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Seeing What the Thief Saw

San Williams

November 21, 2010
Luke 23:33-43

11-21-2010 Sermon Christ the King Sunday is the last Sunday of the church’s liturgical year.  It may also be the most problematic Sunday of the church year.  For one thing, we Americans don’t resonate with kings.  In fact, our country was founded in rebellion against a king.  We live in a democracy where we elect our leaders, thank you very much.  Images of power, invincibility, wealth and privilege cling to the term King like filings to a magnet.  For these and other reasons, proclaiming Christ the King is fraught with problems. But as our reading this morning makes clear, these problems do not originate with us.  No, they were first heard at a place called the Skull, where Jesus was crucified.  Everything that transpired on that Friday seemed to contradict our claim that Jesus is King.  

Consider how our reading began.  “Two others also, who were criminals, we led away to be put to death with him.”  You’d think a king would at least merit his own execution.  But Jesus was not even given the courtesy of a solo martyrdom.  He was simply a last-minute addition to the scheduled crucifixion of two criminals. Jesus’ whole life was without distinction.  He was born in an animal stable.  He lived among outcasts, the poor and despised. True to form, his death was as ignominious as his life. Wouldn’t a king stand out, rule from on high, be above the riff-raff?  Yet even in death, Jesus was surrounded by the least and the lost, which was the last place you’d expect to find a king.

 And what king forgives his enemies and prays for those who abuse him? Yet as the soldiers, the leaders, the authorities led him to his death, he prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”  Jesus had taught that we should forgive our enemies and do good to those who persecute us. Now even on the cross, Jesus practiced what he preached.  Not surprisingly, the soldiers who were around the cross found such behavior totally un-king like.  From a soldiers’ perspective, a ruler’s legitimacy is in direct proportion to the power he is able to command.  Kings dispatch armies; kings retaliate when attacked; kings defend themselves and their country.  Yet when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, he offered no resistance.  When they beat him, he lifted not a hand in self-defense.  Now he hung on a cross, utterly powerless.  No wonder the soldiers mocked Jesus.  In their view, the suggestion that this crucified Jew could be a king was ludicrous.  

Of course, the soldiers weren’t the only ones who were having a problem accepting Jesus as some kind of king.  Their shouts of derision were joined to those of the leaders and to one of the thieves on the cross. “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” shouted the leaders. “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” cried the soldiers.  And one of the criminals who was crucified with Jesus likewise derided him, saying, “Are you not the Messiah?  Save yourself and us!”  These three taunts at the end of Jesus’ life echo the three temptations by Satan at the beginning of his ministry.  In both cases, the complaint is basically the same:  If you are the Messiah, do something to prove it!  The problem all along has been that Jesus doesn’t act like the Messiah is expected to act.  All the questions, the doubts and out-right rejections that accompanied him during his life are only magnified at his death. Most of those gathered around the cross were full of derision and scorn. They saw a Savior who could not save himself or others, a king who was powerless to rule, God’s chosen one who was left to die alone in agony and defeat.

But inexplicably, one man saw something more.  The second thief countered the prevailing ridicule and disbelief with penitence and faith. In one sense, this second thief only saw what others saw—a dying man on a cross. He had no information others lacked.  Yet he prayed, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  He asked this even though at that moment there was not a shred of evidence that such a kingdom exists, ever has existed, or ever will exit. His request was so abrupt, so out of the blue, so without evidence, that some interpreters have speculated that he must have had some prior knowledge of Jesus back in Nazareth.  Or perhaps they had met the night before in Pilate’s prison, had talked, and one thing had led to another. Maybe, but these speculations are useless..

What was it that this dying thief saw that so many others could not?  I believe that what he saw was love—a love so deep and pure that he wanted only to be included in it. He didn’t ask to be saved.  He made no plea for Jesus to rescue him from suffering and death.  He asked only to be remembered.  To be remembered in this sense doesn’t mean merely “to think about” or “call to mind.”  Rather the thief wanted to be re-membered, re-made, re-formed by the love of God that he glimpsed in the bruised and bloodied face of Jesus. When God remembers us, we are taken up with Jesus into the whole redemptive work of God—a work that is largely hidden in suffering. This prayer:  “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” may represent the greatest act of faith in all of scripture. 

Most of us tend to see God in the successes of life—when the cancer is cured, the war is won, some danger avoided, when we’re well-off and well-fed.  We see the hand of God in times of prosperity.  But the thief saw something more profound and more needed: He saw the love and power of God in human weakness and limitation.  Such seeing by faith alone is what Martin Luther must have meant when he defined a theologian as “one who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer must have seen what the thief saw when, moments before he was martyred, he said, “This is the end, for me the beginning of life.”  To see light in darkness, hope in despair, love in the midst of the world’s brutality; and to believe that this love, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, rules the world and conquers all is the very essence of faith.  The thief exhibite3d just such faith, and thus he uttered a prayer that echoed the words of the Psalm: “According to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!”  (Psalm 25).

And hearing this, Jesus lifted his wounded head and replied, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  Evoking Paradise on a cross seems as far-fetched as looking for the ocean in the middle of the desert.  Paradise originally meant “garden,” “park” or “forest.”  It evokes the idyllic place in the beginning where humans walked in oneness with God and each other.  But more than a place—Paradise is a restored relationship with God.  And this is what the thief experienced on the cross—forgiveness, love, peace with God.

Friends, today on the Sunday that brings our church year to an end, we make the audacious claim that the crucified Jesus is our King.  Such a claim will be met with cries of derision, skepticism and unbelief.  Some of the world’s skepticism may even reside in your head and mine.  Yet when, by God’s grace, we look at Jesus through the lens of the second thief, we see One who looks back at us with love—a love so deep that, even in our most hopeless times, we are able to glimpse the dawning of a peace and a joy as calm and refreshing as the garden called Paradise.