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They don’t know what they’re doing (sermon of 11-25-07)

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king-christ-the-king-window.jpgReign of Christ – November 25, 2007
Luke 23:33-43; Colossians 1:11-20; Jeremiah 23:1-6; Luke 1:68-79

It is Reign of Christ Sunday around the world, and Thanksgiving weekend here in the US, so songs from both:
Call to worship: Georgann
Come, Ye Thankful People, Come; How Great Is Our God; Reconciliation Song (for the phrase “mercy and forgiveness”); In His Time; Give Thanks
Invocation: Victoria
Welcome

Sermon: Today is the last Sunday of the church year; one week from today begins beautiful Advent, the preparation for the coming of Christ. And we’ll begin walking through the gospel of Matthew.

Today we end our tour through Luke. Thumb through it, and see how much we’ve learned – look at the chapter headings, and notice how friendly they are to you, how familiar. How much we’ve learned about Jesus this year! What a master teacher he is!

And today, around the world, is called Christ the King Sunday: the celebration of the reign of Christ. But I was surprised when I saw the Scripture from which it came. You’d expect something obviously regal. Look what we have instead:

Luke 23:33-43
33When they got to the place called Skull Hill, they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Dividing up his clothes, they threw dice for them. The people stood there staring at Jesus, and the ringleaders made faces, taunting, “He saved others. Let’s see him save himself! The Messiah of God—ha! The Chosen—ha!” The soldiers also came up and poked fun at him, making a game of it. They toasted him with sour wine: “So you’re King of the Jews! Save yourself!”
38Printed over him was a sign: this is the king of the jews.

39One of the criminals hanging alongside cursed him: “Some Messiah you are! Save yourself! Save us!”
40-41But the other one made him shut up: “Have you no fear of God? You’re getting the same as him. We deserve this, but not him—he did nothing to deserve this.”
42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you enter your kingdom.”
43He said, “Don’t worry, I will. Today you will join me in paradise.”

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Luke tells the story of the cross much differently than the other gospel writers do. In some of the gospels, you read of Jesus’ despair on the cross: Father, why have you forsaken me? But in Luke’s the battle is fought in prayer, in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus’ words from the cross are words of pure hope. I’m leaning on the writing of Lawrence Moore at Disclosing New Worlds for many of these thoughts. Here’s a quote: “Gethsemane in Luke’s gospel narrative, therefore, is the start of something new, not the utter disintegration of the old. …”

Watch what happens. He’s been beaten; the crowds that had supported him on Palm Sunday have turned against him. He’s carried the cross until he collapsed. And now:

33When they got to the place called Skull Hill, they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right, the other on his left.

And then, a complete, utter, rather anti-theological surprise:

34-35Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.”

“They don’t know what they’re doing” – they’re killing him and he prays for their forgiveness, on the grounds that they don’t know what they’re doing.
Where are the disciples during this? They’re mostly in hiding – yet Luke doesn’t even tell the story of their abandoning him, except for Peter. For it doesn’t fit his cross of hope: they just don’t know what they’re doing. After the resurrection, when they can barely believe it, Jesus never even brings up their abandoning him. It’s as if he says, “I know you didn’t know. I tried to tell you, but I know you couldn’t hear it. Let’s go on from here.”

Back to the cross –

Dividing up his clothes, they threw dice for them. The people stood there staring at Jesus, and the ringleaders made faces, taunting, “He saved others. Let’s see him save himself! The Messiah of God—ha! The Chosen—ha!”
36-37The soldiers also came up and poked fun at him, making a game of it. They toasted him with sour wine: “So you’re King of the Jews! Save yourself!”
38Printed over him was a sign: this is the king of the jews.

Here’s what they didn’t know – they never understood what kind of a King he was. He demanded their loyalty, and all of them could only see it as a Rome or Judea kind of loyalty; he was calling them to something else entirely. Yet there is the “Reign of Christ” for which this Sunday is named.

How ironic! They taunt him because he’s failed to be a King in the way they understand kingship; and while they taunt the King of the universe prays for their entry into his Kingdom. Rather than cursing them for their cruelty, he pleads with his father: they’re just ignorant and don’t understand.

Peter – the one Luke admits has denied Jesus – catches this spirit, and later preaches this way. In Acts 3, Peter spells out a stern sermon to the crowds, making it crystal clear that they and their leaders killed this magnificent Christ. And then he says this:

17″Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders.”

And Paul – who persecuted followers of the risen Christ – goes through this, too. He writes in 1 Timothy:

13Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. 14The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

Now Paul was probably a genius. And he was schooled in the Hebrew Scriptures by the very best. But God knows hearing it and learning it aren’t the same as knowing it. Paul, who knew more Hebrew Scripture than you and I will ever know, was forgiven, he says, because God knew he was just ignorant.

And say, you know, if Paul was ignorant, how about me? And how about that person you’re praying for? Maybe you’re praying for a someone who grew up in church. Maybe we’re tempted to think, “They know – they’ve heard it and seen it so many times.” But hearing and seeing aren’t the same as knowing. And you’ve got reason for hope: God’s attitude is, apparently, “They don’t know what they’re doing.”

Back to the cross – watch what happens next:

39One of the criminals hanging alongside cursed him: “Some Messiah you are! Save yourself! Save us!”
40-41But the other one made him shut up: “Have you no fear of God? You’re getting the same as him. We deserve this, but not him—he did nothing to deserve this.”
42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you enter your kingdom.”

What’s happening? Someone’s coming out of his ignorance – he’s starting to get it. Maybe he’s someone who’s been prayed for all his life, and now, seemingly beyond hope, dying for his wickedness, the lights go on, and there’s the Messiah on the next cross. That one you’re praying for? You can bet that when the lights go on, Jesus will be close by. And here’s his response:

43He said, “Don’t worry, I will. Today you will join me in paradise.”

Only one more thing Jesus says. Look in your Bible at 23:44-45. It’s different here than in the other gospels. Here’s Lawrence again:

The third set of words is Jesus’ final words. “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit!” Contrast this with Mark. In both gospels, we stand at the cross, shrouded in thick, mysterious darkness. We are cut off from everything except the sounds of the dying men. In Mark’s gospel, we then hear the awful cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus is as abandoned and in the dark as we feel. But Luke tells us something else: Jesus is communing with God! We might be alone and terrified, but Jesus is talking to his Father. In other words, Jesus has brought God into the most god-forsaken place on earth and moment in history.

This is the significance of the tearing of the temple curtain. It doesn’t function as a symbol of open access to God in Luke’s narrative. It’s function is to show us that the Holy of Holies is empty! God is not there! God is not in the place kept sterile and uncontaminated. God is in the very place where God has no place being: on Golgotha! And this is Luke’s point. Because of the new kairos in Gethsemane, Jesus on the cross is the priest of the new covenant, dispensing forgiveness and acceptance, and bringing God to where we are – lost and in darkness. Where is God when most needed? God, in grace, is with us, forgiving us, saving us.

The child who is born in the manger is the liberating power of Yahweh incarnate. This is the Messiah – the King. He has come with a mission – the establishment of peace and justice. He has come to dethrone the powers that hold the world hostage to sin, despair and death. This is the beginning of the End – the fulfilment of all that God has promised. To us is born in the City of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. This is the King of the Universe, in whom the fullness of God dwells bodily. This is the King promised of old. He has come, and nothing will be able ultimately to stand against him. Why? Not because he comes at the head of armies to crush and destroy his enemies, but because he comes in grace, breathing forgiveness, giving hope to the hopeless and the guilty. He comes as Servant, Shepherd, and crucified Lord. Behold your King!

I don’t know who you are praying for; I don’t know how many times you’ve prayed. But I know something about our Jesus: He prays, “Father, forgive him or her – they don’t know what they’re doing.” And I know wherever they are, when the lights go on, Jesus will be close.

Let me close with some of the most stunning verses in the Bible:

Colossians 1:11-20
9-12Be assured that from the first day we heard of you, we haven’t stopped praying for you, asking God to give you wise minds and spirits attuned to his will, and so acquire a thorough understanding of the ways in which God works. We pray that you’ll live well for the Master, making him proud of you as you work hard in his orchard. As you learn more and more how God works, you will learn how to do your work. We pray that you’ll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul—[and can’t you feel that here today?] not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy, thanking the Father who makes us strong enough to take part in everything bright and beautiful that he has for us.

13-14God rescued us from dead-end alleys and dark dungeons. He’s set us up in the kingdom of the Son he loves so much, the Son who got us out of the pit we were in, got rid of the sins we were doomed to keep repeating.
Christ Holds It All Together
15-18We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment. And when it comes to the church, he organizes and holds it together, like a head does a body.

18-20He was supreme in the beginning and—leading the resurrection parade—he is supreme in the end. From beginning to end he’s there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson


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Written by Monte

November 30, 2007 at 8:20 pm

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