The One True Story
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The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Luke 23:27-43.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Today is the Last Sunday of the Church Year, where our attention is pushed to the last things. All things promised will be completely fulfilled in Jesus’ glorious return. The resurrection of the dead will bring body and soul together. There will be a new heaven and a new earth. Sin and Satan will be dispatched forever. All God’s people will be taken to live in His eternal presence.
However, the readings for today also draw us back to the cross, when Jesus fulfills the ancient prophecies of the Christ, the Chosen One. He delivers His people from darkness and into His kingdom, through the forgiveness of sins, because He is the firstborn from the dead (Colossians 1:13-14, 18). Those in the book of remembrance are God’s treasured possession, for they feared the Lord, served Him, and esteemed His name (Malachi 3:16-18).
Each of our readings describes, points forward to, or points back to the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, what some have called “The Greatest Story Every Told.” For our purposes today we will discuss it under the theme: “The One True Story,” for it is the one story at the root of all good stories.
Most of the time when you tell a story, you start at the beginning. But occasionally, good storytellers are able to reverse the order. An example of this is the motion picture from a few years ago, “The Illusionist.” It opens with the closing scene, and then goes back to fill in the details. Even though you first see how it ends, it’s only when the action goes back to the very beginning that you could see how every little detail leads to that final conclusion. All of the conflict, characters, irony, and reversal of fortune fill in the blanks to complete a wonderful, engaging story.
“The One True Story” is the same. We know the happy ending: God’s promises are fulfilled on the Last Day. Jesus will come back. Those who have died will have their physical bodies rise up and live again. Those who still live will be transformed in the twinkling of an eye. On this Judgment Day, all who have believed in Jesus enter into the final glorious heavenly life forever.
Like any good story, there is also tension and conflict in “The One True Story.” Jesus is mocked by others. We are too. The happy ending is ridiculed. Our faith is challenged. “How can you believe that Jesus is coming back?” the scoffers ask. “It’s been so long. Perhaps He’s forgotten about you.”
Death makes even a greater mockery of our faith. The body stops breathing; the heart stops beating. Death mocks us: “I’m it! I’m all you have to look forward to. I’ll swallow you up and take you away from everything you love and want and hope for. Jesus can’t do anything about it. I’ll claim every one of you sooner or later. Believe that, not that Jesus stuff.”
The women of Jerusalem hear death’s mocking and feel its sting. Their loud, poignant grief fills the air as Jesus walks to His death. The scene is not the polite tears shed in a sterile funeral home, but the deep sobs and anguish of those who see death in all of its ugliness. These women are the only ones who truly grieve for Jesus on this dark day of death. Yet knowing what lies ahead for them, Jesus tells them that their tears would be better shed for themselves than Him.
The soldiers mock Jesus. They ridicule Him as the King of the Jews who can’t even save Himself. Their mean laughter, derision, and crude humor provide dramatic irony: Jesus hangs naked and open to the mocking: “If You are King of the Jews, save Yourself!” they challenge. But by not saving Himself, He is saving them, for they are included in His words of forgiveness: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” He suffers and dies for their sins, too!
The juxtaposition of Jesus’ remarkable absolution and His nakedness on the cross accents the Great Reversal. Things are not what they appear to be. The gracious power of God to save is hidden in the suffering and weakness of Christ on the cross. Throughout His ministry, Jesus has shown mercy to all, including God’s enemies. Now, He hangs naked on the cross accused and condemned as a criminal and an enemy of God. But in that merciless humiliation and great injustice, God will be glorified, His justice fulfilled, and mankind will be redeemed.
Ironically, Scripture is fulfilled here, in part, by gambling. Gambling relies on chance or fate, but Scripture shows that nothing in Jesus’ journey to the cross is a result of chance or “fate.” It all is part of God’s unchangeable plan. But the soldiers are ignorant of prophecy; they “know not what they do.” Indeed they, like Pilate would have no authority over Him if it were not given by the Father.
Jesus is not merely crucified, (if you can even say such a thing) but He is also deprived of His last scant earthly claims—His garments and His human dignity. But in submitting Himself to such treatment, He secures for those who believe in Him, what is rightfully His: an eternal inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, and the robes of righteousness with which they may cover their sin.
The Jewish leaders mock Jesus. Unbelieving and vindictive, smug and confident, their fear is turned into bravado. This King isn’t so dangerous any more. The Lion of Judah is caged and it appears that He no longer has any teeth. They see Jesus as weak and pathetic, a fraud who claimed to be the Christ. Their mocking is the same as the soldiers, an ironic denial of Christ as the Chosen One of God because He doesn’t save Himself. You can see them wagging their heads. But you have to wonder if fear isn’t still lurking under the surface. They’ve heard and even seen Jesus’ miracles. If He were suddenly to break free in power, no amount of Roman military might could save them. Yet their hatred and open rejection of the Christ is just as evident as the women’s grief and love.
The criminal also mocks Jesus. You can hear the contempt, defiance, and sarcasm as he joins in:H
“Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” Like the others, his mocking proclaims that Jesus is the Savior, at the very moment his hopeless unbelief leads him away from that salvation.
Then, we have the reversal of fortunes in “The One True Story.” The penitent criminal receives Paradise, and so do we sinful sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. Broken and beaten, he sees himself as the lost and condemned man he truly is. Honest admission of his guilt leaves him with only one hope. He turns to Jesus and sees more than a dying man, more than the blood and agony that others see. He sees the Messiah!
How difficult it has to be. His eyes look at Jesus in moments of His complete humiliation and torment. But in an act of faith, he places himself into the outstretched arms of the Christ. He sees Jesus as righteous, as the One who can save him. He confesses Jesus as the King, someone who has a kingdom he wants to live in. He receives more than he could ever imagine—Paradise.
This penitent criminal is the first to enter the fullness of the kingdom that Jesus is now preparing and inheriting. This penitent criminal, on the brink of death and hell, is the first converted by Jesus’ announcement that sin is forgiven by virtue of the cross. He is the first to embrace Jesus as the One who saves others, the Christ, and the King of the Jews. Not having the luxury of time, his catechesis is short and to the point. It comes through watching Jesus’ passion, hearing His words of absolution even as the Lord is cruelly mocked and beaten.
This criminal first expresses his repentance by confessing his sin. He fears God (unlike the other criminal), and he recognizes that his tortuous death is just punishment for the sins he has committed. He stands under the judgment of God’s wrath, and he confesses that his guilt merits such punishment.
But combined with his confession of sin is his confession of faith: His confession that “this man has done nothing wrong” is the fifth pronouncement of Jesus’ innocence since the trials began. But this is the first time that Jesus’ innocence is announced by a believer. To declare Jesus innocent or righteous is tantamount to declaring that God’s plan of salvation in His righteous Son is just—and that righteousness—justification—comes through that plan.
But he goes on to voice an even stronger confession: “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” Perhaps the inscription on the cross and the taunts of the soldiers, both of which designate Jesus as King, informed this man’s request regarding Jesus’ entrance into His kingdom. Whatever Word the Holy Spirit used to bring about this man’s faith, his request reveals a remarkable understanding of the now/not yet tension to God’s kingdom. Now, on the cross, Jesus is King, and now in His Word, He bestows forgiveness. Not yet has Jesus entered into His kingdom of glory—yet Jesus’ Word of forgiveness now opens the door for this dying criminal to enter the kingdom, too, when it comes.
The penitent criminal won’t have to wait long. The dying “King of the Jews” who “saved others” says to him: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” With these words, Jesus invites the man to participate in this forgiveness forever. Jesus’ words incorporate the man into the body of believers in Christ and invite him to the ongoing feast of heaven. The penitent criminal is grafted into Jesus’ passion, which Jesus is experiencing at that very moment.
Much has been written about what “Paradise” might mean. But the key to its significance is the divine presence: “with Me,” where Jesus dwells. To be with the Lord is to be in Paradise. Certainly, this idea includes the return on the Last Day to the righteous condition of Adam and Eve before the fall, as in Eden, when they could fully dwell in the presence of God without sin. But for those who confess Jesus as the innocent King and Savior, such life in Paradise begins now.
The mockery can’t take Jesus’ words away. Death is swallowed up in this gift of Paradise. It’s not that Jesus couldn’t save Himself as the mockers claimed, but that He wouldn’t. He needed to take our punishment on the cross, so that on the Last Day we would be judged innocent, free to enter into His presence with body and soul joined together forever. The sign is not ridicule, but “The One True Story.” Jesus is the King who saves us because He did not save Himself.
Three days later, the women who had watched Him die are the first ones to see Him mock death. The grave is empty. It could not hold Jesus. He destroys the power of death over us. Death is swallowed up in victory, and because His body rose from the dead, so will ours on the Last Day. He silences those who make fun of Him. Their mockery will die away and never be heard again. But Jesus lives and His words will never fade away, and so we look forward to that day of fulfillment when He silences all mockery with our final resurrection from the dead.
We enjoy the rest of ‘The One True Story” as we listen to Jesus’ words of promised Paradise. A wise prayer for each of us every day is “Lord, remember me in Your kingdom.” Jesus answers our prayer the same way He did the criminal: He promises us Paradise. Just listen!
At the baptismal font, He says: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” These are words of promise, of Paradise given, and of the final resurrection to come.
In the confession and absolution: You admit, just like the criminal, that you are broken and helpless. “I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto Thee all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended Thee and justly deserved Thy temporal and eternal punishment.” Then come words of promise, of forgiveness and salvation, of Paradise given, of the final resurrection to come through the mouth of His called and ordained servant: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins.”
At the altar: You kneel and take a small wafer and a sip of wine. “Take, eat; this the true body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, which is given for you. Take, drink, this is the true blood of Jesus given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.” These are words of promise, of Paradise given, of the final resurrection to come. These words are for you!
We know the end of the story. The Lord promises Paradise, then a final resurrection and eternal kingdom with Him, with Jesus, with our King. Until then we keep praying just as the penitent criminal did, “Lord, remember me.” And He does remember you! Because Jesus would not save Himself, you are saved. Because Jesus suffered and died on the cross you have eternal life. Because Jesus redeemed you with His holy, precious blood, and His innocent suffering and death, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.