Things are not always what they seem. What seems to be the most obvious can be awfully wrong.
An organist was practicing one day in a great church in Europe. A man came up to the organ and asked if he could play. The organist looked at him and thought to himself, “I shouldn’t let this man play, just look at him, he is unshaven, his clothes are dirty, he looks like a bum”. So he told the man no. But the unkempt stranger asked again and again.
Finally the organist let him play thinking he wouldn’t play very long, after all what does a bum know about organs. The bum’s fingers danced over the keyboard in a way the organist hadn’t heard in his lifetime. The stranger played on and on. The organist was spellbound. When the stranger got up to leave, the organist could not contain himself and shouted, “Who are you, what is your name??” As the stranger, who looked like a bum slowly walked away, turned over his shoulder and said, “My name is Felix Mendelssohn.” The organist gasped.
On the exterior the man in ragged clothes and badly in need of a shave and a shower but in actual fact was a prince of the organ. Things were certainly not as they appeared to be. I wonder if the church organist ever refused a request to play the organ no matter what the person looked like. As the old saying goes, “You can’t judge a book by its cover”.
The gospel reading to day is another one of those cases where things are not what they seem to be.
We heard the account of Jesus crucifixion as recorded in Luke’s gospel. We are told how Jesus was nailed to a cross between two criminals.
He is weak from all the beatings;
his clothes are stripped from him and soldiers gamble for his robe;
he suffers the mockery of those standing around the cross.
They call out, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (Luke 23:37). They laughed at his weakness and in ability to save himself, they joked about his claim to be a king and now his unkingly naked body was nailed to an instrument of torture – what a joke and what a good laugh they had.
What made it worse was the sign that Pontius Pilate placed a sign above Jesus’ head which read, “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS”. (Luke 23:38). This made them taunt Jesus all the more to come down from the cross and save himself. But it seemed he was powerless to do so.
Pilate had asked Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews”. Jesus answered, “So you say.” (Luke 23:3). He explained that his kingdom is not a worldly one and he is a king above all other kings. This certainly confused Pilate because all he could see before was a bleeding and bruised man in chains who looked nothing like any king he had ever seen. You see, Jesus answered Pilate in such a way saying that things are not what they seem – he may look like any other criminal that was brought before the governor but there was more to him that meets the eye. (Much like the church organist who could only see an untidy unshaven man and not the master of the organ.)
On that hill outside Jerusalem, there was one person who saw something in Jesus that no one else saw. In spite of the gashes in his flesh from the whip, the nails, the wounds, the blood, the nakedness and the shame, one of the criminals crucified with Jesus recognised a king. He said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” (Luke 23:42).
Jesus promised him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise”. (Luke 23:46).
A strange king indeed – suffering, weak, humiliated, despised, rejected and dying. But the death of this unlikely king made us friends with God through his death. God was going to stop at nothing to break down all barriers between him and all people. He was even prepared to let the King of king and Lord of lords die in order to make everything right again between him and us.
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This is where Paul’s letter to the Colossians picks up the theme of the kingship of Jesus. The apostle goes to great lengths to emphasise that Jesus is God’s Son; he is everything that God is. “For by him all things were created, in the heavens and on the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers” (Colossians 1:16).
If he is the creator of all these then, he is also lord and king of everything in heaven and on earth. Paul goes on to say that Jesus is not only king of every part of creation, he is also head of the church (Colossians 1:18).
After he has described in length that Jesus is Lord of lords and King of kings he goes on to describe something very peculiar about this king. Things are not what they seem. This king is all powerful, above all things, the lord of all and master of the whole universe, with multitudes of angels at his beck and call, living in the perfection of heaven. Yet it was not above this king to get down and get dirty.
In some fairy tales you hear how a king dresses up as one of the peasants and lives and works with them in the local village because he is tired of the fuss of the royal court. But Jesus doesn’t just dress up to be like us, he is one of us. He takes on our human nature and lived among ordinary people especially sinners and outcasts, including lepers and the demon possessed. What happened to him could hardly be regarded as being kingly.
He died on a cross. Just grasp the magnitude of this. The King of kings and Lord of lords, God’s Son, died on a horrible human instrument of torture and death. Not only that, he died for all those who are enemies of God because of the evil things they did and thought (Col 1:21).
In his usual clear and precise way, Paul says, “He has reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and without blemish and blameless before him” (1:22). That’s worth repeating to make it sink in. “He has reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and without blemish and blameless before him.”
Today is the last Sunday of the church year and it is traditional to talk about the end of the world, the end of our life here on this planet as we know it and the certain judgement of God on the Last Day.
This image of the servant-king that Paul and Luke paint for us is so important as we face the prospect of coming face to face with the holy and righteous God. There’s no denying that we are sinners.
There’s no getting around the fact that right up to the last day of our life we will continue to sin in thought, word and deed.
The Bible makes it quite clear that our sin condemns us and we would have no chance of surviving the judgement of God on the last day. But Paul makes it clear that there is nothing to be afraid of. Christ has died for us. Jesus is master and king over sin, death and the power of Satan to condemn us. Jesus’ death has made us friends with God again and made us holy, pure and faultless. Our sin has been wiped away. Forgiven. Forgotten. We will be welcomed into heaven.
Isn’t that what happened to the man dying next to Jesus. In his moment of deepest agony, Jesus tells the criminal who sees in Jesus a king – a king whose power and authority far exceeds that of Pilate or even death – that his sin will no longer be held against him. “Today you will be with me in Paradise”. At a moment when all would seem to be hopeless and without a future, Jesus is truly a king. He pardons and assures the man that he will be with him in Paradise.
The word ‘paradise’ indicates a garden or a park, the kind a king would have. No earthly king would invite a robber or murderer to walk in his garden, but Jesus, the king, died for that man and made it possible for him to be “holy, pure, and faultless” and welcome. When we die or when the last day comes, we too will be welcomed in to Paradise because Jesus has made us “holy, pure, and faultless”.
If the thought of the last day of our life or the last day of everything fills you with fear then be consoled by the fact that we have a living King. Yes, he did die on the cross, but while there, he spoke of the future. Without a doubt, there is a future after death and after the end of this world. Jesus promised the man next to him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise”.
The events of Good Friday have made it possible for us to feel safe and happy about the coming final day when Jesus will return. We have a servant-king who died for us and rose from the dead, who has done everything possible to ensure that we need not fear what will happen. At the end of everything, we are safe.
Kings and crosses don’t normally go together but in the case of Jesus they do. Jesus may have been raised to the highest place and given the name that is greater than any other name (Phil 2:9) but this mighty king cannot be separated from the cross on which he died saving you and me. As Paul so nicely summarised, “He has reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and without blemish and blameless before him” (1:22).
Worship this king of reconciliation.
There is more hope in his little finger, than in the power and pomp of all the kings and presidents, emperors and prime ministers, parliaments and cabinets, that ever were, are, or will be.
There is more power to change us and our world in his reconciling humility, than in all the battleships and bombers, armoured tanks, helicopter gunships that kings, presidents and parliaments employ to change the world.
Worship this new type of king, this Jesus, and trust him.
Don’t just pay lip service, but trust him.
Commit your ways to him and you shall know his peace, such as the world cannot give.
This is our king – nailed to a cross to rescue us from the powers of darkness and sin.
This is our king – risen and ruling. Let’s “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:11).
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.