Last Sunday of Church Year (Proper 29C)

Text: Luke 23:42-43 “42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.””
I’d like to focus on two specific groups from the Gospel reading this morning— actually one group and then one individual. Let’s compare the scribes and Pharisees who were there at the crucifixion with the thief who was crucified next to Jesus. Let’s compare them to each other. And then let’s compare them to you and me.

“If You Are the King...”

First, consider the scribes and Pharisees. Even they can’t be proud of how they acted that day. Even if they genuinely believed that Jesus really was guilty of blasphemy— that is to say, even if they really were convinced that Jesus deserved to die— who stands there, mocking a dying man?
But then there’s also the matter of what they were saying to mock Him. “If you are the king of the Jews, then save yourself and us…,” they yelled. It is simply stupid on multiple levels. What sign did they still need? They had seen Jesus heal the blind; they had seen Him heal the sick; they had seen Him raise the dead. What sign had He not shown them that would have made a difference?
But then there’s also the deeper stupidity of their statement. They, as the experts in God’s Word, should have known how wrong their statement was.
They had things completely backwards. If He saved Himself, then He would be failing in His role as king.
He would not be doing what the true King had/would come to do. Because He was king he would not save Himself.
The scribes and Pharisees were trying to add insult to injury, I suppose. All they managed to do was show their ignorance and pettiness.
Worse yet, I suppose, they were both the cause of what He was going through and they were rejecting what He was going through for them at the same time.

“Lord, Remember Me...”

On the other hand, we have the thief crucified there with Jesus. From the way everything is described, it seems that he started out mocking Jesus, too. But that changed. And his simple request: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
His simple request is, perhaps, one of the greatest statements of faith that you can find in scripture.
Ever since that day, the Church has remembered and honored him and his request of Jesus. We’ve honored him and it as a beautiful statement of humility and reverence.
But there really is so much to that simple statement. So much that it says about what he sees in the man on the cross next to him. The thief, that day, looked at Jesus. And I’m sure you are more than familiar at what a sight Jesus was: beaten, bloody, already half dead. He bore the marks from the soldiers’ fists, from the whip, from the crown of thorns. You know the awful description of that moment from “1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? 2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest…. 6 But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people.... 14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; 15 my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. 16 For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet— 17 I can count all my bones— they stare and gloat over me; 18 they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots” (Psalm 22:1-2, 6, 14-18). Could He have looked any more pitiable as He hung there, nailed up on a cross? He had to have been quite a sight.
The thief looked at Jesus in that moment and, somehow, what he saw there was a king.
Jesus was lifted up on a cross instead of a throne. He was crowned with thorns instead of gold. And yet the thief saw was a king.
But there’s still more. There have been plenty of kings through the ages who have been in similar situations to the one Jesus was in that day: firmly under the control of their enemies; beaten and bloody; dying. And each one of those kings, in that moment, was defeated. He was powerless. His kingdom had been seized by others, taken away from him by force.
Now perhaps the thief that day could conceivably have looked at Jesus and seen a king. Perhaps he may have seen something royal, something regal about Jesus, even in death. But, by all natural expectations, by all reason and logic, that should only have made it a tragic sight for him— a king whose reign has come to an end, who has lost his kingdom.
But that’s not what the thief sees.
The thief hanging there next to Jesus sees a conquering king! He sees a king who is coming into His kingdom! Who is beginning His reign!
By all normal logic and reason, the last person you would ask for a favor there that day would be the one hanging on a cross, bleeding and dying. What authority could He possibly have? What power could He exercise? What gift could He possibly grant? Certainly not Jesus— at least by any normal logic and reason. And yet, by faith, He is the one the thief turned to with what was probably his final request: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Which Are You?

Which of those two sound more like you?
Which of those two sound more like the way you address your King?
Today is not a church holiday, per se. But it has a specific focus. On this last Sunday of the church year, we focus on the fact that Jesus is king. Not that He will be some day, but that, right now, He is king.
Right now, Jesus is King. At the same time, there are many days when Psalm 22 describes you all too well.
We won’t even get to the question of how obedient you are to your king. Let’s simply ask this question: Which sounds more like you when you are surrounded by enemies and entirely under their power? “If you are the King, save me” or “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”?
Which sounds more like you when you are suffering physically, when it feels like your body is being torn apart?
Which sounds more like you when you are scorned and despised by everyone?
Which sounds more like you when your strength to fight is gone? When you are poured out like water, when your heart is like wax, when your strength is dried up like a potsherd? When you’re ready to die?
Which sounds more like you in that moment: “If you are the King, save me” or “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”?
Oh to have the simple faith of that thief.
Oh to be able to look at your circumstances, let alone to be able to look at the chaos, if not the outright evil, in this world, and to see Jesus reigning as King.
Oh to be able to say, even when evil people seem to have you entirely under their power, even when your strength is gone and you are half dead, even when all who see you mock you, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

"Jesus, Remember Me...”

The thief was absolutely, completely, 100% right that day. Jesus was coming into His Kingdom.
He was entirely under the power of evil men. But only because He had given Himself over to them. And He did it to set you free. He gave Himself over to His enemies in order to deliver you from yours— from sin, from death, from the power of the devil.
He was unjustly condemned so that you could be declared innocent in the Day of Judgment.
Yes, He was stricken, smitten, and afflicted. “5 But he was pierced for [your] transgressions; he was crushed for [your] iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought [you] peace, and with his wounds [you] are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).
His body was beaten and pierced and laid in the dust of death so that you might live forever.

Thy Kingdom Come

His answer to you is not quite the same as His answer to the thief that day.
The thief was told, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” What He says to you is, “20 ...Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
He and His Kingdom are here. Right here. Within these walls. Anywhere that His word is preached, where the sacraments are administered according to His institution. He gathered you into His Kingdom at this font. From this altar He feeds you with a foretaste of the wedding feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom.
He was remembering you as He hung on the cross that day. He was remembering you when He came into His Kingdom.
And He is with you. He joined Himself to you in baptism so that the strength which endured the mocking, the beating, the nails— the strength which could not be contained by the tomb— is now living within you. And, as often as the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh attack you, He strengthens you against them by giving you His body and blood to eat and to drink.
He strengthens you to stand against all their might. He strengthens you to live as His chosen race, a royal priesthood, His holy nation (1 Peter 2:9).
He is ruling over you right now.
Even though you seem to be firmly under the power of evil men, what they intend for evil, He uses for your good.
It is not chaos or the will of evil men that determines your destiny, but the will of the One who was willing to wear a crown of thorns, willing to be pierced with nails, willing to be laid into the dust of death for you. His will for you can not and will not ever change.
There have been countless discussions over the past two years wondering what the long-term impact of Covid, etc., will be on the Church— what the long-term effects will be. I’ve pointed out that, Biblically, we know that it will harden the hearts of some and it will turn the hearts of others back to God in repentance and faith. But we can go a step further. The long-term effect will be precisely what God intends it for. We can not know the “Why’s,” but you do know that He is using it to save you.
Only those who are able to see Jesus beginning His reign from the cross are able to see in Him what He truly is: “15 the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 [The One through whom} all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And [the One who] is before all things, and in [whom] all things hold together. 18 And [the One who] is the head of the body, the church... the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 [The One in whom] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:15-20).
And one day you will see Him as He is. Every knee shall bow, in heaven, on earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10-11).
“17 ...“Fear not, [He is] the first and the last, 18 and the living one. [He] died, and behold [He is] alive forevermore, and [He has] the keys of Death and Hades.” (Revelation 1:17-18).
Revelation 12:10-12 “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11 And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. 12 Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!””
Revelation 4:11 “11 “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.””
Revelation 5:9-10 “9 ...“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, 10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.””
Revelation 5:12-14 “12 ...“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” 13 ...“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” 14 ...“Amen!””
Revelation 7:10 “10 ...“Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!””
Rev. 11:15 “15 ...“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.””
Revelation 11:16-18 “16 ...“We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign. 18 The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.””
Revelation 15:3-4 “3 ...“Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! 4 Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.””
Revelation 19:1-8 “Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, small and great.” ...“Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. 7 Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready...” (Rev. 19:1-8).
On this last day of the church year, you are reminded that your Savior reigns. Today and every day, as often as your spiritual enemies rage against you, let your prayer be the prayer of a simple thief: “Jesus, remember me.”
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