Wednesday, April 01, 2015
Sermon: Luke 23:43 Cross Words: Assurance
If there’s one thing the United Kingdom excels at, it has to be the pomp and ceremony surrounding the monarchy. Even if you’re not into the royals, you have to concede that Britain shows the world how to do royalty. It’s one thing to watch the big state occasions on TV - the state opening of Parliament, when the Queen travels in her carriage with the soldiers forming an honour guard; or the Royal Wedding a few years ago. It’s even better to stand outside Buckingham Palace, and watch the changing of the guard; or to visit the Tower of London.
In one of the exhibitions, the Crown Jewels are on display. You walk through a series of corridors showing the coronation, giving the details of the various items, and then you find yourself in a darkened room. You step onto one of those travellator thingies, and it takes you slowly past the crown jewels. Spotlights are carefully positioned to make the diamonds sparkle. The precious stones are dazzling; it’s almost enough to take your breath away.
When we think of a monarchy, of a kingdom, of a king, it’s the United Kingdom we think of. Ceremony and splendour, pomp and circumstance. We expect to see a king high on a royal balcony, adoring crowds waving and shouting. We expect the king to wear a crown of gold, dressed in the finest of robes. We expect the king to be powerful, commanding, and regal.
When we come to the foot of the cross, it’s the last place we expect to find a king. A man in weakness, struggling to breath, his hands and feet nailed to the wood. A man who is naked, except for a crude crown of thorns pressed into his head, and a scarlet robe of his own blood. A man who is high, held by a cross, watched by (apart from a few friends and relations) a hostile crowd who shout insults at him.
Almost every verse in our reading tonight contains the idea of Jesus being a king, but what kind of king is found on a cross? The crowd and the rulers sneer at him (35). ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.’ The Christ, the Messiah, was the long promised King God would send to defeat enemies and bring in his reign of prosperity and peace. The hope was that the Christ would be an all conquering, kick the Romans out kind of king. That might have seemed possible on Sunday, but those hopes have long gone. This Christ has found himself on a Roman cross. The enemy has won. He can’t even help himself now, even though he seemed to help other people. That ‘if’ is a stinging rebuke, a declaration that this is no king.
The soldiers join in the chorus. They’re used to crucifying criminals, thieves, petty political prisoners, the odd rebel. But this is special. This is one to write in the diary, a story to remember to tell back at the barracks later. One of the men we crucified today, haha, he even thought he was the King of the Jews! That’s what we do to pretenders to the throne. King of the Jews was no match for King Caesar’s men. They mock him. They offer him wine vinegar, a sour, foul tasting drink to quench his thirst. They join in the chorus of ‘if’ - ‘if you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.’ (37).
If you are the king, because we know you’re not. What king ends up on a cross? Only a defeated one. They continue their mocking by the sign above his head. You see, when the Romans crucified you, they wanted to make sure you wouldn’t make the same mistake. This is what happens to criminals, so don’t do the same. Jesus’ notice says this: ‘This is the King of the Jews.’ (38). Here’s how we deal with delusional king types. Don’t try the same yourself!
As if that wasn’t bad enough, one of the criminals crucified with Jesus hurled insults as well. ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ If you’re a king, then can’t you get us out of this? Notice how everyone so far has told Jesus to save himself... the irony, is, that for Jesus to save anyone else, he cannot save himself. It doesn’t stop the criminal’s cry. Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’
The other criminal, well, he was different. Out of all the accusing voices Luke records, the other criminal doesn’t hurl abuse. He recognises that he is getting his just desserts - the punishment fits his crime. Listen to what he says: ‘Don’t you fear God 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.’ (40-41).
He probably heard Pilate’s verdict of innocence. He had walked along the road with Jesus, as they carried their crosses. He had listened as Jesus prayed forgiveness for those who crucified him. He sees that there is something different in this man.
There are no trappings of royalty. Everyone else thinks this king is just a joke - perhaps even an April Fool - something to mock, something to laugh at. But this criminal recognises Jesus as his king. He stakes his faith on the kingdom of Jesus. He makes a royal request: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ (42)
It seems outrageous. It almost defies belief. This man still thinks that Jesus is going to come into his kingdom? That a man who struggles for breath will utter royal commands? That a man who is pinned to a cross will sit on a throne? That the man who is mocked will be honoured? That the man who dies in shame will reign in majesty? Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.
You know what comes next. But find yourself standing at the foot of the cross, watching as this takes place. The criminal has uttered astonishing words. But they are followed by even more amazing words: ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’ (43)
I tell you the truth - this is King Jesus’ solemn word and promise. This isn’t just an empty promise made to give false hope to a dying man. This is the truth, from the God-man who is the truth. Today - on this very day, not at the end of time, not after a lengthy spell in purgatory, not after you’ve gone through hoops and hurdles, today. You will be with me - the dying thief and his dying Saviour, personally, in spirit, together, not drifting in soul sleep or a ghostly angelic presence, you will be with me. Where? In paradise - in perfect peace, in the presence of God, where there is no more pain or suffering, just the joyful knowledge of God. What a promise!
So often we think that becoming a Christian is something complicated. As if there was a checklist of things to do - get baptised, go to church, pray, give, read your Bible, go on a mission trip, join the cleaning rota and a million other things. This criminal did none of them. He simply did what the scripture says: Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
Our hymns put it so well. The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives. Or, in that other hymn, There is a fountain filled with blood - The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day, and there have I, though vile as he, washed all my sins away.
Jesus gives this wonderful promise of assurance - you can be sure of your place in heaven. You can be sure that you have been saved, if you have made Jesus your king, and trusted in him. What a great encouragement! What a wonderful promise of assurance. Even in his dying moments, this man turned to Christ, and found salvation in Jesus. Yet the first bishop of Liverpool, JC Ryle, urges us not to think that we can wait till our last breath to call on Christ: ‘One thief was saved that no sinner might despair, but only one, that no sinner might presume.’ There were two criminals crucified, but only one turned to believe, the other continued to reject Christ.
This word of Jesus brings a challenge to us tonight. We hear the Lord speaking this to the dying thief. But have we heard this promise for ourselves? Have you the assurance that when you draw your final breath, that you will be with Jesus in paradise? If not, then seek the Saviour tonight. Look at your king, crucified for love of you, to bring you safely in, and bow your knee. Surrender to him. Call on him, and find salvation and assurance.
But perhaps you’ve been a Christian for a while. You have trusted, but you’re wavering in your hope. The knocks of life have made you doubt your destiny. The promise of Christ has been forgotten, drowned out by the other voices. Listen afresh, as your King speaks. Be assured that you will to quote 2 Peter 1 ‘receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’ (2 Peter 1:11).
Listen to the Lord Jesus as he answers your cry - Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’ Amen.
This sermon was preached at Cross Words, the Holy Week mission in Brookeborough Methodist Church on Wednesday 1st April 2015.