Sermon for Christ the King Sunday – November 20, 2022
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
A sign hung over Jesus as he was being crucified. It said, “This is the King of the Jews.” It was put there ironically, as a joke. Some king he was, pinned there between two criminals, naked and bleeding, soon to be dead! Most of the people below him were in on the joke. They joined in, scoffing at him, mocking him, deriding him. The word “if” came up a lot. “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one.” Or as the soldiers said, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.”
One of the criminals being crucified beside Jesus joined in on the mocking from the people below. He derided Jesus, ridiculing him with sarcasm: “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself! And get us down from here while you’re at it!”
That sign identifying Jesus as the King of the Jews may have been intended as a joke, but there was one there who understood that it was true! The other criminal somehow saw in Jesus’ innocent suffering that something divine was happening. He somehow saw that Jesus’ crucifixion was his coronation. He somehow saw in Jesus’ crown of thorns a real king about to enter his kingdom.
And so he rebuked the other criminal who was talking trash to Jesus. “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” This criminal recognized that he was getting what the law demanded. He accepted his own condemnation. He acknowledged his own guilt while pointing to Jesus’ innocence.
And then he said something truly remarkable. He turned his head towards Jesus, and he said to him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Notice he didn’t use the word “if,” like so many others did. He said “when.” He firmly believed Jesus had a kingdom! As far as he was concerned, there was no “if” here, it was only a matter of when! That’s faith!
He then asked Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom. This is more than just asking to be called to mind. He wasn’t asking Jesus to put his picture on his mantle and think about him once in a while. In asking Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom, this criminal was asking him for mercy when Jesus takes his place in his royal court. He was asking his King Jesus for pardon, for clemency in the coming kingdom. He was asking the King he knew would soon be on his heavenly throne to remember him with grace.
And Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
“Today,” Jesus said. On that very day Christ’s kingdom would come to him. There would be no wait, no purgatory to endure. He wouldn’t be taken down from the cross for a bonus round of life in which he could prove himself first. “Today,” Jesus said. His grace was imminent. It was available on the very day of his asking! “Today.”
“Today you will be with me,” Jesus said. This criminal would not be alone. He would not be cast out into the outer darkness. He would not be stuck with his mouthy fellow criminal. He would not be dumped with all the other bodies piled up at the base of the Skull. He would be with Jesus. He was going where Jesus was going. “You will be with me,” Jesus told him.
“Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Jesus doesn’t say he will be with him in a courtroom. He doesn’t say he will be cowering at the foot of a throne in a royal court, trembling to hear the king’s verdict. Jesus tells him he will be with him in Paradise. This word can also be translated as “garden.” What Jesus is promising is a return to the Garden, a return to the paradise of Eden before the fall. He is promising a complete restoration, where he will be free from sin and its consequences, free from the condemnation of the law, free from guilt and shame and pain and weeping and death.
Jesus won’t just remember him, he will re-member him. That is, he will put him back together the way he was supposed to be. He will heal everything in his life which has been dis-membered. He will restore him to the wholeness and perfection God intended for him at the beginning of creation. This is the picture of heaven Jesus gives him with this beautiful word, “Paradise.” And if anyone questions why he is there, he can just point to the King and say, “He invited me!”
“Today, you will be with me, in Paradise.” This promise is not just for this criminal. It is for you too.
We are there today because we believe the sign hanging above Jesus as he died was true. He is indeed the King of the Jews. He is the Messiah promised by God to restore his people. He is the King of creation and he is our sovereign, our Lord, our King, our highest authority and our deepest hope.
We are here today because we have a lot in common with this criminal who turned to Jesus in faith. I know it isn’t flattering to be compared to a criminal, but the truth is, whether you have a literal criminal record or not, we have all violated God’s law. You may have never committed a felony, but no matter how nice and respectable and careful you might be about obeying secular laws, we all fall short of God’s law. Isn’t that what we confessed at the beginning of our service? Sin is the violation of God’s law in thought, word, and deed, in things we have done, and things we have left undone. We have all sinned and fallen short of God’s law. And so here we are, with this criminal on the cross, under the condemnation of the law.
And the words of this criminal articulate a longing we all have. “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” We long to be remembered with mercy in the court of our King. We long for his forgiveness, his grace. We long also to be re-membered, to be restored, to have the dis-membered parts of our lives put back together, to be healed and whole again and at peace.
And so we gather here today not to mock or deride Jesus or to scoff at his cross. Instead, we look to our crucified King with faith, somehow knowing that he is the one who can help us.
As Martin Luther once wrote, “The criminal, perceiving his guilt and Christ’s innocence, trusts that Christ’s innocence will help him. He sees right into the heart of Christ, as though through a solid wall. The criminal is one of us, and we are like him; therefore, let us cry out to Christ trusting that He will say to us: `Yes, Amen!’
“The criminal is one of us,” Luther says, “and we are like him. Therefore, let us cry out to Jesus.” We have done just that. We cried out to him as we confessed our sin. We cried out to him as we sang the Kyrie, the sung prayer for mercy. We cry out to him from our crosses as we join the repentant criminal in acknowledging our guilt and Christ’s innocence. And in response, Jesus says to us, “Yes, Amen!”
Today our Lord Jesus announces to us the entire forgiveness of all our sin. Today our King has declared to us his clemency, his pardon. His grace is available on the very day it is asked for!
Today our Lord Jesus is with us. He comes to us through his Living Word. He gives us his body and blood through the bread and wine of his Holy Supper, where his is truly present with us. He comes close to us through Word and Sacrament so that we would know that we are never really alone. Through these means of grace Jesus re-members us. By the grace and love he shows us he continues to restore us. He continues his work of putting us back together, healing our hearts so that we would live in peace and hope.
And today our Lord Jesus makes us the incredible promise that one day we will be in Paradise with him. We will be back in the restored Garden. Death will be no more. Mourning and crying and pain will be no more. In this Garden our healing will be complete at last, and we will dwell with him forever. This is not a matter of if, but when.
When the world looks to Jesus, it still sees that sign over his head and laughs, thinking it is all a big joke. It still scorns and derides him. King of the Jews? What kind of King dies on a cross?
But with the eyes of faith, we see in Christ a King who shared our death so that we might share his life. We see a King who bore our sin so that we would be freed from its power over us. We see a King who loves us too much to leave us alone on our crosses, so he took up his own in order to bring us into his kingdom.
And so we pray, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”
And already now, our gracious King says, ‘Yes! Amen!”
Thanks be to God!
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church