Common Criminals – Sermon on Luke 23:33-43 for Reign of Christ Sunday (C)

This is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday in the church year. This is the day we celebrate Christ’s rule over the Kingdom of God, already in place and evident in our lives, even while it has not yet been brought to full completion. As we prepare to enter Advent, the season of expectation, we hope for that Kingdom to come in its fullness, for all things to be made whole and holy, for the brokenness of this world to be fully redeemed and healed. But it is not Advent yet. And it is certainly not Christmas, despite what you see on store shelves and television ads, or hear from the Chamber of Commerce. Before we can begin the church year anew, and start fresh with our hope and expectation of the coming of Jesus into our world, we must end this church year. We must pay attention to the way Jesus fulfills his ministry on earth by claiming his kingly crown.

We have spent this year following Luke’s version of the story, and next week begins a new journey with another gospel writer. If we’ve learned only one thing from Luke, it is that, when God breaks into our world in the person of Jesus Christ, everything gets flipped. We have come to expect that our expectations are upside down. It seems only fitting, then, that on this Christ the King Sunday, our text does not focus on the triumph of Christ over sin and death, but on his humiliation and suffering. Instead of reading about Christ’s ultimate reign over the new heaven and the new earth, we read about his crucifixion. Instead of white robes and a golden crown, we see him stripped of his last shred of dignity, bleeding and dying under a crown of thorns, crucified between two criminals.

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. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 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!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:33-43)

None of the gospels describe the actual process of crucifixion, and I’m not going to make you suffer through the details, either. It was gory. Ancient writings, and the findings of archeologists, tell us that it was intentionally gruesome. The purpose of crucifixion was to discourage others from committing the same crimes as those who were slowly being tortured to death. It was meant to be torture, and part of that torture was the public humiliation of the one being crucified.

Luke shows us three layers of the ridicule heaped on Jesus – first by the rulers and leaders, then by the Roman soldiers, and finally by one of the criminals being crucified with Jesus. As the leaders taunt Jesus, they quote scripture at him, mocking his claim to be the Chosen One of God. The soldiers offer him bad wine, and add their insults. “Yeah, you really look like the King of the Jews now!” Not wanting to be left out, the first criminal picks up the theme. “Messiah, huh? Right! If that’s so, save us and yourself!”

But Jesus doesn’t flinch. He’s heard all this before. Remember at the beginning of his ministry, when he spent forty days in the wilderness, and Satan came to tempt him with similar words?[1] “Make these stones into bread, if you are the Son of God. Throw yourself down from this pinnacle of the Temple and let the angels catch you. Worship me, and I’ll give you the world.” It’s the same song, second verse; quite a bit louder, probably worse.

And the people stand by, watching. They do not jeer, but they also do not come to Jesus’ defense. Perhaps the silent crowd is trying to decide how this could possibly be the Son of God. Maybe they wait to see if he has one last miracle in him. Maybe they are simply struck with horror. Maybe they really aren’t grasping what is happening before their very eyes. Maybe that’s what Jesus means when he prays, “Father forgive them. They have no idea what they are doing.”

Jesus is crucified between two criminals, one on his left and one on his right. This detail is striking, and it brings to mind another pair who, shortly before the entrance into Jerusalem just days before, made a special request of Jesus. In Mark’s gospel, we read:

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?”  And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”  They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”[2]

Do you suppose James and John would have been so bold, if they had known what they were asking? Do you think they would have been eager to hang on a couple of crosses, as these two criminals are hanging now, one on his left and one on his right? But one of these criminals recognizes something in Jesus that the other does not. While the first criminal joins in ridiculing Jesus, along with the rulers and the soldiers, the second criminal knows three things:

  • First, he knows that he himself deserves to die for his own sinfulness, while Jesus does not.
  • Second, he knows Jesus by name, and he knows what that name means.
  • Third, he knows that even death cannot prevent Jesus, the Son of God, from coming into his kingdom.

The second criminal rebukes the first, reminding him that they both deserve death for their crimes. He knows his own sin, and he confesses that sin openly and honestly. This criminal not only confesses, he contrasts his sinful self with Christ’s sinlessness. He knows that Jesus has done no wrong, that Jesus does not deserve to die, and he proclaims this truth boldly in the hearing of all those who have been heaping insults on Jesus.

The second criminal knows Jesus by name. He does not call him Teacher, or Rabbi. He uses the familiar name Mary gave him when he was born. He calls him “Yeshua” – and he knows that Yeshua means “The Lord Saves.” This criminal is bearing witness to the identity of Jesus as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. He knows he deserves to die for the sins he has just confessed, but he also knows that Jesus, and only Jesus, can save him from those sins. So he calls Jesus by name, calling attention to the Lord’s salvation.

Finally, the second criminal is not fooled by appearances. Even in the face of imminent death, even as they hang together, dying on their respective crosses, he does not doubt that Jesus has a kingdom. The criminal has figured out that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. He knows that Jesus is about to become ruler of the Kingdom of God. He does not ask to sit by Jesus, as James and John did. He does not even ask Jesus to forgive him. His request is simple, and humble. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” is all he asks.

Remember: just as God promised to remember his covenants throughout the Old Testament, even when his people forgot. Just as God told Noah that he would remember his promise every time he saw a rainbow, just as God told the Israelites that he would remember to fulfill his promises to them as they wandered in the desert. This criminal knows what it means to ask God to remember. It is a powerful request. And Jesus responds with a powerful promise: “This day you will be with me in Paradise.”

One of the functions of a good story is to draw us in, getting us to identify with a character in the story, inviting us to become part of that story. So, which character is the one with which you identify? Where do you see yourself in this scene at the place called “Skull”? Are you among the Jewish leaders and the Roman soldiers, jeering and tormenting any threat to your personal power system? Do you blindly unite with them, as the first criminal does, even when their power system costs you your life? Do you stand to the side, with the silent crowd, unwilling to join in the ridicule, but equally unwilling to stand up to it? Or do you identify with the second criminal, announcing Kingdom truth where you see it, even when all appearances point to a different view of reality?

We’d like to think we identify with Criminal Number Two, wouldn’t we? We’d like to believe that, if push came to shove, we’d boldly stand and proclaim that Jesus is Lord. If I’m honest, however, I have to admit that it would be easier to find me among the silent crowd, not ready to commit myself to being ridiculed along with Jesus, but not willing to turn my back on him, either. And there are days, I have to admit, when I’m more likely to be found among the leaders and soldiers, feeling threatened by any shift away from the stability of my privileged place in society. I rarely can claim to stand with Criminal Number Two, boldly announcing that Jesus is King of Heaven and Earth, even when it looks like Satan has beaten him, even when death is staring me in the face.

Rarely can I look the King of kings in the eye and ask, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” When all appearances point to a view of reality where evil persists and there is no end in sight, it’s hard to think about a reality where war and death are no more, where hunger and poverty do not exist, where people stop hurting one another for the sake of money or power. It’s hard to imagine what Criminal Number Two saw, despite all appearances to the contrary.

Because this is the reality: Jesus is Lord. Jesus is King, just as we heard earlier today in the reading from Colossians 1:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for inhim 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. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 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. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 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.[3]

This is the reality: King Jesus and Saving Jesus and Suffering Jesus are all the same Jesus. His royalty and his saving power depend on his death, even death on a cross. The only question that remains is this: are you ready to make him your king? Are you ready to crown him as Lord of your life? Do you limit yourself to an intellectual awareness of Jesus that mocks the fact he loves you so much he died for you? Or will you join with Criminal Number Two, and name him as the ruler of your life, believing in a kingdom you can’t even see yet?

When we come to the end of a calendar year, we often make New Year’s resolutions. Sometimes they are just a joke. Sometimes we have great intentions, but no follow-through, and those resolutions are forgotten by February. This is Christ the King Sunday, the end of the church year. Next Sunday begins a new season of hope, of looking forward, of anticipating the coming Kingdom of God. You don’t need to make a long list of resolutions to prepare for the new church year. You only need one. This year, every day, make Jesus your King. Then, when you reach the end of this life, may you hear Jesus say to you, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  Amen.

[1] Luke 4:3, 6-7, 9

[2] Mark 10:35-40

[3] Colossians 1:15-20

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