6th Midweek Lenten Service
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, there was a man in the congregation where I vicared who had somehow been struck by lightning or injured by lightning years before I knew him. I don’t know all of the details, but I do know that because he was hospitalized from the lightning injury the doctors discovered the early stages of some form of aggressive cancer that he had and were able to treat it right away. He is now quite healthy and continually thankful for being struck by lightning. That’s ironic, isn’t it? That he could be thankful for such a terrible event as being struck by lightning. Perhaps you have a similar irony in your life- that you’re actually thankful for some terrible event. Well, we have such an irony today as we look at the thief on the cross.
Imagine the most humiliating situation you’ve ever found yourself in. I’m going to guess that each one of us at some point or another has been humiliated or at least quite embarrassed. I’m also going to guess that none of us really enjoyed that feeling all that much. Crucifixion was absolutely humiliating. We don’t usually talk about all the details but it’s generally thought that the criminals who were crucified were hung up naked – or at most very little on. That would be humiliating. It took a long time to prolong not just the humiliation, but also the pain. It was also done in a very public place so that many people would pass by and they could make fun of you. They’re mocking him, hurling insults at him. Then to top it off, Jesus is crucified between two criminals. Now, the death penalty doesn’t usually apply to pickpockets and shoplifters, right? No, the death penalty goes to people who are really, really bad. These criminals were terrible people.
Here we’re told about something one of them said, but in the other gospels we’re told that both criminals were also hurling insults at Jesus. “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
Now, it could be easy for us to look at this account and point fingers of blame at everyone there, right? The chief priests, the Pharisees, the teachers of the law – their hate and jealousy that blinded them and sent Jesus to the cross. Pilate and Herod and their self-centeredness in not standing up for justice. The people who yelled, “Crucify, crucify him!” The disciples who all abandoned Jesus and fled. The real responsibility, the real blame for Jesus being on that cross really falls on not just them, but also on us. Our self-centeredness, our jealousy, our envy of other people, our impatience, our anger, our pride, those sent Jesus to the cross, those sent Jesus to be humiliated in the worst possible way. So, as we look at those criminals – that’s exactly what we deserve: death and damnation.
But isn’t that ironic? “Save yourself and us!” Jesus COULD have saved Himself, He could have come down from the cross, He could have showed His almighty power, but then He wouldn’t have saved us! He had to stay on the cross, He couldn’t save Himself if He wanted to save us! And we see that! Not only did he not come down from the cross, but in the midst of horrible humiliation, pain, and suffering Jesus is still seeking to save. And we see it.
The other criminal rebukes the other criminal: “Don’t you fear God 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. Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Somehow, someway through what he saw and what he heard about Jesus, the Holy Spirit worked faith in his heart and he believed in Jesus as his Savior! And so, this man, this horrible criminal, one so horrible society had determined to execute, looks to Jesus to give him a crumb of mercy. And what’s Jesus going to say? “No way!” Right? I mean, this guy? There can’t be room in heaven for such a horrible, terrible, good for nothing guy, right?
Wrong! Jesus says the exact opposite: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” This guy, this horrible guy, gets heaven! Yep! That’s what Jesus said!
And thank God that He did! That thief on the cross is no better than you and no better than me. We’re all in the same boat. One sin makes us as guilty as committing every sin. That makes all of us standing before God as completely guilty and deserving to be sent to hell forever. But in amazing grace, that’s not what God wants to give us! He wants to give us eternal life, He wants to give us a home in heaven! He works and rules even in his death in order to save people!
It’s kind of ironic to think about, but that criminal on the worst day of his life as he’s dying on a cross, he never felt better in his life! Because he’s going to be with Jesus. He’s going to be in paradise forever. What a crazy day for this guy! That morning the thief had seen his prison cell and been led out to die. That afternoon he saw death fast approaching and hells jaws yawning. But that evening he’d be enjoying paradise with his Savior. Sure he was in immense physical pain, but he had the peace that surpasses understanding, his sins, every one were forgiven, he heard right from his Savior’s lips! He probably couldn’t wait to end his suffering and be with his Savior.
And so it is the same with you and me. You and I are the criminals hanging on the cross. You and I are the ones who have committed horrible crime after horrible crime against our King. But you and I are the ones that look at our Savior, our King with believing hearts and say, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And our King looks at us no longer like we are criminals who have lost our way but like we are his sons and daughters and says, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
So, ironically, even our worst days in life are still the best days, because Jesus is still our Savior, because heaven is still our home, because our Savior is still leading us through our best days and our worst days to the final goal of paradise with Him forever. Amen.