November 21, 2010 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
And [the criminal] said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And He said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
What type of King is Jesus? That is the question raised by this Last Sunday of the Church Year, called Christ the King Sunday. There are all types of kings: some are virtuous and good, while some are ruthless and evil; some kings are politically and militarily weak, others are dominant figures; some kings have short reigns, others rule for a long time. This is what we see in our world, not in our nation, but in the nations around us.
So what type of King is Jesus? You heard the Scriptures describing Him. And what was depicted was not political strength or long reign. No, Jesus seemed to be an impotent king. Listen to what happened to Him: “Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with Him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on His right and one on His left.” How unimpressive! A king is executed by his enemies. There is no royal court, but only criminals hanging around.
But not only is there a lack of grandeur, listen to how people address this king: “And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at Him, saying, ‘He saved others; let Him save Himself, if He is the Christ of God, His Chosen One!’ The soldiers also mocked Him, coming up and offering Him sour wine and saying, ‘If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!’” Is this the way that Queen Elizabeth would allow people to address her? The Japanese Emperor is not even addressed by personal name! But Jesus even has a criminal insult Him: “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!”
Such appearances would not lead many to follow that type of king. Who wants to give allegiance to a king who ends up dying, not of old age, but after being arrested and condemned by his enemies? Is such allegiance worth it? What does such service get? That sort of thinking is reflected in the Old Testament Reading for this morning. As the people of Judea considered the requirements that the Lord placed upon them, they compared it to what was happening, including the lack of enforcement. So they spoke against the Lord and His rule: “You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping His charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.’”
Who could blame the people for that sort of thinking? Everyone wants to know that their efforts and devotion are worthwhile. Vain and empty work is just wasted. There needs to be some sort of payout, some benefit that allegiance to the Lord as King would bring. Without benefit, there is no purpose behind commitment to Him.
So what type of King is Jesus? One who is so weak and impotent that He cannot deliver anything good for His subjects? Again, on the surface that is what it appears to be, especially in His crucifixion. With all the insults and challenges hurled at Him, Jesus does not come down from the cross. Instead, He remains hanging there as a victim, undergoing the full brunt of His opposition. But with Jesus, there is more than meets the eye.
When one knows what Jesus is doing in His crucifixion, then one does not see Him as weak, impotent, and vain. Instead, Jesus reveals Himself as a Victor, not just a Victim. This is what the one criminal sees not with his eyes, but with his faith. Even as Jesus hangs as a condemned man, the criminal speaks great things about Him: “This Man has done nothing wrong.” Even while Jesus is exposed to the elements to die, the criminal asks Him for something: “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” Why do these words come from the criminal’s mouth? Because he believes that Jesus is greater than what He is displaying in His death. He believes that there is more to Jesus.
Now where would the criminal get such an idea? Not from what he sees, but from what he has heard. It goes back to what Jesus had said and done before: His speaking of being sent from heaven, of having God as His Father, of bringing life and forgiveness to this world of sin and death, of giving His life as a ransom for many and taking it up again. These statements of truth are what the criminal believes. That faith forms his hope of finding a place in Jesus’ kingdom, even after being executed for the crimes he has committed.
The same faith in what Jesus has said and done is what allows you to look beyond appearances. It is what lets you confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Trust in Jesus’ identity as the Promised Christ causes you to continue in your allegiance to Him. So what about His identity do you trust? St. Paul’s description of Jesus is a good place to start: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him 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. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” That statement of Jesus’ identity marks Him as the Creator and Preserver of all things, a cosmic rule over all things.
But the apostle’s description is not limited to that. No, he goes further: “He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything He might be preeminent. For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross.” When confronted with the Crucified Christ, this statement of His identity is critical to know. For it allows you to know and recognize beyond what you see. It shows you the purpose of Christ’s death, demonstrating that it was not in vain.
Is Jesus’ death an exhibition of weakness? Yes and no. Yes, in that Jesus is a Victim; no, in that His death achieves something glorious. Though Jesus appeared weak, something great was still true about Him: “in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” It is no ordinary man who was dying on that hill. Instead, it was God Himself present on that cross. And His presence had a great purpose: “through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross.” His death has positive effects for others. By dying, Jesus brings people into a right relationship with God the Father. It is how Jesus acquires people for His kingdom.
So when you consider the death of Jesus, you no longer see it as an event of weakness. Jesus is more than a Victim. Instead, He is a Victor. What type of King is Jesus? He is a king who goes on a crusade to liberate and deliver people from tyranny and slavery. This is the great truth that St. Paul confesses: “[God] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” It is the great truth that we Lutherans confess in our Small Catechism, drawing on that statement: “He has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil.”
What Jesus accomplishes through His dying and rising to life again gives Him the ability to make great promises, even in death: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” What the criminal saw in Jesus, behind the veil of weakness, is true. He does have a kingdom. He possesses power to give everlasting life. He is sent from above by the Father to right the wrongs that sin causes in humanity. And He will return to bring everything to completion.
There is more than meets the eye with Jesus: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. . . . In Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. . . .” And that was true even on Mount Calvary, when it didn’t look like it. But confessing the truth that the eyes of faith see brings great benefit. Remember the promise that was made to the Lord’s people through the Prophet Malachi: “The Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before Him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed His name. ‘They shall be Mine, says the Lord of hosts, in the day when I make up My treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him.’” As you esteem the name of the Lord, even Christ the King, you receive the benefit of His work done for you. That esteem is not based upon what you see, but what you have heard about Jesus, what the Holy Spirit has led you to believe.
Now you know how to answer the question, What type of King is Jesus? He is strong, powerful, eternal, merciful, benevolent. He is the One who speaks in the psalm: “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” But He is no impersonal king; He is your Lord. He answers the plight of His people, even giving of Himself to do it. Because “in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” Jesus is your “refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” So He was in His death, when He reconciled you to the Father. So He is in His resurrection, after routing your enemies and freeing you. And so He will be when He returns and displays His full glory for all to see, preeminent over everything.
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.