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 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
John 19, Luke 23: Promises His Kingdom to a Thief, Speaks to Mary and John
Good morning, church. Happy Palm Sunday. Please go with me to the book of Luke, chapter 23, and we are also looking at John 19.
I want to say just a few short things before we really get into the passages this morning. First, I’ve been gone from the pulpit for so long, I think I should probably introduce myself. I’m Alex, I’m actually one of the pastors here. But, no joke, I’m grateful to God for his foreknowledge and providence, giving me so much help in a time that I didn’t know I would need it, as we responded to the tornado in Arabi, and my prayers are with those who are displaced, grieving, and recovering.
A busy time, also an exciting time, with our Spring Meeting, Phil’s ordination, Jake and Sarah coming in, and Kallee and Josh’s wedding. I’ve just had so much occasion to praise God for everything he’s able to do in the midst of the chaos of our world. He took my plans for the Spring, like some small fish and loaves, and multiplied them into spiritual sustenance and nourishment through this time.
This isn’t going to be your traditional palm Sunday message, just the nature of our current series, I preached that sermon weeks ago; it’s on our website if you want to find it. Through this season of Lent in our church calendar, a time when we make space, intentionally, to consider our mortality and Christ’s own humanness, we’ve been organizing our sermons around the stations of the cross, a traditional depiction of the last hours before Jesus’ death. This week, we are considering Jesus promising his kingdom to a thief, and Jesus speaking to Mary and John at the foot of the cross.
Go with me, we’re going to start in Luke 23, and then go to John 19. [John 19:23-27; Luke 23:32-43] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
In small group, Wednesday, I asked the question: “What exactly did Jesus accomplish by dying?” And I loved one of the answers, especially, Russell goes, “You want us to tell you? There’s whole text books about that question.” There are, it’s true.
Jesus’ death is one of the great mysteries of our faith, and I say mystery in the old sense of the word, in that this is not something we will ever fully comprehend, not because it’s hidden from us, but because this truth is infinite, it belongs to eternity: the creator and upholder of the universe became human, and died, and by his death we have hope of forgiveness for all we’ve done, and all we’ve left undone, and life together with God again. We’re never going to be able to chart the depths of that truth, it’s an ocean.
So my hope today is not to communicate the whole of the meaning of what theologians call the atonement, but I do want to consider the thief, the soldiers, Jesus’ mother, and the closest thing Jesus had to a son. I want to allow them to teach us the surprising nature of the kingdom of God; surprising because the kingdom of God is so unlike any other nation we’ve known, because the king is unlike any ruler or politician we’ve known.
Let’s start with the thief. I want you to see, in Christ’s response to his confession, the surprising lowliness of the kingdom of God. The surprising lowliness of the kingdom of God. His kingdom is not a kingdom of the accomplished, or the righteous. His kingdom is a kingdom of children, of fishermen, of widows, orphans, and thieves.
We don’t know much more about the thief than what Luke tells us here in what we read; he was crucified next to Christ, confessed his guilt, and asked for forgiveness. He’s killed in the next paragraph—not much time for great works. Jesus promises him eternity. He is often talked about as a reminder that any and all who plead to the Lord for salvation will be saved, regardless of what they’ve done. Here is this man, a criminal, who in desperation cries out to God at the end of his life, and God forgives and welcomes him. That’s good, and true. But as always, I don’t want us to miss, in our consideration that even the worst sinner is able to be saved, that we, all of us, are thieves.
I’ll speak for myself. I am a thief. Yes, I have taken things which don’t belong to me, but that’s not entirely what I mean. I am a worse kind of thief. I am a thief like Eve in the garden, who though she was made in the image of God, believed the lie that she had to work, to take, to steal to be like God—when, really, the only picture of perfectly god-like humanity is one who emptied himself and did not consider godliness a thing to be grasped after or held onto. Ever since the fall, we, humanity, have been grasping after what had already been given, and what is still offered freely—equality with God, and everlasting, abundant, joyful life.
Even this thief is saved, which is good news for us, for we are thieves. We steal, we cheat, we fight wars, we work all of our waking hours, we travel endlessly to find the life which has always been offered freely to us in Christ. We’re always grasping at power, money, trying to control or purchase thriving, like little gods, all the while believing that original lie that we weren’t already created in his image to inherit the earth, and here a thief on a cross whose name we don’t know is offered the kingdom of heaven because he confesses his unworthiness and his dependence upon Christ.
If you are honorable, a good person, done everything right, you’re still a thief, and you need forgiveness. “Rejoice in your low position.” Even if the lowliness of the kingdom of God is surprising to you. Even if you’ve followed the law since your youth, there are things you’ve left undone, that weren’t in your power to do or to make right. And if you are a criminal, guilty of the worst crimes, you’re a thief; you’re still able to receive forgiveness. “Rejoice in your high position.” We spend our whole lives striving to be worthy of, to somehow achieve righteousness or happiness, when it’s already given to us; forgiveness, atonement, thriving in Christ, if only we will recognize the uselessness of our own striving and grasping.
So many people I meet try to enter the kingdom of heaven through works, trying to get sober enough or clean enough or out-together enough to be welcomed in the church and in the kingdom. But the truth is, the way into the kingdom is not the broad road of having it all together. It’s the narrow road of confessing your own inability to be perfect, your own inability to be like God. God wants, not your sacrifice, but his own mercy to fill your life.
God does not bring us into his family and inheritance because of any work of our own, or anything we’ve done, but because of his love and his character and goodness. It is “by grace you have been saved, through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. Not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Jesus’ burden is light—the work is finished already, and there is an anonymous thief sitting right now at the right hand of Christ in his kingdom.
Secondly, the conversation between the two thieves is able to teach us the surprising weakness of the kingdom of God. The surprising weakness of the kingdom of God. “Come down off the cross!” one thief shouts, “Save yourself and us!” But Christ doesn’t come down off the cross. He could have. There is a reason, in the desert, Satan tempts Christ with a glorious empire over all the earth. It was within his power, and they both knew it. All of the pleasures of the earth, long life and rule. Power to accomplish whatever he would.
His whole life, Jesus was tempted to use his own power the way we would use it, the way humanity has used power through our history. Peter tells Jesus to fight instead of die, and Jesus rebukes him, “Get behind me, Satan.” Thousands begin to shout Jesus’ name and cry out for freedom from foreign rule. Even today, we’re still telling him, at cocktail parties and on internet message boards, that if he had all power and goodness, he should just overthrow every empire and stop every evil action before it starts. We call it the problem of evil, like we’ve discovered something new, instead of realizing Satan has been whispering this for millennia. But God’s kingdom is surprisingly weak.
I asked another question in small group this week; I asked what they would all do with total power. To their credit, they mostly said they would cause war to cease and everyone to confess. I think, if it were me, and if we’re being honest, I might order my armies to Ukraine, then to Russia, to overthrow, to execute, to seek revenge, and in doing so I would become the very thing I hate. I’m not strong enough to be as weak as Christ is. If they came to arrest me, and y’all rose up to fight, I would allow it. I’m not strong enough to be as weak as Christ is.
Can you imagine the sufferings on the cross, and Satan chooses this as his time, because he is cruel, speaking through the other thief. “How about now? He says. Do you still not want to conquer and rule? Do you still not want to come down from the cross and take hold of your armies, of your omnipotence, of equality with God, of glory, of everything you gave up? I am not that strong. I would have folded when they gambled for my cloak with my mom watching, who made it. If I made it that far.
The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, like a field, like a shepherd in his field, like a housewife sweeping, like a thief forgiven, like a king mocked and ruined. The kingdom of God is surprisingly weak. And those who enter it are made weak. They are given a spirit of confession, they are told to turn the other cheek, and go the extra mile, and give blessing when they are cursed, and rejoice when they suffer, to honor the emperor who rules over them, while taking up their own cross. The kingdom of heaven is surprisingly low and weak.
And the kingdom of heaven is surprisingly personal. The kingdom of heaven is surprisingly personal.
I’ve been in the same building as a king once in my life. Except when I say king, I mean a president, and when I say in the building, technically he was in the building and I was on top of the building. After Hurricane Katrina, I did my first-ever disaster relief work with Crossroads and Habitat, I was 18, working in musician’s village in the ninth ward. President Carter was a big part of making that happen. He raised the funds for it and coordinated the organizations working together on the build, and I’m trying to complement him, because really he did a lot on the administrative end for which he deserves honor, and I’m about to say something that’s going to make him look bad, but truly I’m grateful to the man.
But I was shingling this shotgun house one day, on the roof, when President Carter shows up to the worksite, and he grabbed a hammer and started nailing down some decking on the porch, which was a pretty cool experience, and they took a ton of pictures of him doing that, and he shook hands with the homeowner, then after he was done with that board, he got back in his car and left. It took about ten minutes, total.
And I say that to say this: we’re used to kings and rulers being far-off and away, busy, not concerned about us, and if we’re not careful, we start to feel that way about God, too. I hear it in prayers, mostly. I hear people praying for broad, far-away things, for rulers and important events—never for the small, daily aspects of their life. Like God is too busy for them, he’s not going to care about your day, or your relationships, or your feelings. Or when we pray for the sick, and we don’t ask God to heal them, because maybe that’s not his will, maybe he doesn’t care, maybe he’s too busy.
I hear it, too, when we talk about Jesus’ work on the cross. We talk about it in vague terms and theories. Christus Victor, and Substitutionary Atonement, Moral Exemplar, and on and on. And each of those helps us to understand this mystery a bit, and I’m grateful to the scholars who teach them, but I’m more grateful to Christ, who explained the cross by sitting down to a meal with his friends and saying, this is what I’m doing. This meal. This is my body broken, this is my blood shed, all of it is so we can sit down together and eat, talk, know and love each other.
Listen, God is not like our rulers. He is transcendent on high, more glorious than any of them. He is “high and exalted, and the train of his robe fills his temple.” But all though the Bible, over and over again, when God is asked to introduce himself, to say which God he is, of all the many gods among the nations, when he’s asked to differentiate himself from them and say how he’s any different from the gods and rulers we’ve known, he says this: I am higher than they are; and I am also the God who is with you.
To Abraham, when he had doubts. To Jacob, when he had no friends left. To Moses, when he had to go back home after running his whole life, he says I’ll be with you. To Joseph when he was enslaved and imprisoned. To David when he was afraid. To Daniel when he was about to die. To Hezekiah when enemies surrounded him and no help came, he is Immanuel, God with us. To Isaiah when his city fell and he was exiled. To those who returned home, and to all of us whom he has promised never to leave or forsake, over and over again, he says I created the heavens and the earth, and I am with you. I’m not going to leave you. There is nothing you can do, nowhere you can go that will make me want to abandon you. You could “rise on the wings of the dawn and settle on the far side of the sea, and there my hand will guide you, my right hand will hold you fast.”
So we see in these two moments, a God who so loves the world as a whole that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him will have eternal life. Yes and amen, but also we see a man who loves his mom so much that she has to be the one to begin his ministry, to urge him toward revealing himself, because he is content just to live and work with her, who in his last moments is thinking about making sure she is cared for in her old age. Who loves John, this child who has been with him throughout his whole ministry, like a son to him—Jesus loves him so much that John can’t even call himself by name in his gospel, but only ever explains his presence in the story by saying, I was someone Jesus loved.
Our God is high and exalted, but if you have any idea of divinity, God’s exaltedness is not surprising. The sun during the day and the stars at night tell us he is high and exalted if we are willing to listen. The surprising part is that he is with us. That same God who made the stars and flung them ever outward sits and eats with us, is content to live within us. The kingdom of God is surprisingly personal.
I hope we understand this. I hope we know we, too, are people Jesus loves. People he wants to redeem and draw into family. People he wants to make sure are provided for, who are taken care of. Yes, Jesus’ died to save the whole world, but he also died to save you. You, because he loves and knows you. The God of the universe knows your name, and he cares about your future. He wants you to be in family, now and everlasting, he wants to sit with you at the table and eat with you.
The kingdom is lowly, weak, and personal, and my invitation to you this morning is to seek first the kingdom. Seek to follow Christ is his way, in his emptying of himself, in his rejection of the temptation to use his power to rule and reign over the earth, rather than alongside. To care for the children and widows of the world as much as your own estate and future; to be like Christ.
Pray with me.
 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
 what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?…
 O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth! (ESV)