Monday, November 21, 2016

Sermon on Luke 23:27-43, for the Last Sunday of the Church Year, "I See a Gracious, Suffering King"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Today marks the Last Sunday of the Church Year, which focuses again on Jesus’ Kingship. And Jesus’ Kingship is shown through the cross. The prayer of the day today states that Jesus reigns among us by the preaching of the cross. Unlike any earthly kings or powers, Jesus’ rule is marked by His self-sacrifice on the cross, His defeat of the grave, and the constant preaching of this good news, that has gone on for 2,000 years, spreading His reign to the ends of the earth. No other king has or ever will rule in this way. This understanding encircles the whole church year—we always watch for and live under the reign of our crucified and risen King.
What brought Jesus to this cross? It’s startling to realize that Jesus’ teachings and His love brought Him there. The other two criminals were brought there by their evildoing, as one eventually admitted. But Jesus came innocently and voluntarily. Not for punishment of any real crimes, but because this was the goal of His mission and His love. To sacrifice Himself for our sins. Not many of us will ourselves to follow a path of suffering. But He did, and even at the last moment when He was urged and mocked to turn back, He would not. How many of us would have pulled the “eject lever” immediately, to escape the torture and mockery? Yet Jesus did not. He was steadfast and immovable to carry out His will, the will of His Father. He was steadfast with eternal love so that you could be forgiven. Jesus was not only willing to trade places with you, for what your sins deserved—He did it! Jesus traded places with you, so that He could bear the awful curse of sin, so that we could be redeemed.
If that’s where the will of Jesus took Him, where did the will of the people lead? Just a couple verses before the Gospel reading began, it says: Luke 23:24–25 “So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will.”  They chose to free a murderer and to condemn Jesus, the Author of Life. Pilate gave Jesus over to their will, but was oblivious to the part he was playing in God’s greater will. Despite the bent and twisted will of men that shouted for Jesus to be crucified that day, it was the will of God, not the will of man that prevailed. But still it showed how evil the state of affairs had become that they were willing to crucify the One whom God has made both Lord and Christ. How sad it was that they would not listen to the truth that He spoke.
Jesus warns of a coming judgment that is going to fall on the city of Jerusalem. It would be a time of horrors, so evil that people would wish they had no children, or that they could be buried by the mountains to hide from that evil time. And many of Jesus’ listeners would have lived to see that awful day, when the Romans destroyed the city of Jerusalem in the year 70 AD, when the Jews revolted. Jesus redirects the weeping and mourning of the women who were crying over His innocent death, to pour out tears instead for themselves and their children, to have to witness such evil days ahead. Jesus, as many prophets of God before Him, was calling people to repentance, so that by any means God might relent from bringing disaster on them.
Jesus makes a puzzling statement: “For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry” Green wood burns, but not well—but dry wood blazes hot in a fire. Jesus is essentially saying, if the green wood is burning now, what kind of blaze will it be when the wood is dry? The people were committing a terrible injustice against Jesus, but this was merely the beginning of the end. John the Baptist had preached similar things, when he warned that “the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:9). There is obviously a great difference between a living tree that bears fruit, and grows and is nourished by life-giving sap, and the dead, cut wood that is drying up and is ready for the fire.
The question is, what does that have to do with the spiritual condition of Israel, or our own spiritual condition? This imagery of a fruitful, watered tree, is a well-known image in the Bible. Jeremiah 17, for example, paints a contrast between those who trust in man and turn away from the Lord, who are like dry, parched bushes in the desert, and the man who trusts in the Lord, who is like a tree planted by water, that sends out roots by the stream, and stays green even in the heat, and bears fruit. Trusting in God is like being a tree rooted by the life-giving, nourishing waters of a stream. Psalm 1 begins the same way, describing a man who delights in the law of the Lord as being “like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither” (Psalm 1:3). Jesus says that to be living branches that bear fruit, we must abide in Him, the Vine. So when Jesus says, “For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”, what does this mean about their spiritual condition?
If cut off from the source of life…if cut out from the Living Vine of Jesus…one becomes like dead branches prepared for the fire. The people that had rejected Jesus had rejected the Living Water, they had cut themselves off from His nourishment and life. Do we thirst for the Living Water? Do we delight in the law of the Lord, and trust in Him?
One of the criminals who hung next to Jesus saw where his own life had led. In the very last hours of life, he came to a sober judgment of his own life. He and his fellow thief were hanging there justly, receiving the due reward of their deeds. Their choices and actions took them this far, and now they were under the sentence of condemnation. They were sinners and mockers who were headed the way of all the wicked—to perish in their sins. But now he saw clearly—not by any special illumination of his own—but by the illumination of Jesus, who was hanging between them. Through hours of cruel treatment, mockery, and torture, the thief on the cross only witnessed Jesus hang there silently, or speak words of forgiveness and love: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus took no opportunities to lash back or curse those who mocked Him. The thief on the cross began to see that the mocking sign, “This is the King of the Jews”, hung over Jesus’ head, was actually true!
The Kingship of Jesus was being revealed in a most astonishing way. I see there on the cross a gracious and suffering King. The King who loves His enemies; who dies for them. The King who does not save Himself, because He came to save others. Suddenly, this thief on the cross realizes all the bad choices of his life and seeking his own will has led to this dark hopeless path—and at last the Light shines on a far better path. The Light shines on the true and good King. Suddenly the thief realizes, “I want to be part of His kingdom!” He asks Jesus, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” You are a King, Lord. Is there any way I, a sinner, can be a part of your kingdom? I deserve to be on this cross. My sins warranted it, but I see that you are a just and innocent man. And yet you love. You love in a way that is so pure and so divine, I know at last that it is true, you are the King of the Jews. Remember me.
Jesus’ glorious answer to the thief is, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” And by Jesus’ word, an entire man’s life of sin was absolved—forgiven—not counted against Him. Jesus was next to him on the cross for that very reason, to bear all the sin of the world away—yours, mine, the thief’s and every other person. Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. By Jesus’ word, “Today you will be with me in paradise”, a frightened, guilty, humbled, and dying man, was suddenly given the ultimate and only way to die in true peace. His fear was answered, his guilt was paid for and cleared, and his humbled and dying head was lifted up with the promise of eternal life. All without having done anything to deserve it! Only by the innocent suffering and death of Jesus.
Jesus also promises eternal life to all who repent and believe in Him, so that we can die with this same peace and confidence. We each carry a life’s worth of sin, guilt, and shame. But if we confess our sins to Jesus, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. “Your sins are forgiven; your faith has saved you.” To believe in Jesus and receive His forgiveness is to have the tremendous burden of our guilt and sin lifted from our shoulders, and to be comforted by the rest and peace of God. To live in the kingdom of Jesus, and be one of His subjects is to follow in the same path of forgiveness, grace, and yes, even suffering, as He endured. Remember that Jesus’ kingdom is made of a Living Vine, with growing branches that spread through every generation and across every nation—fruit bearing branches that bring His same grace and love to the world. By being living branches of His tree, we are continually conformed to His will, learning to grow in His way. And life begins by believing in Him, our gracious and suffering King. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. What had been decided by the will of the people? Luke 23:24-25. What was the will of Jesus, Son of God; and where did it lead Him? Isaiah 53:10.
  2. Why is the will of human beings unsteady and unreliable? Jeremiah 17:5-10, especially verse 9. See also Jeremiah 18:11-12. Matthew 15:19. Why didn’t Jesus trust men? What did He know about them? John 2:23-25.
  3. In Luke 23:28-31, Jesus warns of the coming horrors that will fall on Jerusalem, when it would be destroyed (by the Romans in 70 AD). When Jesus redirects their sadness and mourning to their own situation, what is Jesus urging people to do? Mark 1:15.
  4. What is the difference between “green wood” and “dry wood”? What warning does this mean for “the tree?” Luke 3:9. How does a tree, or wood, stay green and living? Jeremiah 17:5-8; Psalm 1; John 15.
  5. What reveals the kingship of Jesus as a gracious rule? Why was He willing to suffer, when the will of sinners was bent against Him?
  6. What suddenly dawned on one of the two thieves crucified with Jesus, about where their own will and actions had brought them? Luke 23:40-41. What did he see with his own eyes, about the will and the rule of Jesus, that made him want to be a part of Jesus’ kingdom?
  7. Why did the thief receive what he sought? Luke 23:42-43. How can we be a part of Jesus’ kingdom? How does the will of Jesus direct us in a better way? How do we remain fruitful and living “trees” or branches? See again Jeremiah 17:7-8; Psalm 1, and John 15. 

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