Rebecca thought it was time for her family to expand their social circle. So she and her husband David invited a bunch of different people for dinner. But early on, things weren’t looking so good.
Ralph, an insurance salesman, monopolized the conversation with a lengthy account of recent litigation he was involved with. Since two other guests were lawyers, Rebecca was becoming increasingly uneasy.
“In the end, Ralph concluded, “you know who got all the money.”
Rebecca and David cringed.
“The lawyers!” Ralph shouted.
There was embarrassed silence at the table. Rebecca’s heart was pounding until the wife of one lawyer said, “Oh, I so love a story with a happy ending.”
Every year on Christmas Day, we read Isaiah 9:2-7. Verses six and seven are:
“For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.”
These are words that were written 700 years before the birth of Christ. For those 700 years, the people were waiting and watching for this king to come. Several individuals rose in prominence that some believed were this long-awaited king, but in the end, they were disappointed. There was no happy ending, but then a spark of hope. A message came to a young woman.
From Luke, chapter one: “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.” It is the opening of the scene of the Annunciation. Using the words that Isaiah had spoken 700 years prior, Gabriel said to Mary, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
The child grew, and many began to follow him and believe he was the long-awaited king. In John’s Gospel, we are told that there was one incident—although it likely happened more than once—where the people gathered around Jesus to take him by force and make him king (cf. John 6:15), but he avoided them. And then there was the day he arrived in Jerusalem. The people were waving palm branches and laying down their cloaks so that the donkey Jesus rode upon would have them to walk upon. The waving of palm branches was a sign of royalty, and the laying down of cloaks symbolized the peoples’ submission to a king, who they obviously believed was Jesus, because, in addition to those symbols, they shouted, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” A happy ending in the making that turned sour quickly.
“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.”
I know. Too much reading this morning, but Cardinal Schönborn says it best: “It sounds like mockery when at the end of his Gospel Luke the Evangelist has to recount what became of all the great hopes from this Savior of his people. His throne has turned into the Cross, that place of torture; for company, he has two robbers, one to the right and one to the left of him. The homage he receives is the mockery of those who have set this ‘throne’ up for him, and as the ultimate in nastiness, a notice over the head of the man who is dying in such torment states the reason for his crucifixion: ‘This is the King of the Jews.’” (Jesus, the Divine Physician: Reflections on the Gospel During the Year of Luke, p.158)
After all those years of waiting and hoping for the promised king yet, when he arrived… they put him to death. We know the rest of the story, but if we put ourselves in the place of those who witnessed the crucifixion, then this was certainly not a happy ending to the story. Instead, it was the worse possible ending. And not only did they put him to death, but in the end, they all failed to understand who he was.
When Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” he wasn’t simply asking the Father to pity them. In an unemotional way, Jesus was saying, “They truly don’t understand.” They failed to comprehend. And it wasn’t just the religious leaders or the Romans who failed to understand. It was also his followers, even the disciples.
Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus told the disciples about all that would happen, but the Scriptures say, “But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” After his resurrection, Jesus meets the two dejected disciples on the road to Emmaus. They say, “Oh, we had so much hope in this Jesus. He was going to redeem Israel”—essentially, “He was going to be our king.” And what did Jesus say to them? “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” “Father, forgive them… they just don’t know.” But there was one. One person who finally understood.
“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.’
No one, from the greatest to the least, understood who Jesus was except for a single condemned man who, knowing he was dying, saw in the face and person of Jesus, his Eternal King. In seeing him, he asked only to be remembered. He didn’t want to have lived his life—flawed though it was—and be forgotten. He just wanted Jesus, one person, to remember that he had lived, and by simply asking, he was not only remembered but given access to Paradise, the eternal kingdom of our God. Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is the last Sunday of the church year. Next Sunday is the First Sunday of Advent, and we begin the story again. We’ve spent this year primarily hearing about Jesus from Luke’s perspective. Next year it will be Matthew’s.
In our travel through Luke, with all that we’ve read and heard, there are a great many lessons. Enough theology to fill libraries. John said at the end of his Gospel, “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” That is true. We can make the Gospel deep and even difficult to understand, but if we were to ask Luke, “What were the most important things you told us?” He might remind us of the prayer of the tax collector, who, standing in the Temple, would not look up to Heaven and, while beating his breast, prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And I think he would also remind us of the words of the thief that we heard today, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” For it is not the depth of our understanding or any works—small or great—that allow us entry into the Eternal Kingdom. No. Instead, it is our willingness to come before Jesus—before God—and acknowledge our need for His mercy and then to see in the face and person of the crucified king, the Eternal King. The moment we pray and submit ourselves to Christ Jesus’ reign over our lives is the moment the angels sing, and Jesus speaks: “Behold, I make all things new,” and the gates of the Kingdom of God are opened to us.
“Oh, I so love a story with a happy ending.”
Let us pray: O Lord God, King of heaven and earth, may it please You to order and to hallow, to rule and to govern our hearts and our bodies, our thoughts, our words, and our works, according to Your law and in the doing of Your commandments, that we, being helped by You, may here and hereafter worthily be saved and delivered by You, O Savior of the world, who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen.
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