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Sunday of Christ the King:
The True King
24 November 2019
Sermon text: Luke 23:33-43.
The battered being hung on a Roman cross, His entire weight supported only by 2 spikes driven through His wrists and a spike through His ankles. The Romans had brutalized Him so badly before the crucifixion that He lacked the strength to carry His crossbeam to the execution site. As He hung there, His enemies, those who had engineered this execution of an innocent, hurled His words back at Him, words He had spoken only days before: Words of deliverance, words of healing, words of salvation. One of the criminals crucified with Him joined in the mockery, recklessly spending his dying breaths in insults.
No one, in all human history, would have mistaken this Man for the king of anything, much less the King of Creation.
Yet, in this moment of weakness — this moment of seeming defeat — Jesus actually perched on the cusp of victory. Within hours, hell would experience an invasion the likes of which had never occurred in its existence. Within days, death itself would shatter under the raw power of the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen, and find itself stripped bare of its power over humanity.
The King had come. And, in typical God-like fashion, His plan for victory would dazzle, befuddle, and confound the most brilliant minds of humanity.
The prophet Jeremiah had reminded the people of Jerusalem that Isaiah had prophesied about a “righteous Branch” who would “reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” By this Branch of David, this Scion of the royal house, “Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’” Isaiah had prophesied that the Branch of “Jesse,” referring to David’s father, would, in righteousness, “judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked” (Isaiah 11:4).
Unfortunately for the Jews, the Branch did not come in Jeremiah’s day. Everywhere he looked, Jeremiah saw injustice and unrighteousness, just as in the days of Isaiah. The rich oppressed the poor, the kings and priests stood by and did nothing, and idolatry had seeped into the Temple itself. The sin accumulated in Jerusalem until God used the Babylonians to wipe clean the entire mountain of Zion. Seventy years of exile cured the Jews of idolatry, but human pride resulted in greed and oppression as the cycle resumed itself.
Now, in Jesus’ day, the Romans had replaced the Babylonians as the Gentiles in charge. The Jewish leadership colluded with the Romans, in theory, to lessen the strain on the common folk. Over the years, however, the leadership had begun cooperating with the Romans primarily to preserve their own power and position. As before, the common people paid the economic price, paying taxes both to the Romans and to the Jewish leadership in the form of Temple taxes. As before, sin had invaded the Temple; only days before His crucifixion, Jesus had cleaned the marketplace out of the Court of the Gentiles, infuriating the Jewish leaders who routinely exploited that income for their own pleasures.
Now, following days of anticipation about His identity, Jesus seemed to have failed. All the common folk thought He would, hopefully, actually identify Himself as the “Branch” of Isaiah and Jeremiah, as the “Christ,” the “Anointed One” of God who would fulfill the prophecies by restoring the throne of David and exalting the Jews above the hated Gentiles. As they gazed in horror and defeat, their perceived champion hung dying on the symbol of Roman domination, dying the death reserved for traitors and murderers.
Yet, the Gospel passage today reminds of that Jesus remained in complete control, even as He hung on the cross. The power of God did not diminish on the cross; instead, Jesus’ manner of death exemplified and amplified the true power of God.
For one thing, notice that in spite of the agony inflicted on Him, Jesus forgave those responsible for His crucifixion. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” Jesus said. In His pain, Jesus still sought to forgive those who crucified Him.
We may say the Roman soldiers responsible for carrying out His crucifixion certainly didn’t know what they did; as pagan Gentiles, they would have lacked any knowledge of the prophecies Jesus had fulfilled to prove His identity as the Christ, the Messiah. Furthermore, the Romans wouldn’t have cared about the prophecies in the first place; after all, most Roman legionnaires would have scoffed at any idea they should read the religious texts of a defeated people who hadn’t won a war in over a century.
What of the Jewish religious leaders, those who knew the prophecies and who should have recognized Jesus as their Messiah? The New Testament clearly states they, too, failed to understand the true implication of the term “Messiah.” In the first sermon after the Holy Spirit’s arrival on Pentecost, St. Peter told the Jewish crowd, “Know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). In using the term “Lord,” St. Peter alluded to Jesus’ divinity, as Jews typically used this term only to refer to God Himself. The people expected a divine deliverer; they had received the divine Son of God — and they had crucified Him. Even worse, the Jewish leadership refused to accept Jesus’ rule even after His resurrection and the testimony of the Church following the Holy Spirit’s descent at Pentecost.
None of these details mattered to Jesus on the cross. Jesus would die for the “sins of the world” (John 1:29) so that “whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). All who would — and will — believe will receive forgiveness of sins. Jesus would — and will — accept everyone who believes in Him, confessing Him as Lord.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at His crucifixion. Jesus not only prayed for God to forgive those who crucified Him, but He also extended forgiveness to the thief executed with Him. How many of us would have possessed the presence of mind and the attitude of forgiveness to forgive a dying man and take him into “Paradise”? Keep in mind that the Romans typically crucified only traitors or murderers, so this man had committed a crime that merited Rome’s most horrible punishment. Yet, this man, instead of insulting Jesus as his compatriot had done, instead asked Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus’ response provided proof of His victory: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” As Jesus prepared to die, He still found the strength to forgive one more sinner and insure his salvation.
We also notice that Jesus refused to give an inch to those taunting Him. In His situation, many of us would have faced the temptation to show those Jewish leaders and Roman heathens a real miracle. I assure you that in Jesus’ position, and possessing His power, I would have given everyone a miracle they would never forget! Jesus fought this temptation and humbly accepted His role in our salvation. Pride would not save the world; human power would not accomplish sin’s defeat. Humility did what the pride of great generals could never do: Defeat sin, humanity’s true enemy.
What about us?
I see hope magnified in this passage. Had Jesus overcome all He faced on the cross only through the sheer power of Almighty God, I would have no hope of ever seeing my own redemption. I don’t have that kind of power; I cannot overcome the battles I face daily without the overwhelming power of God Himself. Jesus demonstrated a new kind of power: A power based on love for those around Him and on humility in accepting the Father’s will for His life. I can’t promise that you’ll always overcome what you perceive as your enemies in life, but I can promise you that all who believe in Jesus will one day overcome our true enemies: Sin and death.
Jeremiah had prophesied that the “Branch,” Jesus, would be called, “The LORD is our righteousness.” Through His life and His victory over sin and death, Jesus accomplished our righteousness, our means of living rightly before God. Jesus took the penalty of sin for us; He died for us, and He thus imparted His righteousness to everyone who believes in Him and who will accept His payment on our behalf. Because of Jesus’ righteousness, all who believe in Him will stand before Almighty God on the day of judgment and hear Him proclaim forgiveness of our sins and acceptance into eternal life.
This kind of love doesn’t come naturally to us; it comes only through the Holy Spirit, God Himself, as He dwells within us and molds us into the believers God intended for us to become. Godly love overwhelms our selfish desires to elevate ourselves above others and to resent anyone who wrongs us. Godly love leads us to forgive others as Jesus forgave those who wronged Him.
Godly love also compels us to accept God’s direction in our lives and live by His will rather than arrogantly insist on following our own way in life. As Henry Blackaby wrote in Experiencing God, “God’s commands are designed to guide you to life’s best” (Blackaby, Experiencing God, p. 77). We can trust God to love us enough to lead us into the best life for us; we can trust God to lead us into eternal life.
This kind of love revealed itself on the cross that day. In the love and humility He demonstrated in His death, Jesus revealed to the world that, on that day in A.D. 33, the cross held her King:
Night enveloped Creation.
He who uttered, “Let there be light,”
Now hangs in darkness.
The reality of the One who created the universe
Shrinks to three nails,
Two pieces of wood,
And one gashed, broken body.
Could this have been the prophet’s dream?
Is this the righteous Branch of David,
He who would reign as the wisely dealing King?
“The LORD is our righteousness?”
No prophecy could have meant this.
Save yourself!” they mock,
“If He is the Christ!” they scoff.
The words uttered in answer to life’s ultimate question
Now ring hollow in the air: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of God.”
“If He is the Christ!”
He is not, however, alone.
Two others hang with Him, between heaven and hell,
Between the life that was and the death that will be;
Unable to flee, horrified of that to come,
They hang, with dreams of life fading as their eyes
Glaze over with death.
One sees hope:
Join the crowd!
Can they kill one of their own?
Could they, would they
Let him live if he joins the refrain?
In desperation, he forgets
That in this world,
Laughter brings camaraderie
But cannot bring deliverance.
Cry, and you cry alone.
Die, and you die alone.
But the other thief…
But the other,
Near to the grave and justice,
In the final moments before Death steals all,
The other looks in the middle and sees
In the moment of his worst nightmare,
“Remember me, Lord, when you come into your kingdom.”
On a cross? “Thy kingdom come?”
Then it happens:
The Creator lifts his beaten, bloody head,
Turns swollen eyes to the penitent,
And the sinner sees salvation looking back at him.
“This day, you will be with me.”
“This day, paradise awaits you.”
This day, salvation has been brought to you.
From ages past, again, the words resound:
“Let there be light!”
And on this day, this day of defeat
And death’s ultimate triumph,
Victory screams forth
From eternal planes of reality,
Crushing the darkness yet again;
Creation repeats itself
As night falls away
On the cross
The Way, the Truth, the Life.
And on this day,
Light breaks forth to show the world
That the cross does not hold a crucified slave.
The Cross Holds a King.
Later that day,
While a mangled corpse lay
Where cast by his killers,
And another lay
Where borne by loving arms;
A puzzled thief
Gazing upon incomparable beauty,
Astounded that death could be so — everything!
Then, he glimpsed a face
And saw familiar eyes; Eyes that bespoke
And the repentant malefactor knew
He beheld what the cross could not hold:
He beheld His King.
In ages to come,
When the cross that held the King
Has faded to dust and nails have decayed to rust,
Every knee shall bow and the universe shall ring
With the roar of all Creation confessing:
“Jesus is Lord!”
And for all eternity,
Mockers and scoffers shall remember
That on the day of their judgment,
As they confessed — though too late —
“You are Lord:”
They looked up to see
That now and forever more
Not a cross, but a glorious throne
In a golden city
Shall hold the King.