The Last Sunday of the Church Year, November 24, 2019

Gospel Luke 23:27-43

Vision Refocused

When we cannot see well, we go to the eye doctor and get our eyes checked. As we look through all the various machines, the optometrist or ophthalmologist tries different lenses to correct our vision until we can see clearly again.

When the Church needs to refocus her vision, she goes to Good Friday. There we can see clearly again. We see the enormity of our sin. We see the enormity of our Savior’s love. We see the Old Testament fulfilled. We see the promise of the Last Day. Good Friday is the lens through which the Church looks to see everything in right focus. We are neither nearsighted (only concerned about here and now) nor farsighted (only concerned about the end)—we see past, present, and future all through the lens of Jesus’ love and forgiveness.

So in case you came into the service this morning wondering if perhaps we have our Gospel readings mixed up this is the explanation for why we are hearing of St. Luke’s Gospel account of the crucifixion on this Sunday. We are at the end of the church year now looking right into Advent, and as we start again toward the great church celebrations of the Nativity we need to make sure we are viewing all of these events through the right lens. Good Friday is the right lens. The events of Good Friday bring to fruition the events of Christmas Eve. The baby who lies in a manger is destined to hang on the cross for the sins of the world. He comes into the world in the most humble of circumstance, born where livestock are kept in a small town in the Judean countryside. Surely not the stuff of royalty. And when He is crucified the religious authorities and the soldiers mock and sneer at Him, and all the people gathered there ask the same question: if you are who you say you are, then why don’t you do something about this? How could this happen? Where is your kingdom now, Jesus of Nazareth?

The kingdom is right there. The kingdom which Christ is born to bring is now fully revealed on that cross. There are two thieves hanging there on crosses along with Jesus. Like them, Jesus is treated as a criminal. But this is the fulfillment of prophecy: the prophet Isaiah writes, “he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.”1 One criminal brings forth the same words as the scoffers and mockers who are assemble below watching the unfolding of events. St. Luke says he “railed at him,” the word here is literally blaspheme, which means to revile and slander God, “saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’”2 He follows the lead of the soldiers and religious authorities in wickedness and unrepentance. 

But if Jesus has done nothing wrong why, is He there? Why is He subject to this mockery and suffering? Because He is our great High Priest, who hangs on the cross not only as the one who brings the sacrifice before God for the remission of sins but is in His very flesh the needed sacrifice, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Why is He there? Because our sins could not be atoned for and taken away in any other way. So He offers His Body and Blood for our sake, and in praying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”3 He not only prays for the mocker and scoffers who stand there that day but He prays for all poor miserable sinners. St. Peter tells us, “23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”4 He prays, He offers, for you.

The other condemned man on the other side of Jesus follows a different course. He says of our Lord, “This man has done nothing wrong.”5 Indeed this is true, for “22He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.”6 But the thief knows that his own sentence of condemnation is just, he knows that he has sinned and that he must in fact die for his sins.  So the thief knows and confesses the glory of the Saviour, and heaps burning coals on the pride of those who stand there mocking. He does not hang upon the cross with any remaining notion of boasting before God or a claim to justification on the basis of good works.  You see now that the cross is the lens to see the kingdom clearly. This is what the thief believes and confesses, by faith: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”7 Jesus comes into His kingdom on the cross. This confession opens paradise. Christ converted that thief on the cross into a saint.  He doesn’t leave him to remain and to perish in his sins.  By this very deed Christ shows us what the Redeemer sought and acquired by His sufferings, and what He accomplished by the priestly prayer and sacrifice which He brings forth on the cross. He took sin upon Himself, not because He delights in sin, neither because He would have us remain under sin and continue in iniquity. No, He suffers for sinners so that they need not go on in sin, and so that they may become converted and bear fruit.  This is the way of repentance.  This thief hangs upon that cross accused of his sins, but still he trusted in the Lord Jesus.  Still he believed that God, through Him and for His sake, would forgive his sins and give him life eternal.

True, all that meets the eyes are nails and wood, and blood. All we see are gaping wounds and anguish. This is a stumbling block. What kind of kingdom is this?  What kind of King is this? To this St. Paul says, “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”8 We proclaim Him King because we see Him crucified. Christ laid down His life, as He said He would, and so we pray along with the thief, “Jesus, remember me.” Through the eyes of faith we see the power and glory of the kingdom, and we see Jesus raised up on the cross as the same One who is now lifted up to sit at the right hand of God. And even as He is there now He is still with us, remembering us in His kingdom, our brother and our one mediator before our Heavenly Father.

“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”9 Once again the last becomes first. Once again Jesus shows that He came to offer Himself for sinners, not for the righteous. “You will be with me in paradise” are words which are heard only in faith and repentance, like the thief. Those who would try to enter the kingdom of God on the basis of a holy life and good works are stuck in a terrible deception. The death Christ dies is not for His own sake, but for ours. Upon the cross Jesus gives all who believe access to the entrance to the kingdom, Paradise, which Adam had previously closed. What is this Paradise? This is the place where we can once again have the full enjoyment of the tree of life. The Revelation given to St. John Jesus says, “To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’”10 There is no more old evil serpent to tempt and torment, and there is freedom from all suffering, affliction, and death.

That’s what the tree of the cross does for us, it opens again the way to Paradise. Jesus in His flesh brings back that which was lost.  We know that in Adam “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.”11 But when Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary the angels in heaven proclaimed the glory of God in the highest and peace on earth because now the way back had been shown. In His earthly ministry Jesus restored Paradise, saying “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”12 For where Jesus is, there is Paradise, because where Jesus is there is restoration and redemption and rest. 

In His Words to the thief on the cross He makes that promise. For the thief the promise was realized on that very day. For us we wait in hopeful expectation that all these things will be just as our Lord has said, and that He awaits us. When that day is we don’t know. It might be a long time from now, it might be very soon. But whenever and however it is, is will be a day of joy, for then your soul will taken into the bosom of our heavenly Father by Christ while your body awaits Christ’s coming and the resurrection of the dead. But even today when you hear the Gospel preached and your sins absolved in the stead and by the command of our Lord He says to you “You will be with me in Paradise.” When you receive the Body and the Blood of our Lord He says to you “You will be with me in Paradise.” Do you see how the cross shows us the kingdom? As we step into Advent to herald the coming of our King we looks to the cross and Good Friday to make sure our vision is properly focused, focused on the kingdom of heaven proclaimed in the cross. We see most clearly in the innocent, bitter suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ the grace and mercy of our Heavenly Father given to us.

1 Is 53:12.

2 Lk 23:39.

3 Lk 23:34.

4 1 Pe 2:23.

5 Lk 23:41.

6 1 Pe 2:22.

7 Lk 23:42.

8 1 Co 1:23–24.

9 Lk 23:43.

10 Re 2:7.

11 Ro 5:12.

12 Mt 11:5.

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