Last Sunday of the Church Year – Vicar Aaron Ferguson
Today is the last Sunday of the church year. We have reached the end of the road. There are no more lessons for us to ponder, but only to start again next week with Advent. The lectionary has for this last day selected the crucifixion narrative from Luke. A rather odd selection when the holidays are around the corner. I am sure that as you leave the church where we have been singing hymns about the end of days and hearing about the crucifixion, you hear joyful music about the holidays, all we want for Christmas, and talk shows recounting the joys of Christmas past. But not so here. We hear today about the death of Jesus and specifically the events preceding it. We hear about final judgement in the Old Testament reading. Not a overly joyous tone to start your holiday season, for everything came to an end on that Friday at 3 pm. The Body of Christ is crucified, Jesus dies, and everything ends. This is how we end the church year, at the end of the world.
In the end of the today’s Gospel reading, we are presented with the account of the two thieves and their dialogue with Jesus on the cross. Elevated discourse of this kind leads to curious observations. First one notes how everyone, well almost everyone, in this text is very emotive. Looking around we see the women along the road are loosing their minds over the sight, the people around the cross jeer at him and shake their heads, and even the bad thief while he is hanging there is speaking against Jesus. Why, what has Jesus done to deserve such treatment?
The kingdom of this world despises suffering and avoids it whenever possible and with whatever means they can. The women on the road see a man in great torment and instead of comforting words to console them Jesus in essence says, “Wait there’s more”. The bad thief on the cross desired nothing more than to get off the cross and he made that known in his railing against Jesus. The good thief, on the other hand, accepts his lot in life. He asks for nothing other than that Jesus would remember him when he comes into his kingdom.
The good thief accepts what his sins have gotten him, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?” he asks the bad thief, “for we are justly getting what we deserve, but this one did nothing wrong.” Jesus suffers for things that he did not do. When people see him on the cross, they see their punishment. They behold the death and bitter suffering to which they are condemned. In the hymn Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted (LSB 451) we see a comment about this very thing.
Ye who think of sin but lightly nor suppose the evil great
Here may view its nature rightly, here its guilt may estimate
In the middle of the gory scene what do we see? We see Jesus on the cross. We see one man, railing, speaking against, or mocking, if you will, Jesus. And we also see another man calmly being crucified. It really sticks out how cool this guy is with being crucified. One might even say serene. Why would he be serene? We never hear much about the “good thief”, largely because the accounts of the crucifixion are centered on Jesus. But what we hear in Luke’s account of the crucifixion is a man who has accepted his fate, as it were, and is trying to make the most out of it. He hears Jesus say something quite unthinkable. He hears Jesus pray for those who have crucified him. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” How is it that Jesus could pray that his Father would forgive those who are literally killing him?
With this sentiment in mind, the “good thief” still hangs on the cross. He hangs there waiting to die and hears the other thief rail against Jesus. The good thief tells the other to let Jesus be, for Jesus does not deserve the death that he is getting, nor do either of them deserve anything else. He then adds one request of Jesus. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replies, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
These lines show 2 things: 1) that the thief knew about the Son of David, and 2) that Jesus assumed his throne quite quickly after death. First off, we see that the thief knew that Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world, we saw this in Pilate’s interview of Jesus. The Kingdom of God is not of this world. “Are you a king?” Pilate asked him, Jesus replies, “You rightly say that I am a king”. So, if Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, what is his kingdom then? This world must be done away with and a new creation must come about. That is the kingdom of God. The son of David, the messianic king, is not enthroned in the sinful world, rather he is enthroned in the new creation which was created by his dying, by the end of the old world. Surrounding the death of Jesus, we see many apocalyptic events. For three hours before the Son of God breathed his last, the sun did not give its light, and, after he died, the earth shook, rocks were destroyed, and some of the saints who were raised from their graves and came into the city of Jerusalem. What a sight! The Messianic King, the son of David, died; and the whole world stopped!
The other thing is that Jesus—without much delay—is enthroned in his Kingdom. We can see this in Jesus’ response to the good thief. “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Not tomorrow, not in a few years, but today. The good thief, after his death, is with God in heaven.
The good thief did not ask for much, hardly anything at all. He just accepted what was coming to him and asked for Jesus to remember him. I think what we see here is akin to someone saying, “send us a postcard”. It is as if the thief said, “Jesus when you get there, send me a postcard so that way, I can see what it’s like up there. I am truly curious about a kingdom whose king prays for those who crucified him. Is the weather good this time of year?” Really, a very modest request. The thief understands his sins quite clearly, but would like a memento of the time he met God. Jesus’ reply is a bit extreme. “We don’t have much of a social network linking heaven and hell, why don’t I just take you there instead?”
The end of the church year is here. It reminds us that our time here is short. By this text we are reminded that there is one thing more important than life. That is God. The good thief on the cross did not care where he ended up in this world. He accepted that his sins disqualify him for anything good in this life or the next. His time on the cross passed quickly, shockingly serenely—not because it was an overly pleasant experience, but because he was next to Jesus. Those whose hope is in this world are in for a terrible shock when they see it all melt away on the last day. But those who love the Lord will not be disappointed. For even when the world comes to an end, Jesus will still remain, and those who love him, even while being crucified, will rejoice. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.