Sermons, Uncategorized

Jesus Comes into His Kingdom

“Crucifixion” by Andrea del Castagno

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And he said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And He said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

The road to the cross has been christened by Christian tradition as the Via Dolorosa, the way of pain and grief. The road begins at the fortress of Antonia and winds its way through Jerusalem about one-half mile to just outside the northwest wall of the city. It is this path that He treads in His final steps before Jesus comes into His kingdom.

But His is no ordinary coronation procession. He is not astride a proud war horse, nor carried on a palanquin by four strong men, but He stumbles beneath the burden as He carries His own cross. He is not accompanied by a band of loyal and chivalrous knights, but a couple of convicted criminals, rebels. The soldiers are not there to protect Him, but to see that He is put to a horrible death. The crowd does not greet Him with cheers but tears as He is led out of the city. Jesus had Himself wept over the city of Jerusalem. Now, He tells these daughters of Jerusalem that their tears would be better shed for themselves than for Him.

The reason for the tears is the impending destruction of Jerusalem. That will be a time when children are no blessing from the Lord; rather, the barren woman will regard herself as blessed because she won’t have to witness the suffering of her child. That will be a time when people again cry to the mountains and hills for protection from violent destruction as they did in the days of Hosea the prophet. Jesus’ concluding question is based on proverbial wisdom: if green wood burns, just think what blaze will result from setting fire to dry wood. If Jesus, who is innocent, suffers so terribly, what kind of suffering will befall guilty Jerusalem?

Jesus is crucified at the place called “the Skull” between two criminals. The Jewish historian, Josephus, speaks of crucifixion as “the most pitiable of deaths.” The Roman statesman and author, Cicero, describes it as “the worst extreme of torture inflicted on slaves.” Jesus endures the pain of having nails driven through His hands and feet before being hoisted into the air to die a slow death, usually from suffocation when the victim becomes so weak and filled with pain that he can no longer lift his torso up to take another breath.   

It is customary to say that Jesus spoke “seven words” from the cross. This is based on compiling His statements from the four Gospels. No Gospel contains all seven of these words. In Luke, we find the first, second, and seventh. The first is Jesus’ prayer for those who are inflicting death upon Him: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). They truly do not know what they are doing: killing the Son of God, by whose death the world is ransomed from sin.

Luke’s account of the crucifixion is striking because it contains one small moment of intimacy. It is a moment which is good for us to see and remember.

Crucifixions were not known for their intimacy, but rather for their cruelty. One of the purposes of public crucifixions was dehumanize the person being crucified, to strip them of any honor and make them an object of scorn. Literally stripped of all His clothing, Jesus—the sinless Son of God—hangs naked on the cross accused and condemned as a criminal and an enemy of God—the grossest kind of humiliation possible.

In Luke’s account, this is certainly true. Jesus is an object of scorn. The religious leaders mock Him as a Messiah unable to save Himself much less His people. The soldiers mock Him as a king, not receiving rich wine from a steward, but being given sour wine—the poor man’s cheap drunk—instead. Even one of the criminals joins in the act. When someone being crucified looks down his nose upon you, you can’t get much lower than that.

But Luke records one more interaction. A strange moment of intimacy between Jesus and the repentant criminal.

First, the criminal makes a confession of sin as he rebukes the impenitent evildoer. He admits he is being crucified justly. His death is deserved because of his misdeeds. Then, he makes a confession of faith. Jesus has done nothing wrong. His death is not deserved, and He will be vindicated. The criminal foresees a day when Jesus comes into His kingdom.

Having heard Jesus pray for God to forgive those who know not what they do, this criminal prays Jesus will forgive someone who now knows what he did. “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” The man’s request reveals a remarkable now/not yet tension in God’s kingdom. Now, on the cross, Jesus is King, and now His Word bestows forgiveness. Not yet has Jesus entered into His kingdom—of glory—yet Jesus’ word of forgiveness now opens the door for this dying evildoer to enter the not yet kingdom when it comes. And it will come that same day!

The catechesis of the penitent evildoer is brief, and his initiation into the life of Christ comes quickly. The dying “King of the Jews” who “saved others” says to this dying man, “Truly, I say to you, today, you will be with Me in paradise.” Jesus, crucified, is the source of forgiveness for all—even the worst, the least, and the last. With these words, Jesus invites the man to participate in this forgiveness forever.

Such intimacy stands out at a public execution. It is extraordinary because it is strange. But it also stands out because it is true. In this one small moment of intimacy, we see truth in the midst of the mockery. Here, we see a true sinner meeting His true Savior.

This should not surprise us, of course, because this is what we have seen through the Gospel of Luke. Jesus loves those who are lost, the marginalized and mocked, the disabled and disenfranchised, the hopeless and humiliated, the suffering and the sinner. These are the ones Jesus seeks out and saves.

When Jesus was presented in the Temple as a little baby, Simeon sang of God’s salvation for all peoples, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory to Thy people Israel.” When Jesus preached His first sermon, He offended His hearers by reminding them of Elijah’s mission of mercy to a Gentile widow and Elisha’s cleansing a Syrian of leprosy. In Jesus, God’s merciful mission extends beyond the bounds of Israel. A Samaritan leper falls down in thanksgiving before Him. A Roman centurion stands as an example of faith for Israel. Luke reveals the faith of those on the margins, the place at the table for the outcast, the love of God for the lost. In Luke, Jesus summarizes His mission with the words, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (19:10).

And so, at the very end, as Jesus speaks His last words, He reserves one word of promise for someone most unlikely—a criminal who repents. In mockery, people cry out for Jesus to save Himself. In truth, Jesus came not to save Himself but to save others. He came to save you.

On this, the Last Sunday of the Church Year, our Collect reads, “Lord Jesus Christ, you reign among us by the preaching of your cross.” Today, our Savior rules not in spite of the cross, but through it. He would not free Himself from the cross because by the cross He frees others; then and now.

Our world has changed. The Church has lost privileged status in our culture; it is viewed by many as restricting, bigoted, and discriminatory. And so, the culture no longer does the heavy lifting for Christin mores. Christians are no longer tempted to see themselves as powerful. They no longer set the cultural agenda. Instead, they have been set aside. They are not serious partners in cultural conversations. If they appear at all, it is as jokes on late night television or as dangerous figures fostering hate speech.

Yet, it is among the despised that Jesus comes into His kingdom and reigns. One by one, He gathers the marginalized and mocked, the disabled and disenfranchised, the hopeless and humiliated, the suffering and the sinner. These are the ones Jesus saves.

And so, today, God calls us to be servants of Jesus, a king who reigns by a personal word of welcome to the least. God invites us to have intimate conversations in a world filled with mockery and hate. To trust Jesus reigns whenever and wherever He extends a word of promise to the displaced and the disfavored, welcoming them home.

The world has changed, but God has not, and neither has His Word changed. In a broken chaotic world, there are plenty of broken people who need the healing message of Jesus Christ. The Church must see itself as “a company of recovering sinners.” The fields are white for the harvest. So, pay attention to the invisible people. Befriend your community. See people not as evangelism projects, but as neighbors to love and to show mercy. Each one is a precious soul for whom Jesus has shed His holy and precious blood. Remember: In Christ, we always work from a position of strength and plenty, not lack and weakness!

Jesus comes into His kingdom on the cross. He was crucified that we sinners might enter into that kingdom with Him. Because Jesus sacrificed Himself for us all, we have His word of absolution and the promise of being with Him in paradise. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sermons, Uncategorized

The Mystery of the Sown Seed

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“And [Jesus] said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come’” (Mark 4:26-29).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Look around you. Right here. Here is the kingdom of God! It may not look like much. Then again, it may be a lot more than you think. To begin with, it sure doesn’t look like a kingdom. Not you. Not me. Surely not a kingdom worthy of God. Well, that’s the way it is. The kingdom of God can be quite a letdown.

We know that we live in God’s kingdom. But when we look around, what do we see? Empty seats. (Empty seats tending to be concentrated in the front pews!) And to make matters worse, when we look at the seats that aren’t empty, or the man standing in the pulpit, what do we see? Sinners! Poor, miserable sinners, who are by nature sinful and unclean, who have daily sinned against God in thought, word, and deed and who justly deserve His temporal and eternal punishment.

We see people who aren’t as active in the church as we think they ought to be. People who don’t always treat us or one another as kindly as we think they should. People who struggle with the lusts and weakness of their own sinful flesh. People who are quick to anger and slow to forgive. People whose lives outside the church don’t always rise to the standards we might set for them. And if we take an honest look at ourselves, each of us would have to admit they we, too, seem altogether out of place in the kingdom of God. Yes, we know that the kingdom of God is among us. But sometimes it’s hard to believe. It just doesn’t look like we think the kingdom of God ought to look.

Well, we aren’t alone in feeling this way. In fact, Jesus’ first followers felt the same frustration—but even more so! They had been waiting… and waiting… and waiting… for the promised Messiah. At last, there were signs that He had come! The sick were being made well! Evil spirits were being cast out! The blind were being made to see, the deaf to hear, and the lame to walk! He turned water into wine and gave bread to a crowd of thousands! He calmed the storm with just a word! And this man taught with authority like no other.

But, somehow, the pieces didn’t all seem to fit. Rome still had Israel under its thumb. The corrupt house of Herod still cast a dark shadow over their land. And the One to whom they were looking for deliverance seemed in no hurry to take up a crown or raise an army. If Immanuel had at last come, why wasn’t He doing more to ransom captive Israel?

To top it off, this man was associating with all the wrong people and breaking the sacred traditions of the Pharisees. Time and time again, He did what was unlawful on the Sabbath! He ate and drank with the sinners! Tax collectors and women of ill repute were among His closest friends.

It just didn’t seem to fit. On the one hand, this clearly was no ordinary man. On the other hand, this sure wasn’t what people thought the kingdom of God ought to look like. It was so common, so ordinary, so disappointing.

Jesus knew what they were thinking—and He knows that our fallen, sinful minds just can’t wrap themselves around the mystery of His kingdom. So Jesus tells us a parable:

The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come (Mark 4:26-29).

Jesus focuses on the seed. Not the soil. Not the sower. The seed is the primary actor in this parable. Although a farmer plays an important role in the cultivation of his field—after all, he sows the seed—its growth occurs apart from his efforts, even as he sleeps. He doesn’t understand how it happens. Not really. Oh, he understands you need a certain combination of seed, soil, water, nutrients, and sunshine, but no one—not even the most advanced horticulturist—know all the chemical and biological processes that are necessary to make a seed sprout, grow, and produce grain for the harvest. It’s a mystery. But that’s okay. It doesn’t really matter how it grows, but just to know that it does grow. The power is in the seed.

So it is with the Gospel. It is sown. It sprouts. It matures. It is harvested. Christ’s parable echoes Isaiah 55:11: “So shall My Word be that goes out from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

The harvest Jesus speaks about includes the final harvest at the end of the world, when all mankind will see the marvelous crop the Lord has produced through His Word in this world of sin. But the harvest is also reaped here and now in the life of every child of God in whose heart the Word has taken root and grown and whose faith God uses time and again to bring that same Word to others.

Still, the harvest isn’t the believer’s doing, but God’s. Paul later put it this way in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”

Notice that in this parable, Jesus doesn’t explain the mystery of His kingdom. It’s not the kind of mystery that can be explained. It can only be accepted by faith. But Jesus does offer comfort and hope by telling us how this mystery ends. The seed that’s been sown will produce a crop. And when the grain is ripe, the harvest will come!

We don’t need to rush out every day and anxiously examine the grain to see if it’s harvest time. When a field has been planted, the farmer doesn’t need to worry and fret every day about when the harvest will come. The harvest will come in its own time. The same is true in the kingdom of God.

In this parable, Jesus gives us the comforting assurance that responsibility for the kingdom’s growth does not rest on our shoulders. The seed has been sown and growth will come by itself—not as the product of our efforts or ingenuity. The Lord of the harvest is in control. There’s no need to worry.

So what does this mean for you? Well, first of all, it tells you how you were brought into the kingdom of God. The seed of God’s word was sown in your heart. By processes we cannot fully understand, it sprouted, took root, and has grown.

For most of you, this first happened in your Baptism. Nobody could see it; it looked like three splashes of plain water, but in that water included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word, the seed of the kingdom was sown into your heart. Your Baptism works forgiveness of sin, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to you and all who believe this.

And that seed continues to grow and produce new life. As the seed of the Word—God’s Law and Gospel—is continuously sown in you, your Old Adam is drowned by daily contrition and repentance and dies with all sins and evil desires, so that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. Imperceptibly, bit by bit, you are being conformed to the image of Christ.

The seed of the Word is also sown in you in the Lord’s Supper. In, with, and under the bread and the wine you receive the very body and blood of your Savior Jesus Christ given and shed on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. Forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given you through the words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

The second thing that this means for you is that God has invited you to be part of the process of sowing the precious, mysterious seed of His kingdom, even as you carry out your everyday vocations.

It might seem like a small thing, too insignificant for the effort it takes to have devotions with your family at the end of the day, but think about what’s happening: you’re sowing the seed of the kingdom, trusting God’s promise that that Word will take root, grow, and produce a harvest of faith.

Or how about the next-door neighbor who is going through a rough patch? You probably didn’t even think about, but in praying with her, you were not just bringing her needs before the throne of God, you were sowing the seed of God’s Word. Who knows? That simple seed might take root and grow almost immediately, or it may lay dormant for a while until someone else comes along and waters it. That’s okay. You’re not responsible for the growth, only the faithfulness of sowing the seed.

And that Bible story you shared with your grandchild? You thought you were only having a good time and entertaining them for a few minutes. It turns out you were sowing the seed of faith!

Such is the mystery of the sown seed. The Gospel, like seed, generates spiritual life and causes spiritual growth not only in a way that in incomprehensible to man. Just as plants pass from one stage to another in ways that cause us to marvel, so is the growth which the Gospel produces. God’s kingdom grows mysteriously of itself, at its own pace, and through the power of the Word.

This reality often causes frustration among those who seek a quick fix or eagerly long for a rapid expansion of the kingdom, and all the more as we only have a short-term view of things. But God’s kingdom grows according to His plan and timetable. And it is a great blessing that thing ultimately depend on Him and not on us, for only He is able to bring home a great harvest for life eternal.

So, just go out and sow the seed of God’s Word. Witness to the love of God in Christ Jesus faithfully, without worry, and in all patience, knowing it is all in the Lord’s powerful hand. Trust that it will bring results in and others. And remember, no matter your past failures or present state, God’s life-giving Word is at work in your life, too, producing faith, forgiveness, and eternal life. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven of all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.