Our Losing King Wins Great Wars
A sermon based on Luke 23:35-43
Sunday, November 24, 2013 – Christ the King C
Who do you think of when you hear the word "greatness"? Do you think of Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks? Okay, maybe you think of Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers. Or maybe you think of the greats or yesteryear like Michael Jordan or "The Great" Wayne Gretzky? Or maybe you don't think sports, but great men who did great things for our country like Abraham Lincoln or George Washinton? Or maybe you think of a great doctor that handled your surgery so well or a great friend that has it all together? I'm guessing that when you think "greatness" you think of winners, not losers.
That's the way we work. When a team or a person is winning, we're excited. (I'm a bigger fan of the Seahawks now than I've ever been.) When they're losing we may still support them, but they don't seem quite so great. During the days and weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Centers, even his detractors called George W. Bush a picture of presidential greatness, rising to the occasion. But when it seemed like he could never win his war on terror and refused to withdraw the troops, how his approval ratings plummetted! When you win, you're popular. When you lose, you're not so great.
Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday. We celebrate how great our King is. But in our text for this morning Jesus seems anything but great. He appears to be a loser. Hanging on a cross, being tortured to death, being mocked and taunted as he dies, he seems anything but great.
And yet, appearances are deceiving. Because in losing that battle, he won the war on terror; the war against Satan, the war against sin, the war against death and hell. And so even though he appears to be a loser, he is the greatest of all. Our losing King wins great wars. He won the war by losing his life. And he wins poor sinners when their lives are lost. Listen to the great work of Christ the King recorded for us in Luke 23…
35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One." 36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, "If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself." 38 There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. 39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!"
I. He Won the War in Losing His Life
At first glance our text seems a bit misplaced, doesn't it? This should be a text for Lent or Good Friday, right? Not for Christ the King. What kind of a king is this? Jesus seems pretty weak, doesn't he? He has no throne. He has no army. His own people hated him. His own friends deserted him. Luke describes how weak he appeared…
First, the reaction of the people—some of the same people who cheered on their mighty King on Palm Sunday, now just stood there. Like the rubber-neckers driving past the gruesome car wreck, they couldn't look away. The one they once considered a winner, their champion against the Romans, now hung dying. And all they could do was gape and stare.
But for the rulers, just watching Jesus lose wasn't enough. Like the bad sport who dominates the other team and just has to rub it in afterwards, they had to taunt him. "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One." How ironic that they admit, "He saved others…" They freely admit that he was kind, loving, and helpful and did nothing to deserve this cruel fate. But they joked that he can do nothing to stop it.
Even the Roman soldiers, who had little concern for Jewish religious wars, had their fun at Jesus' expense. Luke tells us that the offer of wine vinegar wasn't an offer of compassion or sympathy, but a joke. The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, "If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself." "Here's your royal cup, your majesty. Drink up, your highness." And they too taunted this pathetic "king."
Even Pilate, who wouldn't dream of stooping to be there in person, made sure to get his taunts in. Putting the charge above the condemned man he had a double jab against both Jesus and the Jews. "There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS." This dying man was their king, the very best they the Jews could produce. He put the charge in three languages so that all who passed by could read it for themselves and see how sorry this "king" really was.
Finally, even the thieves condemned to die with Jesus had something to say. (The other gospel accounts tell us that both were initially taunting Jesus.) They too hurled their insults at him, as if hurting him more would make them hurt less.
Let's face it: Jesus looks anything but great here doesn't he? But how deceptive appearances are! How ironic that they call him "King of the Jews," "The Christ," "The Chosen One." Though he didn't seem it to them, he really was. And even though he seemed to be a loser, what a victory he was winning. But they didn't get it because it was a different kind of battle.
They all expected a physical battle between the Jews and Romans when the Messiah finally came. But Jesus was in the middle of the fiercest spiritual battle the world has ever known or ever will know. He was in single-handed combat with the allied forces of Satan, sin, death, and hell. He took sin head-on, taking every sin of mankind of all time on himself. He crushed Satan's head by letting his heel be bitten and his life taken. He destroyed the power of hell, by enduring hell on that cross. He swallowed up death by his death for us. How ironic that the rulers sneered, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One," because the Christ of God, the Chosen One, did save others precisely by refusing to save himself. And by losing, he won. By losing his life, he won the war!
And is any of this different today? Christ still appears weak for the most part, doesn't he? "After all," some taunt today, "How can you really believe you're saved from death by some guy who lived 2,000 years ago?!" or "If God is so powerful and loving, why doesn't he save us from our problems?"
But Christ is not weak. He's not powerless. It's just that he didn't come to fight the battle of politics or to end world hunger or suffering and pain in this life. He came to remove our sins and take us to life eternal. But even the way he does that appears weak!
"Water poured on a baby's head is supposed to create faith? What?!" "You call that bread and wine Jesus' body and blood? You really think that this church rite forgives your sins?!" "Reading this book of stories is really going to change my life? Yeah, right." "If there really were an all powerful God, he wouldn't come in such weak ways."
And for thinking our King really is weak, or at least for acting like he is by neglecting his powerful Word and Sacraments, we deserve to suffer the hell and the agony that he endured on the cross. We, who think we're so great, really are weak. And we deserve nothing but hell. But in his grace, Jesus didn't stop fighting when sin was paid for and hell defeated. He continues to fight to win poor sinners to him when their lives are lost to hell…
II. He Wins Poor Sinners when Their Lives Are Lost
39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" 40 But the other criminal rebuked him. "Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." 42 Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." 43 Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."
What a sad man, this poor thief. Matthew and Mark make it clear that both of the men crucified with Jesus heaped insults on him. Both had wasted their lives taking what they didn't earn and it seems by force. Both were unbelievers lost to hell.
But all of a sudden one man's tune changed. No longer did he curse Jesus or taunt him, but he defended him, praising him. What brought about such a 180 degree turn at the last minute? It must have been what he saw in Jesus that day. Maybe he was impressed by the way Jesus remained silent when any other innocent man would curse those crucifying him with choice words. Maybe it was the way Jesus took the pain and the agony, almost as if he welcomed it. Maybe it was the words of forgiveness spoken of those who tortured him.
Or perhaps he knew his Old Testament. Perhaps he recognized Psalm 22 when Jesus cried, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46) Maybe he recognized Psalm 22 being fulfilled as "they divide[d] [his] garments among them and cast lots for [his] clothing." (Psalm 22:18) Or perhaps he knew Isaiah 53, which pointed out how he would win while he appeared to be losing…
3 He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4 Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
In some way, by Jesus' words and actions this unnamed thief recognized what few others did: Jesus really was a king. When almost everyone else saw a weak, pathetic, defeated loser, this man saw his King, his hero, his Savior.
He had true faith in Jesus which he expressed in his clear confession of his own sin: "[I am] punished justly, for [I am] getting what [my] deeds deserve," and his clear confession of his Savior: "this man has done nothing wrong." 42 Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
And Jesus response? "Forget it! Now you want to turn to me? Where were you a couple of minutes ago when everyone was taunting me? Oh yeah, you were right there with them shouting your jeers and curses right with the rest! No! Forget it! You're right! You are getting what you deserve!" Well, that's what you and I might say. We might have assumed he was insincere in this last-minute deathbed confession. We may have written him off as a lost cause. But not Jesus. Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."
And thank God that that was his response, because each one of us is a "lost cause" too! If you thought to yourself, "At least I'm not as bad as that thief," or "at least I'm not as bad as those rulers and those soldiers who taunted Jesus," then I'm afraid you're guilty again. Your pride in thinking you're less of a sinner than others is just as bad as mugging someone! We are losers. We say "I'll do better next time, God, I promise," but when next time rolls around we sin again. Or we resist the sin and think "I'm so good! I don't need Jesus anymore!" How fallen we are! What losers we are in God's sight! We deserve to be lost forever in hell.
And who in their right mind would fight a battle and risk their life in order to save an enemy who hated him?! Who would willingly sacrifice his life to save someone he knew wouldn't appreciate it?! Who of you would volunteer to become a worm in order that you could be ridiculed by the other worms, tortured to death by them, sent to hell in their place to save them? What a loser you'd be right? To fight a battle for a bunch of worms, most of whom would reject you and go to hell anyway! Thank God that we have such a losing King, who gladly lost his glory in order to win sinners like us when we were hopelessly lost.
And by the seemingly weak words, water, and wine, he brought you to and keeps you in your faith. And by the might of this King, you are no longer a loser! You're forgiven! You're victorious! You're powerful! And paradise itself is yours!
Now dear friends, rejoice in your King! Praise him! Serve him! Resist the temptations you face! You have that power! Your King defeated satan and sin on the cross! Don't rely on your strength, but on his. Though he doesn't always look like a king, he is the most powerful—the greatest!—King there ever was. Trust in him and in the victory in paradise you have through him! Share your King and that powerful King will work through you. Weak as you might be, in that "weakness" is forgiveness, power, victory. You know the power of your King. In his name, dear friends, amen.