Saturday, November 23, 2013

Today You Will Be with Me in Paradise

Sermon on Luke 23:27-43
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
November 24, 2013 (Last Sunday of the Church Year)

The last Sunday of the Church year is also known in many churches as “Christ the King Sunday.”  This festival celebrates the fact that Christ shall reign forever and ever and we shall be His people and He our God eternally, which brings to a fitting, triumphant conclusion the end-times theme of these last few Sundays in the Church Year.

However, the choice of Gospel lesson for this Sunday in series C looks a bit odd, to say the least.  The only reference to Christ’s kingship is the somewhat mocking inscription placed by Pilate on the sign over Jesus’ head, the sign which would normally be used to indicate the crime which earned the man hung there his death sentence.  Focusing on Jesus’ crucifixion on this day, of all days, seems downright bizarre, especially since His kingship is only acknowledged by the inscription of a non-crime which seems designed by Pilate only to mock the Jewish leadership for getting so upset about such a harmless Man.

The thing of it was, however, that what Pilate wrote as mockery was, in fact, precisely the point of what Jesus was doing there.  The King of the Jews had in fact claimed His throne, but His throne was made of wood.  It was a throne from which He hung rather than being seated on it.  He had claimed His crown, but that crown was made of thorns.  The crowd on Good Friday were reacting to Christ out of the hate and anger that was in their sinful hearts – the same hate and anger toward God and toward authority that is in all of our sinful hearts – but they spoke better than they knew, because they were asking for what Christ had come to do in the first place.  They were asking for Jesus to be crucified, which is precisely what He had come to do.

Now, we might be horrified and sickened by the sight of Christ on the cross.  And many Christians are made uncomfortable by the crucifix.  Many times I have heard people saying that we Lutherans shouldn’t have crucifixes because we believe in a resurrected Christ (which is a little bit silly, because all that an empty cross means is that He was taken down and buried, not that He was resurrected) or because the crucifix is “too Catholic,” but that’s not really why people don’t like crucifixes.  The crucifix reminds us that sin has consequences.  It reminds us that the forgiveness of sin is not just a matter of saying, “Oh, God will forgive me because He’s just a nice God.”  It reminds us that the forgiveness of sins is a matter of Jesus suffering and dying a horrid, bloody, painful execution in our place, which means that sin, including our sin, is serious, bloody, painful business.  It is a reminder to us that we all were among those who shouted, “Crucify Him!  Crucify Him!” that first Good Friday, because it was our sin that put Him there.  That’s not a comfortable thought, that we are the cause of that much pain and suffering.  But He does it willingly.  He does it out of love for His creatures.  He does it because He is a God who is love, and that means that he will give Himself up to death so that we might have eternal life.

And giving is precisely what God does.  After all, that’s what makes Him God.  He made the universe.  He sustains it and takes care of His creatures who live within it, not for any selfish motivation on His part, but simply because He is our Father and He loves us the way a dear father loves his dear children.  His identity as God, in other words, is seen not so much in the power and glory that give Him the ability to sustain and uphold creation, but rather in the love and the mercy that give Him the reason to sustain and uphold creation, so that we, His dear children, can receive His gifts.

And, of course, the highest gift of all, as we will be celebrating only a little more than a month from now, is that He sent His Son to take on human flesh, live a perfect life, and die in our place.  That’s where we truly see the love of God.  And, because God’s true glory is not so much in His power but in His love for us, His kingship is truly seen in the fact that He gives us everything we need for this life and for the life to come.  His kingship is most clearly seen in His love for His creatures, love that would cause Him to be born of the Virgin Mary, suffer under Pontius Pilate, be crucified, die, and be buried.

And so, really where you should look if you want to see Jesus’ kingship is not so much at Him seated at the right hand of God the Father (although He is seated there) but at the cross.  That really is His throne.  The thorns really are His crown.  These things that He suffered for us really are what show us most clearly what sort of a king He is.  He is a king who loves His subjects so much that He is willing to die defending them from sin, death, and the devil.  He is a king who has such mercy and compassion on His people that He is willing to be known by them first and foremost as weak, humble, obedient to His Father even to the point of death, despised, rejected, the Man of Sorrows.  He is the king who comes to us not demanding tribute or taxes but giving His own body and blood to be our food.  He is the king who wishes to give rather than to be given to.  That’s the sort of king He is.  The sort of king who rules by serving, whose demand from His subjects is simply that they believe and trust in Him and thereby receive His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation.  His royal command is, “Today, you will be with Me in paradise.”  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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