Topic: Biblical Verse: Luke 23:27–23:43
Christ the King
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
How will it end?
This weekend marks the end of the church year. It’s different than the calendar year that we use to keep our schedules together day-to-day. The church year begins the season of Advent, then runs through the season of Pentecost, which goes into its final week with the Sunday celebrating Christ the King. The time after Pentecost is the longest single season, the so-called “ordinary time” which recalls the life of the Church. Throughout the year, you can see artwork on the front of the balcony in our sanctuary that points to each of the seasons, all part of the larger whole. They’re represented by different colors – on the altar, the pastors’ stoles, and even the backgrounds on the big screen beside our Welcome Center – each color symbolic of the emphasis of the season or a special day. Today’s color is white, a reminder that Christians look ahead to Jesus’ return and the coming of his kingdom in its fullness, ushering in the new heavens and new earth that are free from sin and all its impact. While the church year begins again next weekend with the start of the Advent season, we mustn’t forget that there will one day come a time when the church’s calendar will end, too.
Think back to the last time that you went to a fireworks show, like the kind that happen all around our area on the Fourth of July. The fireworks can be spectacular in and of themselves, but when they’re put together by trained artists who select different ones for just the right moments, that’s even better. And what usually happens at the close of a show? More and more fireworks launch, maybe even a dozen all at once, filling the sky with sparkling light and roaring booms as the pyrotechnics go off. That’s the big finish, the grand finale.
Fireworks displays don’t have a monopoly on the finale, though. You’ll hear it in music, read it in books, and see it on the screen. It’s part of the story being told, a move of the narrative that frames the big conclusion of the experience. The elements of the story come together in some way, building the memory that you take with you once it’s all said and done. In action movies, the finale might involve a massive battle with explosion after explosion. Long-running stories in television series like “M*A*S*H” or “Newhart” or “LOST” or “Breaking Bad” can go a different route, using the audience’s built-up attachment to their characters to great effect. When a show is nearing the end of its run, people start to expect a big finish. They’re hoping for a finale to remember. How will it end?
As the church year comes to a close, we’re reminded that life on earth comes to an end, for some sooner than others. How will it end for you? With the devastating typhoon in the Philippines and the recent tornadoes in the Midwest, we’ve seen that living in this broken world can be dangerous business. Add to those natural disasters the plagues of disease and violence and aging, and it seems like nobody’s going to make it through life alive. But then again, do you deserve to?
Thinking ahead to the end can be frightening. On that day when Jesus returns as King of kings, it won’t be as a baby, nor will he be in disguise. He will come as the ruler of all creation, in glory, as judge of the living and the dead. If you were left to rely on your own strength of character and record of good that you’d done, you’d be right to be terrified of what was to come. Jesus is God, as today’s reading from Colossians 1 reaffirms, and God requires nothing less than perfection from His creation. If you’ve fallen short of perfection, how will it end for you? That finale wouldn’t be a happy one. But that’s not the finale that God has in mind for you.
We know that the world is not perfect the way that it is meant to be. We know that we are not perfect the way that we are meant to be. But we also know that the day when Christ comes as King isn’t a day to dread. As Christians, we can take courage from God’s word through the prophet Malachi today, knowing that God remembers His people. While you and I are guilty and imperfect, we have a God who offers forgiveness through a different end.
On his way to the cross, Jesus spoke of the destruction that would be coming to Jerusalem in only a few decades. If her people rejected the Messiah while he was with them, what would become of them later on? And when he was put up on the cross, the leaders of the people and Roman soldiers mocked him. Even one of the criminals who was crucified with Jesus used his failing breath to yell at him. This isn’t an end you’d expect for someone hung under the title “King of the Jews.” But in the words exchanged between the other criminal and this King, you can see just what kind of end this was. In that time of distress, facing death, the man was seeking mercy from someone who he trusted to have the power to give it – and he would not be disappointed. Jesus went to that cross to bring about the end of sin and death, the end of their power over humanity and the rest of God’s Creation. And because Jesus was making that finale happen on the cross through his innocent blood, he could say to the criminal, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
How will it end? We spoke the psalmist’s words earlier: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.” In Jesus, who is God-with-us, you can have a mighty fortress of hope. He created you and all things, and he has redeemed you and all things. When you confess your imperfect life to God, as we do in the ancient liturgy of the Church, do so knowing that He has the power to save you even from your sin. When you hear the words of forgiveness in the absolution, do so knowing that Jesus is saying to you, “You will be with me in Paradise.”
Forgiven, you can live each day as a finale. Everything that God has given you, the experience that you have acquired, the people in your life – all these come together each day to move your story towards its conclusion. You have the unique opportunity and calling to be the one who carries the promise of Christ the King into your world. You can speak the word of hope and comfort that you have from Jesus to those who are lost and living in fear from the storms of life. Through your living, you can point to what it means to look ahead to the end with Christ as King.
This weekend as we come to the close of the church year, we do so gathering around the Lord’s Table in Holy Communion. Generally speaking, Holy Communion is the finale of the worship service, the big finish that draws the elements of the story together and move it to its conclusion. Jesus is here with you, his people, giving you his body and blood to eat and drink, already connecting you with himself in his kingdom which has no end. God gathers us together with angels and archangels and all the people who have been redeemed through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. The King of the Jews, the King of Kings, offers you his promise that the end is nothing to fear because he will be there with you and for you.
At the very close of each of the services this Christ the King weekend, our congregation will sing a hymn entitled “Soli Deo Gloria,” Latin for “Glory to God alone” or “To God alone be the glory.” As you and I look ahead to the big finish, the grand finale of the creation when Jesus returns as our King, this hymn gives voice to the hope that is ours though faith. In Jesus, God the Son, you and I can stand strong even though the earth itself melt away. You can expect a big finish!
How will it end? You will be with God, because of Christ the King. To God alone be the glory!