Monday, November 25, 2013

Sermon on Luke 23:27-43, for the Last Sunday of the Church Year, "Remember me"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. As we heard Luke’s account of Jesus’ death on the cross, I’m struck by the deep and powerful mystery of it. The sheer otherworldliness of Jesus’ love, and yet the deep humanity of His suffering. It commands our attention and can’t help but leave us changed, even at the mere retelling of it. The multitude of people who originally saw these events also could not help but be affected by it. Some began the day hating and scorning Jesus, but ended it in remorse and distress (23:48), and in some cases even repentance—most notably in the criminal who turned in the end to Jesus. Others only amped up their ridicule and rejection of Him. So like magnets, people were either drawn to Him, or repulsed by Him. And that day did not finish without much deep searching of hearts—even if many still did not receive Him. May we all, with heartfelt repentance like the criminal on the cross, confess our guilt and our emptiness of anything good to bring to Jesus, and then pray with him, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”
If you could imagine yourself in Jesus’ place, you will no doubt realize that none of us would act like Him in His forsaken death on the cross. We’d have thought, “Are those humans really worth all this pain and trouble?” And even if we’d have gone ahead with it, wouldn’t we expect some pity and sympathy? So at least we could play the victim? But Jesus, so far from selfishness, from reluctance to help, from self-pity—even turns the laments of the women away from Himself, and toward themselves. It’s not mock modesty, to play the noble martyr, but genuine sadness over what they’ll soon face. He felt compassion and pity for them, even when He was in the midst of the most pitiable circumstances.
This utterly divine, completely other-worldly behavior of Jesus had to be what left that criminal on the cross completely undone. We know nothing of the criminal’s life, except that it must have been a major crime for him to get crucified. But whatever drove his life before, he’d never seen anything like Jesus’ response to the taunts, the torments, the cruelties and abandonment. The environment was ripe for hatred, bitterness, and despair. Yet here was someone whom displayed nothing but clear and transparent innocence. Not a hint of hatred, revenge, or self-pity that surely would have marked any normal person who had been unjustly condemned, but innocent. No begging for His life. No curses or sharp words.
But neither was Jesus cold and mechanical, enduring the suffering without pain or emotion. It was very real, and very human. He cried out in distress; but His cry was turned to God—not for vengeance, but forgiveness. His thirst, His agony, His bleeding were all painfully real. And yet louder than the jarring sounds of suffering and death, were Jesus’ words of love. No hatred could extinguish Jesus’ love. And who could He be, but God’s true and only Son, the True King who taught of His coming kingdom?
Had this criminal ever caught wind of Jesus’ teachings? Had he heard of the man who taught people to love their enemies, to forgive without keeping record, and to turn the other cheek? Whether or not, it would be one thing to hear Jesus teach about these things—and yet an overwhelmingly powerful sight to see LOVE lived out in the most graphic way, under the worst of circumstances. The criminal was completely undone. A life of crime, a life of selfishness, or a life ruled by power, violence, the dog-eat-dog world he knew, all just came unraveled before his eyes. An old life of sin was shattered and broken. Sin was paying out its penalty in death.
Perhaps our own life does not parallel the life of crime of this man who died with Jesus; but do we need a cross to open our eyes to the total bankruptcy of this sinful world and our own sinful ways? Is it only by the hardest lessons that we can learn that selfishness, violence, or the dog-eat-dog world pay back nothing but sorrow, grief, and death? One thing is for sure, that whatever the shape of our own sinful life is—whatever sinful desires, whatever false dreams hold us captive, that old life of sin must be shattered and broken. It must die the death of repentance, as in baptism we are crucified with Jesus Christ. When we examine our life in the light of God’s truth and the perfection of Jesus’ love, we too come undone. How will we escape the dues of sin, paying themselves out in death? Our eyes turn to Jesus.
Suspended next to two criminals, Jesus was paying out the penalty of death, though remarkably, Jesus was clearly innocent. Even if these few hours of watching Jesus’ life were all that criminal knew, it spoke volumes of the infinitely superior life that Jesus lived and possessed. At first, both criminals had joined the hateful men in pouring out ridicule on Jesus—shouting for His perfect life to end in ruin. And all of a sudden this one criminal couldn’t bear it anymore, and he confessed his own guilt and sin, he rebuked his fellow, saying “Do you not fear God since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” In other words, we’re getting what we deserve, and you can’t see that he’s innocent?
Then with words that revealed the new life of the Holy Spirit already growing in him, he turned to Jesus and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Here was a king he would worship and serve. Here was a king with true goodness to offer, unlike any scheming politician, any revolutionary, any Caesar, governor, or worldly leader could offer. Here was a king like this criminal had never seen. What would he now give to be a citizen of Jesus’ kingdom? What could he give? Nothing of worth, but only his own sin and death. And yet here was Jesus, his newfound King, offering His own innocence and death, as the price for our citizenship in His kingdom. Jesus was dying to bring us into His kingdom, and this reborn criminal asked only that Jesus remember him when He come into His kingdom.
We’ve memorialized those words in our liturgy, with the phrase, “Lord, remember us in your kingdom, and teach us to pray.... ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name, Thy Kingdom Come...’” We too are sinners under the same condemnation of death. We too have nothing worthy to offer to become a citizen of Jesus’ kingdom. But He has paid every price of citizenship, of admission, He has made us the blood-bought children of His kingdom. And we pray “remember us in your kingdom” because by His grace and mercy, we’re in that kingdom. We’re under the just and righteous rule of the God who so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him would not perish, but have everlasting life. Even a criminal on a cross. Even a sinner like me, like you. Jesus has a place for you in His kingdom, and far from His perfect life being brought to ruin and shame, Jesus’ death completed the perfect life for us. And His rising from His grave showed that the powers of death, of hatred, of violence, are powerless against God’s love and truth.
And this prayer is an answered prayer: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” Jesus never despises this prayer. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:17). God remembers you. Jesus remembers that criminal who turned to Him in the last hour. Jesus remembers those who call on Him for help. His kingdom is open to all the broken in spirit, all who’ve seen a life driven by sin unravel and come undone, and who plead to Jesus for His forgiveness, for His goodness and His life. And thanks be to God, we have received such forgiveness, not on our deathbeds, but with a life ahead of us to live. With Christ’s own love pouring into our sin-broken hearts, with forgiveness in His body broken, and His blood shed on the cross.
Thanks be to God that Jesus’ kingdom began invading this broken and sin-corrupt world 2,000 years ago, and that it continues to invade hearts and lives by the mercy and love of Jesus’ Christ. Thanks be to God that He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son. Thanks be to God that His kingdom is among us too, and Jesus takes us up as His hands and feet to work that love in the lives of our neighbors and community. Thanks be to God that our sins and failures are continually drowned in baptism at His cross, and that Christ is daily raising you up as a new son or daughter to live before Him in righteousness and purity forever. Thanks be to God that the growth and success of His kingdom does not depend on our frail and uncertain humanity, but on the otherworldly, but purely human life and love of Jesus Christ. In Him we place all our confidence. In Him we secure all our hopes for this life and for the life to come. And for the day of our death, we await His blessed promise, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Luke’s gospel is unique in its frequent mention of the women disciples of Jesus, and their faithfulness to Him. Why did Jesus redirect their grief and lamentation over Him, to themselves and their children? What fearful days lay ahead for Jerusalem? Luke 21:20-24. Why would the barren be blessed in those days?

  1. What did Jesus mean in v. 31 by “for if they do these things…”? How were things in Jerusalem and Israel changing for the worse? 

  1. How are the events described in Luke 23:33-37 the fulfillment of OT prophecy? Isaiah 53:12; Psalm 22:7-8, 12-13, 16-18; Psalm 69:21.

  1. Why were Jesus’ words of forgiveness, spoken from the cross, so powerful? Matthew 5:43-48; 18:21-22. How was the mockery of Jesus an echo of the devil’s own words? Luke 4:3, 9.

  1. The sign over Jesus’ head bore the inscription “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”—which in Latin gives the initials “INRI” that is often seen on crucifixes or Christian artwork. How do the themes of mockery of Jesus’ kingship, and His true display of kingship converge at the cross?

  1. How did the criminal next to Jesus finally come to acknowledge Jesus’ kingship? How did he lay down his guilt before God’s righteous judgment? What was his appeal for mercy to Jesus? How do we find ourselves in the same position, both with regard to deserved guilt, and also in humble expectation of mercy?

  1. How will the appearance of Jesus’ kingdom and power change at His second coming? How is His return cause for rejoicing? Luke 21:28

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