Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 20, 2016
Luke 23:33-43 Commentary
In most every language I have ever studied, it’s a tiny word. In fact, although I am aware of only a few languages amidst the plethora of tongues spoken on this planet, it’s striking to me that in the languages I know, this tiny word is about as tiny as it gets, consisting of just two letters. Si, Se, Ob, Ha, Om, Ei: they all mean our English “If.”
But what a wallop that little word packs.
It’s amazing when we think back on our own lives how often we have done foolish things—or become irrationally upset and angry—just because someone lobbed that little word “if” our direction. How many foolishly dangerous or precarious things didn’t we do as little children just because some other kid on the playground said, “Go ahead if you’re not a scaredy cat, that is!” Even as adults we’ve had our moments of getting our backs up just because someone challenged us by saying, “If you are a real man . . . If you were a modern woman . . . If you really had integrity, then you would . . .”
Jesus began his ministry with the devil in the wilderness challenging him three times, and the way he tried to get under our Lord’s skin was to say “If you are the Son of God, then . . .” Now as the ministry comes to an end on a cross at Skull Hill, the devil uses some surrogates once again to lob this tiny word in Jesus’ direction: “Jump down from there if you are the Son of God! “If you are the king of the Jews, then do something.”
I don’t doubt it was a powerful temptation in the wilderness to give in to the “If” taunts of the devil and I don’t doubt it was powerfully hard to take when that same two-letter taunt came his way while on the cross. Jesus had already asked his Father to forgive them because they did not know what they were doing but it’s possible that what they did not know was the great irony of their taunts.
Because as it turned out, being the Son of God did not mean what everyone else thought it meant: namely, exercising raw power, proving your identity through some razzle-dazzle that would spell the end of pain and suffering for yourself. The truth was that Jesus in one sense gave in to the taunts on the cross—but in so doing he turned those taunts on their head. Being the Son of God meant suffering and dying. Coming down off that cross, inuring himself to harm and injury, would have been a profoundly wrong thing for the Christ, the Son of God, the King of the Jews to do.
The first half of all those “If” clauses were onto something: the reality and identity of the Son of God was about to be revealed and proven. It was the second clause that had it wrong. But who could have seen that coming? Well, obviously the devil himself did. The devil who was behind all those tongue-wagging deriders at the cross knew full well that the actual formula of the day was “If you are the Son of God, prove it by staying right where you are.”
That is what Jesus did, of course, and in so doing he turned not only those taunts on their head, he turned the whole of reality upside-down. And only by shaking things up just that much could Jesus save a world that had long ago convinced itself that up was down and black was white and might made right.
Luke 23 is where we go for “Reign of Christ” or “Christ the King” Sunday in the Year C Lectionary cycle. The cross is a strange place to go the week before we start our annual Advent trek to Bethlehem. But when you think about it, it’s an even stranger place to visit to celebrate the kingly reign of someone. As Neal Plantinga famously said in a sermon some years ago, getting “glorified on a cross” is finally as nonsensical as claiming to be “enthroned on an electric chair.” Such an odd route to glory and power certainly was not on the minds of all those mockers who began so many sentences with “If . . .” that day. But that odd route is God’s route. It was no mistake. It led to the glory of salvation.
Thanks be to Christ Jesus, the King of kings!
Note: Our Year A Advent and Christmas Resource page is now available for you to check out sample sermons and other ideas for the Advent Season.
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
What kingdom? You expect Jesus to say, “Forget it, buddy! Can’t you see that I’m finished, washed up, through?”
But, of course, he says nothing of the kind. Instead he makes a promise: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Even on his best days Jesus did not talk much about paradise–in fact, this is the only place in the entire Bible where the word “paradise” passes Jesus’ lips. Mighty strange moment to mention it for the first time!
The only time Jesus promised paradise to anybody and he’s almost dead! Maybe that’s because Jesus was just then closer to securing paradise for the whole lot of us than ever before. All along he’d tried to make clear that the kingdom is not what you expect: it’s a mustard seed, a treasure hidden, yeast that disappears in the dough.
Above all, Jesus made clear that the kingdom of God is most concerned with the dispossessed, the lost, the last, the least, the downtrodden. So what a perfect moment to make clear one last time that the paradise of God’s kingdom is for those who know they’re dead without it. “Remember me,” the thief rasped out. The truth is that Jesus could never forget one such as this.
As just noted, this is the first and only time in all the gospels when Jesus used that word “paradise.” Why? Why did Jesus skip over the thief’s mention of the kingdom? For that matter, given the sheer volume of times when Jesus himself talked about his kingdom (the word occurs over 40 times in Luke alone and mostly on the lips of Jesus), why would Jesus have NOT engaged in some kingdom-talk at this critical juncture? Since this lection is for “Reign of Christ/Christ the King” Sunday, you’d expect a little more kingdom talk from Jesus himself, wouldn’t you?
Perhaps not. The thief seemed to imagine that he was asking for some salvation, some future home, in the sweet by-and-by to come at some perhaps far-off future time when Jesus fully brought his kingdom to this earth. Jesus’ reply about paradise indicates two things we need to remember:
First, the good news of the gospel and of what Jesus was making possible through the sacrificial death he was undergoing at that very moment is that our hope need not be pinned only to a far-off, remote future time. Those who are “in Christ” (as Paul will go on to refer to it again and again) have a security and a hope that is for right now and not just off on some misty distant shore.
Second, Jesus’ non-engagement with the thief’s kingdom-talk may be yet another indication that for the most part, when Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God in the gospels, he mostly did not mean it in the eschatological sense that the kingdom would exist only by-and-by at the time of the parousia. The kingdom of God is available now, albeit as a hidden reality in this world. Yes, it will fully come and flower and flourish in the eschaton to come but Jesus did not generally want people to be starry-eyed about some future kingdom. He wanted people to live in kingdom ways now by embodying lives of shalom right now, today.
“Remember us when you come into your kingdom,” we sometimes want to say to Jesus. But the gospel is here to tell us that the kingdom is now and in the coming weeks when we return to Bethlehem—Advent is no nostalgia trip to make us remember something that once was but is no more. Advent, like the rest of the Christian life and its kingdom focus, is about the here, the now, and also the forever after.
Old Testament concepts of the afterlife are notoriously hard to nail down in that there appears to have been a little bit of diffuse thinking on this subject. Many Christians naively overlay the Old Testament with “pop” notions about a simple dichotomy between heaven and hell (good people go straight to God when they die, bad people go straight to the “other place”). But that is indeed naïve as the Old Testament resists easy systematizing into a consistent post-mortem schema of what happens to people after they die. At best it can be observed that Jewish ideas on the afterlife developed and were refined over time.
In the case of the word “paradise,” which occurs in the gospels only once right in this lection of Luke 23:43, the word generally had three referents: the original “Paradise” of the prelapsarian Garden of Eden, the intermediate “Paradise” which was a kind of pleasant waiting area for the redeemed prior to the final resurrection of the dead (in contradistinction to Hades/Sheol, which was a rather dank and unpleasant holding cell for the dead), and the ultimate or final “Paradise” that would be the fullness of “heaven” or of God’s new kingdom. In Luke 23, it is all-but certain that Jesus was using this word in its second sense of the intermediate abode of the faithful.
Some while back I was taking a walk through a neighborhood near where I work and I witnessed something that we’ve all seen and even participated in at one time or another. In a corner of a fenced-in backyard, four children between the ages of 4-6 were playing. And in the 45 seconds or so during which I could observe them, it was clear that one little girl was calling the shots. “OK, Billy, you stand over there and you have to watch for wild animals. Jill, you have to sit behind me and get me things when I need them. Eric, your job is to . . .” Again, we’ve seen this scene before. And we know what it means. In that little backyard this little girl was establishing her kingdom. And she was the kingdom’s Sovereign.
In his fine book The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard claims that we all have our little kingdoms in life. A kingdom, Willard says, is any area of life where my will and my desires determine what happens and what does not happen. “A man’s house is his castle,” the old, rather sexist, adage says. And indeed, in our homes, at our places of work, we all have little spheres of influence, little patches of this earth where we make a kingdom for ourselves, where we try to arrange things so that what we say, what we think, what we believe determines the shape of life.
The kingdom of God is where God’s desires, God’s dreams for this creation, God’s will and God’s intentions rule. The kingdom of God is where the shape of life mirrors God’s design for life.
As Willard writes, the kingdom is real and it is real now. We can see it, right now, today. The kingdom is present wherever people pray the way Jesus taught us to pray. The kingdom is present wherever Jesus nurtures certain behaviors and lifestyles that we call the fruit of the Spirit. The kingdom is present wherever people pour water over the heads of babies or take bread and wine to their lips all simply because Jesus told us that this is the way we are to act in remembrance of him.
The kingdom is present wherever a believer somewhere refuses to go along with some scheme because she believes it is untruthful and that going along with it would make her less transparent to Jesus. Whenever and wherever a woman says no to abortion, whenever and wherever a college student refuses to participate in some binge-drinking party, whenever and wherever someone refuses to cut corners on his taxes, whenever and wherever a kindly old woman brings light into a neighbor’s darkness by speaking a word of peace, whenever and wherever a man sits down to tutor a homeless child, and whenever and wherever all such things are done because all these people believe there is a cosmic Lord named Jesus, then there–right there and right here and right now–the kingdom of God is present because the effective will of Jesus is calling the shots.
When the Son of God came to this earth, he announced the arrival of the kingdom. It’s not pie-in-the-sky and far off in the future. It is now.
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Thanks be to God, he has remembered each one of us and we are in his kingdom, now. Today.
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