It catches me by surprise every year. We come to the last Sunday of the Pentecost. The green vestments change to white for today only. And that’s because it’s Christ the King Sunday – the Sunday that we highlight Jesus’ regency, his royalty.
I read the Gospel lesson today and we’re back at Good Friday. It’s Jesus on the cross with the two thieves. What does this have to do with Christ the King?
And then I realize my mistake. I’m looking at this passage from a worldly perspective. Were I up in heaven looking down, I would have a whole different vantage point. From a heavenly perspective I would see what a lot of others missed on Good Friday. I would see in clear perspective nothing less than the King of kings and Lord of lords in victory. It’s right there for all of history to see when they see it from a heavenly perspective.
Look closer in this passage, and you’ll literary clues: I spotted four regal references Give it a read through and see if you can spot them. Messiah – King of Jews – Kingdom –
Paradise – Sultan’s palace gardens
Well, I missed seeing the King of Kings in this passage, so perhaps I can excuse the players in the narrative. They missed it too.
There was the onlooker, the public who came to watch this grisly spectacle. Luke says they “stood watching.” These were some of the same people who use to be mesmerized by his teaching. Some of them had been healed by his touch. Some of them were entertained by seeing him work miracles.
But now they stand and watch the mesmerizing miracle worker hang on a cross. You can almost hear their inner thoughts – “At one we thought…… but now…. As they passed the time watching the condemned men die, the onlookers did not see the King of kings lifted high before them. They saw a passing fad who would soon be forgotten.
Luke says that in the crowd there were the rulers. They did more than just watch – they sneered at the King of kings. You can hear the anger in their mocking. “He saved others, let him save himself IF he is the Christ.”
You see, they had worked to gain respect and recognition in society. They had risen to the top. And now they live life on their terms. But this laconic sage of sorts, this rabbi, this interloper had come along and called them to repent. Repent of what!?
Jesus had made them uncomfortable. But now, this meddlesome charlatan was exposed as a toothless tiger. They would suffer no consequences for not repenting. They can go on being the king of their own lives. And these leaders did not see the King of kings lifted high before them. Instead, they saw a threat to the license they held to live large and in charge of their own lives. A threat that would soon disappear.
And, of course, there were the soldiers. These were the men of strength – the self developed, the self sufficient. They met the test to survive in hostile territories. Roman soldiers didn’t need saviors, they stood on their own. You could almost hear their taunts:
“If you’re a king, save yourself!” And the soldiers did not see the King of kings lifted high before them. Instead they saw an annoyance in their lives that they would soon dispose of.
One more person joins in to mock the naked king on the stake. But this mocker was different from the others. The others would go home at the end of the day and enjoy a meal – maybe a little wine. But not this mocker.
For this mocker, life was over. He had come to the end of his rope and there was no more tomorrow for him. Nothing to look forward to. No more hope.
He’s one of the criminals that hang on a cross next to Jesus. He has found himself in time of desperation and despair. We don’t know his crime. But we get a glimpse into is heart.
He looks at Jesus suffering next to him and he doesn’t see someone who shares his pain. He doesn’t see someone who has done him no wrong in life, nothing to deserve his ridicule.
What he sees is someone who is useless to him. Well, maybe not completely useless Jesus can still provide him a good object for his rage and venom. Jesus is perfectly situated to be his scapegoat – someone to deflect to. “Yeah, you’re the Messiah? Then save yourself and save us!” In his hour of desperation, the criminal did not see the King of kings right next to him. Instead he saw a whipping boy.
Four different witnesses of Jesus final hour. Four who view the King of kings in their midst with mockery. But in that final hour, one person gets heaven’s perspective on the scene.
It’s not Mary kneeling at the foot of the cross. It’s not John, the beloved disciple of Jesus. It’s not any of the other disciples who are all in hiding. Oddly enough, the only person who gets a glimpse of Christ the King is another condemned criminal hanging next to Jesus. He rebukes the mocking thief : “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.” And then, the most important words he ever uttered in his life: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” How is it that in his final and desperate hour, this criminal sees what no one else does?
Last month, we changed our Thursday format a bit and shared personal stories of how God met us in a time of desperation. We called the series: The Gift of Desperation.
Now that seems a little oxymoronic – no one asks Santa to bring them some desperate times for Christmas. But it’s in the desperate times of life that many people see the hand of God at work. For many people, a time of suffering was a time of drawing closer to God.
I think of Hagar in the Old Testament. You remember how Sarah despaired of not being able to give Abraham a child. So she gave him her servant, Hagar, to conceive. When Sarah later bore a son of her own, Hagar was sent packing.
Hagar found herself alone in the desert with her son – no water, no food. The bible says that she put the boy under a bush and went off and sat down nearby because she couldn’t bear to watch her son die. Talk about a desperation.
And yet, it was in that desperate hour that Hagar encountered the Lord. The Lord saw Hagar and intervened. He provided. And Hagar’s son would live to father and entire nation.
Young Steven in the New Testament was one of the first deacons of the church. He was brought before the Sanhedrin for his witness to Christ. He was condemned and taken out to be stoned.
In that hour desperation, Steven had an encounter with the King of kings. As he faced the mob poised to stone him, he looked up and saw Jesus the King sitting at the right hand of God. That encounter gave him a supernatural strength to face his executioners. So much so that in that moment, he could ask the Lord’s mercy on the very ones who were stoning him.
God is there in the desperate times. But some choose not to see the King in their midst.
Not so for criminal next to Jesus. Like the other thief, this one is at the end of his rope. And like the other thief, life is draining from him – there is no return – the world is passing away
But, unlike the other thief, this one owns his punishment. He confesses that he’s getting what he deserves – death. In a word, he repents. He has a change of heart. And with that change comes the miracle.
The miracle is that this thief sees what no one else around him sees. He sees a king. And that king is not far off in his castle sitting upon his throne. He’s right next to him. That king is experiencing the same pain, the same rejection, the same shame.
In his hour of desperation when there is no one else to turn to, no one else to care, no one else to help him, He cries out: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”
Make no mistake; this thief went on to die just like the unrepentant thief on the other side of Jesus. But in that moment, he received what only a king could grant. He received pardon. He received what only the King of kings could give: Salvation.
Most people can view Jesus from a safe place. Some might be like those onlookers who just stood and watched. They don’t see their king, they see a passing acquaintance. They might have considered Jesus in the past. Perhaps they went to church for awhile. But they’ve moved on and left Jesus behind on that cross to die.
Other people might be like the leaders who viewed Jesus. These folks have enjoyed success in their lives. Things are going pretty good and they don’t need anyone telling them that they need to repent. They don’t need to bow down to a king, they are their own kings of their own lives.
Then there are those who might be like the soldiers. They’re busy just doing their jobs. They owe their allegiance to an earthly king. A king hanging on a cross makes no sense to them.
For a time, we can all view this bloodied body hanging on a cross from a distance. We don’t have a pressing need to consider his claims to kingship.
But eventually, there comes a time when we aren’t so distant from our own cross. At some point, we might experience a desperate time. A time when we might feel disconnected from everyone in our lives. A time, perhaps, when we realize how helpless we are. A time, perhaps, when we come face to face with our own need for forgiveness.
It’s in that time that Desperation can be a gift. Because desperation causes us to really focus on that man hanging on the cross. Is he who he says he is? Can I trust him? Does he know what I’m going through?
It’s at that time, we have a choice. We can respond like the unrepentant thief.We can hold on to our bitterness, our pride, our anger. We can mock him, lash out at him, use him as our whipping boy. And we can miss seeing the King in our midst.
Or we can respond like the repentant thief. We can acknowledge our own sin, our own need for a Savior. We can admit to our frail humanity, our helplessness. We can call out – not to a dying sage, not to a mythical miracle worker But to an all-powerful King of kings. “Remember me Jesus.”
And in that moment, we may not receive an instant healing. Michael Anthony won’t appear at the door with a million dollars. All our troubles may not suddenly vanish. After all, the repentant thief remained on the cross and died.
But in that moment, in real time, we can experience what he experienced. In that moment, even as his mortal life was ending, his eternal life had already begun. In that moment, he experienced the certainty of a bright future that would displace his despair. In that moment, he experienced what Paul described when he said, For me to live is Christ and to die is gain. For the repentant thief on the cross, desperation was indeed a gift.
Four years ago, we were horrified to learn that 21 Coptic Christians had been brutally beheaded by Islamic State terrorists in Libya. The Copts are the largest Christian community in the Middle East, and one of the oldest in the world. They trace their church back to Saint Mark, who introduced Christianity in Egypt, just a few years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. These Coptic Christians were taken hostage and executed because of their faith in Jesus Christ.
These 21 men had been working on a construction job as tradesmen. All were Egyptians except for one. He was a young African man, perhaps from Chad or Ghana.
The executioners demanded that each hostage identify his religion. They could have denied that they were Christians. But instead, each of the Christians declared their trust in Jesus. Then each man was beheaded.
That young African man who was with the Egyptians was not a Christian when he was captured. But when the terrorists challenged him to declare his faith, he replied: “Their God is my God.” After hearing those words, the terrorists killed him.
How is it that this condemned African who might have saved himself, instead cast his lot with those 20 Coptic Christian? He did it because in the witness of those Coptic Christians on their way to certain death, he saw something greater than life itself. He did it because saw what the repentant thief saw. He did it because in his hour of desperation, he did not stand alone. Right next to him stood Christ the King saying: “TODAY, you will be with me in Paradise.”