Welcome Home! You Are Part of Christ’s Glorious Kingdom!
Christ the King, Palm Coast, FL ~ Pastor Jay Zahn ~ Luke 23:35-43 ~ Sunday, November 24, 2019
I’m going to put several phrases up on the screen. As I do I want you to think visually. In other words I want you to pay conscious attention to the kinds of images that form in your mind as you think about these phrases on the screen and what they mean. Ready? “He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness” (Colossians 1:13). “The Son is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). “For in him all things were created” (Colossians 1:16). “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). “He is the head of the body … so that in everything he might have the supremacy” (Colossians 1:18). “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him” (Colossians 1:19). I’m hoping those phrases have formed a picture in your head.
About that picture in your head, I’m wondering: is this the picture you had formed? (show pic of Jesus on the cross). You’re not alone! The people of Jesus’ day who just a few days before had been in the temple listening carefully to Jesus speak, were now standing and watching that same Jesus die. This same Jesus who entered the city of Jerusalem with shouts of: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” has been sentenced to execution at the cries of another crowd: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” The one who was hailed as royalty on Palm Sunday is stripped of all dignity and honor, wearing only a crown of thorns, hung out to die in utter humiliation on a cross by Friday.
This last Sunday of the church year is known as “Christ the King” Sunday. A day we remember and celebrate Christ’s role and rule as King of kings, and Lord of lords. The reading from Colossians paints a compelling picture of Christ as King. But what about today’s Gospel reading? Did you wonder if somebody made a mistake? Maybe someone mixed up the planning documents for Good Friday with this Sunday, accidently choosing a reading that seems better suited to Holy Week than the culmination of the church year?
Let me assure you that the choice of this reading wasn’t a mistake. In fact, did you notice the number of kingly titles and royal references made in today’s Gospel? Sadly, these titles and references for the most part aren’t being used to praise Jesus and lead others to see him as their King. Instead, nearly everyone in today’s reading is using the images and ideas of royalty to lead others away from Jesus as they heap their insults on him as he dies in such an inglorious way.
The Jewish leaders mocked his royal mission saying: “He saved others.” They didn’t actually believe that for themselves, but they knew this is what he claimed he had come to do. So now they used his own words against him: “Let him save himself!” From the first time that human beings ignored God’s clear Word and turned to go their own way, a way that brought destruction and death, God had promised to send a Savior for humanity.
God’s Old Testament people referred to this Promised Savior by the title Christ or Messiah, meaning, “Anointed One.” Anointing was a physical way of showing that someone was chosen by God for a special purpose. God had promised to great King David centuries earlier to send the Messiah from his family line. Because of this promise, God’s people considered the title “Christ” to be essentially equivalent to that of “king.” That’s what the people were looking for and longing for: a king. A king who would rule like the great King David did. A king who would make them the envy of the world: strong in military might, wealthy with economic prosperity, influential: with the kind of culture and way of life that other nations would covet.
This is why those who mocked Jesus and his kingly claims felt they were justified in doing so. Just look at him, hanging on the cross. He didn’t have the power to keep himself from such a terrible execution. Nor did he have an army that was marching in to rescue him from such an awful end. The Jewish people longed for the coming of the Savior, great David’s greater Son. Though Jesus claimed he was this Promised Savior, they saw his gruesome death as proof positive that he an imposter. And they weren’t going to miss out on this magnificent moment to call him out for it!
It wasn’t just the hometown crowd that rejected Jesus either. The Roman soldiers who supervised his execution did too. They joined in calling for him to exercise his “kingly” power and come down from the cross. Pontius Pilate, the Roman ruler who sentenced Jesus to die, had ordered a special sign be attached to Christ’s cross that read: “This is the King of the Jews.” He didn’t write it as a statement of faith. It was a national put down. For Pilate, Jesus was a pawn he played to insult the people of Israel: “Look, you Jews, if you want a king other than Caesar, here he is! This pathetic man dying on the cross is the only king the Jews will ever have.”
You might have also noticed that it wasn’t just the respectable and the powerful of society who were taking potshots at Jesus either. One of the criminals being crucified alongside him also joined in the mockery. Maybe this criminal did so out of selfishness, a way of trying to feel better about himself by redirecting his own shame and projecting it on to Jesus. Maybe he did it because he was just that arrogant and wouldn’t even let his own execution silence his haughty spirit. “You are the Christ, aren’t you?” he taunts. “Save yourself and while you’re at it, save us too!”
As I try to picture this scene and imagine what it would be like if I had been there, I’d like to think I would have treated Jesus differently. That at the very least I wouldn’t have joined in with the jeering crowd. Maybe you feel the same? Before we get to feeling like we’re superior to this crowd that is so critical of Jesus, can I ask you some searching questions? When we complain about the way our life is going, who are we really complaining against? When we question why we are dealing with a particular problem or feel jealous toward those who have more things or better things than we, against whom are we really directing the underlying criticism? Just a few more to consider: When we use our time in ways that don’t leave much, if any room for Jesus and his Word, what are our choices saying about him? When someone else ridicules something in God’s Word or mocks what Jesus teaches, but we shrink from the opportunity, what is our silence really saying? When we claim to follow him yet our love for others is selective and discriminatory, what do such attitudes reveal about how true we truly are toward him?
Famous pollster George Gallup wrote this a few years ago: “There’s little difference in ethical behavior between the churched and the unchurched. There’s as much pilferage and dishonesty among the churched as the unchurched. And I’m afraid that applies pretty much across the board: religion, per se, is not really life changing. People cite it as important, for instance, in overcoming depression – but it doesn’t have primacy in determining behavior.” (From “Vital Signs,” Leadership, Fall 1987, p. 17) If we wonder what kind of king allows himself to be treated by people the way Jesus was treated by the crowd around the cross, we also do well to deeply consider how our own (mis)behavior reflects on him and his claim to be King of our hearts and Lord of our lives!
There is one person on Good Friday, whose life has been truly changed by Jesus. He’s been listening to what everyone else has been saying and reflecting on his own life and what’s led him to this moment, nailed to a cross beside Jesus. After rebuking his fellow criminal, his next words are profound: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It’s a prayer that takes your breath away. This criminal was the only one to call Jesus by His name, His name that means “Savior.” And when he prays for Jesus to remember him, he’s not saying: “Remember that I defended You,” or “Remember that I changed at the end of my life,” or “Remember that I went through the same thing You did.” In asking Jesus to remember him, he is humbly begging the Lord to have mercy on him. This condemned criminal is confessing his faith, faith that Jesus is a King and has a Kingdom, and that Kingdom is One that is yet to come, and this criminal wants to be a citizen of it, not because he deserved it, but because he trusted that the King was merciful.
It’s an amazingly bold request. But greater still: the answer Jesus gives to this prayer: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” What an answer! What a Savior! What a King! Commenting on Jesus’ answer, someone wrote:
Jesus gave the wretched thief life! The man hung writhing next to Jesus in mortal agony. He too was gasping for breath. The same severed nerves screamed. He moaned in agony. He was probably mocked too—for his deathbed conversion, his ridiculous faith in this helpless king—“Save you, you fool? He can’t even save himself.” The man hung with his own sins heavy upon him, and darkness covered the land. But in that darkness Jesus took the thief’s sins upon himself, necessitating the cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The thief heard and watched Jesus die. Soon he too would be dead, but somehow he felt peace. The earth grew dimmer to his glazed eyes as a soldier approached to break his legs and hasten his death. He collapsed in suffocation. The spear was hardly a prick. At last his body hung relaxed. Where was he then? Far away. Released from his agony and his sin. He was a new face before the throne of God, another sinner redeemed from earth!
Someone else has written that every life has its most beautiful moment. It may be when a teenager has the first glimpse of mature responsibility and responds with strength and integrity.
Or when first-time parents look at each other across their newborn child. Or when a mature individual coming out of a crisis is overwhelmed with inner peace and security that cannot be taken away. There are many beautiful moments in the life of Jesus. Jesus in the manger, in the temple at 12. When John calls out about him: “Behold, the Lamb of God.” When he hugs the children. When he stills the storm. When he prays intensely. When he lets the soldiers take him away to face trial. All are beautiful moments, amazing moments in the earthly life of our most amazing King.
But when it comes to the moment that makes all the difference, the one that changes things, not only for Jesus, for how we face life, how we handle our own sin, how we find hope in the face of life’s difficulties and the specter of death: this is the moment we must see as his most wonderful, most awesome, most compelling moment. The moment when the King of heaven took away the sins of earth by his death on a cross to open the way of life for us, forever with him!
Jesus has done this for you! Believe it! Believe him! Cry out to him to remember you in mercy because you see him for exactly who he is: the King of Kings and Lord of lords, the Messiah, your Savior. The One who hears your prayers and answers them in ways that are greater than you could ever ask or imagine! By his death he flings open wide the doors to his kingdom of faith to you today, and whenever the day of your own death comes, he will open wide the gates of heaven and welcome you into the eternal paradise he has prepared for you together with all who cry out to him in faith. This is why we celebrate today because our Savior truly Christ the King! Amen.