The Dying Thief

Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the Christian calendar year.  It is a day of celebration leading us into a new year marked by the preparatory Advent season that begins next Sunday.  Each year we take a moment here to praise God as we acknowledge the Reign of Christ in this world and the world to come.  We often sing hymns like, “Crown Him with Many Crowns” and “Rejoice, the Lord is King.”  The colors in the church change from green to white and gold, as we once again tell the story of Jesus on his throne and get ready to repeat the cycle again when we proclaim his birth at Christmas.  This is the day when our re-telling of God’s story reaches its climax.

This year we encounter a Bible passage that seems almost out of place in today’s narrative.  We find ourselves at the end of Jesus’ life, standing on Calvary’s hill, watching as Jesus takes his final breath.  We also watch as a dying man reaches out to Jesus, confessing his own guilt, and receives a gift that only the king of the universe can offer.

What is it about this story that draws us in and moves us to understanding?  What does this dying thief know that we may not yet realize?  How can we hear this story with fresh ears this year and use it to illuminate the timeless stories of Advent and Christmas that we will hear in the coming weeks?  Jesus spent his entire ministry teaching and preaching on the Kingdom of God.  In this final act of forgiveness, he demonstrates for all to see that God’s kingdom is a place of grace, mercy, and love where all may enter in.

dying-thief“The Dying Thief”
Sunday, November 20, 2016
Christ the King Sunday

Luke 23:33-43, CEB



It seems a odd to be preaching on one of the Passion narratives on Christ the King Sunday.  Lent is a long way off and we are not accustomed to reading these stories right before Christmas.  Luke is the only gospel writer who offers us this part of the story and I have to wonder why he felt that this was important enough to include.  What does this story tell us that the other gospels do not?  How does the image of The Dying Thief help us better understand Christ as King?

Let us pray…Lord, this morning we come to praise you as our savior and king.  Help us to understand what your kingship means for us.  Guide us as we explore your word today and discern what you want us to know.  In Jesus’ name, we pray.  Amen.

The image I am most familiar with when I hear the title “king” is someone powerful, living in a wonderful castle, protected by an army and surrounded by people who fear upsetting him.  Think of King Arthur and the Knights of the round table; or King William, the Conqueror; or King Henry VIII.  HBO viewers may have your own visions of what a king looks like after watching Game of Thrones for a few seasons.  In any case, I doubt that many of us would immediately think of a man hanging on a cross as the image of a powerful king.  And yet, this Christ, this man dying on that cross, is exactly who we proclaim as Christ the King today.  What kind of a king is this we meet in Luke’s gospel this morning?  I believe this is precisely the kind of king the world needs to meet.  This is the King who sacrifices everything for his people.  This is the King who seeks out and welcomes people most kings would send away.  This is the King who shows the world what it looks like to love people and lead people.  He doesn’t look like a king; he acts like one.

There are three sets of people in this story:

  1. There are the people in the crowd who are watching what is going on here. Some of these are followers of Jesus who are losing their leader and maybe their faith.  Some of them are the leaders who helped condemn him to death.  How do they now view their decision?
  2. Then there are the soldiers who carry out the sentence. Some of them mock him, shout at him, and offer him sour wine.  They draw lots for his cloak.  Then there are others who pay attention to what happens and wonder if they did the right thing in executing this man.
  3. Finally, there are the criminals being crucified at the same time. One is unmoved by Jesus and calls on him to prove he is king by saving them all.  Another sees things differently.

It is this dying thief that helps us to see King Jesus for who he really is; it is this dying thief that draws us into the story.

The last words Jesus spoke to another human being before his death and resurrection were words of forgiveness and promise.  We should expect nothing different from the man who has spent his entire ministry teaching about forgiveness, love, and the grace of God.  Jesus challenged the unjust treatment of women.  He preached that we needed to be patient with our children and teach them gently.  He accused the leaders of the Temple of lacking good faith.  Jesus showed us the Kingdom of God that was so counter-cultural that it caused his enemies to condemn him to death.  2,000 years later, we look back at this controversial, powerful, and world-altering ministry trying to makes sense of it for us.  Who among us is worthy of God’s grace?  We are more like the thieves who hung next to Jesus than we are like Jesus himself.

We don’t know what happened to the other characters in this story.  The people in the crowd eventually wandered off and went to their homes.  Some may have felt guilty, but they got past that by thinking that their leaders were certain this man deserved to die – surely they were right.  Some believed that the Jesus they followed was just another so-called Messiah among many; they were fooled again by an imposter.  “We should go back to the old ways again and keep waiting for the One who will come someday.”  The soldiers were “just following orders”; they were doing their job.  The same argument was used at countless war crimes trials.  Is there any moral accountability in such situations?  Matthew’s gospel, tells us at least one soldier stopped to notice, “Truly, this was the Son of God.”  Then there were those two thieves.  The one challenges Jesus to show his power by saving himself and the criminals next to him.  Perhaps this man is too jaded to accept that there might be good people left in the world.  Perhaps he is just ashamed and lashes out to mask his fear of death.  We will never know what happens to this man.

Finally, we hear the other dying thief defend Jesus and confess his own guilt.  He humbly admits that he deserves his punishment and then he asks only that Jesus “remember” him when Jesus enters his kingdom.  Just “remember me” – he doesn’t ask for anything special, just to be remembered.  Jesus gives him so much more than that – forgiveness, and the promise that this dying thief will join Jesus in Paradise that very day.  Can you believe in this gracious God who forgives and loves us even when we disappoint and sin?

King Jesus describes a kingdom of God that has different rules and different expectations from the rules and laws and penalties of humanity.  Jesus said the Kingdom of God is a place where love is freely given when a foolish son asks for his inheritance, takes it and squanders it, and then is welcomed back by a father whose forgiveness and love is unconditional.  Jesus said the Kingdom of God is like a shepherd who cares so deeply for his sheep that, when one is lost, the shepherd goes and searches for the lost one.  He told us the Kingdom of God is like a rich man who throws a party and, when all his rich friends don’t show up, he goes out and invites the poor, the blind, and the lame to come to the feast.  Today, this story of Jesus’ forgiveness shows us a Kingdom of God where forgiveness is given to all who repent and believe, even condemned thieves at the moment of their own execution.

I think this kind of grace and forgiveness can be challenging for us to understand.  Part of our inability to believe and trust in the forgiving power of God’s grace and mercy is our own inability to believe that other people deserve mercy.  We want to judge whom God lets into Paradise.  Perhaps we have problems forgiving behavior we don’t understand or people with whom we disagree.  Maybe we are more comfortable not knowing what happened to the unrepentant thief, than we are knowing that an undeserving thief was let into Paradise.  It is easier for us to think that Jesus loves the people we like and the people we say we are like, and that God does not love the people who are not like us.  It may be easier for us to believe that God doesn’t love the crackheads, the thieves, the prostitutes, the rebellious teenagers, and the disgruntled employees with revenge in their hearts.  Paradise should be a place exclusively for the nice people, the polite people, the well-behaved people, the “right” people.

We need to remember that Christianity is a “confessional faith”.  This is not because we are weak; it is to proclaim that God is strong and God is love.  We have a confessional faith because the grace of God is sufficient for all.  There is grace for us and for those we do not like very much or with whom we disagree.  We confess our faith because God will hear and forgive our sins AND their sins too.  We confess our faith because God’s grace will heal, restore, redeem, and forgive those whom God created and loves so completely.  This is the Kingdom of God that Jesus reveals; the Kingdom that Jesus rules even now.

Jesus told the thief they would be together in Paradise “TODAY.”  This is the same glorious message the angels shared with the shepherds – “Today, a savior is born to you in Bethlehem.”

God is with us today
Jesus is King for us today
forgiveness and salvation are ours today.

Jesus spent his ministry telling us what the Kingdom of God was like.  One of the last things he did before he died was to proclaim that a repentant sinner would be with him that day – TODAY – in Paradise.  Praise God for The Dying Thief and the mirror he holds up for us to see how blessed we are!  In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.