Monday, December 6, 2010

Sermon for 21 November 2010, Proper 29C

The Rev. Paul J Cain, Jr.
Luke 23:27–43
The World Turned Upside Down
Proper 29C, Last Sunday in the Church Year
21 November 2010
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This isn’t how it is supposed to happen. The kind of person who is supposed to be told comforting things about heaven should be one of those “good people,” right? But instead a death-row criminal has a “death bed” conversion and the “good people” of Jerusalem are mourning and lamenting in anguished tears. It doesn’t seem fair. This isn’t how it is supposed to happen.
Says who? That’s how it did happen (and for good reason) in Luke 23. In the Holy Gospel today, we see the world turned upside down.
27There followed [Jesus] a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him. 28But turning to them Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ 30Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ 31For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
Is that what one is supposed to say to “good people?” Not hardly. But Jesus did share the truth with them. And the truth sometimes needs to be heard for our own good, no matter how unpleasant. Jerusalem would face destruction in the year 70 A.D. Unimaginable carnage and destruction awaited them. No wonder Jesus said, “weep for yourselves and for your children.” We still face the stark, unpleasant reality of our own deaths and also the certain and unpredictable date of the Last Day. We may fear dying, but we need not fear death. We may fear the uncertainty of the end of all things, but we need not fear Christ as Judge. He is our Lord Jesus, Savior of the world, He who came the first time to save the world. He is the way, the truth, and the life, the only way, truth, and life, not merely one way, truth, or life among the many false ways, so-called “truths”, and death-giving “lives” of the world. There is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved. Salvation is narrow as the cross—Jesus Christ alone. Yet salvation is wide open, too—as wide as Jesus’ arms nailed for you on that same cross. And that’s the truth.
The truth needs to be heard for our own good sometimes, no matter how unpleasant. Some dislike going to the doctor. “He’ll only tell me I’m sick.” Does the doctor change reality by making a diagnosis, or does he simply face you up to the fact that you really are sick, though you don’t want to admit it.
A Christian song teaches the same kind of lesson. “Don’t blame the bullet for the wars you have sown. Don’t blame the winter when you’ve forgotten your coat…You gotta hold up the mirror and share in the blame” (“Share in the Blame,” from Caedmon’s Call Overdressed). The law of God is that mirror, that dose of reality that tells you what the world is really like and what you are like in your heart of hearts. There is always need for repentance and truth.
32Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.
James and John (and their mother) had asked that they be seated at Jesus’ right and left in His kingdom. And here, with Jesus publicly identified as King of the Jews and enthroned upon a cross wearing a crown of thorns, we see that James and John were not the ones the Lord intended to be at Jesus’ right and left in His kingdom. The criminals, one on His right and one on His left are there instead. Again: the world turned upside down.
34And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments.
Jesus forgives the very people who just crucified Him while the soldiers were even gambling over His clothes! This is contrary to how the world thinks, upside-down compared to how we often think. If anyone ever had a justifiable reason to bear a grudge, it would be Jesus. And He doesn’t! He declares the very purpose for which He was born, lived, preached, healed, and was to die: “forgive them.”
35And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
Watching, scoffing, mocking, deriding, disbelieving. These are the actions and reactions of the people around the crucified Jesus. And these actions and reactions are exactly backwards of the praising, praying, worshiping, caring, and believing that should have taken place. The rulers of the Jewish people rejected the very One their sacred texts predicted, the promised Messiah: Prophet, Priest, and King. The soldiers mocked the Lord of lords. The sinful citizens of planet Earth reject the very King of Kings.
39One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
One crucified criminal persisted in his crimes against God and man by railing at Jesus, echoing the temptations of the Devil: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread…If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here” (pause) (Luke 4). “If You are the Christ, get down from the cross and save Yourself. And while You’re at it, get me down, too!”
Had Jesus come down from the cross, He would have saved no one but Himself. Selflessly He remained and thereby saved the whole world. Sadly some never hear of the message of Jesus and His love. Sadder still are the stories of those who hear and reject Him. But not all reject Christ.
40But the other [criminal] rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
A criminal has a death bed conversion while nailed to a cross. It would be like someone coming to faith after hearing the Gospel from the death row Christian chaplain while strapped into the electric chair! This other criminal has heard himself condemned by secular and divine law and recognizes that his punishment is just and fair. And he sees that Jesus is punished unjustly: This man has done nothing wrong.
And then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” What kind of person, condemned to death, would ever say such things to another man condemned to death? His eyes could only see another bleeding, dying man on a cross, a man likely to die of blood loss, shock, asphyxiation, exposure, or some combination of them all. But this isn’t about what is seen by the eyes. We’re talking about faith. In no greater way than this can we see the world turned upside down. By faith this other criminal sees the King of the Jews as the true King. Only then can one say, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus responds to such strong faith by giving words of comfort: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” That’s heaven. Today means today. With the next day (beginning at sunset) a holy day, their legs would be broken to hasten death, if they had not yet died. Jesus gives absolution, forgiveness as God Himself, so that this man would not doubt, be firmly believe that his sins were forgiven before God in heaven. That is grace: an unmerited, undeserved, unearned GIFT. Works-righteousness proponents hate this passage. True grace confuses them. How can it be possible? This is why Jesus came—the whole point of Christianity. Jesus gives absolution, that is forgiveness as God Himself, so that this man would not doubt, be firmly believe that his sins were forgiven before God in heaven. You will meet him there someday, along with all the saints that rest from their labors, all who have fallen asleep in Jesus’ name.
The fallen leaves, dying plants, cold temperatures, (snow), shorter days and longer nights remind us of death and the end of the world this time of year in the northern hemisphere. We have an annual reminder that we are mortal and the Church recognizes this as we celebrate the end of the world on the Last Sunday of the Church Year, the Last Sunday after Pentecost.
Again you have heard of sin covered by grace, of wrath withheld and forgiveness delivered. All this is for you and your salvation, the purpose for which Christ came, and your hope for when He comes again. Truly, I say to you, the one who believes and is baptized will be with Him in Paradise. Amen.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.