Jesus had performed – signs of his hidden glory – the people had so hoped that those miracles were building up to something great and glorious: that he would save them from political oppression, that he would restore justice to the land, that he would save them all from poverty and hunger and sickness and war. A real king would save them from those things, they thought. A dying king is a worthless king. You know anyone who thinks like that?
Then you had the Jewish rulers hurling insults up at Jesus. “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.” These people had never followed Jesus. They never for a minute believed that Jesus could be the Christ, the Chosen One of God. Because if he were, he would surely have congratulated them for being such good religious people. Instead, he just lumped them together with the rest of sinful mankind, said their good works weren’t good enough, and called on them to repent and believe in him as their Savior. Humph! Some Savior, who can’t even save himself! Doesn’t he realize that our sins aren’t that serious? A dying king is a worthless king. You know anyone who thinks like that?
The third group there at the cross were the Roman soldiers. The soldiers also came up and mocked him…, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” If anybody knew what a powerful king looked like, it was the Roman soldiers. Caesar was Caesar because nobody could beat him in battle or get away with insulting him. A real king takes charge and protects his people and gives them peace and prosperity and pleasure – not shame, not humiliation, not the cross. No real king would ever bear a cross, much less make his subjects bear a cross. A dying king is a worthless king. You know anyone who thinks like that?
Group #4 at the cross only made an appearance in writing. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor had that notice posted above Jesus’ cross, “This is the king of the Jews.” Not that he actually believed that; he was just using Jesus to get back at the Jewish leaders who had manipulated him into ordering this crucifixion. To Pilate, Jesus was a nice, innocent man, who probably had some very nice things to teach to people. But Jesus had committed the cardinal sin, in Pilate’s eyes. He took a stand on The Truth (as if anyone could know the truth). He made waves. He didn’t know how to be politically correct, and so he made people angry – angry enough to have him crucified. A real king knows how to compromise, how to tolerate different views and different lifestyles – not make people angry or get himself killed. A dying king is a worthless king. You know anyone who thinks like that?
Finally, there was that criminal dying next to Jesus. Talk about shameless! He had lived how he wanted to live. He didn’t care about God and his Commandments. He didn’t care about human laws, either. He was tried, convicted and crucified for his crimes and now a few hours away from dying. And he still thinks God owes him something. “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” A real king would let me sin all day long and then still snap his fingers and save me from the consequences of my sin. But a dying king is a worthless king. You know anyone who thinks like that?
So the world views Jesus dying on the cross.
And all the while, no one – practically no one gets what we really need saving from. What few people get, what few people understand is that life on earth is a very short layover on the way to our eternal destination, and everybody holds in his or her hand a ticket to condemnation in God’s tribunal. Satan has blinded the world to the reality – that we are totally and completely infected by this thing called sin – this inbred rebellion against God that cannot be erased, cannot be compensated for and cannot be forgiven.
Unless somebody else pays the price for it. Unless somebody else steps in with his own perfect righteousness and satisfies God’s holy law. Unless that somebody is the Son of God and Son of Man, whose blood covers the sins of mankind. A real king knows what his people really need, and if the only thing that will save his people from eternal destruction for their sins is his own humiliation, his own sinless life, his own crucifixion, then a real king does what a real king has to do to save his people. Christ is the King who saves – from sin.
That’s what that other thief on the cross saw when he looked at Jesus hanging there next to him. He saw his king, doing what he had to do to redeem fallen mankind, to redeem him from his crimes against God and man. He saw his king sacrificing himself for his people, in fulfillment of all God’s Old Testament prophecies and promises. He saw his king – the Righteous One giving his life for the unrighteous ones, to bring us to God.
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom!” There was a man who knew what he really needed. He didn’t need to be rescued from poverty or from hunger or from sickness. He didn’t need to be given advice on how to make friends or be taught how to lead a victorious life on earth. He didn’t even need to be rescued from death on that cross. He needed to be rescued before God’s judgment seat, to be rescued from the devil’s accusations, to be rescued from eternal death in hell, to be rescued by this King and brought safely into his heavenly kingdom. There was a man who saw clearly with the eyes of faith, who saw God’s greatest gift to mankind, bloody and dying, crowned with a crown of thorns. There was a man who saw Christ the King for what he was, for what he is – the God of grace and love who saves sinners from sin.
“I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in Paradise.” There was the King acting like a king, flinging wide the door to heaven to this wretched sinner who looked to Jesus as his Savior from sin, who trusted in this King for forgiveness and life.
This King does the same thing for all who repent and trust in him, even for you. He has sent out ministers into the world, even here among you, to hold this image before the eyes of the world – the image of Christ crucified, the truth of a king who died to save mankind from sin, the message of the cross. “Christ the king has been crucified for you! Repent and be baptized in the name of this King for the forgiveness of your sins.” That simple message is and will always be a stumbling block and foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, Christ the wisdom of God and the power of God.
It is Christ, the dying King, into whom you have been baptized – in whom you, too, have been crucified to sin and forgiven of sin, so that you may live in sin no longer, so that your every moment and every breath may be spent in his service, if you have any moments left on this earth. It is Christ, the dying King, whose body and blood were offered on the cross so that he may now offer them to you for healing and forgiveness in the Holy Supper, where he renews his promise to you again and again, “I tell you the truth, you – you who eat this bread and drink this cup – you will be with me in Paradise.”
Next week we’ll begin a new church year, and guess what the Gospel is for next Sunday: The gospel for next Sunday, the first Sunday of the church year, is of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey at the beginning of Holy week. Today we end the church year with the culmination of Holy Week, the king’s final humiliation destination. This is the life of the Church on earth: it starts and ends with Christ the dying king, Christ crucified to save his people from their sins. The Church has no other purpose than to gather around this crucified King in worship, and then to scatter out into the world to proclaim the name of this crucified King until he comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead. His judgment will be based on one thing alone: If you are found trusting in this crucified King for your entrance into paradise. He will not forget his own. He will remember you when he comes into his kingdom. And then at last, at last, you will see that other image of this King that will last for all eternity: Christ, the King of glory. Amen.