Last Sunday in the Church Year (November 25, 2007)
“Christ the King” (Luke 23:27-43)
This Last Sunday of the Church Year has been called by various names over the years. In our previous hymnal it was called “The Sunday of the Fulfillment.” That made sense. As the Church Year comes to a close, we think about how the world and this present age will come to a close. Jesus returns, and all of God’s promises are finally and fully fulfilled. In our new hymnal, this day is simply called “The Last Sunday of the Church Year.” That’s kind of a dull name, but I guess we’re stuck with it until the lifespan of this current hymnal is over.
Some Christian churches that follow a liturgical year call this day “Christ the King.” That makes sense, too. In fact, Revelation 19 describes Judgment Day and pictures Jesus riding on a white horse, wearing a robe dipped in blood, coming to judge the nations, with this name written on him: “King of kings and Lord of lords.” (Rev. 19:16 ESV) St. John describes him with eyes “like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns ... Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. ‘He will rule them with an iron scepter.’ He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.” (Rev. 19:12, 15 NIV) This is a frightening image. This is not at all the way Jesus is pictured in the Gospels. There we see a man walking and talking. There we see a man sleeping in the back of a boat and getting hungry in the wilderness. There we see a man calming a storm, casting out demons, curing diseases, and calling out hypocrites. There we see a man transfigured in a blaze of glory on a high mountain. But no sword coming out of his mouth. No crown. Not even after he rose from the dead.
The picture of a King we see in today’s Gospel reading from St. Luke is quite unlike the one in the book of Revelation. He’s a King alright. That’s what the sign over his head says: “This is the King of the Jews.” But the King’s subjects revolted against him. They denied him. Betrayed him. Ridiculed him. Mocked him. Brutally beat him. Put a crown of thorns on him. Enthroned him on a cross with nails in his hands and feet. Gave him a royal court of two criminals. But he was not a criminal. He had done nothing wrong. And so, as the King marches on the way to his enthronement, he turns to the women who were crying, and warns them about what is to come.
“Don’t cry for me,” said the King. “Cry for yourself. Cry for your babies. There’s going to come a day when you will be in such agony that you would prefer to be buried under the rubble of mountains and hills.” And that day did come when the Roman army besieged Jerusalem and brought a great famine to the city. The historian Josephus described it this way: “The best of friends would often come to blows over a small piece of bread; children would often rip food from their parents' mouths ... A bushel of corn was more precious than gold. Driven by hunger, some ate manure; some, the cinches of their saddles; some, the leather stripped from their shields; some still had hay in their mouths when their bodies were found ... So many died of starvation that 115,000 corpses were found in the city and buried. Hegesippus reported that, at one gate alone, several thousand were carried out, and that 600,000 died because of the siege.” (http://www.lexorandi.org/josephus.html) Some of the atrocities I won’t even repeat. Finally, the Roman army tore down the temple so that there was not one stone left upon another, just as the King had once prophesied. (Luke 21:6)
But the horrors surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem are only a miniature version of what awaits the entire world on the Last Day. St. Peter tells us that “the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly ... the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.” (2 Peter 3:7, 10)
What of you and your works? In what ways have you revolted against the King? What will you do when your works are exposed? 2 Corinthians 5:10 says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”
The thing is, you and I like to compare ourselves to certain people so we come out smelling like roses. Take those two thieves on the cross, for example. One said to the other, “We are receiving the due reward of our deeds.” And we say in reply, “You’re darn right, you are.” Consider criminals you hear about in today’s news. When you hear about someone convicted of a crime, our first response probably goes something like this: “Good! He’s getting exactly what he deserves.” And if the perpetrator participated in a particularly heinous crime, we might even add this: “I hope he rots in prison for the rest of his life.”
But what about our own sins that are not so evident ... those sins of the heart, sins of the mind, the sinful condition which we have inherited from our first parents? We will try our best to defend ourselves and make excuses for our attitudes and behaviors: “I’m only a product of my environment” ... “My parents raised me this way” ... “I can’t help it. I’m only human, you know.” We are so quick to judge others, yet so slow to judge ourselves. We may not have been convicted in a court of law, but God’s Law has already convicted us.
But the same King whom we have revolted against is the One who compassionately looks out at us and says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He is a gracious King. He is a forgiving King. He forgives because the blood dripping down from his holy, pierced flesh is payment for the sins of the world. And he pronounces his forgiveness in a general absolution: “Father, forgive them.” Some receive it in faith. Others reject it in unbelief.
One of the thieves crucified with Jesus did not see him as King. All he saw was a fellow criminal getting what he deserved, right along with himself and the other guy. “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” he cried out. “I’ll receive you as my King,” he may have thought, “if only you show your power first. But you sure don’t look like much of a king there, no matter what the sign says.” How many people does that describe? They only look to Christ when he helps them. But when the going gets tough, they abandon him. They expect their life to get better or easier when they come to church, but they find that they still have some of the same daily struggles and problems. Things didn’t change for the better, and they turn their backs on God.
The other thief saw Christ and received him as King. He acknowledged his sin at the same time he rebuked his fellow criminal: “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.” It’s as if he said, “You have cried out to him to save himself and us, but he needs no saving. But you have one thing right. You and I need saving.” And then he turns to the One who could save him ... not by coming down from the cross, but rather by staying there. The man looked to Jesus in repentant trust and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Have you ever thought about what a remarkable statement of faith that was? Look for yourself at the King. Beaten. Bruised. Bloodied. Drained. Dying. Defeated (or so it appeared). Not the picture of a King. But having heard Christ’s absolution, the thief on the cross heard it as forgiveness for himself, too. He asked for no display of power. He asked for no relief from his suffering. Instead, he looked at Jesus and saw him as his King. And the King turned to him and said, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
All this happened at the place called “The Skull.” In the languages of the day it was called Golgotha or Calvary. A skull is an image of death. A lifeless, fleshless cranium. A vacant stare from empty eye sockets. An eerie grin with no humor or happiness behind it. In Christian artwork over the centuries, you will often see a skull at the bottom of the cross, similar to the image on our crucifix. This represents Adam, the first Man, the chief Sinner. He represents the whole human race, dead in our trespasses and sins. The King’s blood drips down from the cross onto the skull, covering over sin, bringing life to dead hearts and salvation to those condemned under God’s Law. St. Paul wrote in Romans 5, “If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:17)
Christ’s blood drips down and covers your sin. His blood dripped down upon you and washed your sin away in the waters of Baptism. His blood drips down upon you and covers your sin in Absolution. His blood drips down into the chalice and is given you to drink in Holy Communion.
He is the King whose blood spattered garments prove that in his battle with sin, death, and Satan he was victorious. See the Crucified Christ as your King, and on the day of your death or the day on which he returns, whichever comes first, he will say to you: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”