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March 19, 2017

 

  

3.19.17                                    Lent 3                    - Luke 23:35-43 ESV

 

And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

 

 

REPENT: TURN TO JESUS, HE OPENS THE GATE TO PARADISE

 

Surprise!  Do you like surprises?  A surprise birthday party?  A surprise proposal?  Or how about when a soldier stationed overseas comes back to surprise a wife or a child who hasn’t seen him in person for a long time.  That’s just the best surprise, isn’t it? 

 

There are lots of surprises in the gospel lesson for today.  Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman at the well.  Jews didn’t associate with Samaritans.  Men weren’t supposed to socialize with women.  She was surprised that He would ask her for a drink of water.  He surprised her again when He talked about living water and she’d never thirst again.  No more coming to the well to carry a heavy jug of water home in the heat of the day.  To her surprise He knew about her marital history.  Embarrassed she tried to change the subject to the question of where to worship God – there on a mountain the Samaritans had built a temple, or in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.  Jesus surprised her by saying that, although salvation was from the Jews, the place didn’t matter, the Person did; you must worship the Father in spirit and in truth.  Then when she asked about the coming of the Messiah, He shocked her by saying that He was the Christ.  What a surprise!  The rest of the story, which we didn’t read, was that she went into the village and told everyone what had happened, and many of them believed that Jesus was the Savior of the world.  Surprising, indeed. 

 

Now we come to the text for this edition of our Lenten series on repentance, the first of Luther’s 95 Theses.  Repent means, to turn, we’ve learned, specifically, turn to Jesus.  And in the case of the thief crucified next to Jesus, we find that even if that turning doesn’t happen until the eleventh hour of one’s life, Jesus can take a repentant person to heaven. 

 

Perhaps what’s most surprising about this episode is how many people at the site of the crucifixion turned to Jesus only to taunt Him.  “The rulers scoffed at Him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God.”  Members of the Jewish High Council that had condemned Jesus to death on the phony charges of blasphemy, now were ridiculing Him for telling the truth.  It wasn’t enough for Jesus to suffer the blows, the fists, the whip, the crown of thorns, the nails piercing hands and feet, hung out to die as a public spectacle.  They added insult to injury as they made fun of His saving ministry.  They scorned Jesus for being who He truly was.  These leaders show us a nasty human tendency to turn away from God and hate what is good and true. 

 

Jesus was also ridiculed by the soldiers who performed the execution.  It says, they “mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.’”  Hadn’t they had enough jollies?  Earlier in the morning they had put a tattered purple robe on Jesus and blindfolded him, spit on Him, hit Him, clownishly bowing before Him, chanting, “Hail to the king!”  Now they were still mocking a bloodied and bruised man they had just spiked to a beam of wood.  The soldiers show us a nasty human tendency to turn away from God and cruelly beat up on a helpless victim.

 

They were only following the lead of their commander in chief, Pontius Pilate, who had placed a placard on the cross with the satirical inscription, “This is the King of the Jews.”  (A footnote says it was written in three languages - Greek, Latin and Hebrew - so even the tourists in town for Passover could join in the sick fun.)  Pilate, you recall, had cynically asked Jesus if He was a king.  Jesus had cryptically talked about His kingdom not being of this world, but He had come to testify to the truth.  Pilate sneered, “What is truth?”  As a political creature he tried to convince the mob to let Jesus go, sarcastically calling Him their king.  But in the end he gave in to the pressure, washing his hands of the mess, and handed Jesus over to be crucified.  Pilate shows us a nasty human tendency to turn away from God, attempting to make wrong right, and right wrong, to save one’s sorry career. 

 

Still more ridicule was directed at Jesus.  “One of the criminals who were hanged (that is, hanging on a cross) railed at Him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ?  Save yourself and us!”  Can you imagine anything more humiliating than being heckled by a fellow condemned convict?  A criminal insults the Christ!  How low can you go?  What drives a person to such depths of despicable disdain?  Anger, pain, are no excuse for such bad behavior.  The criminal on the cross shows us a nasty human tendency to turn away from God and curse the very one sent to save us. 

 

Yes, I said us.  It’s easy for us to think if I were there I’d never do those terrible things to Jesus.  But it shouldn’t surprise us to realize that we probably would have been faces among those spectators.  How could we have told the leaders to put a sock in their mouth when we have been silent in our witness to Christ?  How could we have told the soldiers to play nice when we have hurt others with our words and actions?   How could we have ripped Pilate’s sign off the cross when we have hid our light under a bushel basket?  How could we have rebuked a criminal when we know the only difference between us may be that our sins have not been exposed and prosecuted?  No, I’m not so sure I wouldn’t have considered Christ to be a religious nut and just minded my own business.  And in so doing we show a nasty human tendency to turn away from God and go along with the crowd. 

 

But then, something really surprising happened.   In the middle of rejection and ridicule, we hear a voice of repentance.  “But the other (criminal) rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’  And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’” 

 

If there is such a thing as a living hell, this criminal was living it.  Things had been going the wrong way for him.  A life of crime caught up with him.  I can’t imagine his stay in a Roman prison was very pleasant.  At his trial, if there was one, he heard the death sentenced pronounced.  The morbid march to skull hill was accompanied by the jeers of the rush hour rabble acting as judge and jury.  Now he was hung out to die in agonizing torture, each minute forcing him to review his life, with the nagging feeling in the back of his mind and the pit of his stomach – a soul-chilling terror that there was a far worse reality waiting for him on the other side of his final breath.           

 

Yet in the midst of this living hell, he caught a glimpse of heaven.  He heard Jesus pray, “Father, forgive them” - the gruff executioners, the gloating leaders, the grisly gawkers.  So he turned to Jesus and spoke a humble request: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  He didn’t know how to phrase it, how to pray exactly, just “remember me.” 

 

And, no surprise, Jesus did – “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”  Christ the ridiculed was Christ the Redeemer.  The criminal’s whenever prayer would be answered that very day when he died.  Because Jesus holds the keys He can open the gate to paradise and take us to heaven when we exit from this earth.  Even the chief of sinners because Christ came to seek and to save sinners by not saving Himself.  Did you hear that refrain? “Save yourself, save yourself” - Jesus could have saved Himself no sweat, but He sacrificed Himself instead.  His forsakenness is your forgiveness.  His judgment is your justification.  His pain is your peace.  His wounds are your healing.  His death is your life.  His kingdom is your home. 

 

Jesus, remember me - -  in depression, in heartbreak, in loneliness, in self-loathing, in sickness, in health, in good times and in bad.  Jesus, help me remember to repent, to turn away from sin, and to turn to you for pardon.  Help me to remember that you can open the gate of paradise for all who turn to you in faith – a shady lady at a well, a contrite criminal on a cross, a person sitting in a pew, a preacher standing in a pulpit – Jesus, remember us, when our time comes for one last surprise.  Amen.