Summary: This sermon looks at Jesus' words, You shall be with me in paradise"
“You shall be with me”
During the civil wars in feudal Japan, an invading army would sweep into town and take control. In one particular village, everyone fled just before the army arrived, except the Zen Master. Curious about this old fellow, the general went to the temple to see for himself what kind of man this master was. When he wasn’t treated with the deference and submissiveness he was accustomed to, the general burst in anger as he reached for his sword, “You fool! Don’t you realize you are standing before a man who could run you in with a sword without blinking an eye?” And the Zen Master calmly replied, “And don’t you realize that you are standing before a man who can be run through with a sword without blinking an eye?” In our Scripture today, we see three very different men who are facing death and react very differently. There is the man who is dying in his sin, a man who is dying from his sin and a man in the middle, Jesus, who is dying for sin. Three men and three very different circumstances.
Today, we continue looking at the last words of Jesus, seven sayings that he utters as he hangs there for six hours slowly dying. Now it’s been said that a man can be known by the company he keeps. And that’s true. A lot can be known about a person from the people he associates with. Even Paul says, “bad company corrupts good morals.” 1 Corinthians 15:33 Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus spending time, not with the religious elite or faithful but with bad company like sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes. Things didn’t change in the last moments of Jesus’ life either. Luke describes the men on either side of Jesus not as thieves but as people who do very bad things. They are more than petty thieves. They are the worst of the worst who didn’t care about others and would do anything to get what they wanted. without blinking an eye.
Roman tradition always put the worst criminal in the middle. As a result, he always received the worst of the jeers from the crowd. Why is Jesus there? In all truthfulness, Jesus was the one who bore the most sin that day. Though he has no sin of his own, he was baring the sins of all. The thieves on his left and right were carrying their own sins and hanging on the cross for them. But Jesus, the sinless one, was carrying the sins of the world.
It been said that in these two men on either side of Jesus we see the two responses to the Gospel. The first is hostile. The unrepentant thief asks, “Are you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” He’s thinking that if Jesus is the Messiah and he’s dying on the cross, what a failure! And this type of response to the Gospel is very real today. People can’t believe a faith which calls you to deny yourself, love your enemies and serve others. And they can’t believe in a faith which they don’t see being lived out by its followers. Polls continually find that the unchurched don’t see any difference between their lives and the lives Christians lead. Many people today are skeptical at the very least and hostile at worst to the Gospel.
Now the unrepentant’s thief’s question was asking Jesus to live and the consequence of that would be that we would die. But Jesus has committed from the beginning of his ministry that he would die so that we might live. Remember Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness? Satan takes Jesus to the top of the mountain and shows him all of the kingdoms and and says, “If you bow down before me, all of these kingdoms will be yours.” That same temptation of power, influence and comfort would confront Jesus through his ministry and even on the cross. Jesus could have saved himself and those thieves. As this question is posed in the midst of him dying on the cross, all of heaven must have been on its toes waiting for Jesus’ response. Will he, in the moment of his greatest pain and anguish, loneliness and darkest decide to take an out. No, Jesus decided in the Garden of Gethsemane that there was no other way than the cross and he reaffirmed it in his response to the unrepentant thief.
The second response to the Gospel is a recognition of sin and a confession of faith. The other thief turns to the unrepentant one and says “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” In other words, “We deserve this. We had it coming to us.” Most of us will do almost anything than admit we’re wrong. I have seen husbands driving the family on vacation completely lost and unwilling to admit they have no idea where they are. Three hours and many wrong turns later, he finds the place and acts as if he knew it all the time. Men are not alone in this. We’re born with an ego which says I’m not at fault. But there is something about the cross which tames the ego when we realize our own sin. This is the key to salvation. In Rembrandt’s etching, “The Three Crosses” you immediately notice the center cross on which Jesus died. Then you see the crowd gathered at the foot of the cross and the varied expressions of the people involved in crucifying God’s only son. At the edge of the painting, there’s another figure, almost hidden in the shadows. Art critics say this is a self portrait of Rembrandt himself, for he recognized his sins. He helped nail Jesus to the cross. You too must come to understand that it is your sins which put him on the cross as did mine. And every sin that has ever been committed placed him on the cross. The first thing the second thief realizes is his sin.