The sun burns hot. Almost at its zenith. A cart creaks by, oxen slowly straining. A mother sways atop, covers her daughter’s curious eyes and turns away disgusted. The wheels roll almost over a disciples’ toes. He stares, tear tracks in smoke-stained cheeks, mouth agape, hands limp. He can’t look away and doesn’t understand. Sun glints and flashes in his eyes as the soldier near the crosses shifts his helmet. His gaze falls careless over bloody feet, piled clothes, nails and hammer, death. The world’s garbage, he’s come to think of these here. He slouched into his spear and peered at the sun. Almost noon. The synagogue ruler eyed the soldier with contempt and stood afar. He cast his gaze to the verdant hillsides, tassels tossing in the breeze, and adjusted his purple robe. Hooking his thumbs in his silken girdle, his chest swelled with satisfaction. They’d waited and worked and now he was dying. And with shame! Messiah, Christ…and King? Please…
The sign presided over it all, impartial. It called a name to the moment from the cross in the middle. It called all to acclaim the condemned one, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”. To some it was a joke – a mock king with thorny crown and garments of blood. For some it spoke despair – not the kind of king they had hoped, all death and failing. Others it offended – “Not my king, not ever…If he were truly a king…” And to some it was horrible irony – no glory shines from this face, despised and gory; who would joy in such a one? And yet, on Christ the King, this is the picture before our eyes. The sign over the cross, whatever the writer’s intent, proclaimed the crucified one Rex, regent, ruler. And the sign calls for your attention too, “Acclaim Him King!” it cries.
But, in what way? With what names might we call him? It might not seem so at first blush, but the reading from Luke 23 is perfect for this task. It forces us to contend with this king as he really is. This scene is the culmination of three short years of ministry and all the conflict over who the people expected Jesus of Nazareth to be. And it’s a let down, if you were expecting something different, something great. You hear it in those who spoke. The soldiers mock, but their opinion is of little value. They read those execution signs all the time. They call him like it says, “King of the Jews” – not theirs and to them no matter. Others join in with sneers and insults. The rulers – the men in charge of the Jewish synagogues, the ones who sat on the Sanhedrin council, they sneer and ridicule. They’re the shepherds who were to tend the flock of God’s people. They’re the kind Jeremiah foretold in our first lesson – who did evil. Just listen. Their words are just the same as the convict thief who says, “Aren’t you the Christ?” Perhaps his word was hopeful. The rulers’ was a denial: “…if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.”
Now you might think, if we were looking for names to acclaim him king, we might not pull words from the mouths of those who hated Jesus. And yet…ironically, their hateful and dismissive words tell it true. He is “the Christ of God, the Chosen One.” From the beginning, God had promised to send a Savior called the Christ or Messiah. God promised to anoint him with his Spirit and he had anointed Jesus so at his baptism. Rightly they called Jesus, “God’s Chosen One”. Specially chosen by God “to bring justice to the nations.” God had proclaimed a special love for his Chosen One through Isaiah the prophet: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight…” (Is 42:1) In Luke 9:35 God the Father says of Jesus at his transfiguration, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen.” This is who Jesus is. These are good names to acclaim him King. Call him the Christ of God, the Chosen One just as prophesied but remember that he is God’s Chosen One and not ours.
That’s the problem for the rulers. They just couldn’t see it. They knew the Christ was to be a king. When they’d put him on trial, they understood that Jesus claimed to be the Christ and that being the Christ meant being a king. (Lk 23:2) But when they looked at the dying Jesus, they saw no king. When they looked at the cross, they didn’t see any special love from God. Because they were looking for a king of a different kind. They were looking for the Christ, their Chosen One… I don’t know their mind, but I could guess that it wasn’t too far from yours or mine. The one who would affirm all of their choices. The one who would save himself – that is, show his mighty power in human accomplishment, some show of force that would give you reason to trust in him.
It’s the temptation for us too. If we don’t acclaim him King it’s probably because we already have a Chosen One in mind – at least a kind. We want one who will provide the rule system that will make life good or who will affirm the rules we think are right and fair. We want one who isn’t ugly to the world (or to us). We want one whose teachings aren’t hard, aren’t exclusive, aren’t out of touch. We want one who is powerful and will exercise that power against our enemies and for our interests. We want a king of our choosing often. And like them we have mocked or dismissed him.
Take up the words of one more in order to turn away these temptations you know, to leave the sins you have. It’s the thief who has come to see his own sins. He confesses, “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” This is one of the best characterizations of our King we could find on this day. When every observer, our world, and ourselves are tempted to call him something other than king because he isn’t just right to our sinful eyes – here instead is a declaration of how things are. The thief reminds that we have done all sorts of wrong and literally he says that, “[Jesus] has done nothing out of place.”
It’s not a great English translation but it makes for a good illustration. We have that saying, “A place for everything and everything in its place.” And each of us, of course, is organized and ordered to different degrees, but each of us knows when “everything is in its place”. That’s what we all want – that everything would be right, perfect, just so… And we know it when it’s not – when health fails and there’s no fixing it, when relationships are terrible, when we’re mocked because we’re connected to this king. And we’re tempted to dismiss this king when we feel like his rule isn’t providing everything just according to our order, our design… But that isn’t what God’s Chosen One is for. He comes to put everything into God’s order and design – just so – not a thing out of place. He is the One who dies and makes payment for all that we have put out of place. God’s Chosen One who “took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows…[who] 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.” (Is 53:4-5) He left the choice place to stand in our stead in death, to be crucified. In his living and dying and rising and ascending to powerful rule, God’s Chosen One supplies what we actually need – a perfect record to meet the Holy God. In him we have “redemption, the forgiveness of sins” and we belong in his kingdom. (Co 1:14)
The thief rightly calls this king Jesus and understands what it means: “God saves” from sins and death and everything else. The thief asked, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He didn’t mean, “Don’t forget me, Jesus.” That thief meant, “When you’re king, graciously look upon me – like I belong in your court, in your house, like I can stay with you where you are…” And he was probably looking ahead to a some-day far away when Jesus would rule. Jesus promised far more than he asked for, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
This King, God’s Chosen One, Jesus the Savior, provides far more than we could ask or imagine. By faith in him, God’s blessing is upon us and he remembers us – looks on us like we belong where he is. And where he is – we spend so much time trying to create a paradise here but he is giving it away. Paradise, God’s heaven – the holy city of God (from last week) where there is no night and God is our light, where there is no sin and there is no death, where God’s people serve without fear or failure, where there is life everlasting and healing of everything – where everything will be just so – not a thing out of place.
Don’t shy away or turn your heads at the sight today. Look upon the one sins have pierced, the King of the Jews dying on the cross, promising life. All the signs are there. Long for the salvation he provides and the work he does. Call on his name and wait on his promising work. He is God’s Chosen One. He is Jesus, your Savior. Acclaim him King.