Ironies of the Passion
Don't You Fear God?
A sermon based on Luke 23:39-43
Wednesday, April 5th, 2017 – Midweek Lent 6
Chester A. Arthur was the 21st President of the United States. But not many people wanted him to be president. You see not only was he not elected President (he became president after James Garfield was assassinated in 1881), but he was also known to be… well… corrupt.
The previous president had fired him from his job as "collector of customs" in New York City. He didn't do anything strictly illegal, but he created a lot of unnecessary, high-paying jobs that he gave to his friends. And he made quite a bit of money himself with his wheeling and dealing and, many thought, his scandals.
So, when the new president died, leaving Chester A. Arthur as the 21st POTUS, most people thought that the best way he could serve his country, was to tender his resignation. And they weren't shy about letting him know.
But there was one young woman named Julia Sands who believed in Arthur. She sent him a series of letters calling on him to defy everyone's expectations and become a great president.
Surprisingly, Arthur took her letters to heart and soon persuaded Congress to pass reform legislation that included his old job. Then he continued to vigorously enforce that legislation. He shocked both friend and foe alike by changing the way American government ran.
This evening, we hear the words of another that would have shocked friend and foe alike. They never would have expected such reform from the likes of this crook, this… thief on the cross. Our text for consideration this evening is recorded in Luke 23:39-43…
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."
You know where we are in the story: Pilate had finally condemned Jesus to die and the soldiers were quick to act on his orders. The Jewish leaders wanted Jesus dead that day to avoid the festival of the Passover that began that evening and the weeklong festival to follow. So Jesus went immediately to the cross.
And there were two other criminals awaiting execution that day as well, so their time had now come too. After all, if they were already going to crucify one man, why not these two as well? Why wait? It was more efficient this way.
And while the three of them hung there, being tortured to death, the two on either side hurled their insults at the one in the middle. Yes, both criminals insulted Jesus! Matthew 27:44 says, "In the same way the robbers," [plural] "who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him."
But then, suddenly, shocking both friend and foe alike, one thief completely changed his tune. [Only] "One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" 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 while his 180 degree turn might have been shocking, what he said wasn't really. "Don't you fear God?" he asked. This man was facing his imminent death. There was no more pretending that there was no god. He was about to meet his Maker. And he knew that he hadn't done so well in life.
You see, God has written into every human heart a natural knowledge that 1) there is a god, 2) there is a life after this one, and 3) we all must answer to that god to determine how the life to come is going to be. That's why almost every world religion has a life after death a way to behave to go to the favorable place.
But god has also written into every heart a conscience. And this man, like every other who has ever lived, knew in his heart that he did not deserve a good judgment from God. He openly confessed, "We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve."
And what was to come after this life? Well, no wonder he asked, "Don't you fear God?" He should fear God.
We all should fear God. Because we too have all sinned. And no one here can honestly claim, I've lived a pretty good life with just a few minor mistakes here and there. No! We have all openly rebelled against a just and holy God. We may not have robbed a bank, but we have robbed God of his glory as we sought to live for ourselves. We may not have murdered another, but we have all been unloving to many others and have thus shown the hatred—tantamount to murder—that's in our hearts.
And, honestly, even if we did live a pretty good life and only make a few mistakes, those few mistakes would be enough to earn God's punishment since he demands absolute perfection.
Yes, death brings judgment from God. And on our own, we have all failed to keep his holy law, so we know that the judgment we deserve is damnation. We all deserve crucifixion and worse. If we were to be nailed to a cross for our sins, we would all have to declare, "We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve."
So no wonder the thief declared, "Don't you fear God?" Just as Arthur's acceptance of the presidency wasn't the amazing part of that story, this thief's fear of God wasn't the amazing part of his confession.
What was the amazing part, was his trust that Jesus could be his Savior even now, even as he was hanging on the cross, even as he was moments away from death. Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
This plea to Jesus must have shocked friend and foe alike. They never would have expected such a faith-filled prayer from the likes of this crook, this robber, this thief condemned and dying on a cross.
So many wonder, what brought about such reform? Well, it certainly wasn't a series of letters from Julia Sands. It wasn't that he suddenly came to his senses and discovered the truth on his own. But it was the work of the Holy Spirit at just the right time.
And I believe it was the way that this man saw Jesus react to all that was happening to him that brought about such a change of heart. Jesus didn't curse or swear at the men torturing him to death. He didn't call down curses from God to pour out his vengeance against such clear injustice. No. Jesus forgave them. ? "Jesus said, 'Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.'" (Luke 23:34) So it became clear to this second thief that, "this man [had] done nothing wrong."
And so, shocking both friend and foe alike, this thief had the hope that Jesus really was the God-man, the promised the Messiah, the Savior from sin, and from death, from his sin and from the terrible judgment he deserved. "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom," he pleaded.
And what joy he must have felt when he heard Jesus' beautiful answer. Not only would Jesus remember him from his kingdom, Jesus would take him along! "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." The thief was forgiven! His Savior had answered his prayer! And even as he hung dying on a cross to pay the penalty he owed to society, he would never have to pay the penalty that he owed to God. He wouldn't die forever in hell. He would be with Jesus that very day! He didn't need to "fear" God anymore.
And what comfort we take from this man's terrible, turned wonderful, end! Have you wasted your life in selfish living? Have you earned God's wrath and his damnation by your sin? Have you feared God's judgment that you rightly deserve? I know you have. I have too.
But it's not too late for any of us. Because we're not yet dead. We too can confess our sin to him, "We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve." And we too can offer our plea to him, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
And because of his great grace, his forgiving mercy, he lived a perfect life in our place. So it was absolutely true what the thief confessed: "This man has done nothing wrong." And yet, he was still condemned to die—a horrible death—not just by Pilate, but by God himself. And he did die, not just a tortuous physical death on a cross, but a terrible spiritual death, being separated from God the Father on that cross. He endured the agony of hell to win for you and for me the forgiveness we so desperately need, so that in the end, one day, Jesus will say to you and to me, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."
Now Jesus' forgiveness didn't spare this man from his death on the cross. And it won't spare us from the consequences of our sins or from the crosses of suffering we are asked to carry for Jesus' sake. But it did give this man courage to be a bold witness for Jesus even in his dying hours. It gave him the courage to rebuke the thief he had so recently joined with in mocking Jesus.
Chester A. Arthur took Julia Sands' letters to heart. And they moved him to reform, to become a much better president than anyone expected, shocking friends and foes alike. The thief on the cross, believed in Jesus as his Savior from sin, and it moved him to reform and share his faith with the other thief.
May you take the letters of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, of Peter and Paul, and all the rest to heart. And may your trust in Jesus as your Savior from sin, from eternal death, and from the terrible judgment you deserve… May the confidence that he will someday say to you "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise," move you to reform your life, to become a better you—such a better you that it shocks friends and foes alike—that you might share your faith with them. In Jesus' name dear friends, amen.