Thursday, November 18, 2004

Sermon: Thursday prior to the Sunday of the Fulfillment

18 November 2004, Chapel of Lutheran High School, Metairie, LA

Text: Luke 23:35-43

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

We Christians are counter-cultural.

While the world is on its schedule: the upcoming busy holidays of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, we’re on our own time-table. The Christian Church counts down the days until her own New Year, that is the beginning of Advent, this year on November 28. We will then ponder once again the mystery of Jesus coming in the flesh in Bethlehem – just as we have done every year for twenty centuries. We will also anticipate his second coming during the season of Advent as we prepare for the Festival of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ on December 25. But as for now, the church year winds down, and as it concludes, we spend some time thinking of the Lord’s promises about the end of the age, the judgment, and the completion of the establishment of his kingdom. This coming Sunday, the last of the church year, is known as the Sunday of Fulfillment.

Today’s reading takes us to the time and place where Jesus first established his kingdom, his Inauguration Day where he took up his throne and was crowned: crowned with thorns and enthroned on a cross. His jewels are his ruby-red wounds. His scarlet robe is his own beaten flesh. He is declared a king – if only in mockery – in three languages of the civilized world. He is mocked with royal bows, royal greetings, and royal robes. And yet, in spite of the spirit of mockery in which it is given, the sign above the enthroned Jesus reads truthfully: “This is the King of the Jews.” This is not only to say this is the King over the Jews, but also that this is the King who is the gift from the Jews to the whole world. This is he who was prophesied by the Hebrew prophets, he who came from the seed of Abraham the Hebrew, he, the royal Son of David: Jesus, whose name in Hebrew means “God saves.” This is he, the descendant of Abraham who was promised to be a blessing to all nations. And over our Lord’s crowned and sacred head now wounded, his kingship is proclaimed, not only in Hebrew, but Greek and Latin as well – in the language of the Old Testament, the New Testament, and of the entire Church. Proclaiming to all that the Kingdom of God has come.

The petty rulers of the Jews, proud of their handiwork, mock their King with a taunt: “He saved others, let him save himself!” How profound and prophetic are their words! For had our Lord saved “himself,” he would not be saving “others.” Had he abandoned the Father’s mission and come down from his cross, he would have “won” and we would have “lost.” The whole world would have “lost.” Completely missing the point, the Jewish leaders claim that if the crucified Jesus is indeed the Christ, God’s Chosen, he should do just that. He should leave his cross-throne and put off his thorny-crown. He should abandon his work of mercy toward us, and think only of his own comfort and vindication. Have they not read in their own Scriptures that it is by his stripes, his wounds, that we are healed?

And they further mock our blood-soaked Lord by offering him the very thing he offered to us as his own blood: wine. Only the wine they offer our Lord is sour. It is vinegar. It is spoiled - unlike the life-giving wine our Lord gives us: the very best wine, which has been saved for last: his very Blood which saves us. And so they taunt: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”

One of Jesus’s fellow condemned criminals joins the taunt. Only he adds his own selfish motive to the insult: “If you are the Christ, save yourself, and us! He is praying for Jesus to save him, but it is a prayer not made in faith, but rather in spite. It is not a prayer that acknowledges the King, but denounces him. It is a prayer that has no expectation of being fulfilled. It is a self-condemning prayer that will indeed be answered by condemnation.

However, one person in this brutal drama figures out that Jesus really is a King. This one man acts out of faith and offers up true adoration and true worship of the true King Jesus. He pleads his case before the King, truly understanding that this King is his only hope of being saved. This condemned and crucified criminal, convicted of his sins by the law, confesses: “I have been condemned justly. I deserve this punishment. Unlike King Jesus, it is fitting that I should die and shed my own sorry blood for what I have done.” And yet, in spite of his confession, his own acknowledgment of his shameful unworthiness, the criminal boldly approaches the King and asks for a favor. He offers up a prayer to God who hangs next to him: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This is a prayer offered in faith, for it acknowledges the Kingship of Jesus, and offers an unwavering hope that this new reign, this new order of the universe, is soon to begin. This is a hopeful prayer of confession that seeks a hopeful absolution.

This prayer offered in faith is indeed answered. For our Lord and King issues the following decree from his gory throne. Our Shepherd, Priest, and Bishop proclaims the following encyclical from his bloody cathedral. Our God himself bespeaks the New Heaven and the New Earth into being with his mighty, and yet strained, Word: “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Grant this Lord unto us all.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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