Last Sunday of the Church Year
Grace, Mercy and Peace to you from God our Father and His only Son, Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.
Have you ever noticed the trend in motion pictures throughout the years? When I was a kid, many of the movies were Westerns or films about World War II. A few fantasy films about Sinbad or the Greek myths were made, even swashbuckling pirate movies, tales of Robin Hood or Medieval knights were interspersed genres, but mostly it was the good ol’ American Western.
Today most of the movies coming out seem to be about super-heroes. Beings with incredible abilities or supernatural powers are the protagonists fight for the salvation of the world from some devastating evil power. Usually, the story’s climax is a seemingly hopeless conflict between good and evil.
Most of our literature, our poems and our plays have a person or peoples fighting against great opposition and although beaten down to a point where all is thought to be lost, all hold on to a sliver of hope.
This theme appears as far back as 700 b.c. when an ancient Greek poet Hesiod wrote a poem, which contained the story of ‘Pandora’s Box’. This box, as the story goes, contained all the evils of the world.
“Pandora opened it, and all evil contained therein escaped and spread over the earth. She hastened to close the container, but the whole contents had escaped, except for one thing that lay at the bottom – the Spirit of Hope.”
We seek hope in every instance. The single mother seeks the hope of her children being fed and living a life of happiness. The prisoner seeks the hope of being free from his shackles and bars that cage him. The unbeliever seeks the hope of finding God.
This is not a new concept. This desire and drive for hope came to us from the very beginning of our existence. The first people of Humankind, the first man and woman created by God fell from His grace by the sin of covetousness. They wanted to have the knowledge of God. In the act of eating of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they sinned against God.
In great sorrow, our Creator banished humanity from the garden and therefore banished us all from eternal life. Man and woman were no longer free. Adam, Eve and every child born into creation would now be shackled to eternal death by sin.
Thorns and thistles now sprouted from the land. Man would now toil and labor to bring forth the herb of the field. By the sweat of his brow, he would eat bread. The woman would bring forth children in pain. Both would suffer because of their sin destined to return to the ground from which they were taken.
This was indeed a dark day only to be followed by generations of those fallen from God’s good grace. Yet even from the beginning, after all the evil was released into the world and the devil walked with impunity, there was hope.
This hope was given in that day of banishment. When God Almighty cursed the Prince of Darkness and promised the salvation of all humankind through one man, the incarnate Son of the true God, Jesus Christ.
Now our hope for everlasting life and our faith in God belongs in Christ Jesus. He is the perfect man who conquers all enemies. He is the true God who vanquishes every evil spirit released into this world. He is the true Savior who descended from the kingdom of God to be born human. True God became true man when the Holy Spirit conceived in the Virgin Mary a King of Kings and ruler over all.
Yet with all his power, he did not topple the governments. With all his might, he did not destroy all the evildoers who prosper. With the great armies of angels at his command, he did not lay waste to the earth. Instead, he walked the earth in humbleness and as a servant.
He healed the sick. He fed the poor in spirit and the hungry in body. He forgave the sins of those who turned from the ways of evil and returned to the God above all gods. More important, he fulfilled the promise given by his Father so long ago.
Jesus Christ walked among us as man and God. He fought against sin, death and the Devil. He being more powerful than any evil; took on the weight of all sin and carried it to the cross, an instrument of death. He died and was buried, but he was not defeated. The evil foe would not win the day and have supremacy over this world.
Although the human nature of Jesus Christ was killed, his divine, or Godly nature, could not be destroyed. With all authority in heaven and on earth, this Messiah raised himself from the cold dark emptiness of death to break the stronger than steel shackles of sin and redeem all the prisoners from the cage of eternal separation from Our Father in heaven.
Today we recognize the end of the church year. Next week we begin a new year in our Lord. This will be the time of Advent as we await the celebration of the birth of our Savior. So one might ask why the Gospel according to St. Luke, chapter 23, verses 27 through 43, which chronicles the crucifixion of Jesus is being heard this day.
This passage tells of the Messiah, after being beaten bloody by whip and crowned with a ring of thorns, warning the women who were morning and lamenting for him to weep not for him but for themselves.
This passage tells of him being raised up on the cross in that place called The Skull, to be slowly crucified. He is being crucified with two criminals, one on his left and one on his right. People stood by watching. No one tried to rescue him from this certain death. The rulers of that time scoffed and ridiculed him, saying “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” [Luke 23:35]
This doesn’t sound like an all powerful king, does it? This doesn’t sound like a supernatural ‘Man’ impervious to death. He is weak. He is dying. His blood is being shed, drop by drop, minute by minute. Through all this pain and anguish, he does not call upon the angels of heaven to free him. He does not call upon the almighty power of his father to obliterate all who stand in hate. Instead, he asks his Father to forgive them…
My father was a powerful man. He was 6’ 3” and broad in shoulder. When I was in High School, I remember the look on the face of my football coach when he first met my father. My coach looked at him, then turned to me and asked, “When are you going to get that big? We could use someone that size on the team.”
Later in life, when my father’s life was nearing its end, this powerful man became so weak that he could not even raise a finger. I visited with him, talking about his faith. In this, he was confident. He was weak in body yet his faith in his Savior was strong. Against all the bodily deterioration brought on by disease, he still had the eternal hope given to us through Christ Jesus.
In a small room in a nursing home, I sat with my father as I read scriptures for him to select for his funeral. He had chosen the Old Testament reading, the Psalm and the Epistle, but when it came to the decision of the Gospel, he gently asked that we wait until a later day to make his selection.
I don’t know if he was feeling tired from the long day or if he simply did not want to think about his imminent death, but I closed the Bible and let him rest. He died before choosing that Gospel and I ended up picking it for him. The passages I chose were Luke 23:33, 39-43.
And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”
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.”
The pastor of his church preached the salvation through Christ Jesus. He proclaimed the Gospel of our Lord.
After the funeral, my brother asked me why the pastor had chosen those verses for our father’s funeral. I told him I had chosen that Gospel and his question then came to me, “Why? What does the crucifixion of Christ, a reading for Good Friday, have to do with our father’s death? What does this sad and mournful account have to do with celebrating our promise of the kingdom of heaven?”
I answered, “Hope.”
My fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, like the criminal on the cross next to Jesus, we too are under the same sentence of condemnation. We too indeed justly deserve the due rewards of our deeds. But thanks be to God, there is hope.
We are weak and dying in our sin. We have not escaped the clutches of this world and we have been sentenced to die. But there is hope, because standing next to you in your sin is your Savior. He turns to you as your strength leaves your body, as minute by minute your breath weakens, and as your heart fails, and he says to you, “You are forgiven! Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” [Luke 23:43]
This is the good news in the death of the Lamb, which makes it the good news in our deaths as well. The good news is that the firstborn of all creation, who is before all things and in whom all things hold together, says to you, “…today you will be with me in Paradise.”
We can take this promise in confidence because he is not only the firstborn of all creation but also the firstborn from the dead. As St. Paul writes:
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds,he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, [Colossians 1:19-22]
Yes, this is the hope of the gospel that you heard. “…today you will be with me in Paradise.” Today you are forgiven. Today you have been made a child of God and inheritor to His kingdom.
What does the crucifixion of Christ, a reading for Good Friday, have to do with our death? What does this sad and mournful account have to do with celebrating our promise of the kingdom of heaven?”
The answer is, “Hope.”