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Sermon for Sunday 24 November 2013

FIRST READING Jeremiah 23:1–6

1 Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD. 2 Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD. 3 Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. 4 I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD. 5 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6 In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”

PSALM Luke 1:68–79

68 Blessed are you, Lord, the God of Israel, you have come to your people and set them free. 69 You have raised up for us a mighty Savior, born of the house of your servant David. 70 Through your holy prophets, you promised of old to save us from our enemies, 71 from the hands of all who hate us, 72 to show mercy to our forebears, and to remember your holy covenant. 73 This was the oath you swore to our father Abraham: 74 to set us free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship you without fear, 75 holy and righteous before you, all the days of our life. 76 And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way, 77 to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. 78 In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, 79 to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

SECOND READING Colossians 1:11–20

11 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. 13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

GOSPEL Luke 23:33–43

33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”


One of the courses a seminarian must complete is a course on preaching. Generally speaking, the class is graded by taking quizzes from session notes and through practice and critique. On the first day of class we were given the syllabus and there was no mention of any type of final exam. So you can appreciate my surprise when the professor, near the end of the semester, announced a final. She said the exam would consist of a single question with three parts. We would have three hours to complete the assignment which should be plenty of time. The question that kept running through my mind was, how does one prepare for a written final in preaching? What could she possibly ask in a single question? And how do I study for a one question written exam?
On the day of the final, the professor, who was a splendid preacher in her own right, strode into the room and a quiet fell. The familiar blue books were then distributed. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she began, “you may use only your Bibles for this exam. You have three hours to complete the assignment and as I said before, there’s just one question and it has three parts. Here’s your question: You have one last sermon to preach in your ministry. It’s your last best shot. First, choose your text and theme. Second, explain why you’ve chosen that particular text, and finally, give a full, detailed outline for the development of that sermon.” Needless to say, I wasn’t expecting the question. The lectionary we use, has assigned readings for each Sunday and while I’m not bound to it, the designers of the Revised Common Lectionary have done a good job, over all, of walking us through the Bible in 3 years. Yet, it was an intriguing question and one that I’ve faced twice since that final exam, in a slightly different form, during internship. It’s now a question that I bring to you today as we come to this day in the liturgical year where we recognize and celebrate Christ the King.
Today brings us that one last shot in this church year. Today the church brings to conclusion all that has been revealed and celebrated in the gospel story of God’s work for our salvation, since that story began with Advent’s hope a year ago. Today it must come together into one concluding proclamation about Jesus Christ who is “King of kings and Lord of lords.” And today we must address that ultimate question about Christ’s lordship in our lives and in our world.
From the beginning of the church’s year, we’ve been hearing about the King who was coming, the anointed One of God who would save His people. Astrologers from the east came inquiring of Herod, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” When called as a disciple, Nathanael answered, almost prophetically, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel.” At one point in Jesus’ ministry, the people responded, so enthusiastically, that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king. When Jesus rides into Jerusalem, He fulfills the prophecy of Zechariah: “Lo, your King comes to you, humble and riding upon a donkey,” and the people greet Him with the shout: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Jesus’ Kingship is the center around which the charges against Him are brought to Pilate. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asks. Hours later, Pilate gives his own sarcastic affirmation in the legally required statement of charges placed on the cross: “This is the King of the Jews.” The ridicule of the bystanders and the hope of the penitent thief are bound up in this same kingship in today’s gospel lesson. “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” the soldiers taunted. The penitent thief cries out: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingly power.” In the title of “king” there is the occasion for ridicule and the opportunity of hope. It was so then. It seems equally so now.
In the good news of the resurrection, we have celebrated the victory of Christ over death and the powers of evil. Throughout the Pentecost season we have studied the kingdom of God and what it means to live in that kingdom in the light of the resurrection of Christ. Jesus is the Lord of our lives. Christ is the King. What this means to us this day is, that suddenly, my Homiletics professor’s question, becomes our question. To what lesson do we turn? What theme do we select to pull together into one proclamation and celebration all that we’ve heard and seen about our Christ? This should be a day of prophetic hope and of a clear Christological statement of the Incarnation, a day of important last words. “If you had one last sermon to preach, what would it be?” I think it would be good to begin answering this important question by first acknowledging Christ as the power and the Wisdom of God.
With that declaration in mind, we turn our attention to today’s gospel lesson which comes to us as somewhat of a surprise, possibly even an outright shock. Some of you may have looked again at the banner here in front or the color of the paraments to see if they were purple; you might be thinking that we somehow skipped Advent, Christmas and Epiphany and went straight to Lent. Our reading for this Sunday is from the midst of the Passion story and God’s anointed King is dying like a common criminal. In reading Luke’s account, we find that we’ve become witnesses to the casual observers on that early Friday afternoon, as they think that things weren’t going all that well for the “King.”
Although there had been moments of huge crowd support, times when a voice spoke from heaven, and hopes that the kingdom of God was dawning with power at any moment, today’s lesson hardly gives that impression. It seems as if some committee chose the lessons for today simply because the word “king” is used frequently. How can one look at the Cross and call it a throne? How can we see the defeat of death and proclaim it a victory? Surely there must be a better text for our last sermon of the year. But when you really consider it, maybe not!
It was Paul who wrote to the Christians at Corinth that he had resolved to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Earlier Paul noted with candor that such preaching was “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called … [it is] Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” And although Luke reports the entire crucifixion in just 14 verses, it became for the early church the center of its preaching. Luke demonstrates this well in the preaching he records in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. Right here, in this Passion story, is virtually all we need to know about the grace and the forgiveness of God, just as Paul has suggested. Therefore, we can now see why the hymn writer, in our Hymn of the Day, calls for us to crown Him the Lord of love.
Throughout this third year of the lectionary cycle, we’ve heard Luke’s favorite theme. The ready and generous grace of God is shown repeatedly. In recent Sundays we studied the story of the healing of 10 lepers, an act of God’s love and grace. We’ve watched as Jesus, like the promised shepherd of Ezekiel, came searching for the lost and hiding Zacchaeus. We’ve listened in on the prayers of the Pharisee and the Publican as they prayed in Jesus’ parable, all the while being reminded of our need to trust God’s grace. And few if any can forget Jesus’ words at the beginning of today’s lesson: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The ever-present grace of God is one of Luke’s central gospel themes.
From the parables of the waiting father and the “good” Samaritan, and now from the story of the penitent thief on the cross, all of these reported only by Luke, we’ve heard openly the good news of Jesus Christ. Gentile and Jew, sinner and saint, young and old, it makes no difference. The full blessings of forgiveness here and hereafter are available to all who repent. The love of God reaches out for all, even to those who would arrange the crucifixion and taunt its victim. “Father, forgive them….” Nor is there a time too late!
From the parable of the laborers in the vineyard to the real-life moment of the thief on the cross, God’s grace prevails, even to the last hour, even to the last moment. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The response is swift and direct. “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” In this exchange, Luke reaches the peak of his report of the crucifixion, the manifestation of God’s “salvific mercy to one of the dregs of humanity.”
Frederick William Faber grasped the moment for us as he penned the lines of his popular hymn, (There is a wideness in God’s mercy): “There is welcome for the sinner, and a promised grace made good; there is mercy with the savior; there is healing in his blood.” On that Friday afternoon, a day we call Good Friday, it was “last sermon” time. It was the moment of truth for both Jesus and the criminal who repented. Jesus had preached the grace of God creatively and powerfully. The thief, in his repentance, calls upon Jesus to make those promises good. And Jesus does just that!
Clearly, the love of God is broader than the measures of our mind. Paul writes: In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39) Jesus Christ is our Lord: He is our King. Crown Him with many crowns! Crown Him the Lord of Love!” And as the hymn writer concludes, Crown Him the Lord of life.
Today’s lesson carries us beyond this moment and into a new age of history – an age yet to come. In a single sentence from the crucified Christ, the finite is merged with the infinite, the here, is joined to the hereafter, the now, is joined to what has been until now and the “not yet.” All that has come before is joined to all that is promised to come. And Jesus does it with a single phrase, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Jesus Christ is King in this age and the next, in this world and the next.
There seems to be a willingness for many to accept the teachings of Jesus but not the divinity of the Christ. Many cannot seem to accept the eternal dimensions that come most naturally with Christ and His teachings. Today’s gospel brings us squarely before Jesus’ claim. The criminal, having admitted his own guilt, acknowledges Jesus’ kingly state by his request. He begs to be remembered in whatever future awaits them. By his asking, he’s begging a gift that only a king over the next life has any authority to give. From our side of the resurrection, it’s easy to miss the fact that only Luke, among all the evangelists, presents the destiny of Christ as a part of the crucifixion narrative. Here Christ will transcend life and the death with which this life ends. Beyond this, the details are not clear. But that’s not to say that paradise is without meaning.
Paradise is a word of Persian origin, and it refers to a garden. The late Dr. William Barclay writes that it was a walled garden. When a Persian king wanted to do a favor for a subject, he invited that person to walk with him in the garden. Jesus was promising the penitent thief more than immortality, and certainly more than “dwelling in the shadows of the neither here nor there” of some of the contemporary theories and mythologies. He promised him the gift of companionship, of walking with him in the courts of heaven. Even though Luke is the only one to report for us this moment of repentance and salvation during the hours of the crucifixion, this story is fully consistent with the witness of the other evangelists and the writers of the epistles.
In John’s gospel the “walled garden” becomes “my Father’s house” of “many rooms,” to which Jesus is going to prepare a place for us. Paul comforts the troubled Christians at Thessalonica with the assurance that the dead in Christ will be raised first, and “then we who are alive shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so shall we always be with the Lord.” Whether we speak of a walled garden, a house of many rooms, or being gathered together in the clouds, it doesn’t matter! The important words are these: “Today you will be with me….” Christ is the King who speaks with authority, not simply about the grace of God in this life, but about the destiny of this life as well. And this destiny isn’t a “perk” for contemporary piety.
It’s such a substantial part of the good news that Paul has written: “If for this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:19).” Crown Him the Lord of Life, Who triumphed o’er the grave and rose victorious in the strife for those he came to save. (Hymn: Crown Him with many crowns) Matthew Bridges the writer of this famous hymn then continues by writing, Crown Him the Lord of years, the Potentate of time.
Jesus Christ is King. He is the Lord of our lives in this world and the next. He is Lord of lords and King of kings. He is the Lord of all creation. This cosmic kingship, spanning all time and space, is proclaimed eloquently in the epistle to the Colossians. “He [Christ] is before all things, and in him all things hold together … 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 Christ (Colossians 1:17, 19-20).” And the echoes of this cosmic authority and presence are heard throughout the New Testament.
John begins his gospel with the profound words of his prologue: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth (John 1:1-3, 14).” Later in the same gospel, Jesus proclaims: “Before Abraham was, I am!” In the Transfiguration, reported by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus discusses with Moses and Elijah His departure which He is to accomplish in Jerusalem. Moses the law-giver and Elijah the ancient prophet remain part of the “team” working for our redemption. Jesus said He came to fulfill the law, not to abolish it. Jesus Christ is the Lord of history and of eternity. He is the Lord of time and of space. He is the “Potentate of Time.”
The excitement of the early church can be explained only in part by the good news of redemption and the lively hope of resurrection to life everlasting. They and we alike, have been commissioned to go into all the world, to make disciples of all nations and to extend the rule of the King and the blessings of the kingdom. Theirs was a grateful response that struggled with urgency to tell the good news and to spread the kingdom. That restless urgency is caught up in Paul’s words to the Colossians. “It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me (Colossians 1:28-29).” Christ’s victory over the powers of evil is assured. His victory over death is won. His place in eternity has been from the beginning. He is King of all kings. He is Lord of all lords. Yet still, there are places where He does not yet rule. He is Lord of lords, but is He truly the Lord of our lives? On this last Sunday of the church year we’ve told the story yet another time. And another time, Christ awaits our response.
Is Christ the Lord of our lives, the Lord of our time, and the Lord of our use of our wealth and our skills? Is he the “King” in whose service we daily rejoice? Are we faithful stewards of the properties of the kingdom to which we have been entrusted? We know He rules the heavens. But does He fully rule our hearts?
Alexander McClaren has observed that on Calvary there were two thieves crucified with Jesus. One thief was saved [so] that no man need despair, but only one, [so] that no man might presume. It’s the last Sunday of the church year. If there were only one last sermon to preach, one last time to tell the story, what passage would you choose? Or better still, what will the answer be when the story ends? The King waits for a response.

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