Text: Luke 23:33-43
Feast of Christ the King, Series C
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
A cart was being driven through the streets of a city in the Far East. On the cart were standing fifteen or twenty men. Around the neck of each, hanging from a string, was a notice. On the notice was written the particular crime they were accused of. When they reached the end of their journey, they were taken off the cart. Two of the men were selected, and were publicly beheaded. The others were taken back to prison, to await the pleasure of the government.
The purpose of the notices was obvious. They were to rub in the point to the people who were watching (and there were plenty of people watching): that’s what will happen if you do this sort of thing. The ‘sort of thing’ in question was actions or teachings which the government interpreted as being revolutionary. The Romans used more or less the exact same system. That’s what’s going on with the notice that’s placed above Jesus’ head on the cross. Sometimes condemned Roman prisoners, like the ones I just described, carried the notice around their neck on the way to the place of execution, so that all the more people could see, and take warning.
A King Who is Crucified
Jesus wasn’t a rebel leader. But, Jesus knows all too well that he is dying the death appropriate for the rebel, the brigand, the criminal. But, more than that, Luke is telling us that Jesus has now been announced as Israel’s Messiah to all the world. The world doesn’t know that what it needs, in order to rescue it from its desperate plight, is the Messiah promised by the one God to Israel.
In our Old Testament lesson Jeremiah (23:1-6) wrote about a dark time in Israel’s history, when wicked kings were likened to shepherds who were scattering the flock of God. But God gave his people hope by pointing them to a King who was coming. God promises that he will raise up a ‘righteousness branch’ who will put justice into effect, and bring salvation to God’s people and the whole world.
Jesus had, all along, been announcing that at last God’s kingdom was coming, on earth as in heaven. Some might well have expected that this announcement would lead to a march on Jerusalem, where Jesus would do whatever it took to complete what he had begun. And they were right — but not at all in the sense they expected or wanted. The rulers also knew that when the Christ, the Messiah came, he would be a King who would defeat their enemies and restore Israel. But when they looked at Jesus dying on the cross, they did not see the king they expected. So they thought that Jesus could not possibly be the Messiah.
Instead of leading them to Jesus as their only King, the rulers led the people away from Jesus. Instead of using Jesus’ kingly titles to praise him, they used them to make fun of him as he was dying. Jesus has turned the meaning of kingship on its head. He wasn’t the kind of king they wanted. He has ate with the wrong people, offered peace and hope to the wrong people, and warned the wrong people of God’s coming judgment. Now they hail him as king at last, but only in mockery.
“The head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now; a royal diadem adorns the mighty Victor’s brow.”
(LSB # 532, St. 1)
Here comes his royal cupbearer, only it’s a Roman soldier offering him the sour wine. Here is his royal placard, announcing his kingship to the world, but it is in fact the criminal charge which explains his cruel death.
To the eyes of unbelievers the words on the sign are a foolish joke. Yet they speak the truth. Jesus is the King of the Jews. In Jesus, we have a king who is crucified. When we look to the cross we see our King, and the kind of king we have. This is how the kingdom of God comes, the same kingdom which Jesus had been announcing and is now inaugurating. Jesus’ true royalty, his royal splendour, shines out while he is languishing on this Cross. His royal splendour is seen in his forgiveness and in his promise.
The King who Forgives
First, we see the King who forgives. We have a king who forgives the very people who have secured his death. Unlike some martyrs, Jesus does not die uttering curses against his torturers. At the height of his suffering, the heart of Jesus is not submerged by hate. Instead, he thinks of his enemies and of all those who have brought this flood of suffering upon him. He might have prayed for justice and just retribution; but his love rises above his suffering, he prays for pardon for his enemies.
This prayer of Jesus reveals his personal concern not just for “sinners” in general, but for the individuals around him, for those whose job it is to hammer in the nails, for those who shared his fate of crucifixion. He is praying for those who do not know what they are doing in bringing him to his death. They’re blinded by their own ignorance about the severity of their own sin. The sinning that is connected with executing Jesus is so open, flagrant, and so deliberate that everybody who was involved knew it. What they did not understand was that they were crucifying the Lord of glory, that they were fulfilling the prophets, that they were killing the Prince of Life. All these men who put Jesus to death were an ungodly, wicked lot who were living in all kinds of sins besides those they perpetrated on Jesus. But he forgives them. He doesn’t hold it against them. Instead, he goes on bearing the sins of the many, even though he is innocent.
Our King is the one who prays, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing,” as he’s mocked. “Forgive them” as soldiers drive nails through His hands and feet to crucify Him. He is the Sinless One who became our Sin. The source of forgiveness is the cross of Jesus, pouring out forgiveness on the entire world. The King has wiped away your debt. More than you could ever repay. The Law with all of demands and threats and punishments has been fulfilled, paid in full by Jesus your brother. You are forgiven.
The King who Promises
Second, we see the King who promises. We have a king who, while hanging on his cross, promises salvation to the criminal on the cross next to him. Like a king on his way to enthronement, Jesus promises a place of honour and bliss to one who requests it. All three of the men on the crosses were under the same sentence of death. All were very soon going to die. There was only one difference. The criminals were getting the punishment which they deserved for their crimes. Jesus was being punished even though he did not deserve it. Jesus had done nothing “wrong”. We can see from the words of the penitent thief that God had brought him to repentance. This criminal knew that he was a sinner, and he was afraid to stand before the judgment seat of God. So he turned in faith to the only One who could save him. What about you? Do you know that you’re a sinner? Are you ready to stand before the judgement seat of God? Have you turned to Christ in faith?
The words of this man are both a cry for help and a beautiful confession of faith. His sins trouble him, but he does not despair. He asks Jesus, “Remember me.” “Remember” does not simply mean think about me again. It rather means have mercy on me. It means, “O heavenly King, include me, do not bar me out because of my sins and crimes!”
Jesus did not look like any kind of king, much less the King God promised to the world. He looked like a defeated man laughed at by his enemies. He looked like a criminal who was being put to death. Yet the penitent thief believed that he was the Messiah, the Savior, the King. He did not believe what his eyes and human reason told him. He believed and clung to the word of God alone. He believed the prophecies of the Old Testament which said that the Messiah would suffer (Isa 53; Ps 22). He believed that Jesus was the Son of God when he heard him speak the words, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Because he believed, he prayed, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He did not know exactly when. But he knew that there would come a time when Jesus would not be the hidden, suffering King that he now saw. At that time the criminal knew that all men would see that Jesus was the King of the whole universe. The thief wanted Jesus mercifully to remember him on that day, the day of judgment.
The thief had simply asked Jesus to have mercy on him on the day of judgment, whenever that would be. But Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” The criminal’s body would be dead and buried, but his soul would be with Jesus in Paradise, the place of rest and refreshment before the gift of new life in the resurrection. How many sinners have echoed this malefactor’s prayer! “Remember me!”—faith has always found that prayer enough. And just like the thief had a word from Jesus, so also when you come to communion you receive a direct word from Jesus: “Take, eat. this is the true body. Take and drink this is the true blood. For the forgiveness of sins.”
Upon the Cross, Christ the King is fulfilling God’s promise to bring in his kingdom of justice and mercy, rescuing those who turn to him when all other hope is exhausted. Upon that cross was won the forgiveness of your sins. You have a crucified King who continues to reign from his Cross in Royal Splendour. The violence of the cross is our peace. Every act of violence, of inhumanity, every genocide and injustice, every sin is answered once and for all in the death of Jesus. There is peace with God. Peace always comes with blood, and this peace comes with the Blood of our King shed on the wood of the cross and delivered to you in the chalice of the Supper. Our forgiveness and the promise of enteral life have their source in Jesus wounds here on the cross. Upon the cross, the penitent thief finds pardon. Upon the cross, the guilty find acquittal. Upon the cross, the sick find health and the weak find strength. There, in the wounds of Christ the King, is the ultimate and final cure to what ails us.
“The cross he bore is life and health, though shame and death to him; his people’s hope, his people’s wealth, their everlasting theme.”
(LSB # 532, St. 6).
By his stripes we are healed. His head crowned with thorns is the healing of our mind. His scourged back the healing of our strength and all the blows we have endured at the hands of others. His pierced hands the healing of our work. His wounded feet the healing of our walk. His wounded side the healing of our hearts turned away from God and against one another. We have a King who is Crucified. We have a King who forgives sinners. We have a King who Promises eternal life to the repentant. Christ is our king, and he will be our king forever.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.