Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
“Once upon a time…and they lived happily ever after. The End.” These are words many of us grew up on, the words of a teacher or a parent reading to us from a fairy tale, words which we enjoyed hearing because of the pleasant ending we knew they would bring to us. We had a high degree of confidence, shaped by hearing the words, “Once upon a time,” over and over again, that the story would most likely end with “and they lived happily ever after. The End.”
Today we conclude another Church Year, those cycles of seasons and readings and observances that mark the passage of time as we await the Lord’s return to complete His story.
That’s a story we ought to enjoy hearing; one we should never grow tired of hearing over and over, either. That’s because of the happiness—the sheer joy, even—which it brings to us. However, that divine story doesn’t begin with “Once upon a time.” It starts in Genesis with “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” It concludes in Revelation not with, “and they lived happily ever after,” but rather with even more powerful words: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.” The particular section or chapter of the story, which we might entitle, “The Life of Jesus” is comprised of four interwoven storylines—given to us by one divine author, but uniquely recorded by human writers God appointed for our benefit. Consider how each of those records themselves begins:
From that writer who was communicating the Gospel to those looking for the fulfillment of God’s promises to their ancestors, it reads: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the Son of Abraham.”
From the writer recording a succinct, fast-paced, and hard-hitting account for those who had already heard the proclamation of the message of salvation, and needed to be reminded of the essential details, it reads: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
From an eloquent and well-educated man, wanting to offer his readers a well-organized and comprehensive account of this important story, we read: “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”
And finally, from a man writing at a time when the Church was already having to combat the heresy that Jesus was merely a well-intended human being who wanted to teach people nothing more than how to live moral and God-pleasing lives, the account begins with the following: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made.”
Taken together, these accounts tell a story familiar to all of us. We know the many important implications of the happy ending of this story:
- That God’s promises are fulfilled on that day of final resurrection;
- That one day, Jesus will come back;
- That on the Last Day, everything will come to an end;
- That those who have died will have their physical bodies rise up and live again;
- That on this Judgment Day, those who have believed in Jesus Christ enter into the final glorious heavenly life forever, with body and soul reunited.
When we read this story, we see it is not a fairy-tale story. The story is very real. It has real people with real lives and real consequences. It involves criminals, bad guys, and flawed heroes. It also is a story which includes parts we sometimes don’t like to hear: The very real, very bloody truth that an innocent man was crucified for the message which He preached. People did all they could to get Him to stay quiet. It wasn’t easy quieting the message of Jesus Christ. They tried and tried and could not quiet Him. They attempted to find His errors in the Law, showing how He violated it. But, in the end, the only way they could come up with to quiet His message was to kill Him—to beat Him, strip Him of His clothes and His dignity, and to pound heavy iron nails through Him and make a public spectacle of His suffering and bleeding and suffocation.
Even if we know nothing more about Jesus than that, we would know we aren’t hearing a fairy tale. At that point in the story, it certainly doesn’t seem that this will end happily ever after.
During Christ’s crucifixion, we have heard that others were crucified along with Him, two criminals. They were placed on either side of Jesus.
Though these men are criminals, though Jesus is surrounded by those who would persecute Him, He still preaches and ministers to others until His dying breath: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Regardless that His own life is coming to an end, He still prays a prayer for them.
Why? Why does He pray for them? They didn’t ask Him to pray. In fact, if you ask some of them, they would tell you that they don’t need His prayers. The answer to why He prays for them is this: He prays because they are sinners and are in need of God’s forgiveness.
That same prayer which Jesus prayed at the cross for the people of His time, He continues to pray for us as our intercessor with God today. He continues to pray to God, our Father, for forgiveness. Even though we know this story so well; know how it goes and how it will all turn out, we continue to sin. Truth be told, we revel in sin. You might even say that we adore sin, in how we return to it, time and time again, like smitten lovers!
However, we were not meant to sin at all. We were not meant to revel in sin. We were not meant to adore sin. Due to the Fall, we became sinful human beings. Due to that sinfulness, we cannot help but drive ourselves away from God. We need His forgiveness, whether we want to admit it or not.
Jesus recognized the fact that those standing before Him at His crucifixion needed forgiveness. He knew that they, that we, that all people need forgiveness.
And that is why Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Because of the sin they commit, they do not know what they are doing. They are ignorant in their actions, crucifying the Son of God. Even Jesus’ own followers were somewhat ignorant, not truly and fully understanding the identity of their Lord until after His resurrection. In ignorance of what true paradise was in the Garden of Eden, they sin. In ignorance of who Jesus Christ is, they crucify Him. Through all of this, Jesus prays for their forgiveness.
Forgiveness was not the only thing which occurred at the cross, though. Mockery occurred also.
Jesus was mocked. The Jewish leaders sneer at Him. They see Him as weak and pathetic, a fraud who claimed to be the Christ. The soldiers mock Jesus, too, having fun at His expense after stealing His only belongings, His clothing. They ridicule Him as the King of the Jews who can’t even save Himself. The sign above Christ’s head mocks Him, also, to everyone passing by. Even one of the criminals mocked Jesus, pointing to His claim of being the Christ and challenging Him to prove it by overturning the death sentence under which they were suffering and providing a rescue for the three of them.
We, too, are mocked for who we are, and for what others would prefer we be. We are mocked for our beliefs and our faith. We are mocked for going to church rather than sleeping in or enjoying what the world has to offer us on Sunday mornings.
We are mocked for attending a Bible study, for reading and hearing and meditating upon God’s Word, rather than going out for a night on the town.
Death, too, continues to make a mockery of us and our faith. The body stops breathing, the hearts stops beating. Death mocks us, torments us with its own confident certainty. Death tells us that that’s all there is. However, we know that death is not all that there is.
When one of the criminals mocked Jesus, the other gave both a confession of his sin and a confession of Christ: “We are being punished justly,” he told him, “for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” The one criminal recognized his own sinfulness, and that Jesus was innocent of any accusations brought against Him. If anyone was to be tried and punished for their crimes—both now and for eternity—it would be them, the criminals hanging on either side of Jesus.
Yet the God-fearing criminal makes one request of the dying Lord: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
This criminal is broken and beaten. He sees himself as he truly is, and as we truly are, too: Lost and condemned. Honest admission of his guilt leaves him with only one hope. He turns to Jesus and sees more than a dying man, more than the blood and agony. Others see a failed, fallen, and false messiah as the world would judge Him, but this defeated, helpless thief sees the true Messiah! His eyes look at Jesus in a moment of complete humiliation and utter torment. In an act of faith, he places himself into the outstretched arms of the Christ. He sees Jesus as innocent, as the One who can save him. He confesses Jesus as the King, someone who has a kingdom he wants to live in. In that moment, he receives more than he could ever imagine.
Jesus answers the criminal’s request by giving him paradise. He turns all the mockery of the soldiers and the Sanhedrin and the crowds and the sign above his head into a sign of truth for all believers. The King has spoken, and the criminal’s request is granted. “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” His happy ending is assured.
On the cross, the criminal sees the sign above Christ’s head and he believes it. The One who doesn’t save Himself saves others by His death. It’s not that Jesus couldn’t save Himself as the mockers supposed, but that He wouldn’t. He was compelled by love and obedience to the Father’s will. He needed to take our punishment on the cross, so that on the Last Day we would be judged innocent, free to enter into His presence with body and soul rejoined together forever. The sign on the cross was meant to be one of ridicule, but it is actually a sign of truth: Jesus is the King, who saves us because He did not save Himself.
Jesus bestows paradise to us from the cross. Because of that, we look forward to that day of fulfillment when He restores all of creation with the resurrection from the dead.
Just as Jesus granted that criminal’s request on the cross, He has provided the same gift to each of us through the waters of Holy Baptism. When we received water with the Word of God, that, too, is God’s promise of being remembered in His kingdom and granted paradise, today and forever. That is a promise that we have died with Him, too. We have died to sin and are reborn in Christ. We live these days as both crucified criminal and trusting believer—as sinner and saint until the day we die. And when we do die, we then receive the ultimate promise: paradise from God the Father, through His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Our life story may not begin with the exact words, “Once upon a time.” Yet we are born in a particular time, and at a particular time we will depart from this life because our sin ensures us that temporal death will come. Along the way, there are good parts and there are bad parts, but we know the real end of the story. The story ends just as this Church Year ends: With God’s promise that we will, by His grace, “live happily ever after” because of those words which Jesus gives to all who trust in Him alone:
“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
In the name (+) of Jesus, Amen.