Pastor Leyrer

Sermon text: Luke 23:35-43

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Dear Friends in Christ, Things are not always as they seem.  Appearances can be deceiving.  You can’t judge a book by its cover. We’ve all heard such phrases.  We all know what they mean.  They warn us not to make judgments exclusively on the basis of what something looks like. Those phrases are never more true than where we find ourselves tonight as we continue our Lenten meditations.  Picture the scene. 

We see a bruised and bloodied man hanging on a cross.  But in reality he is the King of kings and Lord of Lords. So things are not always as they seem.

We see a man so physically spent that he can barely get words out of his mouth when he speaks.  But in reality what he speaks are words so powerful that they open up the very gate of heaven.  So appearances can be deceiving.

And we see another man, described simply as a criminal.  But in reality he is a repentant child of God who embraces Jesus as his Savior in his last hours.  So, you can’t judge a book by its cover. 

These are the things we want to talk about this evening as we continue in our Lenten theme:

REPENT!  TURN TO JESUS
Why?
HE HOLDS THE KEY TO HEAVEN

“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.’”  We know where we are.  We’re outside Jerusalem at a location known as the “Place of the Skull,” or, in the language of the day, “Golgotha.”  It is Good Friday.

A few days earlier people had been hanging on Jesus’ every word.  At that time he was the embodiment of their great expectations.  Maybe he was the one who would restore Israel to the status of a great nation.  Maybe he was the one to lead them out from under the foreign domination of Rome.  With each “maybe” expectations grew even greater. 

But that was then.  Now it was different.  Now they saw him as a dying failure.

The religious rulers led the ridicule.  They had heard his talk about salvation and how he had come into the world to save sinners.  They had heard him and others make the claim that he was nothing less than the Messiah – the One chosen by God to do a great work. 

They understood exactly what he had said, but they didn’t comprehend it.  Now they throw it all back in his face.  They turned titles of truth and proclamations of praise into declarations of derision.  And they weren’t the only ones:

“The soldiers also came up and mocked him.  They offered him wine vinegar and said, ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.’  There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.  One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ?  Save yourself and us!’” 

The Roman soldiers got in on the act.  Their offer of wine vinegar was neither an act of kindness nor a semi-sympathetic offer of a narcotic.  These were not sensitive men.  The Greek word indicates this was the sour, cheap wine fit only for common soldiers to drink.  This was another taunt.  “Hey king, try this not-so-royal drink!” was what they meant.  Then they repeated the ridicule of the Jewish leaders.

Pontius Pilate also weighed in.  He’s behind the sign tacked on the cross.  It was a double barreled shot against both Jesus and the Jews, with whom he shared a mutual dislike.  Again, the point to be made was:  This pathetic man hanging on the cross is a king?

Perhaps the greatest lack of respect came from what had to be the most unlikely place: one of the criminals.  He also challenged Jesus to save himself and those hanging on crosses with him.  This taunt, however, brought a just as unlikely response: “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.’”

It is significant to note that in Matthew and Mark’s account of the crucifixion we’re told in the beginning hours both criminals heaped insults on Jesus.  But something happened to one of them.  A transformation took place.  Maybe it was after he heard Jesus ask his Father to forgive those who nailed him to the wood.  Or possibly it was the instinctive understanding of a hardened man who knew Jesus didn’t belong there.

Whatever the case, there, on the cross, hours away from death, one of the criminals comes to faith.  This man knew he was a sinner.  No doubt he was afraid to stand before the judgment seat of God.  So he turned in faith to the only One who could save him.  And as an indication that he took his new faith seriously, he rebuked the other criminal – who was making fun of his Lord.

“Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’”  This man knew to be true what all the others thought to be ridiculous.  Jesus was and is a king.  The world saw a defeated and dejected shell of a man minutes from death.  Not him.  Because appearances can be deceiving.  Through the eyes of faith this new believer saw his Savior.

And his Savior responds to his faith-filled request in a way that must have made him forget his pain and inwardly rejoice: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”  “Paradise” calls to mind the idea of a perfect place, like the Garden of Eden.  In this perfect place – heaven – the criminal would find rest from his suffering. 

Let us also note how Jesus doesn’t tell this man he might make it to paradise if he’s good enough or if he does this or that in the few hours he has left on this earth.  He says, “You will be with me…”  This late-blooming Christian’s salvation rested entirely on knowing and believing Jesus to be his Savior from sin.  Just as ours does.

What can we take away from this Lenten event?  Three lessons in particular come to mind.  To each one we’ll attach the title of a beloved hymn. 

Number One: “How Great Thou Art.”  The lesson is this: Though he is routinely misunderstood, misinterpreted, misread and mocked by many, Jesus Christ is our powerful and gracious king. 

The people in our reading today mocked and ridiculed Jesus.  First the crowd, then the church leaders, then the soldiers, then Pontius Pilate, and finally one of the criminals.  They mocked him because they didn’t understand what he was all about.  They didn’t understand the depth of his benevolence.  They didn’t understand the depth of his commitment to the people of this world.

They didn’t understand that he was on that cross by his own choice because this was an integral part of God’s plan for our eternal salvation.  They only saw him as being weak and powerless and very un-king like.  After all, they thought, if he has all that power at his disposal why doesn’t he use it to better his situation or that of his followers?

The same sentiment is still expressed today, and my guess is we’ve all heard variations on this basic theme.  Tragedies are listed and then the taunting question: If God is so great, why doesn’t he do something?  The implication, of course is that God is either unable or unwilling to intervene, neither of which are particularly complimentary.

The problem with that conversation, of course, is that it misses the point of who Jesus is and what he came to do.  Earlier Jesus had said to Pontius Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world.”  His work transcends this world.  He is a spiritual king and he provides his followers with a spiritual kingdom.  And although he may not dismiss all earthly troubles from us, he has dismissed us from the eternally damning consequences of our sin and reserved a place in heaven for everyone who embraces him in faith. 

This leads us to Number Two: “I’m But a Stranger Here, Heaven is My Home.”  The lesson: We have a place reserved for us, “paradise.” 

What do you think it will be like in “paradise?”  The Apostle Paul talks about how the Lord at one time allowed him to be “caught up to Paradise.”  He goes on to say that there he heard “inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell” because they are so wonderful.

The Apostle John in the Book of Revelation describes the glimpse of heaven he was given in terms of beauty and grandness and as a place where there is “no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  And Psalm 16 speaks of heaven as a place where God “will fill [me] with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” 

For lack of a better term, “paradise” will be just that – a paradise… and it will never end.  And thanks to Christ, our King, we’ll be right there with him. 

In the meantime, the Lord may ask us to go through periods of pain or hardship or sadness just as Jesus went through for us as he carried out our redemption.  When they come, let us remember that things are not always as they seem.  We’re just pilgrims here.  We’re just passing through.  Heaven is our home.  

Number Three: “Jesus Sinners Does Receive.”  Which is good news for us.  Because there’s a lot in this lesson that makes us uncomfortable.  Much as we’d like to seize the high moral ground as we survey the scene, we can’t.  Truth be told, we can see ourselves in every group of people mentioned here.

In the rejection of the church leaders, we see the times we have not given Jesus the respect he deserves.  In the cruelty of the Roman soldiers, we see the times when we have not loved Jesus with all our hearts, and have not shown love to our neighbors, or have not been kind to those who are closest to us.  In the criminal on the cross, we see the just desserts that all our sins, our careless words, our casual commitment and our often lukewarm devotion, deserve.  

But then we look to the center cross and see Jesus.  We turn to him in repentance and faith.  The weight of all our sins is offloaded on him, and he willingly bears them for us.  And now we are the redeemed, the restored, the forgiven.  And a final hymn comes to mind…

Glory be to Jesus, who in bitter pain,
Poured for us the lifeblood, from his sacred veins.

Grace and life eternal in that blood I find,
Blest be his compassion, infinitely kind.
Amen.