|Text: Luke 23:36-43.
The soldiers also made fun of him: they came up to him and offered him cheap wine, and said, "Save yourself if you are the king of the Jews!" Above him were written these words: "This is the King of the Jews." One of the criminals hanging there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" The other one, however, rebuked him, saying, "Don't you fear God? You received the same sentence he did. Ours, however, is only right, because we are getting what we deserve for what we did; but he has done no wrong." And he said to Jesus, "Remember me, Jesus, when you come as King!" Jesus said to him, "I promise you that today you will be in Paradise with me."
There is no doubt about it Ė there will be
a last day for this earth and for all who are living on this planet Ė there
will be a day of judgement. The Bible tells us, "On that day the heavens
will disappear with a shrill noise, the heavenly bodies will burn up and be
destroyed, and the earth with everything in it will vanish" (2 Peter 3:30).
And when will all this happen? Jesus says, "No one knows when that day or hour will come" (Mark 13:32) but be assured it will come.
Now I donít know about you, but I like living on this earth. I enjoy God's creation Ė the trees and flowers, the birds and animals, the cities, the outback, the mountains and the sea. I like being amongst people who love me and whom I love. I like eating my favourite foods, going on holidays, watching the tennis on TV and spending time with my family. Iíve got a whole lot to do yet before I get to retirement and when I do retire I want to take up again long forgotten hobbies, travel, read lots of good books and do things Iíve wanted to do for years. I enjoy life and all this talk of everything coming to an end not only scares me but also disappoints me.
Not only will the last day bring about the end of everything I enjoy on this earth but there will also be a final judgement. God will ask me how well my faith has affected my daily life. Have I given food to the hungry, a cup of water to the thirsty, or visited the sick? He will examine how faithful I have been to Jesus. He will take a close look at how well I have trusted him when the chips were down. He will scrutinise all my excuses and inspect closely how sin has ruled my decisions and I have taken wrong paths. How scary is all of that!
What hope will we have as everything we hold special and precious in this life disappears and we stand face to face with a righteous God? Where will I find help and comfort as the final day approaches? Letís not just think about the end of the world but the end of the world for each of us on the day we die? The thought of leaving everything that we have cherished and worked hard for in this life can be very depressing. We like it here Ė we donít want to leave.
So what help can we get from todayís readings to help us understand a bit more about what will happen on the last day? At first, we might wonder why a section of St Lukeís Passion narrative has been chosen for today the Last Sunday of the Church Year. We usually read that on Good Friday.
Luke and the apostle Paul see Jesus not just as a man who was wrongly condemned and badly treated. They describe him as lord and king, someone who has authority and power Ė but so different to the kings and ruler of the world.
In the history of the world, kings are usually figures of great wealth and power. They have been honoured or dishonoured because of their military and political accomplishments or failures. They lived in castles and palaces; wore extravagant robes and crowns decked with jewels; hosted lavish banquets and entertained the world's rich and famous. In history, kings and queens had little do with the ordinary people of their kingdoms. They moved about among elite while the commoners suffered hunger and disease.
In Paulís letter to the Colossians that we heard from before, the apostle goes to great lengths to emphasise that Jesus is God's Son, he is everything that God is and that through him "everything in heaven and on earth, the seen and the unseen things, including spiritual powers, lords, rulers, and authorities" were created. If he is the creator of all these then, he is also lord and king of everything in heaven and on earth. Paul goes on to say that Jesus is not only king of every part of creation, he is also head of the church; "he is the source of the bodyís life".
After he has described in length that Jesus is Lord of lords and King of kings he goes on to describe something very peculiar about this king. He died on a cross. Just grasp the magnitude of this. The King of kings and Lord of lords, God's Son, died on a horrible human instrument of torture and death. Not only that, he died for all those who are enemies of God because of the evil things they did and thought (Col 1:21).
Lukeís gospel also gives us details about this very different kind of king. You hear about it in fairy tales how a king dresses up as one of the peasants and mingles with them, in the local village. But Jesus doesnít just dress up to be like us, he is one of us. He takes on our human nature and lived among ordinary people especially sinners and outcasts, including lepers and the demon possessed. What happened to him could hardly be regarded as being kingly.
Luke tells us about a man nailed to a wooden cross between two criminals. He is weak from all the beatings; his clothes are stripped from him and soldiers gamble for his robe; he suffers the mockery of those standing around the cross. They call out, "If you are a king, then save yourself". As a joke, Pontius Pilate placed a sign above Jesusí head which read, "This is the King of the Jews".
On that hill outside Jerusalem, there was only one person who saw something in Jesus that no one else saw. In spite of the gashes in his flesh from the whip, the nails, the wounds, the blood, the nakedness and the shame, one of the criminals crucified with Jesus recognised a king. He said to Jesus, "Remember me, Jesus, when you come as King!" Jesus promised him, "Today you will be in Paradise with me".
A strange king indeed Ė suffering, weak, humiliated, despised, rejected and dying. But the death of this unlikely king made us friends with God through his death. God was going to stop at nothing to break down all barriers between him and all people. He was even prepared to let the King of king and Lord of lords die in order to make everything right again between him and us.
In his usual clear and precise way, Paul says, "By means of the physical death of his Son, God has made you his friends, in order to bring you, holy, pure, and faultless, into his presence" (1:22). Thatís worth repeating to make it sink in. "By means of the physical death of his Son, God has made you his friends, in order to bring you, holy, pure, and faultless, into his presence".
Thatís really good news in the light of God's judgement on the last day. Thereís no denying that we are sinners. Thereís no getting around the fact that right up to the last day of our life we will continue to sin in thought, word and deed. In fact, even if we die in our sleep, we will still be sinners right up until our last breath, even though we arenít conscious. The Bible makes it quite clear that our sin condemns us and we would have no chance of surviving the judgement of God on the last day. But Paul makes it clear that there is nothing to be afraid of. Christ has died for us. His death has made us friends with God again and made us holy, pure and faultless. Our sin has been wiped away. Forgiven. Forgotten. We will be welcomed into heaven.
Isnít that what happened to the man dying next to Jesus. In his moment of deepest agony, Jesus tells the criminal that his sin will no longer be held against him. "Today you will be with me in Paradise". At a moment when all would seem to be hopeless and without a future, Jesus is truly a king. He pardons and assures the man that he will be with him in Paradise. The word Ďparadiseí indicates a garden or a park, the kind a king would have. No earthly king would invite a robber to walk in his garden, but Jesus, the king, died for that man and made it possible for him to be "holy, pure, and faultless" and welcome. When we die or when the last day comes, we too will be welcomed into Paradise because Jesus has made us "holy, pure, and faultless".
If the thought of the last day of our life or the last day of everything fills you with fear then be consoled by the fact that we have a living King. Yes, he did die on the cross, but while there, he spoke of the future. Without a doubt, there is a future after death and after the end of this world. Jesus promised the man next to him, "Today you will be with me in Paradise". He promises us a future after death. On the last all the dead will be raised, and if it happens that we are those who are alive at the time of his coming, those who have been faithful to Jesus will be ushered into heaven. Once there we will wonder why on earth we had been so sad at the thought of leaving this world. Heaven will be ever so much better, in fact, better than words can describe.
The events of Good Friday have made it possible for us to feel safe and happy about the coming final day when Jesus will return. We have a servant-king who died for us and rose from the dead, who has done everything possible to ensure that we need not fear what will happen. At the end of everything, we are safe.
© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
25th November, 2001