Luke 23:33 – 43 Becoming like a child OR a cranky old Man


A sermon preached on November 21st, 2010 — Christ the King Sunday — based upon Luke 23:33 – 43

There is a great irony to this passage, and to the name we give this particular Sunday, in which we proclaim that Jesus is King.   Even though we don’t have many real kings left in this world, we know enough about how kings are supposed to look.   They tower above their subject from thrones in which they sit wearing the finest clothes, wealthy beyond measure.  The king portrayed at this critical moment in the Gospels has had his clothes ripped off him;  naked, he hangs on a cross, the soldiers rolling dice for his garments.  He has nothing at all.

Kings are supposed to have the power to make his subjects do pretty much whatever he demands; this king appear to be absolutely powerless, mocked by those at hand.   Nonetheless, this is the claim at the heart of Christianity: that this man is indeed the king of humanity.

The earliest faith affirmation of the church was Jesus is Lord. In those days, subjects of the Roman Emperor were required to declare that “Ceasar is Lord.”   To proclaim Jesus as Lord was to place oneself in direct rebellion to this claim.  The king is the one to whom we owe our allegiance — the one to whom, in the end, we are accountable.

As Jesus hung there on the cross in terrible agony, the claim that he is the true king seemed preposterous.

And yet, if the distinguishing characteristic of this king is his love — a holy love never before known in a human being in such purity, then perhaps the claim is not so preposterous as it seems.

Our best point of identification we have to the problem Jesus was up against is in our own imperfect attempts at love.  The was a sad story in the local news this week of 51 year old man in Rockaway who shot his wife three times.  News reports indicate that he had a history of being abusive, and that the wife had recently issued him divorce papers.

Deep, deep down I’m sure the man wanted his wife’s love, but in his arrogance,  he couldn’t acknowledge that love isn’t something you can coerce.  When he failed to get her love, he fell back on the violence that bolsters the kings of this world.   But love can’t be coerced; it can only be invited.

Those of us who are parents know the limits of our love.  We can exercise our power to try and shape their behavior. We can provide positive reinforcements for good behavior, and negative reinforcements for bad behavior.  We can do our best as this sort of thing, and yet, in the end, we remain powerless. We cannot control our children’s hearts.  Will the child take what they have been given and live a good and productive life?  After all is said and done, will they even love us?  In the end, it’s up to the child.   It’s an old cliché:  You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.

There is a mystery there deep inside the soul that involves our God-given freedom, a freedom we can embrace or abuse — it’s up to each of us.

So if this were a king whose ultimate focus was on the mystery of the freedom of our individual hearts, then he knows he cannot coerce.  He can only make an appeal to our hearts, knowing the subjects may first feel compelled to rebel against the love.  And a king who is unwilling to use force or coercion – unwilling to take up a sword or take out the check book or take out the pistol — well, this is exactly the sort of place you might expect to find him ending up, dying at the hands of his subjects who have chosen to go their own way.

To draw home the point about human freedom, Luke tells us that there were two others who crucified with Jesus that day — two thieves who, in certain sense, represent the two paths laid out before us.   They are both men who have failed during their life times to live out the life for which they were created.

And yet here in this moment, as they reach the end of their lives, they are presented with a choice:  To reach out to the King who loves them, or to reject him, mock him.

One accepts the invitation, one doesn’t.

We are those thieves dying on the cross.  We, too are dying; it’s just a matter of time.

One of the things that tends to happen as we age is the realization that in various ways we too have failed to live the life we were created to live.  We have hurried through life, cheapening life.  We have wounded people as we’ve made our way through life.  We haven’t fulfilled our potential.  We all have fallen short of the glory of God.

On the cross, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

It is prayer intended for all of us.

We like to think we know what we’re doing in life, and why we’re doing it in our lives, but in large extent, we really are clueless.

In David’s recent class, he made the comment, “the older I get, the less I know.”  There were nods of acknowledgment around the room.  Funny how that works.

As we go through the process of aging in this life, there are two basic paths we can take.

One is to claim we really do know what we’re doing.  It involves becoming gradually more rigid, set in our ways over time – more judgmental of others.  Along the way we grow bitter.  If only the people around us –  and for that matter, the Creator of the Universe – had followed our directions, well, things would have turned out better.

Along with the bitterness comes fear, because with every passing year, we realize our kingdoms are falling, we are being dethroned.  It’s only a matter of time.

The other path is to let ourselves be humbled by life.  To own up to the fact that we don’t know as much as we thought we did.  To recognize some of the ways in which we were personally responsible for a lot of conflict and misery that we and others have experienced.

We realize that there were things we did which, at the time, we were quite confident were right, and yet, over time it was revealed to be all wrong.  And then there were times when we stumbled into something, perhaps quite unwillingly, which over time was revealed to be a great blessing.

We realize that we’re not in charge of this show.  We begin to resemble, in a certain way, little children who know that life is a mystery of which we are not in charge.

Probably with some thought most of us can recognize times in our lives when we took one path, and then another.   In one moment we may more resemble the bitter and grumpy old man or woman;     at others, we are more like the child ready to receive Jesus’ invitation to sit on his lap.

It’s worth asking ourselves, which is the more dominant theme?

The story of the thief who reached out to Jesus is full of mercy and grace.  It is declares that it is never too late to find ourselves in that place of utter humility where we say,  “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  We want to be in that place where we can hear Jesus say,  “This day, you will be with me in paradise.”

The real king is Jesus, and we owe our allegiance to him, but he is a king governs with a holy love.  In the end we are accountable to him.  We will stand before him.

The people who have undergone Near Death Experiences often speak of experiencing something referred to as a “life review.”  It isn’t the moments of great accomplishment in the eyes of the world that flash before them.  No, it is the simple human interactions, where they practiced either cruelty or kindness.   They undergo this review in the presence of a love beyond anything they have experienced in this world.   It is painful to be forced to see the ways they have hurt others, but the LOVE isn’t there to condemn them, but rather it seems intent on driving home the point that their life was a gift and that it truly mattered.  They say it’s a hard thing to watch, to stand before the true King and grasp the extent of the hard-heartedness they often exhibited in the presence of the one who gave then life with no intention other than love.