Gospel: Luke 23:27-43 (The Last Sunday of the Church Year: Series C)
As the church year ends, we are not give a vision of Jesus on His throne, ruling over a new creation. Instead, we see Jesus ruling from the cross. His grace comes in the midst of suffering and pain.
I remember visiting a parishioner who was in hospice. They were administering morphine for her pain. Because of the cycle of the medication, she had only a few moments of clear thinking a day. That moment between doses was an instant when the pain was most intense and yet she could see things most clearly.
Because of the cycle of medication, I would call her daughter before I came, asking when I should come. She would give me a time and I could be there as her mom’s mind began to clear. When my parishioner had that moment of clarity, I wanted her to hear once again of Christ’s love, even though it was in the midst of her pain.
I thought of that experience as I read the Gospel assigned for this Sunday. Luke the physician is offering us an account of Jesus’ crucifixion. The scene is filled with suffering and not only physical suffering but verbal mocking and shameful abuse. The horror of what is happening makes you want to close your eyes and walk away, but Luke asks us to come closer.
He leads us through the crowds (verse 27), past the religious leaders (verse 35), past the soldiers (verse 36), to the criminals hanging on the cross with Jesus (verse 39). There in that small space, where the dying were suspended between earth and heaven, Luke asks us to listen-in on their conversation. Here, Luke finds a moment of great clarity in the midst of great pain. Jesus is King and by His gracious rule He brings salvation to a penitent criminal dying on a cross.
Luke begins his account of the crucifixion at a distance. We stand among the people, following Jesus, watching as criminals are crucified with him at the place called The Skull. We hear the religious leaders scoffing. “He saved others, let Him save Himself, if He is the Christ of God” (verse 35). We begin to see what is at stake in this bloody mess. The claims of Jesus to be the Christ are being tested.
Then, we are taken closer. We see the soldiers mocking Jesus. They draw near and lift up a spike with a sponge of cheap wine to his lips. At the beginning of His ministry, Jesus gave the best wine for the wedding banquet. Now, He is given the cheap stuff at the end. While the word for “offer” certainly means “to bring,” it also has connotations of making an offering to a god or a king. The soldiers are mocking Jesus. The inscription above Jesus reads “The King of the Jews” and the soldiers reveal what a sad excuse for a king this is.
We begin to see what is at stake in this bloody mess. The claims of Jesus to be the Christ are being tested.
Finally, Luke takes us even closer. He lifts us up to be with Jesus and the two criminals who are crucified with Him. Here, we see the challenge to His status played out in an even more personal way. One man rejects Jesus. He repeats the challenge of the religious rulers: “If you are a Savior, get us down from this cross!” The other man, however, trusts in Jesus. “Remember me when You come into Your Kingdom” (verse 42).
Here, at the heart of the crucifixion, Jesus reveals the heart of His Father. Jesus is not coming down from the cross. He will die upon it. Why? Because He did not come to save Himself. He came to save you. He came to die under the punishment of all sin that He might open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.
So, Jesus turns to the penitent thief and reveals His gracious rule. He says, “Today, you will be with Me in Paradise.” Death itself cannot rob Jesus of His Kingdom. In fact, Jesus robs death of its power by dying and rises from the dead to rule over all things.
Today is the end of the church year. What I find so beautiful is that as the church year ends, we are not give a vision of Jesus on His throne, ruling over a new creation. Instead, we see Jesus ruling from the cross. His grace comes in the midst of suffering and pain.
For me, this is important because, until that day when Jesus returns and restores all creation, this is how we see Him, in glimpses of grace in the midst of pain.
Sometimes, it is difficult for God’s people to see Jesus. We watch the conflicts between the Church and the world, and we wonder why it is so hard to help others see Christ’s love. Other times, we are closer in. We listen to our own pastors argue and see the fights which tear apart unity in the Church and find it is hard for us to see Jesus, ruling in gracious love for the lost. In those times, it is helpful to come closer, to block out the loud, fighting voices and speak honestly to Jesus of our sin. We tremble as we bring Him the broken fragments of our lives. To you, to your church, to your world, Jesus has a promise: “I will never forsake you nor forget you. I have offered My life for you. Even though it is hard to see, I am graciously ruling over all things.”
Though He be rejected by our world, though He be hidden in fights among His followers, Jesus Christ reigns as King over a kingdom which will never fade or pass away.
As the church year closes, we have only a glimpse of the promised end of all things. It is brief and filled with pain. But it is enough to sustain us. Jesus is here, bringing God’s grace to you, even when you are weary and suffering.
Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Luke 23:27-43.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Luke 23:27-43.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 23:27-43.