Kings Never Die

Luke 23:33-43

33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus[a] there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”]][b] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah[c] of God, his chosen one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him,[d] “This is the King of the Jews.”

39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding[e] him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah?[f] Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into[g] your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Not what you were expecting the Sunday before Thanksgiving was it? Christ the King Sunday usually falls the Sunday after Thanksgiving, but this year it is before. The day was set aside as a bridge to the ending of Ordinary Time and the beginning of Advent. Believe it or not this not a day that was established hundreds of years ago. It began in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. He said, “When once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony.”

The date of the feast day has changed, and even moved into the Protestant churches. But it is important that we look at how the King of heaven and earth came to us in the Incarnation as we prepare for our own Advent. Jill Duffield writes, “And here we are in 2019, still praying for “the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony.” Here we are in 2019 facing increased secularism and the rise of fascism. Here we are in 2019 proclaiming that Jesus is Lord not only in our hearts, but over all that is seen and unseen, regardless of the evidence to the contrary. Here we are in 2019 preaching that amid all the consumerism and politicking, the income inequality and division, the food-laden tables and tent cities, Jesus reigns. The claim has the credibility of a robotic Twitter account, counter to reality, outrageous and provably false. Jesus does not seem to hold sway over those who sometimes call on his name the loudest (if their behavior is any indication, anyway), let alone those occupying the halls of power.”

The rapper Eminem has a song, “Kings Never Die,” inspired by the movie Southpaw. It ends with the words, Here to stay / Even when I’m gone / When I close my eyes / Through the passage of time / Kings never die.

The movie Southpaw is about a boxer who loses the title, he is no longer the king but do they really die or just go away? Elvis Presley was the King of Rock-n-Roll. Even thought he died at just 42 years of age his music is still played by fans all over the world. Martin Luther King Jr. aged 39 was the King of the Civil Rights movement. Buddy Holly sang That’ll be the day was also considered the king of Rock-n-Roll was only 22. Robert F. Kennedy was only 43 when he was assassinated and was from a political dynasty and it appeared, he was the heir apparent to the Oval Office. Jesus of Nazareth named the King of the Jews died on a cross in his early 30s.

They were all kings in their respective fields, all died early in life. It makes us wonder what might the world be like if they lived to a ripe old age. And Jesus? On this Sunday called “Christ the King,” Luke tells the story of the death of Jesus on the cross. A sign over the head of Jesus reads, “This is the King of the Jews,” and soldiers mock him, saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” Even one of the criminals crucified next to Jesus said, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (vv. 36-39).

The crucifixion was an excruciating and humiliating way for a king to die. And in the case of Jesus, it was an unjust sentence. The criminal on the other side of Jesus rebuked his fellow criminal, saying, “We indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong” (vv. 40-41). Jesus was killed for crimes he did not commit.

So what if the untimely death of Jesus had been reversed? What if Jesus the King had gone on to live a long and happy life? Would the world be a better place?

You have to wonder. Since the crucifixion of Jesus was such an abomination, it is tempting to think that the world would certainly have improved if his death sentence had been overturned. But sometimes, terribly shocking tragedies can have unexpectedly good results.

Think back to November 1963, 56 years ago, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. This killing was a hinge point in history, on par with Pearl Harbor and 9-11. It pivoted America from the calm of the 1950s to the upheaval of the 1960s.

John F. Kennedy was no Christ-figure — far from it. Jesus was sinless, while JFK had deep, personal flaws. But his death, like the death of Jesus, changed history.

Initially, reaction to Kennedy’s assassination was nationwide shock and sorrow. Then the American people rallied around his vision of putting a man on the moon by supporting the Apollo program. JFK’s call for civil rights was amplified by his successor Lyndon B. Johnson, who invoked Kennedy’s memory as he advocated for the Civil Rights Act.

In the end, the death of JFK was not only a tragedy but a catalyst. His murder led to advances that might have become bogged down, or not occurred at all, had Kennedy served two full terms during the chaos and conflict of the 1960s.

We’ll never know if Kennedy would have been effective in a full presidential term — or two. In the same way, we’ll never know if Jesus would have expanded his ministry beyond Israel, although he always was quite clear that his kingdom was “not from this world” (John 18:36). As the great Christian thinker Henri Nouwen observed, “For Jesus, there are no countries to be conquered, no ideologies to be imposed, no people to be dominated. There are only children, women and men to be loved.”

All we know for sure is that the earthly ministry of Jesus ended on a cross. And because he died and then rose on Easter, we followers of Jesus Christ now make up the world’s largest religious group, with more than two billion people. We accept the tragic death of Jesus as part of our religious history, and we understand — in a variety of ways — that the evil that was done to him eventually resulted in great good.

On a practical level, Christians are motivated to fight injustice because it was a completely innocent Jesus who was nailed to a cross with criminals on either side of him. Across the country, people are now working with the Innocence Project to exonerate wrongly convicted individuals.

In South Africa, after the apartheid era, Christians such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which allowed victims and perpetrators to speak in public hearings and move toward reconciliation. Such a Christian focus on forgiveness comes from what Jesus said about his killers from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (v. 34).

Could such enormous good have been done without the cross? Perhaps. But the crucifixion of Jesus, like the assassination of JFK, is both a shock and a stimulus. Kennedy’s death motivated the American people to work for progress, while the crucifixion inspires Christians to fight injustice and do the hard work of forgiveness and reconciliation. Both tragedies point us toward the possibility that death is not the end, and that good can come out of evil.

The death of Jesus also forces us to confront our own mortality and to prepare for eternal life with God. After the second criminal defends Jesus from the cross, he says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (vv. 42-43).

No earthly king can make this kind of promise, because no earthly king can offer us forgiveness and eternal life. But Jesus the King is both human and divine, so his words give us the assurance that we will be with him in paradise. The struggles of this world will be over, and we will be forgiven and made whole, eternally united with God and with each other.

Each of us is going to come to the end of our life with feelings of guilt and regret. We will have done some evil things that we should not have done, and we will have failed to do some good things that we should have done.

And if we haven’t done anything nakedly evil, then surely we’ve done some spectacularly stupid things we now regret.

Even if we work hard to fight injustice and do the hard work of reconciliation, we are going to make bad choices and crazy, stupid mistakes. Life is chaotic and complicated, and no one can live it without sin. Some of us will even feel as guilty as the criminal on the cross, who said to his fellow lawbreaker, “We indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds” (v. 41).

But if we trust in Jesus, we can be given forgiveness and eternal life. The criminal shows his trust by saying, “Jesus, remember me,” and Jesus rewards this trust by saying, “today you will be with me in Paradise” (vv. 42-43). The criminal can do nothing from the cross to change his past. All he can do is put his faith in Jesus to be his Savior, completely relying on God’s grace. And fortunately, that is enough.

Enough for him, and enough for us.

The criminal believes that King Jesus is going to continue to live and to come into his kingdom. And more than anything else, the man wants to be with him. He teaches us to accept that our lives are going to end, and that we can be given forgiveness and eternal life by a king who continues to rule from heaven.

So maybe Eminem is right after all. Jesus is Here to stay / Even when I’m gone / When I close my eyes / Through the passage of time / Kings never die.

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