There are times in this life when we feel like the greatest. Everything is going our way, the whole world is ours for the taking, life is wonderful and so are we. But then there are times when we feel like the least. Nothing is gong right, everything is set up against us, life is terrible and we feel the same way. There are plenty among us who know this last feeling full well. And I dare say, as each one of us is reminded of our own mortality; our sin and our failings; our weakness and inabilities, these feelings only grow stronger. So what do you do then? Do you rail against it all, because deep down you know you are greater and not lesser? Or do you cave n and crumple up, because you cannot fight it any longer?
These are the very issues we see playing out in our Gospel reading for this Last Sunday of the Church year. You may have thought it out of place and better suited for Good Friday than an End-times observance. But nothing could be further from the truth. In the events of our Gospel we have Jesus’ own definitive answer to those who think they are greater and those who know they are least. And it is an answer that will flip each on their heads.
27There followed [Jesus] a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him. 28But turning to them Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.29For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ 30Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ 31For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
Here are Jesus’ final words to the crowds before He is crucified. Words are meant to bring them from remorse to repentance and faith! He has for them four warnings. Warnings for the greatest to the least. They have gathered to mourn Him, but He tells them they have it all wrong. The should not pity Him, for He pities all Jerusalem’s residents over what is to come. But not just all Jerusalem, in particular the women and children. For the women and children are always more vulnerable in times of destruction. But His warning is not just to them, but even further down the rung to the barren and childless, those normally seen as bearing the shame of God’s judgment, yet even this shame will be preferred to the coming suffering. Finally He warns that the suffering for one and all will be so great that their greatest wish will be to die quickly.
For, He says, If the Romans do this to one they have pronounced innocent, what will the do to a rebellious city? If the punishment of the cross lays today on His shoulders, what weight of destruction will be laid on their rebellious hearts? And some who heard were cut to the heart, and knew the cost of their sin, understood their place as the least of people under God’s righteous judgment. But not all …
35And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” And so, from a four-fold warning comes the response in a four-fold mocking of our Lord, again, from the greatest to the least. First come the rulers, the members of the Jewish high council. They admit that Jesus saved and raised others! But by their reasoning, if He can’t do it for Himself He’s not the Messiah. Next come the soldiers with their sour wine for a dying man. A bit of sport at His expense. Next the little people who read the title with scoffing and derision. kings save themselves, not their people. One on the cross can do neither. Thus the sign placed there by Pilate to mock the Jews as much as Jesus. And finally, even the lowest of the low, the thief on the cross beside him, a common criminal, a worthless ne’er-do-well, mocks Jesus by calling out “You think you are better than me? Save us all!”
And this lies at the heart of the matter doesn’t it. No matter how little, how least, our hearts think we are greater than we are. Great enough to serve as judge and jury over the Lord God Himself. We are the ones who know better, we are the ones who will tell God to lighten up. We are the ones who let God know how and when He can show His love for us. We are the ones who think we, abject sinners that we are, get an equal say with God. And Jesus’ response? “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
But one fellow understood his sin enough. One person confronted by the warnings of God and the consequences of his sin offered no insult but rather a confession. A confession from the least to the greatest. 40the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” This man got it. This man understood. He was the least in the presence of the greatest. One deserving only punishment and death in the presence of the man who deserved not mocking but glory and praise! One who’s only recourse was to confess and fall upon the mercy of God’s righteous one. 42And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And in answer comes a promise from the greatest to the least. 43And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” It is perhaps the most sobering and profound of all conversations in Holy Scripture. A model of confession for those who think too highly of themselves. A promise of forgiveness for those who know they are the least of the least. A gift for those who have nothing of them self to bring. A glorious and eternal gift to one who is dying.
Jesus was crucified that we may be spared the coming judgment, hear His word of absolution, and enter into paradise with Him. He not only saved others, but is also the messianic King who saves us. No matter where our lives have led us. No matter what we have done. We all justly deserve God’s judgment because of our sinful deeds. Yet, because Jesus sacrificed Himself for us all, we have His word of absolution, as surely as that thief on the cross. The Father has forgiven us in Christ! We have the promise that after all the suffering of this life is over we will be with Him in paradise. It is the promise of the very greatest, to one and all, even the very least! AMEN.