Last Sunday in the Church Year (Proper 29C)
November 24, 2019
Text: Luke 23:27-43
What comes to mind when you think of a king? A crown, of course. A throne. Maybe a scepter. Certainly castles and palaces, riches and glory, military might and political power. Perhaps also a royal family. A queen to sit beside the king on his throne. Princes and princesses. Courtiers, that is, royal attendants and advisors. The Last Sunday in the Church Year is often celebrated as Christ the King Sunday, and this morning’s Holy Gospel is that appointed for the day. But that may strike us as odd, because the picture painted of our King Jesus in this reading is not at all consistent with the image that comes to mind when we think of kings… Or is it?
Could it be that our image of what it means to be a king is, like so many things in our fallen and sinful minds, skewed, bent, twisted? In our Holy Gospel, which preaches to us the precious blood and innocent suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ to save us, the whole scene is inundated with misunderstandings of what it means that Jesus rules, that Jesus is the King. Pilate, the representative of that greatest of earthly powers, the Roman Empire, gets it right, albeit in spite of himself. He nails the charge to the cross above Jesus’ sacred head: “This is the King of the Jews” (Luke 23:38; ESV).
But everyone misunderstands what this means. The people stand by as passive spectators. Just another shameful death of another shameful criminal. The rulers, that is, the members of the Jewish Council, scoff: “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” (v. 35). They echo the evil one’s temptation in the wilderness: “If you are the Son of God…” (4:3, 9). The soldiers mock, pretending to offer Him the royal cup, sour wine, swill, advising “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (23:36). So also one of the criminals crucified with Him: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us” (v. 38). You see, the skewed, bent, twisted idea of what it means to be a king, and in fact, Messiah, the Christ, the Elect of God, the true Son of David, is that the King looks out for number one! He is first of all to save himself! Is this not what the Roman emperors do? And the Herods? And Pilate, who perverts justice and condemns and innocent man just to save his own neck? Think what our own politicians will do just to hang on to power, never mind to save their own lives! And then, having saved himself, the king is to wield all his political power and military might to obliterate his enemies in a blaze of glory. That is what everyone was looking for in Jesus, disciples included. But there He is, hanging naked and bleeding on the tree of execution, condemned by church and state, cursed by God. Surely this is no king!
But we’ve missed it! The duty of a king is not to save himself. The duty of a king is to expend himself for his kingdom, for his citizens. Again Pilate… He got it right, and he didn’t even know it. Jesus is the King of the Jews, and of all people, precisely in His death on the cross for the Jews and for all people, for sinners, for you; to purchase for Himself a Kingdom by His own blood; to free you from your captivity to sin, to death, to the devil; to make you His own so that you live under Him in His Kingdom, so that sins forgiven and His own righteousness given you as a gift, you now serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. Crowned with thorns, from the throne of the cross, Jesus reigns. And from His throne He pronounces the royal judgment: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (v. 34). He is speaking about those who are there, crucifying the Lord. He is speaking of you who have crucified Him with your sins. As King, He commands the soldiers. They think they are in charge of this operation, but in reality, Jesus has brought about this course of events. Nothing happens apart from His saving will. Even Pilate did not act by his own authority, but by that which was given him from above (John 19:11). And most importantly, as King, Jesus fights against the enemies of His Kingdom and defeats them. By His death. He sacrifices Himself. And the devil loses his grip on everything. Sin lies slain on the battlefield. Death has swallowed a bitter Morsel that will rip a hole right through his guts and open the way to Life.
There is one, and only one, who sees all of this take place and gets it. It is the other criminal. He has heard the preaching of forgiveness, the gracious Words of the King who pardons His treasonous subjects. He beheld the royal valor, the selfless kingly sacrifice, the love of the King for those He so graciously rules. And this criminal confesses his sins. His condemnation is just. He is receiving the due reward for his deeds. But Jesus… Jesus has done nothing wrong. Jesus is innocent. Jesus is righteous. And Jesus will not save Himself. But He will and does save us! He is our only hope. “Jesus,” my King, “remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). And the King’s Promise, His answer to the petition of His subject: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (v. 43). Jesus has the authority to grant it. He rules. He is the King.
Well, you know the rest of the story. There is the darkness, the tearing of the Temple curtain, Jesus calling out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (v. 46). And then, it is finished. “Having said this he breathed his last.” The centurion in attendance realizes, all at once, and too late, that this Jesus is a righteous man (v. 47). And the crowds, many of whom had hoped to see Jesus lead a glorious revolution, went home beating their breasts (v. 48). Jesus was buried in a sealed tomb, and along with Him, all the hopes of His disciples.
And then what? The Third Day! He is arisen! Jesus stands triumphant on the field! The tomb is no longer sealed. All of His enemies have been defeated, put to utter shame. And you… you have been freed. You are no longer a slave. Not to sin. Not to Satan. And you will not die. You’ve been raised to new life in Jesus, who is risen from the dead; in Jesus, into whom you are baptized; in Jesus, your Savior and your King.
Now this Jesus, who loves you, rules. He has ascended into heaven, and His throne is no longer the cross, but His seat at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. His crown is no longer a garland of thorns, but the royal diadem of righteousness and heavenly glory. His scepter is the rod and staff of His Word by which He rules His people. His power and might are His death and His life. His castle is the Church on earth, the fortress by which He defends His Christians and keeps them alive. His palace is the Church in heaven, where His own dwell with Him in paradise. His Queen is His beloved Bride for whom He gave Himself into death, to sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water and the Word, to present her to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, holy and without blemish (Eph. 5:25-27). That is our Mother, the Church. And we, you and I, beloved, are the princes and princesses, children of the heavenly Father, heirs with Christ of His Kingdom. He has redeemed us for this very purpose. We are born of the water and the Word. We are nourished at the King’s Table, with His own sacrifice, His very body and blood. We are His riches, His glory, His joy. And the courtiers, the holy angels, attend the King and us. All hail! Christ Jesus reigns! Long live the King. Forever live the King.
And you, too. For the King remembers you, having come into His Kingdom. And truly He says to you, on that day when you close your eyes here, you will be with Him in paradise. Beloved, stop looking to politicians to deliver you heaven on earth. Stop looking to your money or your leisure or the stuff of this life, or to any of your idols. Repent of all of that. You have paradise in Jesus. He is the King. He’s the only one. He did not deliver you in the way you expected. He did not deliver you according to your skewed and bent and twisted notions of kingship. He delivered you the only way you could be delivered. God’s way. The way of the cross. The way of sacrifice. The way of resurrection and life. Confess your sins and die with Him. He forgives you and saves you. He raises you up and gives you life. This is the King of the Jews. This is the Christ of God, His Chosen One. This is your King and your God. You belong to Him. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.