ifOn Christ the King Sunday we consider the kingship of Jesus Christ. Normally, we might think of a king who rules over a people and a land. However, in the case of Jesus kingship is different. In establishing the kingdom of God, Jesus does what for a king would be an unthinkable act. He sacrifices himself, dying on the cross for our sake. 

Text: Luke 23: 33-43

We find ourselves at an odd place today. We are on the advent of Christmas, we are expecting to hear stories about Mary and Joseph. Soon angels will be telling us that a child will be born, shepherds will watch their flocks and all will bow before the Prince of Peace. This is what we are getting ready to hear, the beginning of the story.

Instead what we have heard is a portion of the story that comes near the end. If you’ve been paying attention over the past month you know that we have been reading from Luke’s gospel, but today we jump ahead several chapters. It feels odd to hear a portion of the story that comes near the end, when what we are expecting to hear is something from the beginning. It disrupts our sense of time and continuity.

However, having today’s reading come near the end of the story isn’t as odd as you might think. Today is Christ the King Sunday, it is the last Sunday in the Christian year. Next week is the first Sunday of Advent which marks the beginning of a new Christian Year. So today’s reading being near the end of the gospel is not so strange when we consider it from this perspective.

It is also Christ the King Sunday an occasion where we celebrate the kingship of Jesus Christ. We consider his role as the Messiah, what does that mean? For us and for the disciples and followers of Jesus so long ago.

The question posed to Jesus by one of those thieves that day was “if you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”

If.

If only…

If you could…

If you were…

If…

That one word is loaded.

If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself. There is temptation in that statement isn’t there? If you could save yourself, well which one of us wouldn’t save ourselves? If we could, we would right?

If only I was stronger, smarter, richer, prettier. The list goes on. If…

If, if you look at Luke’s gospel you will see that he has framed the ministry of Jesus around the word ‘if’.

Jesus begins his ministry after fasting in the desert for forty days and being tempted by the devil.

“If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

“If you will worship me, it will all be yours.”

“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here…”

It is after being tempted by the devil that Jesus begins his ministry. After contending with those ‘what if’ scenario’s that Jesus begins his work of reconciliation. By the way, don’t be tempted yourself for the second of those three if statements that the devil puts to Jesus, “If you will worship me, it will all be yours” I’ve seen that on a coffee cup.

At the beginning of his ministry Jesus faces temptation. He deals with the question of “if you are the Son of God” at the get go. As we draw near to the end we find that once again Jesus is being asked that question “If you are the Son of God, save yourself.” This question from the thief that day is no different than anything the devil questioned Jesus with.

The questions the devil laid at the feet of Jesus had to do with saving himself, of taking power, of not toiling around with mortals. Why should you do such things, is what the devil asked Jesus. You are the Son of God, if that is true take up your mantle and rule over them.

If you are the Son of God, save yourself. But Jesus does not give into temptation. Jesus does not relent and give over to the easy path that is laid before him. Jesus does not live out a fantasy framed on the word ‘if’. In fact in our passage today Jesus says very little.

It is the other thief who pronounces that Jesus has done nothing wrong, who recognizes that Jesus is indeed the Son of God. Though baffled he might be he rebukes the other thief who was hoping that Jesus might save him also.

But that was not to be the case. Jesus came to save, but not by liberating one thief on the cross. Jesus came to save, but not by jumping off the cross itself. No, regrettably Jesus came to embrace the cross and the vile death that awaited him on it. Through this act God reconciled to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven by making peace through the blood of his cross (Col. 1:20).

We see that the ministry of Jesus is wrapped in probing questions of ‘if’. But Jesus does not sink to their level, it is not a case of if for Jesus because he knows it to be true. He doesn’t feel the need to prove or justify his divinity to others.

What I find remarkable about this passage is the other thief, the one who doesn’t question Jesus. He also asks Jesus a question. He asks, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He doesn’t say “Jesus, if you come into your kingdom, remember me.” He says, remember me when. There is no if, there is no desire for clarification. There is no doubt and no desire to test or tempt Jesus. This thief knows it to be true and trusts in Jesus.

What he is hoping for when his life on this earth ended, we don’t know. But I get the sense that desired peace. A peace that only Jesus Christ can offer.

We sing the words of a thief in church. This mans request to Jesus is one of our hymns, the hymn isn’t large or robust. It contains two lines, the second a repetition of the first and they are the words of this thief. Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. Amen.