Sermon for Christ the King Sunday – November 24, 2019
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
There’s a reason they called it “the Skull.” Not only is the skull a symbol of death still today, but the hill just outside of Jerusalem was actually shaped like a skull, which was darkly fitting given what happened on the top of that hill. Criminals were crucified there. They had their hands and feet nailed to beams of wood, and then they were lifted up to hang from their wounds. They were stripped naked to add to the public humiliation. Their crimes were written on signs and posted above their heads as a deterrent to others. Just like a hanging in the Old West or an execution in medieval Europe, people came to watch. They came to taunt, to mock these criminals as they died, getting in their last jeers and curses.
People who were crucified didn’t die from the holes in their hands and feet – not directly. They died from asphyxiation, from lack of oxygen. You see, people would hang from their crosses for hours, and over time the weight of their bodies pressed down on their rib cages, getting heavier and heavier with every passing hour, making it increasingly difficult to breathe. You could push yourself up with your hands and feet to take the pressure off and get some breath, but you could only do that for so long with nails stuck through them, and so you would eventually suffocate.
What happened over and over again on the placed they called the Skull is arguably the most cruel way human beings have ever come up with to put someone to death. That this was done to Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, makes our gospel reading for today an account of the darkest day in human history.
But even there – even at the place called the Skull – something beautiful happened. Even on this darkest day in human history, as Jesus hung there naked and bloodied and dying and seemingly powerless, even there we can see the power and glory of Christ our King. It is all there in a beautiful exchange of words.
There were lots of words spoken there at the Skull. The leaders scoffed at Jesus, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers mocked Jesus, saying, “Here’s your wine, O great and glorious king!” and then giving him wine that had gone rancid. They put a sign over his head that read, “This is the King of the Jews.” It was all part of the joke. Even one of the other criminals was deriding Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” These words added plenty of insult to the already excruciating injuries Jesus was enduring. (Excruciating literally means “from the cross”)
But then something beautiful happened. Then there was a beautiful exchange of words giving us a glimpse of the strange power of this king of ours. There was this beautiful moment between Jesus and the other criminal being crucified beside him. In his weekly commentary on the lectionary readings an old professor of mine called this exchange a diamond on a dung hill.
The second criminal begins by making a confession of sin. He rebukes the first criminal, saying, “Don’t you fear God? Don’t you know that we have been condemned justly? We are getting what we deserve for our deeds!” He knows why he is on a cross. He knows he has broken the law. He confesses the truth about himself.
But then he goes from a confession of sin to a confession of faith. He confesses that Jesus was innocent: “But this man,” he said of Jesus, “has done nothing wrong!” And then, amazingly, he confesses his faith that Jesus is a king! He confesses his faith that Jesus has a kingdom, and that in spite of their current situation there on the Skull, his kingdom will come. He confesses his faith that Jesus is who he says he is. He is the savior, and he believes that this savior can even save him.
All of this is found in what he says next: He turns to Jesus – and remember that every breath of someone being crucified is precious, every breath is numbered! He turns to Jesus and with one of those last breaths he says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And without question, without hesitation, without a new member class, Jesus turns to him and says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Do you understand what is happening here? Paradise is the same word used in the Bible to describe the Garden of Eden before the Fall, back before sin and death came into the world. Jesus is promising him a place in that Paradise. Jesus is promising him a place in that Garden where there is no sin or death anymore. Jesus is promising him a place in that Garden where people live forever in right relationship with God.
And when will all of this happen? Does he have to hang onto life for another day or two to show that his faith is legit? Will he have to endure a thousand years of purgatory first to get clean from all of that sin?
No! When will this happen? “Today,” Jesus says! In fact, it is already beginning right then and there on the hill called the Skull as he confesses both his sin and his faith, which brings him into right relationship with God. It is already beginning right then and there on the cross as he hears this word from Jesus which says, your faith in me is enough. Today you will be with me in Paradise.
Such beautiful words! Such a beautiful moment. This exchange is indeed a diamond on a dung hill!
When we’re on that dung hill, sometimes we wonder where God is. When we’re on the hill called the Skull, we wonder if this King is really in charge. When we’re bearing crosses of our own, struggling to catch our breath because of anxiety, or grief, or pain, or fear, we might wonder if Jesus is really the powerful King we claim he is.
If Jesus is such a great and mighty king, why is his church so despised and mocked and ridiculed?
If Jesus is both a loving and powerful king, why do so many bad things happen? Why do babies die of a stupid fungus at Children’s Hospital in Seattle? Why did that wonderful young man from Mighty to Save Ministries die in a car accident when he was doing so much good for others? Why do our loved ones get cancer? Why are human beings so cruel to each other? Why do they so often seem to get away with it?
These are the questions we ask when we’re on the dung hill, when we’re on the hill called the Skull, when we’re bearing our crosses. These are the kinds of questions I am asked all the time as a pastor.
And you know what? I don’t have an answer. Sure, the Bible tells us a bit about why the world is like it is. But it only does so in broad strokes. When someone asks why a specific thing happened to a specific person, I have no answers.
But even if I did, would it help? If I could tie it all together with a nice tight theological explanation, would it really help? Would it really take away anyone’s pain?
I don’t have any answers for those hard questions, but because of this beautiful exchange of words between Jesus and this criminal, I can tell you this: your king is not far from you in your times of suffering. He is right there beside you. Jesus didn’t come to wear a crown of jewels and precious metals. He came to wear a crown of thorns, that he might take all your sin and suffering on himself. He didn’t come to sit on a velvet throne. His throne is a cross, that you might turn to him as you bear crosses of your own. He didn’t come to save himself, as the people taunted. He came to save you.
Because of this diamond on a dung hill, I can tell you that Christ your King is with you when you find yourself on the hill of the Skull. He is here even now, forgiving your sin so that you can live in right relationship with God, today and forever. He is here even now speaking these beautiful, gracious words to us, inviting us back to the paradise of the Garden, back to fellowship with God.
This king of our ours is a strange one, to be sure. He isn’t like any other king. But like that criminal beside him you can turn to him in every time of need, no matter what you’ve done, no matter what you’re suffering. You can turn to him in faith and trust, and when you do you will see that he will love you to your very last breath and then some. He will indeed remember you, so that you can enter into the Paradise of his eternal kingdom.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church