Saturday, March 30, 2013

Sermon: Luke 23: 32-43 The King's Welcome

As we gather on this Good Friday, as we’ve heard the Passion of the Lord Jesus, we quickly realise that Jesus is at the very centre of human history. Jesus is the most important person who has ever lived - indeed, history itself is all about Jesus. Just think of how we mark time. We speak of BC and AD - Before Christ and Anno Domini, the year of the Lord. Now, while some very clever scholars try to speak instead of BCE - Before the Common Era - it still amounts to the very same; the dividing point, the centre point of time is Jesus Christ.

In our reading tonight, we saw how Jesus was at the centre of humanity. He was crucified between two thieves - one on his right and the other on his left. Jesus is in the centre, with the two crucified criminals showing us the two different reactions to Jesus. You see, there are only two ways to respond to Jesus, and the thieves crucified with Jesus demonstrate those two possibilities.

The first criminal, well, he went with the crowd. Luke tells us that the people watching sneered at him. ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.’ (35) They remembered the miracles Jesus had done; they thought they were just clever tricks - if he couldn’t get himself out of this situation. It would be like a champion lifeguard who had rescued lots of other people from drowning, who then drowned himself.

The soldiers joined in. ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.’ They read the sign above Jesus’ head; they reckoned he should be able to rescue himself, come down from the cross and go free, if he was so important. And so, we listen in as the first criminal mocks Jesus. ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ If you’re really the Christ, you should be able to save not just yourself, but me too. Did you notice that each of the groups and also this criminal used the word save?

Save yourself - come down from the cross. Get yourself out of this mess. And while you’re at it, save me as well. He reckons that Jesus should get him out of this spot of bother - to show that he is the Christ. Yes, Jesus is the Christ, the king of the Jews - but in order to save others, he cannot save himself.

So the first criminal mocks and sneers, and rejects Jesus. In another gospel account we’re told that both criminals had mocked Jesus, but here Luke records that later on, the second criminal changes his tune. Whether it was as he watched Jesus die - praying for the soldiers who crucified them - he knew there was something different about Jesus. He and his mate were hardened criminals. They deserved all that they got. They were being punished for their deeds. But Jesus ‘had done nothing wrong.’ In the way Jesus dies, he recognises that Jesus doesn’t deserve to die like this. You see, the wages of sin are death but Jesus hadn’t sinned; hadn’t done anything wrong.

The second criminal then cries out to Jesus: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ (42). The sign above Jesus’ head declared that he was the king of the Jews. It was a further attempt to mock - look at the so-called king of the Jews, and what we have done to him. At this very moment, Jesus, is like no king the world had ever seen. He wears a scarlet robe of his own blood, flowing freely from the beating and scourging he received; on his head, he wears the crown of thorns. His royal throne is the cruel cross. Yet this man cries out: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’

Despite the circumstances, this man recognises that Jesus is the King. And so he entrusts himself to this King. He seeks to join his kingdom, by naming Jesus as his king. And as he does so, he receives an amazingly wonderful promise: ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’ (43). Jesus, by his death on the cross, the righteous for the unrighteous, has introduced his kingdom, and opened the way for sinners like you and me, and this penitent thief, to be with him in paradise. All we need to do is to trust in Jesus, who endured the punishment for our sins. He gives this promise to us as well - that we too will join him in paradise.

The dying thief, in his final moments, is rescued from his hellward path and instead given heaven. You might hear this and think, there’s still time - I’ll wait until my dying moments, until my deathbed in my 99th year. But can you be certain of that? Would you risk that day in the future if you’re not certain of tonight or tomorrow? The first bishop of Liverpool, JC Ryle writes of this passage: The penitent thief shows that it is possible to receive Christ just before death - but there were two thieves that day, and only one received Christ and was welcomed into paradise. Which do you identify with? Will you reject Christ? Or will you trust him as king and receive his welcome?

This sermon was preached at the Good Friday service in Aghavea Parish Church on 29th March 2013.

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