Scripture: Luke 23:35-43
2nd Sunday of Lent: Today You Will Be With Me in Paradise (2/6)
Other sermons in this series
“The Seven Last Words of Christ”
- #1: Father, Forgive Them
- #3: My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?
- #4: Woman, Here Is Your Son
- #5: I Am Thirsty
- #6: Into Your Hands…It Is Finished
How can you know for sure that something is true, especially if it has the appearance of not being true?
I once read about a large law firm in New York City whose owner presented every attorney with a fresh turkey just days before Thanksgiving. One year, a few of them thought they’d play a prank on a colleague who happened to be single. They secretly swapped out his fresh turkey with a paper mâché turkey, and added the necessary weight so that he wouldn’t be able to tell the difference when carrying it home.
The following Monday they couldn’t wait to hear how their friend reacted when he unwrapped his turkey. Imagine their horror when he shared with them that on his way home that day on the subway, he saw a young mother with a number of children, and it seemed pretty clear to him that they probably couldn’t afford a Thanksgiving turkey. Being single, and knowing that he’d never be able to eat it all, he approached the woman and explained how’d been given a large turkey from his boss but wouldn’t be able to eat it, and would she be able to take it home and cook it? His generosity brought tears to her eyes as she received his gift, knowing the difference it would make for her family. Imagine her horror and embarrassment when, upon arriving home and unwrapping this gift, she discovered that she’s been the victim of a terrible prank. From her perspective, the man on the train had purposely played a cruel trick on her and her family, no doubt on account of their poverty. But the truth was, he earnestly believed he was giving her a fresh turkey for thanksgiving as a gesture of love.
The fact is truth isn’t always as it appears.
Last week, I began my message by saying that the week of Passover had begun with so much promise for Jesus and his disciples. To the crowd who celebrated his arrival into Jerusalem, everything they saw indicated that Zechariah’s prophecy about the coming Messiah was unfolding just as they believed it would. Everybody knew what Messiah’s role would be, what he would do when he finally arrived. According to the collective wisdom of their day as taught by the religious leaders for generations, Messiah would be a political leader. And as such, he would utilize his divine power to cast down the Roman empire and raise up the Israelites to their former position of glory and strength. Messiah would be a king who would rule from his earthly throne in the manner of his ancestor, David. This was accepted as an indisputable fact. What was it they shouted that day as he made his way into the city?
“Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Matthew 21:9)
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Luke 19:38)
The apparent truth was that Messiah would come with power to destroy evil earthly empires. And from their perspective, Jesus was their man!
Five days later, Jesus was hanging on a cross, clinging to his own life. And who’d put him there but Roman soldiers, the very people they were certain he came to abolish! And thus began the taunting and mocking of Jesus. “He saved others; let him save himself if he’s the Messiah” (Luke 23:35). Nailed to the cross above his head was the formal charge brought against him. It read, “This is the king of the Jews.” This resulted in the soldiers joining in on the mocking of Jesus: “If you really are the king of the Jews, save yourself” (v. 37). And from one of the criminals also being crucified, “Aren’t you the Christ? Then save yourself and us!” (v. 39)
Do you hear what they’re all saying? IF you’re the Christ…IF you’re the Son of God…IF you’re Messiah. Susan Robb sums up their viewpoint this way:
“To the crowd, Jesus certainly doesn’t look like any messiah they could ever imagine. What kind of messiah dies like a common criminal? What kind of king with the power to drive out the Romans gets captured and executed by the Romans? What kind of Son of God is allowed by his all-powerful Father to endure a painful, humiliating death like this?”
To almost every Jew who looked upon Jesus that day, it seemed they’d been duped into believing a lie. It was obvious to everyone that Jesus was not who he claimed to be.
One exception was the other criminal being crucified alongside Jesus. According to Matthew, both criminals mocked Jesus from their crosses (see Matthew 27:44). We have no reason to doubt this report. However, at some point, it seems one of them had a change of heart. Rebuking his partner in crime, this unnamed second criminal says, “Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die? We’re rightly condemned, for we’re receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong” (v. 40).
What changed his mind about Jesus? Well, we can only guess, because we’re not told what happened within him that enabled him to see the real truth about Jesus. However, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he was part of the crowd that hailed his arrival into Jerusalem. Maybe he was present for and listened to Jesus’s public teachings that week. Maybe, over the course of the week he witnessed Jesus healing people. Obviously, that’s all conjecture on our part. But the fact is, while dying on his own cross, something within him was transformed. Having experienced the same barbaric treatment and physical agony of crucifixion, maybe he overheard Jesus’s prayer, “Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing,” and suddenly realized that there was far more to Jesus than what meets the eye. In the midst of the cacophony of jeering voices, he’s listened to Jesus’s words and understands what others do not: that Jesus is innocent of any crime against the state or against the Law of Moses. But more importantly, he understands that Jesus really is a king, and that Jesus’s death on a cross will neither end his kingship nor keep his kingdom from coming.
God opened his heart to see and know the truth about Jesus. Robb describes his response this way: “Hanging from the cross next to Jesus, in his last moments of life, he becomes a follower of the Messiah. He has no time to repent of his earlier deeds, but in following Jesus he has lived out the literal meaning of the term [‘repentance’]: he has turned around and pointed himself in a different direction.” Seeing Jesus for who he truly is, this newest follower makes the request, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Asking to be remembered by God in itself is a request for deliverance. It’s an appeal to God’s promise of salvation. Scripture is full of examples of God “remembering” his people, “remembering” his promises and, as a result, rescuing them. On the flip side, many psalms ask God to “not remember” the sins of the past but, instead, to remember his precious promises to blot out those transgressions. Just as God has remembered his people through the generations, bringing them through their times of trial and forgiving them their sins, so also remember me the thief asks of Jesus.
His request of Jesus to remember him has been described as a profession of faith – that Jesus is a king and that those who are crucifying him have no power over his kingdom. He asks Jesus to set aside his transgressions and remember him, not for his past actions, but according to the newly minted condition of his heart, and according to Jesus’s unfailing love and mercy—the same mercy Jesus prayed for the Father to show those ignorant of the consequences of their heinous behaviors.
How does Jesus respond? So, sorry. If only you’d asked this yesterday! At this point, I’m afraid it’s too little, too late? No.
How about, Well, that’s a good start. But what I really need to hear you say are the words, and I quote, “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.” That way I’ll know for sure you’ve repented of your former ways? Again, no. He lovingly responds, “Brother, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
The wording of this particular promise of Jesus has often elicited the question about what’s meant by the word “paradise.” Is it another name for heaven? Is it a place we go to when we die? Or is it something altogether different?
Salvation “is not a blessing which lies on the other side of death….It is not something at a distance: it is a present thing, a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, [you] are now in possession of.”John Wesley
Well, for the sake of today’s message, let’s go with this: based on various biblical imagery and wording and references, ‘paradise’ can be described as the fruition of the kingdom of God where one is with Christ–in the presence of God. Beginning today, Jesus promises the man, you will no longer be defined as a criminal crucified for his crimes.You will be a new creation, at home and in harmony with the Creator of the world.
So, here’s an important question. For those who place their trust in Jesus, when does the kingdom, this rescue, this paradise, this experience of life lived in God’s presence begin? According to Jesus, it begins today. It’s not just something for the sweet by and by,” but given to us today. Early in his ministry, Jesus told people that the kingdom “has come upon you” (Luke 11:20) “has come near” (Matthew 3:2), and “is already among you” (Luke 11:17). Jesus said he’s the resurrection and the life (John 11:25). Not, he will be the life but is already the life.
John Wesley once said salvation “is not a blessing which lies on the other side of death….It is not something at a distance: it is a present thing, a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, [you] are now in possession of.”
Today, you are a beloved child of God. Not you will be a beloved child of God when you finally pull your life together…when you stop sinning…when you make better life choices…when you stop drinking…when you no longer have any doubts or questions. No—at the moment you said yes to Jesus your name was written into the Book of Life. You are saved. You are a citizen of the kingdom of God.
That’s the message that Jesus offered not just to the man being crucified alongside him, not just to you and me, but to the whole world. It’s a message he offers to everyone. And how exactly is this message put forward? Is it not through us? Jesus calls us, as his disciples, to intentionally spread this word, both in our words and in our actions toward others. Bring light to those who sit in darkness. Bring comfort to those who are imprisoned by fear and grief. Bring a healing touch to those who are in pain. Be outlandishly generous friends to those for whom love is a stranger. In showing them a glimpse of God’s kingdom in these ways, you extend Jesus’s invitation to be with him in paradise.