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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

November 24, 2013

Every Sinner’s Plea

Jeremiah 23:1-6; Luke 23:33-44

             On October 23, 2013, the family gathered in the Royal Chapel in St. James’ Palace for the baptism of arguably, the most famous baby in the world today.  The infant who will one day be known as King George VII wore an elaborate lace gown that is a replica of one made in 1841 for the baptism of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter.  Water from the River Jordan was splashed upon the head of this child who will be king, his full name was recited by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and he was baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, joining two billion others on this planet who are baptized, and who worship Jesus as King.  The whole world took note of this joyful moment, as the world looks on with rapt attention to much of what William and Kate do.  Whether we are Brits or not, we are fascinated and delighted by this young family that may well include two future kings of the British Empire.

             By contrast, hardly anyone witnessed the death of Jesus of Nazareth, a death reported to us this morning by Saint Luke.  A few Roman centurions, a handful of brave women, a criminal on either side of Him, perhaps some of the crowd that actually remained to see this man die a horrible violent, humiliating death.  The one piece of clothing He wore was stripped from Him and given to the winner of a lottery held on the spot.  According to other reports, His mother was among the small gathering of women who witnessed Jesus’ death, no doubt in unspeakable agony over how her son was tortured.  Yet British writer Dorothy Sayers called the death of Jesus “the most important thing that ever happened.”  No one, not even enemies of Christianity, can easily argue with her claim.

             Today is a day the Church calls Christ the King Sunday.  But you can tell by the account we read this morning in Luke that Jesus was a different kind of king than any other we have ever known.  He never lived in a palace; indeed, Jesus said elsewhere in Luke that He had no place to lay His head.  And Jesus never commanded an army or amassed an empire or possessed even a modest amount of wealth.  He wielded no earthly authority, and the only crown Jesus would ever wear was made of thorns and pressed upon His head to ridicule and to torture Him.

             Yet in our text this morning, we read an account that tells us precisely why we worship Jesus as King, and why we still pray every time we gather here, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.”  John Calvin said once that “Christ comes to us clothed in His Gospel.”  Vatican II, led by Pope John XXIII, made the virtually Protestant Reformation affirmation that “the assembly of Christ is empowered in its worship by the truth that Christ is truly present in the reading and hearing of the Gospel.”  “Christ is then present in His word, because it is He Himself who speaks when sacred scripture is read in the Church.  Written text thus becomes living word.”

             So on this Christ the King Sunday, let’s listen to Jesus speak to us a living word that can set us free.  Hanging on a cross between two criminals, Jesus utters His first word to any and all who would hear them.  By now, it is a word that the whole of human history has heard: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

             This first word Jesus utters is offered to the God He knew as Father.  Calvin said that before the Church in all its wisdom affirmed God as the “Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth,” it first remembered and affirmed that God is a loving Father.  Even from the cross, even in His humiliating, agonizing suffering, Jesus does not forget this great affirmation that is a part of all of our baptisms.  And the first plea that Jesus makes to His Father is one of grace.  “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

             This, by the way, is a word of mercy that also speaks a world of truth about the human condition.  We prove over and over again that we are ignorant of many of our own sins.  We so often have no idea what we are doing in life.  If we did, we would all live more graciously, more gratefully, more wisely and generously than we do.  Mark Twain said that the single most verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith is the doctrine of sin.  And sin makes us people who are prone to ignorance.  One little example is that for centuries humans grew tobacco and smoked cigarettes.  The Red Cross gave cigarettes to prisoners of war in the care packages they were sometimes allowed to deliver to soldiers, and my father used them to trade for food.  But I have a corporate photo of my Dad taken after the war in which he is dressed in a business suit and holding a lit cigarette.  This was typical for the time, as movie stars and even politicians were often pictured smoking cigarettes.  Remember Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s cigarette holder?!  Then in the early 1960’s, actually 1964, we decided that we had enough evidence to get the Surgeon General to place that absurd understatement on every package of cigarettes that we still sell: “Cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health.”  It is one small illustration of our ignorance, of our own foolishness and of gross human ignorance.  None of them knew that they were crucifying the most influential human being ever to walk the earth.  None of them knew that they were murdering, humiliating, torturing and abusing the Son of God, the King of Love, the Servant King, the Prince of Peace.  None of them knew what they were doing, any more than we know what we are doing.

             So hear Jesus’ word as one spoken for you, dear friend: “Father forgive them; for they know not what they do.”  As we turn to Jesus’ second living word to us, please note how talk of salvation in Luke’s account is thick in the air.  “He saved others; let Him save Himself…,” the rulers scoffed.  “The soldiers also mocked Him … saying, ‘If you are the King of Jews, save yourself!’’  It was the least that they expected from a man who would be king.

             In the Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, this is what even His closest followers said: “Jesus, come down from the cross and come to your senses.”  I heard George Buttrick preach once, when he was in his late seventies.  Buttrick by then had long since retired as the Dean of Harvard University Chapel.  But through his wire rim spectacles he told us of a little boy who was in the hospital saying his bedtime prayers with a crucifix on the wall.  “God bless Mommy and Daddy, God bless Grandma and Grandpa, God bless all the children of the world.  And God, please take care of yourself, because if anything happens to you, we’ll all be sunk.”  Then Buttrick paused and said, “Of course, that is a prayer God could never answer.”  Then he went on with his sermon.  I thought about his statement even as I hung on his every word.  Why couldn’t God ever answer such a prayer?  Then at the end, he paused again and said, “Of course, God could never answer the boy’s prayer because ‘love seeks not its own to serve.’”  I wept like a baby.  Jesus is king precisely because He refused to save Himself, but gave Himself to us in love, and “gave His life as a ransom for many.”

             Augustine said, “Two thieves were crucified on either side of Jesus.  One was saved, do no not despair.  The other was not, do not presume.”  Notice, please, that the second thief does not ask to be saved.  He only asks to be remembered by the man who said to the very people who were killing Him, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”  Actually, this is what He says: “Jesus remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”  It is this man, ironically, a thief on a cross, who sees Jesus for who He really is.  Luther said, “Forgiveness is the very essence of the Gospel.  It is the heart of God’s gift given in Jesus.”

             Is it a gift that you have received?  Do you know that in Jesus’ very words God has both the power and the inclination to forgive you all of your awful, petty, small, self-serving sins?  This is why Jesus is King.  Only a Sovereign God could make the promise that Jesus made to the man.  It is every sinner’s plea: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  Can you hear His word today as one spoken to you?  “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”  Not someday, not one of these days, but today!  Jesus is already ruler in the kingdom of God, and Jesus is with you now, this day, this very moment.

             So Pippa, Kate’s sister, and Harry, William’s younger brother, read the Gospel lessons, two of them, for George’s baptism.  One read Luke 18:15-17: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child shall not enter therein.”  And one read John 15:1-5: “I am the true vine, my Father is the vinedresser … apart from me, you can do nothing.”


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