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Sermon: Luke 23:35-43
End Time 4 – Christ the King – Nov. 24, 2019 – Rev. Steven J. Radunzel

Do you believe that Jesus has promised that you will go to heaven when you die? I will guess that about 100% of you will say, “Of course I believe that Jesus has promised that I will go to heaven when I die.” But do you really believe that you’re going to go to heaven? Do you really believe that heaven is a reality?

And I ask whether you really believe you’re going to heaven because I really want you to think about that question. I want you to take heaven and your certainty of heaven very seriously.

And I want you to take heaven seriously because it’s easy to take heaven for granted. And some of us just kind of take heaven for granted because we’ve believed in heaven and that we’re going to heaven from the time that we were very little children. And our whole society takes heaven for granted with the over used expression that “we’re all going to go to a better place.” People make heaven into a kind of sentimental notion that makes everyone feel good. In an odd sort of way we have made it too easy to believe in heaven, to just casually assume we’re going to heaven.

In our text today Jesus makes a promise about heaven, or paradise, to someone whom we would absolutely not assume was going to heaven. And Jesus makes that promise while he is dying on the cross paying the penalty for our sin so that we could go to heaven.

To go to heaven, to be in paradise with Jesus, is clearly not something we want to take for granted or casually assume. This account today reminds us that

ONLY CHRIST THE KING CAN OFFER PARADISE

When you first heard this gospel reading for this last Sunday of End Time you might have thought someone put the wrong reading in the bulletin. This account sounds more like a reading for the season of Lent, something we would read in one of our Wednesday Lenten services.

But this last Sunday of End Time, this last Sunday of the Christian church year, is also Christ the King Sunday. It’s a day on which we remember that Christ is our Savior and King. It’s a very fitting way to end the Christian church year, focusing on Jesus our King.

But if you had been given the job of selecting a gospel reading to present Jesus as our King would you have chosen this one in which he’s actually made fun of as the king of the Jews? Wouldn’t you rather have chosen perhaps an account from Revelation where thousands and thousands of angels and all the people in heaven are singing to him and honoring him as King of kings and Lord of lords? A more glorious reading about Jesus exalted in heaven would seem to be more fitting for this Christ the King Sunday.

But this choice by those who established our list of scripture readings many years ago is a very wise choice. The king of the Jews dying on a cross, promising paradise to a dying criminal, is a very serious reminder of what was required of Christ our King to earn heaven for us and that Christ the King is the only one who can offer paradise to us.

You know the account well. It’s Good Friday. Jesus had been wrongfully charged with blasphemy and was sentenced to death by the leaders of the Sanhedrin. They even got permission from the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, to have Jesus crucified.

So Jesus was hanging on the cross, dying. Some of the religious leaders from Jerusalem looked at him on the cross and made fun of him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.” Some of the Roman soldiers, who had no interest in the religion of the Jews, made fun of him too. We can almost envision them laughing, hear them laughing, and saying, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”

Pontius Pilate had a sign hung on Jesus’ cross that read, THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. We can also hear the sarcastic derision in these words of the Roman governor. He had no respect for the Jews, even the most powerful and wealthy. They were beneath him. He tolerated them. And now he was saying to them, “Rome crucifies your king, your pathetic Jewish king.”

What a sad and tragic scene. The only consolation for us is that we don’t have to be on the side of Pilate or on the side of the Jewish leaders. We don’t have to be involved in their petty political argument and tug of war. And that’s a good thing. Neither Pilate nor the Jewish leaders knew the enormity of their sin. They crucified the innocent Son of God.

But what would you have thought of Jesus if you had been there outside Jerusalem 2000 years ago? What if you stood before the cross and saw him suffering and dying? If you had been a Roman you would have scoffed at another senseless, brutal execution. If you had been one of the Jewish leaders you probably would have been glad that you finally got rid of this blasphemer named Jesus who had accused you of hypocrisy and sin. If you were one of the everyday Jews you probably would have been terrified and humiliated once again by the Romans who had a regular habit of crucifying the defiant. If you had been one of Jesus’ followers and believers you would be heartbroken and discouraged.

Jesus didn’t look like much of a Savior or King battered and broken on the cross. Jesus wasn’t the kind of Messiah or King anyone was looking for in Judea 2000 years ago. They wanted a king for certain, but one who would lead an army against Rome and free them. This “king of the Jews” dying on a cross wouldn’t be that king.

Even Jesus’ own disciples didn’t fully understand Jesus. Remember the time Jesus warned his disciples that it was time for him to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die. It was Peter, a kind of leader of the disciples, who took Jesus aside and actually rebuked him, telling Jesus not to talk like that, not to mention things like suffering and dying. Jesus gave a blistering rebuke to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You don’t have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” In other words, “Peter, you have no idea yet what I’m doing in this world. I came for the very purpose of dying. My real kingdom will not be built until I die and defeat the power of sin and Satan.”

You and I know why Jesus had to die. We know why he had to be that kind of Messiah. We know why he had to be the king of the Jews dying, humiliated on a cross. We have the advantage of living 2000 years later. We have the advantage of the gospels written down telling the whole story of Jesus and who he was and what he did to save us from our sins. We have the accounts of Jesus’ victorious resurrection from the dead. We have the letters of Paul, Peter, and John that expound on the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We know why Jesus died on the cross. A pathetic looking king of the Jews dying on a cross doesn’t look like much of a Savior, but he most certainly is.

The Apostle Paul would one day write in his letter to the Ephesians, “In [Jesus] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins.” And some years later, when Peter finally did understand why Jesus had actually come into the world he wrote, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree . . . ; by his wounds you have been healed.”

It is kind of easy to believe in heaven. It’s a sentimental, comforting thought. Who wouldn’t want to go to heaven? Why wouldn’t anyone want to believe in heaven? But seeing Jesus, the Son of God, dying on the cross is a good reminder to us what penalty had to be paid so that we could go to heaven. Only the Son of God, only Christ the King, only the King of kings could offer the sacrifice that would atone for our sins and the sins of the whole world.

In our 2nd reading today the Apostle Paul reminds us who Jesus really is: “He is the image of the invisible God, the first born over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

And only this Christ the King could offer paradise. And amazingly he did while dying on the cross. One of the two criminals crucified with Jesus joined in the awful chorus of Jesus’ enemies: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us.” The other criminal rebuked his fellow criminal: “Don’t you fear God? We’re getting what we deserve. This man whom you are ridiculing has done nothing wrong.”
And then this man turned to Jesus and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus spoke to him with some of the most comforting and powerful words in the whole Bible: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Jesus used an interesting word – paradise. He could have said heaven. But he said paradise, commonly understood to be the place where the souls go to await the resurrection. Jesus was completely correct. His own soul and the soul of this dying criminal would go to heaven, would go to paradise, to await the resurrection. Jesus would rise in three days. The criminal’s soul, enjoying paradise now, will be reunited with an imperishable body on the last day, the great day of resurrection. He’ll rise with us and all who know and believe that Jesus is Christ the King.

The skeptic will look at one crucified man offering paradise to another crucified man and laugh. The unbeliever would say they’re both destined for the grave.

But you and I believe in heaven. We really do believe in heaven. We believe in paradise. And we also believe that Jesus was not only the king of the Jews, he is King of kings and Lord of lords. He is Christ the King, and only Christ the King can offer paradise. Amen.