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What If You Could Change the Ending? / Last Sunday of the Church Year

Luke 23:33-43

39One of the criminals who were hanged railed at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” 40But the 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.” 42And he said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” 43And He said to Him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

Have you ever gotten really upset with the ending to a book or movie? If the ending is too unexpected, or too weak, or if they kill off your favorite character, it can ruin the whole story for you. In other cases, the ending might be offensive to some people, but that’s a risk you take when you go to the movies. Case in point Alfred Hitchcock movies.

Here’s something you may not know. Movie censors in China are allowed to change the ending to movies to protect Chinese citizens from “scenes that might disturb social order or impart criminal methods.”  If you’re familiar with the movie Fight Club, which starred Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, it’s got a violent ending. Edward Norton’s character kills Brad Pitt’s character, and then a bomb explodes, causing a bunch of buildings to burst into flames. The burning buildings are visual images of Norton’s desire to destroy modern civilization.

Well, this ending didn’t make it past the movie censors in China. Before they would show the movie in theaters, they changed the ending. The last few minutes of the movie are cut out. The movie ends with a screen image of a large sign that says the police caught all the bad guys, they prevented the bomb from exploding, Edward Norton’s character spent time in a sanitarium where he received psychological treatment, and he was discharged from the sanitarium in 2012. So, if you’re a big fan of Fight Club, now you know the Chinese version has an unexpected happy ending.

But what if we had the power to change the ending to a true story to make it as happy or as chaotic or as unexpected as we wanted? There’s a genre of books in the publishing world that does exactly that. It’s called “alternate history” or “counterfactual history.” The authors of “alternate history” books take one major event or influential person in history and imagine what the world would be like if that event had never happened or that person had never been born. The book Virtual History contains essays from eight historians answering questions like, “What if Germany had won World War II? What if John F. Kennedy had never been assassinated?” And they use a lot of research and their vast knowledge of history to construct a totally different ending to a true story.

That’s a mind-boggling idea, isn’t it? What if? What if one major event in world history had never happened? What if Vladmir Putin had never been born, or had decided not to attack Ukraine? Or, more important, what if Jesus Christ had been unwilling to go to the cross in our behalf?

Think about that question as I read our Bible passage for today from Luke 23, the story of Jesus’ death. This passage begins, when they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified Him there, along with the criminals, one on His right, the other on His left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up His clothes by casting lots.

The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at Him. They said, He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.

The soldiers also came up and mocked Him. They offered Him wine vinegar and said, if You are the king of the Jews, save Yourself.

There was a written notice above Him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.

One of the criminals who hung there, hurled insults at Him: aren’t You the Messiah? Save Yourself and us! But the other criminal criticized 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.

Then he said, Jesus, remember me when You come into your kingdom. Jesus answered him, Truly I tell you, today you will be with Me in paradise.

Three times, the question was asked of Jesus, If He is God’s Messiah, if You are the king of the Jews, aren’t You the Messiah? Save Yourself and us! This is a déjà vu moment for Jesus. He’s heard these words before. In Luke 4, Satan presented Jesus with three temptations in the desert, and taunted Him with the words, if You are the Son of God. Three times, He was given the opportunity to change the ending to the story. Three times Jesus refused. And in Matthew 26, Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane just before His arrest. Three times He prayed and wrestled with His calling. Three more times, He was given the opportunity to change the ending to the story. Three times, Jesus refused. And here, as He hung on the cross in agonizing pain, with crowds shouting at Him and rulers mocking Him and soldiers gambling over His clothes, Jesus was given three opportunities to change the ending to the story. If You are the Messiah, save Yourself. And He refused. Why? The people in the crowd that day were questioning the power of the Messiah because they didn’t understand the purpose of the Messiah.

Think about this statement, our actions define us. Not what we say, not what we intend to do, not what we feel. It’s what we do that reveals our true character and values and priorities. And we are also defined by what we choose NOT to do.

It’s what we do, and what we choose not to do, that reveals our true character and values and priorities. This is never more true than in times of crisis. What we choose to do or not do in that crucial moment reveals who we really are. Our choices, to act or not to act, can literally change the ending to our story. On this last Sunday of the church year, I’d like us to look at what Jesus chose to do and not to do when His life, and the salvation of the world, hung in the balance.

On the cross Jesus chose to offer forgiveness and mercy for those who didn’t deserve it. Jesus had already undergone beatings and humiliation by the soldiers before they nailed Him to the cross and hung him there to die. Our passage goes on to reveal that the crowds were watching Him, the rulers were sneering at Him, the soldiers were mocking Him, and one of the thieves insulted Him. We can’t even imagine the horror, the humiliation, the agony and the abandonment Jesus suffered in these moments. God in the flesh looked at His enemies and He chose to forgive them. He set aside wrath in favor of restoration.

Our actions define us. What we choose to do, or not to do, reveal our truth. In Jesus’ worst and most agonizing moment, He chose to forgive His enemies and grant salvation to a dying thief. And on the cross, Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, chose not to save Himself, but to save humankind instead.

In Matthew 26, when Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, He says, do you think I cannot call on My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way? All power in heaven and on earth is available to Him. He could have changed the ending to the story. But He chose to suffer and die in our place to heal our broken relationship with God. The King of Kings took our place so that we could have eternal life with God.

A Franciscan priest served in the Korean War and tells the story of how he and his best friend, Ray, enlisted together and served in the same Marine platoon. One night a grenade landed in the foxhole where he and Ray were sheltered. Ray threw his body over the grenade and died to save his friend. Years later, he visited Ray’s mother in Brooklyn. In the course of their conversation, he asked her, do you think Ray loved me? She up, shook her finger in his face and shouted, what more could he have done for you? At that moment he pictured himself standing before the cross of Jesus wondering, does God really love me? And Jesus’ mother Mary pointing to her son, saying, what more could He have done for you?

And that’s what I want to ask you this morning: what more could Jesus have done for you? He had the choice to destroy His enemies. He had the choice to save Himself. He had the choice to change the ending to His story. And He gave it all up to save humankind from the penalty of sin and death. Our actions define us. And in His worst moments, Jesus chose to suffer and die because of His love for us. When you look at the cross, can you really ask the question, does God really love me?