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"The Forgotten King Who Remembers Me"

Christ the King Sunday - Nov.20/16 - Lk.23:33-43


Our Biblical text today is an extremely familiar one – more familiar historically even than the Christmas story! In the early church, it seems Christmas was not even celebrated in the first decades following Jesus’ death: but every year the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and resurrection was annually commemorated, right from the start.

      But today I’d like to look at this very familiar story – Luke’s account of the crucifixion, including the penitent thief on the cross beside Him – through a couple of particular lenses. One is the lens of it being “Christ the King” Sunday, last one before Advent each year in the church calendar. Second is the lens of memory: what it means to forget, and to remember, particularly in the context of dementia. What does it mean for the thief to plead, “Jesus, REMEMBER me?” John Swinton has written the book Dementia: Living in the Memories of God which received an award from the Archbishop of Canterbury, and I highly recommend. But first let’s look at some main points from our text.

      The theme of Jesus’ kingship is all through this passage – even if it doesn’t seem to be very apparent to many of those involved in the story. First, there’s the arrangement of the crosses. V33 “When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals— one on his right, the other on his left.” Jesus as ‘king’ is given the central position, as if with his two attendants or aides on either side. In v36, “The soldiers...offered him wine vinegar...” This is done mockingly – perhaps they bow or kneel as they bring it forward, drawing a laugh from their buddies – but it’s as if they are cupbearers to a sovereign lord.

      There are the texts referred to, both of Scripture and the visible sign on the post above Jesus’ head. V35 “They said, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One."” Those are Scriptural titles - ‘Messiah’, ‘Chosen One’ - recalling prophecies from the Psalms, Isaiah, and elsewhere. There’s a ring of Ps 22:8 “"He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him.Let him deliver him, since he delights in him."” Israel looked for the coming Messiah or Christ who would be its triumphant King.

      From the Roman side, there’s the sign Pilate had drawn up to label this particular criminal’s offence, as a warning or deterrent to passers-by and onlookers. V38 “There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” Of course the Jewish leaders realized this was meant to be ironic, a joke at their expense, an insincere racist jibe, and they tried to have Pilate modify it (unsuccessfully). But the point remains: that was the thrust of their accusation against Jesus to Pilate by which they hoped to have Him killed in the first place. Lk 23:2 “And they began to accuse him, saying, "We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king."” John records Pilate’s opening question in his examination of the accused, Jn 18:33 “Pilate...summoned Jesus and asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?"”

      There’s so much of this “king” emphasis that even the penitent thief picks up on it and uses the same terminology, v42 “Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."” Gk ‘basileia’ - “royal power, kingship, dominion, rule”.

      This week, 600 New Yorkers did not want the label “Trump Place” to grace their buildings any longer; Trump had developed them years ago but no longer owned them. So these hundreds of tenants petitioned successfully for the letters to be removed. They did not want to be associated with the newly-elected president. Not unlike them, most of those gathered near Jesus’ cross did not want Him to be their leader. They rejected His label of “king”. They would prefer to forget Him instead, to see Him killed, gone. V35 “The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him.” V36 “The soldiers also came up and mocked Him.” V39 “One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!"” The people stand in implicit consent; the rulers sneer; soldiers mock; fellow condemned prisoner hurls insults. They can’t forget Him fast enough, it seems.

      The ones who should have known best who this Person was, the religious leaders, had forgotten the scriptures that pointed towards His very coming. Acts 13:27 “The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath.” They forgot God’s inspired promises about the Deliverer He would send for them.

      They didn’t recognize their King. He was stripped naked, not dressed in royal robes. He was hung on a rough cross, not seated on a marble throne. He was shouted at with insults and sneers, rather than cheers and exclamations of praise. What kind of King IS THIS?! Here there is no victory march, no ticker-tape parade, no procession as Roman generals commonly held coming back from a successful campaign with long lines of captives and slaves from the land they’d just subjugated. What kind of ‘king’ can this be? Not one that fits OUR categories! A broken king, a crucified king – one who understands us humans in all our frailty, weakness, and brokenness. Be that physical, mental, or spiritual.

      As a believer looking back on those events, it all seems so ironic. Why didn’t they recognize Him? Couldn’t they situate themselves in their surroundings, acknowledge the wonder of God’s timing, how Scriptures from Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 were being fulfilled before their very eyes?

      In some senses, SIN IS SPIRITUAL DEMENTIA. The word “dementia” comes from a Latin word meaning “out of one’s mind”. Those jeering at Jesus that day just couldn’t put together what their eyes were seeing with the significance of their occasion, they didn’t know what time it was, the “kairos” or critical juncture in spiritual history God was orchestrating.

      Sin in general is theological craziness. As supposed Christ-followers, it’s as if we’ve suddenly developed a severe case of amnesia. We forget who Jesus is; in the moment of committing deliberate sin, we choose to not acknowledge He really is Lord of our life. Paul writes of unbelieving Jews in 2Corinthians, 3:14-15 “But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read...Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts.” And 4:4 “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Minds “blinded”, minds “made dull” – sin is spiritual dementia! Like a confused person wandering around not knowing where they are, when we’re sinning we’re forgetting how to “place” ourselves in relation to God’s sovereign position and claim on our lives.


They’re all crazy, mad – the onlookers, the rulers, the soldiers, that other criminal hurling insults... In this text in the whole crowd listed, there’s only one truly “sane” person in the bunch! One person who recognizes the truth about the situation. One person who can get his bearings and orient himself accurately to the King who is right before him. Everybody else is “lost”, confused, but this man knows where he is, what’s happening, and what he needs to do next – before he draws his last breath.

      Vv40-41 “But the other criminal rebuked him. "Don’t you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong."” Now, THAT’S the truth! He recognizes Jesus’ innocence, as Pilate had done previously, in vv4, 15, 22; and Pilate implies King Herod as well had failed to find fault in Jesus. Vv14f “I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him.Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death.”

      Everybody else was speaking untruth about Jesus – slander, insults, mocking; only this voice speaks the truth, identifies the reality of it all despite the smokescreen: “This man has done nothing wrong.” The tragic but true verdict is announced boldly, not by the religious leaders, but by a nobody, a condemned criminal. Yet it was the most significant truth of the day: an innocent man was being crucified on account of others. Isaiah 53:5 “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”

      The penitent thief cries out to the battered, bloody, and half-dead form on the cross next to him, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” “When” – not “if”. That’s solid faith, trusting something WILL happen, without question. The man didn’t have any good works to boast of or barter with as if they could earn his way into heaven. And Jesus accepted his simple trust. V43 “Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."”


“Jesus, remember me...” To be remembered by God is pretty special: it’s unlike being remembered by another mortal. In Hebrew understanding, memory is always connected with the will not simply with thought. When God remembers someone, it’s with a view to take supportive action toward them. Genesis 8:1 “But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded.” Genesis 19:29 “So when God destroyed the cities of the plain, he remembered Abraham, and he brought Lot out of the catastrophe that overthrew the cities where Lot had lived.” Genesis 30:22 “Then God remembered Rachel; he listened to her and opened her womb.” 1Samuel 1:19f “Elkanah lay with Hannah his wife, and the LORD remembered her.So in the course of time Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son.” Revelation 16:19 “The great city split into three parts, and the cities of the nations collapsed. God remembered Babylon the Great and gave her the cup filled with the wine of the fury of his wrath.”

      Do you see the connection? When God remembers someone, it’s MASSIVELY significant – something’s going to happen. The “remembering” is very ACTIVE, has consequences or effect.

      Even when Jesus is undergoing severe agony, hanging on the cross, He REMEMBERS others with a view to saving action. How many of US would be prompted to pray for those who are insulting and torturing us? Yet see how Jesus remembers others in v34, “Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."”

      Forgiveness is God remembering to forget – to forget all our sins and misdeeds! Isaiah 43:25 “"I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” Jeremiah 31:34 (a very precious passage pointing from the Old Covenant into the New) “No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," declares the LORD. "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more."”

      Aren’t you glad God remembers to have a poor memory when it comes to your trespasses?!


We may become anxious to pray, “Jesus, remember me,” especially as we get older. There are many things that can affect our mental capacity, from brain injuries to cancer to Alzheimer’s. John Swinton in his book on dementia identifies a definite bias in our Western society – one that may make us especially apprehensive of losing our mental faculties. He cites Stephen Post who observes, “We live in a culture that is the child of rationalism and capitalism, so clarity of mind and economic productivity determine the value of human life.” Post’s term “hypercognition” “relates to the tendency within Western liberal cultures to isolate intellect, reason, and rationality and identify these aspects of human beings as having particular moral and social significance.” Thus there’s a distinct bias toward diseases which affect intellect and rationality.

      In his book, Swinton talks about a couple of traps we can fall into in relating to those suffering from dementia. One is “malignant social psychology” – this refers to “social environments in which the forms of interpersonal interactions and communications that occur diminish the personhood of those people experiencing that environment...A simple example of malignant social psychology would be not thinking twice about talking about a person as if he/she were not there: ‘He won’t remember!’; ‘She can’t understand’; ‘He’s not really the person he used to be, so. . .?’ Similarly, we might find ourselves making comparisons between the individual with dementia and a child: ‘She’s just like a child...’ ...Similarly, we may belittle this person by ignoring her, by not consulting her about things that are important in her life, or by acting treacherously by tricking her into situations ‘for her own good.’ ‘We're just going for a Sunday drive,’ we might say to her — when in fact we're taking her to a care home where she'll spend the rest of her life with strangers.”

      Another trap to be wary of is called “malignant social positioning” – positioning someone in a social encounter in such as way that their personhood is threatened. For example, there’s a big difference between a woman introducing her husband to you by saying, “This is my husband John; he has dementia” versus “This is John, my husband.” In the former case, Swinton says, “He has lost his multifaceted role as a functioning husband and has acquired a primary identity as someone who has dementia.”


Swinton urges us to go beyond thinking of diseases like dementia as simply neurological or biological. There are important social and spiritual components as well. In fact, the social dynamic can negatively impact the person’s neurological health!

      The church has a role in helping those with dementia realize they are “re-membered” by God even when they no longer have their own faculty of memory. Swinton says: “God’s memory is for the purpose of re-membering. To re-member something is to bring back together that which has been fragmented. In terms of the redemption of humanity, to be re-membered by God is to be reconstituted and brought back together, moved from a state of fragmentation to one of wholeness in God: shalom. To be held and remembered by God implies some form of divine action toward the object of the memory...God acts in particular ways toward people because of a previous commitment. In other words, God remembers because God promises. God remembers God’s hesed: God’s great mercy and love (Ps. 25:6-7).” Ps 25:6f “Remember, O LORD, your great mercy and love, for they are from of old.”

      Often music remains deep in the memory even after other cognitive ability has disappeared, for example, the elderly woman who can’t put a sentence together but still plays the piano beautifully and can even transpose on-the-fly. When the community of God’s people gather to worship, then, our collective memory in singing songs together can become a powerful means of including those with dementia as they find they too can actually participate in the worship experience.

      An example... Swinton refers to neurologist Oliver Sacks who tells of “Jimmie”, a former sailor whose memory had been destroyed by Korsakov’s syndrome. Jimmie could remember things prior to 1945, but nothing since. “They had been talking for twenty minutes or so when Sacks left the room briefly. When he returned, Jimmie seemed surprised to see him. In a matter of seconds his conversation with Sacks had disappeared from his memory, and he was starting his encounter with Sacks all over again. Sacks described Jimmie as ‘de-souled.’ The disease had, he thought, stripped Jimmie of something essential to what he was as a human being. From a neurological perspective, Sacks felt that the person Jimmie had been had gone — his soul had gone.

      “But those close to Jimmie saw something different. One of the nurses said to Sacks, ‘Watch Jimmie in chapel and judge for yourself.’”

      [Sacks writes] “I did, and I was moved, profoundly moved and impressed, because I saw here an intensity and steadfastness of attention and concentration that I had never seen before in him or conceived him capable of...Fully, intensely, quietly, in the quietude of absolute concentration and attention, he entered and partook of the Holy Communion. He was wholly held, absorbed, by a feeling. There was no forgetting, no Korsakov’s then, nor did it seem possible or imaginable that there should be.”

      Swinton remarks, “The intensity and power of that unique and special moment was the transformative force that held him, made his life hopeful, and changed the perspectives of those who knew him from hopelessness to hopefulness. This change of perspective allowed others to hold Jimmie well.”

      The author says elsewhere: “At the heart of God’s intimate knowing of human beings lies God’s remembering of us. In Psalm 8:4 the psalmist asks the wistful question of what it is to be a human being: “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” The adjective “mindful” derives from the verb “remember”...God is mindful of human beings. To be human is to be held in the memory of God. God watches over human beings, knows them intimately, and remembers them.”

      And: “All of this helps us to get a clearer understanding of what human identity might look like and how it might be sustained even in the most severe dementia. We are who we are because God remembers us and holds us in who we are. We are who we are now and we will be who we will be in the future because God continues to remember us. Theologically, our identity relates to the ‘me’ that God sees and remembers.”

      Finally: “Memory is thus seen to be both internal and external. Some of it is held by the individual; some of it is held by her community; all of it is held by God...When some things about ourselves are far from clear in our own minds, we are able to experience a sense of self through the memories of us held by those around us, through the stories they tell about us. Memory, like mind and personhood, is corporate through and through.” “The church, then, is called to become an attentive community of memory and hope that understands what it means to remember people with dementia and to act accordingly.” Let’s pray.