This is another one of those texts I’ve looked forward to preaching. It has some of the most wonderful, comforting gospel you’ll find. Each Christian can pray the words of the thief and know that they have Christ for their very own, His righteousness, the peace He gives, because they are words of faith in Him, the Crucified and Risen One.
Something I had wanted to bring in with the sermon, but it didn’t work out, was to note how the words of the repentant malefactor are used in some versions of Compline. Compline is the last office of the Daily Office, or the Liturgy of the Hours, as it’s sometimes known. (What’s the Daily Office, you ask? Stay tuned for more in the future!) Compline was the last period of time a monk would take to pray before retiring for the night, and it often included the repentant malefactor’s words. Not all settings do; the ones put out by our synod have them. I grew into a new appreciation of those words during my time in college, where Compline would regularly be celebrated on campus. Compline forms a reassuring and solidly Biblical way for a Christian to close out his or her day, as the words of the thief form a beautiful prayer that any Christian can use as his or her own. Peace be with you.
“The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.”
36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
38 There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.
39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
43 Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”” (luke 23.35-43 niv)
One of the scariest things for many people is loss of control. To find yourself in a position where you could be in danger or in pain and unable to do anything about it is a scary thought. We don’t like that. We prefer to be able to move around, do what we want, avoid what hurts us or what will take away our freedom. Whether you’re waiting for test results to come back for yourself or someone you love, you’re waiting to find out if you’ll survive the latest round of layoffs at work, or you’re recovering from an illness or an injury, not having control over your life, not being in control of what happens to you, is unsettling. We want to be the ones who direct our own course, who decide where to go and what to do – but it doesn’t always work out that way. In our gospel for today, two men face the ultimate loss of control. They have their lives taken from them by force as punishment for their crimes. Only one of the men, however, finds peace and comfort that transcends his loss of control. That peace and comfort comes from the Man on the middle cross, the Man who was more than just a man. He was God’s Son and King over all, even though He sure didn’t look like it. Come with me and we’ll take a look at the scene around The King on the Cross.
There wasn’t that big of a difference among the people who clustered around Jesus’ cross. Everybody at Golgotha on that Good Friday, except Jesus Himself, was in the same situation. The only difference is that some of them were more aware of it than others. They were all at different points in their journey, but they were all on the same path. Let’s look at each of them and see what they can teach us.
Look at the crowds who gather around Jesus’ cross. Some of them shout insults at the Man in the middle, the one they called the Teacher. Most just stare. They gaze on this wreck of a man, abused and bloodied beyond recognition. They don’t know who this really is, or what He’s doing up there on the cross. They gape at Him without understanding what they’re looking at. There’s a lot of people like that in the world today, who encounter Jesus in His Word or in His house and yet don’t know what they’re looking at. They might be in church for a wedding or a funeral and hear something of the gospel message. They might have a coworker, a friend, or a relative who tries to explain the ways of God to them, but they don’t get it. They see Jesus for a little while, but then He seems to pass out of their life as they move on. They miss what Jesus gives them through His cross.
Look at the chief priests and teachers of the law, the religious leaders. They all turned out to cackle and holler insults at Christ. They don’t want to miss any of this. “If He really is the Christ, God’s Chosen One, He’ll come down. Oh, you’re not? Well, guess you’re not the Christ then.” The titles they use for Jesus – the Christ of God, the Chosen One – they’re very specific. It wasn’t from ignorance that they killed Jesus. They knew exactly who He was, and they murdered Him because their hearts were evil. There’s a lot of people like them in the world today, too. They flaunt their unbelief in Christ and they attack anyone who looks or acts like a Christian, because that’s their way to attack Christ Himself directly. They feel safe in blaspheming Christ, because what’s He going to do to them? Their thoughts are well captured in the Psalms: “How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?” What’s He going to do to me?
The soldiers are a lot like them too. They offer Jesus the same cheap sour wine they’re drinking with their lunch. They didn’t have Mountain Dew or Pepsi back then, so working people drank sour wine. It was cheap and it quenched your thirst. They find it immensely entertaining as one of them holds up his jug of wine to the Man on the cross: “Hey buddy – you look thirsty. Want some? Just reach down and grab it.” Then they all laugh. There’s a lot of people like them in the world today. They just plain don’t know who Jesus really is. They know His name, know a little bit about Him, but they neither trust in Him nor care what He thinks, or even if He exists. So they make fun of what they do not know. They harden themselves for the day of God’s wrath.
The criminals who hang on the cross join in. They rail on Christ. “If you really are the Christ, then save Yourself and us!” Their attitude is a common one today. People make demands of Jesus without any faith in Him all the time. Heal my sick child! Give me a job! Keep my aging parent alive! Pay my rent! Give me some meaning and purpose in my life! Fix me already! Then when God’s plans turn out not to be their plans, they rail on Christ. You call yourself God? Why won’t you help me? You’re worthless! They turn their backs on Him because He will not fulfill their unbelieving demands. They miss the real importance of Jesus’ cross.
All those different kinds of people, all those different attitudes, still face the biggest loss of control possible: God’s final judgment on sin. One day God will punish those who do not believe in His Son and whose lives show it. They will be cut off from the land of the living and shut out by the majesty of His glory on the day He comes to visit us. Then the Man on the cross will be seen as just a man no more. He will be seen as Lord and Judge of all the earth. When God judges you, you have no say. There is no excuse or plea bargain you can enter that will save you. There is no escape from God’s righteous judgment. Many will be judged against their will on the Last Day, and it will be just because that’s what their unbelief deserves. All people have proof that this is true. You know what their proof is? Everybody dies. The soul who sins is the one who shall die, and you’re going to die. I am too, unless the Lord comes back first. The two thieves on the cross understood that better than anybody else at that moment. With every labored breath they felt God’s judgment drawing closer. They had the worst judgment man can pass carried out on them, and they knew God’s judgment was coming too. We are not exempt from that judgment of God. We have sinned as surely as they, and if we do not repent our punishment will be worse than theirs. That is the ultimate loss of control: when God says, “Depart from me, you evildoers.”
Against the inevitability of God’s judgment, one of the criminals finds the cure. He finds the way to be saved. He’s in the exact same situation as the other criminal, but he is liberated from eternal punishment even as his body dies in this world. And how does he find life even as the tides of death rise around him? How does find escape from the justice of God? “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” That’s all he prays. The only thing he has the strength left to say as his life slips away, but it’s enough. It’s everything. If you feel the inevitability of God’s judgment for yourself – if you feel like God is coming down on you for something and you want to be free from His wrath — pray with that thief.
Jesus, I know that You are far more than what You look like right now. You are the Son of God. You are the King over all the universe. You are accomplishing everything I was never able to give God. Your suffering and Your dying, Your groaning and Your sighing – they’re for me. Your death is not like my death. I die for my sin, but You’ve done nothing wrong. You are the innocent Son of God, yet You bear my sin. You are dying for my sins, and Your death satisfies the wrath of God. Because of You, I am holy. I am fit for heaven. You are my King. So Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom. Do not forget me. Remember and recall me, otherwise I will not live.
Then hear Jesus’ answer and know that it’s meant for you: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with Me in paradise.” I – the Son of God, not just a man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Your sins are all forgiven by what I’m suffering as I hang here. My blood covers all your offenses and washes you whiter than snow. Do not fear death, for I conquer death by my death for sin and I will give you eternal life with me in the light and glory of heaven. This is the word of a King. What I decree is done and no one can take it back. I guarantee that you will be saved. You are mine – you are my own, through faith in My blood and suffering for you. Hide yourself in my wounds and find eternal security and peace.
The only words Jesus speaks in this whole text are, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with Me in paradise.” He doesn’t respond to the mockers. He doesn’t defend Himself or explain what He’s doing. The only words the thief hears are, “Today you will be with Me in paradise” – and those where the only words he needed. Those are the only words we too hear when our sins bother us – when we’re scared of death – when we are unsure about where we stand with God. Look to the Man in the middle and you’ll know. Put your trust in Him, and He will give you a share in the victory He won on the cross.
In a few short hours Jesus would be dead. But Jesus lives again, and one day He will return to show His kingship over all creation by raising that thief and all the dead back to life, some to be judged, others to be welcomed into eternal life. To anybody standing there, it was a hopeless exchange: two men dying on crosses, one confessing his faith in the other and the other absolving him of all his sins. It seems so pointless to the world, but to us who believe in Christ, our King, it’s life. It’s how we live now. We confess Christ. We confess that He is our Lord and our King, the One who guides and rules our lives. He has redeemed us and we gladly speak of it with anybody who will listen. We speak up and rebuke the godless and the mockers, just as the repentant thief did, boldly and frankly and without fear of the consequences. We gladly praise the Man who hung on the middle cross as our Lord, our Savior, the Son of God who forgives our sins and will come again. We are not ashamed to have such a one as our King, because who else can do what He can do? Who else can guarantee us heaven? Who else makes it come true when it’s our turn to die? Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. Amen.