Today's Gospel reading honors Christ the King. It is the last Sunday of the church-year calendar. It is also the day when many of you listening to my voice will be returning home from the long Thanksgiving Day weekend and you're already looking forward to Christmas.
As you share this Protestant Hour broadcast with me, you're probably wondering if there has been some mistake in the schedule. Our Scripture text is taken right out of the Good Friday narrative and seems to be out of context somehow. Yet, those who chose the readings appointed for the Sundays of the church year felt that it is necessary to emphasize the real Kingdom of Christ our Lord on the day which bears that title. In order for Jesus to achieve his glory at the right side of God the Creator, there had to be a cross and a death.
Before the touching scene reported by Luke that we have just heard, Jesus stood broken and bleeding before Pontius Pilate and insisted without reservation that his kingdom was not like the kingdoms of this world. On the cross, while leaders scoffed and the crowd looked on with a mixture of anger and confusion and, yes, amusement, Jesus demonstrated what the kingdom he would rule would be like. Two events that escape the notice of the other gospel writers were seen as important happenings by Luke. Both events show how God in Jesus Christ the Savior turns what isn't necessarily fair by the world's standards into what's right in the eyes of God.
The first of these two events took place as Jesus was being held down while nails were driven into hands and feet. Others undergoing this same excruciating torture cried out in the agony of execution, cursing their assailants and the crowds that taunted them. Shouldn't Jesus have been expected to do the same? What must the on-lookers have imagined as Jesus prayed for those who treated him so unfairly! "Father, forgive them," he pleaded, as he surrendered himself to those whose only intent was to kill him. The King of Kings was already ushering in the true kingdom of God by turning unfairness into forgiveness. Surely, the bystanders must have questioned what sort of King would this broken man be. Only God can truly forgive sins, so here God was being nailed to a cross and forgiving those who were doing it.
I'm reminded, as I consider this amazing event, of a prayer that says, "God, your kingdom has broken into our troubled world through the life, death, and resurrection of your Son." Even as Christ faced death, he never wavered from his purpose, to bring forgiveness and God's gracious acceptance to all transgressors.
All of which brings us to the second event-the conversation with the dying criminal. The crosses were finally in place. There was nothing to do now but watch and wait. So the crowds spent their time looking at the inscription that had been placed at the top of the cross announcing Jesus as the King of the Jews and scoffing at his assumed inability to save anyone, especially himself. He was shoulder to shoulder with two questionable criminals who also saw the plaque proclaiming his supposed crime. There is no evidence that the penitent thief had ever met Jesus until both were executed together. Because of the pain they shared, conversation was extremely difficult. Yet each criminal spoke to Jesus, one hostile, the other afraid. Yet the one who was afraid was resigned to paying for his crime. Perhaps he hoped for something better beyond death. He may even have hoped-or wanted to hope-that Jesus really was some kind of king. After all, he too had heard Jesus' words as Jesus was being crucified. This extraordinary request for God to forgive those barbaric executioners didn't go unnoticed by the dying criminal. Might this strange man suffering beside him without complaint also pray for him? Well, there would be no harm now in asking since all three of them would soon be dead, so he turned toward Jesus and made his request: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom," he said. Then the second amazing event took place as Jesus identified himself with the thief on the cross next to his. "Today," he said, "you will be with me in Paradise." In other words, Jesus and the criminal would walk through the valley of the shadow of death together. Jesus would take this criminal with him into the kingdom that is not like the kingdoms of this world.
These two amazing events contradict what we would want God to do with people who have or who will wrong us. By our human standards, it is totally unacceptable that we might have to share eternity with criminals or with those whose words and actions have made them our enemies. But the King of Kings and Lord of Lords died to prepare a kingdom that is not like any society of this world. God does not want any human soul to perish in the flames of eternal separation from God and from loved ones. The Kingdom of Jesus Christ our Lord is a situation unlike any we can ever imagine-a situation where all wrong is washed away in the divine cleansing of forgiveness that is offered to every person no matter what horrible sins that person has committed. It isn't fair! But Christ is not the king of fairness! Christ is the king of love and right! We cannot forget that God so loved the world that God gave the world God's Son to save humanity from what humanity presumes to be fair.
On this Sunday that honors Christ our King, as another church-year journey ends and we begin our preparation for Advent and Christmas, I pray that we will find comfort and joy in knowing that Jesus died to bring to reality a kingdom where we can all be freely loved and forgiven despite our failures and shortcomings. Everyone is welcome in this kingdom. We will all find ourselves renewed by Jesus who bore the pain of crucifixion and the humiliation of mocking crowds, yet still heard the quavering voice of a dying criminal.
"Jesus, remember me," the thief said. Jesus remembered him-and he remembers us too. We will be with Christ the King, today, tomorrow, forever. Amen.
Let us pray.
Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things to your beloved Son, whom you anointed priest forever and king of all creation, grant that all the people of the earth, now divided by the power of sin, may be united under the glorious and gentle rule of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Make us grateful for your Son's awesome power to free us from human judgment because human judgment isn't always right or fair. Teach us to love and to forgive one another through Jesus Christ, who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords and who lives with you in the eternal kingdom now and forever. Amen.