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“The King Who Never Turned His Back on Anyone”
Dr. David Evans
November 20, 2016
Colossians 1:11-22; Luke 23:33-43
May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled* you* to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.*
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in* him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in* him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled* in his fleshly body* through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him—
Today is the last Sunday in the Christian year, a Sunday that we variously know as Christ the King Sunday or the Reign of Christ Sunday. It is an odd Sunday in the Christian liturgical year. Here we are, poised on the Sunday before Thanksgiving and only a week away from the 1st Sunday in Advent.
Our long fall journey with Jesus is now over. It has come to a horrifying conclusion. We are standing on a God-forsaken hill outside Jerusalem…the city dump called “Golgotha.” Before us are three crosses and three broken and bloody bodies.
Listen for the Word of God as it is recorded in the 23rd chapter of the gospel of Luke:
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus* there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah* of God, his chosen one!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him,* ‘This is the King of the Jews.’
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding* him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah?* Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘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.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into* your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
In her book A Sunday in the Thirties, Barbara Hinchcliffe tells about her Uncle Frank. Uncle Frank was a New York City atheist…perhaps the worst kind of atheist one could possibly be. Uncle Frank had a gorgeous Mexican mistress who kept trying to win him back to faith. Frank always resisted these efforts to save his soul. But one day Frank, in spite of his disbelief, made a profound confession of faith. He told his mistress:
“All I know about Jesus is, he never used a gun,
he never had no use for money; he never burned anyone at the stake;
and by God he never turned his back on anyone.”
“By God he never turned his back on anyone.” Think about our journey with Jesus the past few months. As we followed the Jesus of Luke’s gospel and time and again we are astounded that Jesus “never turned his back on anyone.”
Now as we stand at the foot of the cross looking at the broken and battered body of the one proclaimed as the Son of God we remember back over the journey. We remember a woman of the city, whom Luke tells us “was a sinner.” She brought an alabaster flask of expensive ointment to the home of a Pharisee. She was weeping and wet Jesus’ feet with her tears and anointed Jesus’ feet with the ointment. And one of the Pharisees said to himself:
“If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman
this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:39)
And yet it is obvious to us standing there watching that Jesus did know exactly what sort of woman this was. For we were there. We were there when Jesus told the story of a poor, disgusting man named Lazarus…not just poor but full of sores that dogs would lick. Jesus loved him. We were there when ten horribly disfigured lepers surrounded Jesus asking to be healed of a disease in which the flesh literally rotted off the bones. Jesus healed them. (Luke 17:11ff) We were there when a hated tax collector came to the Temple to pray one day, and we heard his honest prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And Jesus declared him justified. And we were there when Jesus commanded Zacchaeus to come down from the sycamore tree while the righteous in Jericho complained: “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” (18:13).
Do you see? Is it obvious to you yet? “All I know about Jesus is…by God he never turned his back on anyone.” And perhaps to make the point finally and perfectly clear we now stand at the foot of the cross and one more time a sinner is touched by Jesus. A criminal. As hopeless a human as ever lived.
Who was this ex-con “who in all probability had never said grace, much less (ever did) anything to deserve it?” (Max Lucado, No Wonder They Call Him the Savior, p. 16). We do not know. But on the last day of his life he is finally getting what he deserves and he turns to the broken and battered carpenter from Galilee hanging beside him and with his lungs gasping for air pleads:
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Something tells him that even though all he had was a prayer, he has finally met the One to whom he should pray. “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”
And once again Jesus looks upon one who had been cast on the refuse heap of human history and once again Jesus has compassion:
“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Why did Jesus do that? What in the world did Jesus gain by promising this criminal a place in Paradise? Could it possibly be that one last time…even as the cross was draining the life out of him…Jesus wants to demonstrate the central defining quality of his life? That he never turned his back on anyone. Even on a criminal who that day would learn more about grace than a thousand Christians. No one looking on that day would have given him a prayer. But in the end…that is all he has. And it was enough.
So here we are on this Christ the King Sunday at the end of another year. And once again we find our King, our Savior, our Lord, hanging on a cross and even there not turning his back on anyone. And the world looking in at us must wonder why we Christians put so much faith in such a hopeless and helpless and pathetic and forlorn figure. We look at the world around us…we look at our own lives…and it would be easy to despair.
Some years ago I was at a meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church and went to the alumni lunch for Princeton Seminary where both Dick and I received our theological education. The speaker that day was the then president of the Seminary, Tom Gillespie. Dr. Gillespie told of the day he had lunch with Jim Andrews, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, who had recently been killed in a tragic accident. Dr. Gillespie told that he and Jim spent most of their lunch detailing the miseries of being a Presbyterian in our day and time. A denomination losing members and churches. Endless controversies and divisions. A loss of influence everywhere we turn. The longer they talked, the darker things looked and the more despairing the situation seemed and the less hope they could imagine. Finally, exhausted from their visit, Dr. Gillespie said to Jim Andrews: “There just doesn’t seem to be any hope.” And with that there was a long, long silence while they contemplated the hopelessness. Then, unexpectedly, the silence was broken when Jim Andrews said: “And then there’s Jesus…”
If you have ever felt hopeless and if you have ever felt forsaken and if you have ever been consumed by an overwhelming sense of despair, the gospel, the good news, tells us again and again and again: turn to Jesus. And if you don’t remember anything else about the gospel as we make the turn from Christ the King hanging on a cross back to Jesus the infant born in a stable, one thing never changes: This Jesus, this King, never turns his back on anyone.