The Promising Word
A sermon based on Luke 23:39-43
Sunday, February 25, 2018 – Lent 2
Do you think you will remember me, ten years from now? Do you think you'll remember me five years from now? Will you remember me one year from now? Will you remember me tomorrow?
Alright, I've got a joke for you: Knock, knock. [Who's there?] What?! You already forgot me? That hurts.
This morning as we examine the second word or phrase that Jesus spoke from the cross, we hear a man make a simple request of Jesus. He doesn't ask for rescue from his pain. He doesn't ask for healing. He doesn't even ask that his sins might be forgiven. He simply asks to be remembered.
But Jesus gave him so much more. In our Savior's response, we hear a word of promise—a word of promise for a dying thief… and a word of promise for all of us. Our text for consideration this morning is found 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."
This is the Gospel of our Lord.
The second word from Jesus' dying lips is a word of promise and salvation: "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." But pay attention to whom these words were spoken: not to a religious man, to a fine, upstanding citizen, or to one of his disciples, but to a convict, guilty not just of some misdemeanor, but of some serious capital crime, punishable by execution by crucifixion.
We don't know exactly what he or the man on the other side of Jesus did, but it must have been bad for the Romans to insist on the death penalty. "Criminals" and "thieves" they're called. But we might call them "terrorists" today as they posed a threat to Roman security so that their public crucifixion was intended to be a deterrent to other would be criminals.
And so they were each nailed to their own cross to be tortured to death to pay their debt to society. And there Jesus hung between them. One was on Jesus' right, and one was on Jesus' left, as Jesus came into his kingdom—ironically, a privilege the disciples fought over, even though they had no idea what they were asking.
But let's look at the response of each man to Jesus. The first, mocks Jesus along with the crowd, joining in the taunts of the religious leaders, "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" It's strange, isn't it, that this man's rejection of Jesus comes in the form of a prayer to Jesus: "Save yourself and us!" It's obviously not a prayer of faith, but one of derision: "What kind of Christ are you? What kind of Savior are you supposed to be?! If you can't keep yourself from getting killed, how are you supposed to save the rest of us?!"
This thief is the spokesman for the unbelieving world. His mocking "prayer" comes in the form of a demand: "If Jesus really loved people he would save them from pain, and heartbreak, and poverty, and cancer. He would save them from persecution, from sorrow, from anything unpleasant. He would make us happy, and wealthy, and entertained. But if he doesn't do those things? If he doesn't save us from boredom? What kind of Savior is he, anyway? Who needs him?"
Well… we do to put it bluntly. We, who so often care more about salvation from too much government control or not enough government aid than we do about salvation from sin and God's eternal Kingdom… we, who so often care more about salvation from sickness and pain than we do about salvation from the cancer of sin and the eternal death it should bring… we who so often care about salvation from boredom or poverty or heartache than we do about salvation from our sin that breaks God's heart and ought to bring eternal poverty and torment in hell… we need Jesus as our Savior—not from pain or torture or a cross, but from sin, death, and hell.
And the thief on the other side of Jesus might just as well rebuke us: "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."
"We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things." But we don't. So let's start by humbly confessing with this second thief, that should we be tortured to death—and worse! …should we be tortured for all of eternity in hell!—we would still be "punished justly," getting only "what our deeds deserve."
But let's not stop there. For that would only lead to despair. Then, having confessed our sin to God, let's look to Jesus as this second thief did too. He boldly confessed, "This man has done nothing wrong."
Just how much did this thief understand in his confession? Did he understand that dying next to him was the sinless Son of God, the Lamb of God who had come to take away the sin of the world? Or did he just mean that Jesus didn't deserve to be executed for crimes against the state like they did?
The truth is, we can't know for sure. But we do get a glimpse of what he knew and believed in his dying prayer: Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." This was not a prayer of derision, but a simple prayer of faith.
He saw the broken, bleeding, dying man next to him and yet, took the sign over his head literally. He was a King… with a Kingdom and he would keep that Kingdom even after his death.
All this criminal asked was to be remembered. Not to be spared the agonies of death, not rescued from the pain—simply remembered. And this tiny little mustard-seed-sized faith was acknowledged by Jesus and credited to the thief as righteousness. And he was given so much more than what he asked:
Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." What grace! What undeserved love! What a beautiful promise for a con!
What sort of Christ is this who promises Paradise to a dying thief who admits the guilt of crime and that he crucifixion is a just punishment for what he did?! What sort of justice is this that speaks pardon to the unpardonable, that forgives the unforgivable, that acquits the guilty, that saves those society deems unsalvageable and worthy of the cruelest form of death?!
This is just the kind of Christ that we need. This is the just the kind of Savior that we have. This is our Savior.
This is the Savior of the world, the Redeemer of fallen mankind, the One who reconciles the enemy as enemy and justifies the sinner as sinner. As Paul wrote in Romans 5:8, "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
This is the Savior that we have: The one who promises not just to a convict, but to you… to me… "I tell you the truth… you will be with me in paradise." This is the Savior that we have: The one who lived a perfect life and died an innocent death to make it true.
Hear that word of promise our Savior makes to you. Believe that word of promise our Savior makes to you. Hear it now, and at the hour of your death. Believe it now, and never stop believing it until the hour of your death, when he says to you, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." And he will remember you. He will not forget you or his promise.
So finally, between now and that hour, serve our Savior in thanks for his gracious promises. Defend him before others who would mock him. Remind them that we ought to be "punished justly," and get "what our deeds deserve."
Remind them that Jesus makes the promise to them too, that because of his work for them on the cross, the truth is that they too can be with him in paradise anyway.
Thank Jesus for his word of promise, for the paradise that will be ours, for opening his Kingdom even to sinners and rebels condemned to die as the just wages of our sin. Give thanks to our living Savior for his promising word and go live for him. In his name, dear friends, amen.