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11.24.13 A Different Kind of King Luke 23:33-43 Sermon Summary

by on November 25, 2013

Religious and political  powers crucified Jesus to show what he was—a false king and a false messiah. In fact, they showed what being a true king and messiah actually means.

Summary Points

  • Popular expectations of king and messiah
  • Other images of God
  • A clue to recognizing God’s reign
  • What “Today you will be with me in paradise” means
  • The relationship between Christ the King and Christ the Babe
  • Questions for discussion and reflection

When you read all the gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrest, torture, and execution, you realize that the people who taunted Jesus did so consistent with popular expectations of what a king and messiah should be. Kings are powerful enough to save themselves, so some taunted Jesus to save himself and the others crucified with him. The Jewish Messiah could under no circumstance die this cursed way, so they implored Jesus to prove his identity by rescuing himself.

The fact that Rome posted the charge against Jesus as “the King of the Jews” proves their motive; they wanted all such insurrectionists to understand who was really king, and it isn’t Jesus.

Those who taunted Jesus might have paid closer attention to scripture. The Bible contains images of God other than king, though king is predominant. Jeremiah, for example speaks of God as a shepherd whose chief concern is the welfare of those under his care. From this perspective, the crucifixion might have been expected as the shepherd giving life for his sheep.

Jeremiah goes on to speak of a “Righteous Branch from the line of David” whose rule will is likened to a servant of justice and righteousness (and we must always hear these words not in criminal and moral terms, but in social terms). From this perspective, the crucifixion is the demonstration of God’s solidarity with the oppressed.

Somehow one of those rebels crucified with Jesus recognized this. Tradition calls him the “Good Thief” but in fact he was more like a “freedom fighter.” That’s why he was being crucified alongside Jesus the insubordinate Jew. But how did he recognize God’s kingdom in Jesus? Had he heard about Jesus before, maybe admiring his reputation as one who stood against Rome? Had he talked the night before with Jesus in Pilate’s prion?

My hypothesis is that this brigand realized, at the eleventh hour of his life, what he needed. He realized his life was ending without meaning. He knew he needed redemption. Perhaps he remembered as a little Jewish boy reciting Psalm 46 which says that God is our refuge. Perhaps he remembered the vision of the peaceful river that flows through the city of God. This is what he needed at this hour.

Maybe because he was in touch with his deepest need as a human, his vision was clear to recognize it when he saw it. Jesus embodied all these promises, and so the man crucified with him saw what he needed most in Jesus. So this is what he says, knowing he needs a savior, he utters the name “Jesus,” which means “he saves.”

And Jesus responds with one of the most cherished promises in all of scripture, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” “Paradise” is a word used by the Old and New Testaments to refer to an idyllic hunting ground used by kings. It is a word borrowed from Persia. The Garden of Eden in the creation stories of the Bible’s first chapters is called Paradise. Revelation, the last book of the Bible, speaks of the return to Paradise. When Jesus says, “You will be with me in Paradise” he is saying, “To be with me is to be in Paradise.”

But what does Jesus mean by the word “today”? Does it refer to the moment of death? Is it by sundown that day? Is it within the next twenty-four hours?

The Gospel of Luke uses “today” in an evocative way. When Jesus begins his ministry with a sermon in his hometown, the passage from Isaiah says the Spirit of God come anointing for the purpose of proclaiming, “Good news to the poor, release to the captives, and sight to the blind” (Luke 4:18, 21). Jesus’s sermon is that, “Today, this word has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

When friendly Pharisees warn Jesus to leave because Herod is planning to kill him, Jesus replies, “Tell that fox that I will keep healing others today, tomorrow, and on the third day will finish my work.” (Luke 13:33)

Or when Jesus meets Zacchaeus and the encounter transforms his life, Jesus declares that, “Today salvation has come to this house.” (Luke 19:9)

“Today” in the Gospel of Luke, written and read decades after Jesus’ resurrection, refers to the present time of his audience—first his original readers, then his readers now. Today is the day of salvation, because the resurrected Christ is present today. This means that wherever we find ourselves—in worship, doing ministry, struck through by conscience, anywhere—when Jesus is present, we are in Paradise.

Also writing decades after the resurrection, the letter to the Colossians gives us other image of Christ’s kingdom. It is depicted as our being rescued from darkness and transferred to light. Christ is presented as our Redeemer and the means of our forgiveness. In Christ we experience new life as part of the original creation and as part of the re-creation through Christ’s being the first-born of the resurrection. Colossians claims that all things are reconciled in Christ—what we are is squared with what God intended us to be.

And all this happens, Colossians says, through the cross. God’s kingdom and Christ’s kingship is revealed in the cross. This is the kind of king Jesus is, and the kind of kingdom he inaugurated. This kingdom is most fully revealed by his crucifixion. But it was first revealed in his nativity. Where and how he died clearly contradicted expectations of what it meant to be king and messiah, but it was all forecast in his birth—into obscurity and poverty.

This suggests that his whole life, from Advent to Christ the King Sunday, is a demonstration of God’s Kingdom. As we end this liturgical year and begin a new one next week, may our whole lives be a similar demonstration.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • What are your expectations of Christ as King and Messiah? Are they in accordance with the crucifixion of Jesus, or do they reflect more the kind of expectations of the world?
  • As you read the other passages from the lectionary this week, how do the other images of God (more than were referenced in this message) minister to you?
  • What needs in your life might open your vision to the kingdom of God in Christ? How might the example of the dying man next to Jesus embolden you to embrace your deepest human needs?
  • Where in your life is there a potential “Paradise”—those places where Christ can be with you today? What would it mean to reconceive these places as “Paradise”?
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