This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Luke 23:39-43
Have you ever noticed that everybody wants to be saved in one form or another but on his/her own terms? These days it appears that even the most unbelieving person has some sense of an afterlife. Often comments concerning a deceased person are heard. Comments such as “we know he’s looking down on us” or “I’m sure he’s watching” or “she is with us in spirit.” But on what basis do people make such comments? What’s the foundation? Quite often the foundation for belief in an afterlife is little more than a gut feeling. Happily, the Christian good news is not simply based on feelings but on the fact of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The message today focuses on Jesus and the two criminals who were crucified with him. In order to get the full picture we need to give a bit of background to what had already unfolded in this crucifixion scene.
When Jesus was hung on the cross people engaged in mockery and derision. Words like, if you are who you say you are why don’t you get yourself off the cross, Jesus! People who had stood watching said: “He saved others let him save himself.” (Luke 23:35) The soldiers in attendance mocked Jesus. (Luke 23:36)
Even one of the two criminals got into the act: he “hurled insults at Jesus: Aren’t you the Christ (the Anointed One), save yourself and US! (Luke 23:39) This criminal, deserving of execution, took things one step further than the others. He wanted to see Jesus not just save himself but save THEM! Listen: Save yourself and US! Yes…”and US” …. US! – criminals, justly convicted! This criminal wants to be saved in one form or another. But on his own terms!
What were the terms? Jesus, you have to prove to me that you are the anointed one of God – that you are the Christ. And there’s only one way you can prove it – get ME off this cross!
He HURLED insults at Jesus. The word reveals the intensity of his mocking spirit. He thought he was worthy of being rescued from his JUST punishment. No sense of guilt or shame here. He, the guilty, hurling insults at Jesus, the innocent one.
We hear a much different response from the other criminal, don’t we? A response with an equal intensity. This criminal “rebuked” the other. This criminal owned his crime. We are punished justly…we are getting what our deeds deserve…but this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:41)
What a confession! A confession of sin. What a testimony! “This man has done nothing wrong!” This criminal owned his crimes – owned his sin and confessed it. He took full responsibility – we are being punished justly.
There he was - a guilty criminal – a man of no credibility – defending the innocence of Jesus. This criminal acknowledged his crimes – acknowledged his sin – turned to Jesus and said: “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42)
The most likely interpretation of this request is something like: Jesus, pray for me when you come into your kingdom. But Jesus went overboard – the Greek text literally says: “Amen, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Amen – it shall surely be!
Yes…it’s Jesus exercising his authority. And what kind of authority is it? The authority to forgive. The authority that Jesus already exercised when he commanded the Father in heaven to forgive his executioners because they don’t know what they’re doing. (Luke 23:34)
Here Jesus, the crucified Lord, used his authority to set this prisoner free. That’s one thing among many he came to do right! Listen to what he’d already said in Luke 4: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” The Spirit of the Lord upon him to, among various things, “proclaim freedom for the prisoners.” (Luke 4:14,18)
The first criminal, the spectators and the soldiers wanted to see Jesus save himself by getting off the cross. But salvation required Jesus to remain there. Only through his willing sacrifice on the cross could sins be forgiven – only through his sacrifice could the sins of this repentant criminal be forgiven. Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.
Please notice that this criminal was not saved from or spared his earthly punishment. He was duly executed. Nevertheless, Jesus had set him free. Jesus saved him from the ultimate punishment – that of having no place in Paradise – no place in the Kingdom of God. This criminal received a place with Christ.
We are not sure what softened this criminal’s heart. Possibly, it was hearing Jesus say “Father forgive them.”
This much is clear: at the very time that Jesus was to about to suffer his greatest agony, he showed himself to have the authority to open paradise to a repentant sinner – even a criminal. Right there when hell was about to snatch up one of its prey – namely, this criminal – hell had to give way to heaven.
Today you will be with me in paradise. This 11th hour salvation is a reminder that it’s never too late to bow our heads in repentance before Jesus.
Possibly, there are sins you need to repent of. Possibly even the sin of jealousy – resentful that someone could actually enter into Paradise because of an 11th hour conversion. That’s really what this one criminal’s was – an 11th hour conversion.
Possibly you’ve been struggling with a particular sin – you’ve promised yourself you’d fight it, be done with it but you know you’re not winning. Chances are that’s because you’ve begun the battle at the wrong place. You think you can do it all by yourself.
The place to begin is at the cross – kneeling at the foot of the cross, confessing your sins and believing that when we confess our sins God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9) And the foundation for such forgiveness is “…the blood of Jesus, His Son (which) purifies us from ALL sin.” (1 John 1:7)
Once cleansed from our sins we can move forward. Sometimes with just baby steps but always with the knowledge “I’ve been forgiven.”
“Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Guaranteed by Jesus who paid the ultimate penalty for our sins on the cross. Jesus, who through his death and eventual resurrection received the ultimate in authority. As he said: “ALL authority in heaven and on earth has been given me” (Matth. 28:18) And what is his ultimate authority? The authority to forgive sins. It is his forgiveness that assures us of eternal life.
And so we come full circle to where we began this message. It appears that even the most unbelieving person has some sense of an afterlife. Often comments are heard such as “we know he’s looking down on us” or “I’m sure he’s watching” or “she is with us in spirit.” But, on what basis do people make such comments? What’s the foundation? Quite often the foundation for belief in an afterlife is little more than a gut feeling. Happily, the Christian good news is not simply based on feelings but on the basis of Jesus’ person and work.
The Heidelberg Catechism in its reflections on the Apostles’ Creed asks this question: “What do you believe concerning “the forgiveness of sins?”
Let’s answer together:
ALL: I believe that God, because of Christ’s atonement will never hold against me any of my sins nor my sinful nature which I need to struggle against all my life. Rather, in his grace God grants me the righteousness of Christ to free me forever from judgment. (Q/A 56)
And may all God’s people say “Amen.”
Prayer of Application
Lord Jesus, thank you for your word which reminds us of your authority to forgive. Thank
you for making the ultimate sacrifice so that we might be assured of our forgiveness when we
come before you openly and honestly – confessing our sins. Thank you for the empowering
nature of forgiveness. For we know Lord how relieved and empowered we feel when we
confess our sins to each other and then hear a word of forgiveness spoken to us. Lead us to
pay close attention to the words recorded in the prayer you taught us: “forgive us our debts as
we forgive those indebted to us.” May all those around us and among us experience this, your
church, as a community characterized by the practice and discipline of confession and
forgiveness. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen
Order of Worship
GOD GATHERS US FOR WORSHIP
Welcome and Announcements
We Greet One Another
Call to Worship (optional)
A Time of Praise
“Come and See the Glory of the Lord”
Text: Lenny LeBlanc. © 1989 Doulos Publishing
(Admin by Maranatha! Music) CCLI Song No. 121737. All rights reserved.
“What Wondrous Love Is This” Ps.H. 379
“I Believe in Jesus”
I Believe in Jesus. Text: Marc Nelson. © 1987 Mercy/Vineyard Publishing
CCLI Song No. 61282. All rights reserved.
A TIME OF CONFESSION
Reflection: based on Q/A 37/39 of the Catechism
Jesus, during his entire life on earth and especially at the end, sustained God’s anger against
the sin of the entire human race. His suffering and death was the one and only atoning
sacrifice complete enough to set us free from eternal condemnation. Jesus shouldered the
curse God placed on sin since death by crucifixion was accursed by God.
Prayer of Confession
Lord Jesus you died to become victorious over death. Raise us up from the death of denial.
Raise us up from the death fear. Raise us up from the death of despair. Insofar as we have
said “No” wake us to declare an unconditional “Yes” to you. Insofar as we experience
despair awaken us to renewed hope in you. Insofar as we experience darkness in our
inmost being, awaken us to the light of your dawn. Amen
(Adapted from: Ray Simpson: A Holy Island Prayer Book, p. 10 Morehouse
Publishing, Harrisburg, PA, 2002)
Song of Confession: “Forgive Our Sins As We Forgive” Ps.H. 266
Assurance of Pardon:
Through Christ’s death our old selves are crucified – put to death – buried with him so that
our evil desires no longer rule us, but that instead we may dedicate ourselves as an offering
of gratitude to him. (cf. Q/A 43)
God’s Will for Our Lives (Excerpts Eph. 4:17ff)
You must no longer live as unbelievers do, in the futility of their thinking … so as to
indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more. You, however, did not
come to know Christ that way. … put off your old self (and) be made new in the attitude of
your minds … continually put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness
and holiness. Put off falsehood and speak truthfully with your neighbor. In your anger do
not sin … do not give the devil a foothold. Do not steal … work, doing something useful
with your hands so that you may have something to share with those in need. Don’t let any
unwholesome talk come out of your mouths but only what is helpful for building others up.
Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God with whom you were sealed for the day of
redemption. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another just as in
Christ God forgave you.
Song of Rededication:
“O Master Let Me Walk With Thee” Ps.H. 573
A TIME OF THANKSGIVING
The Prayers of God’s People
A TIME FOR HEARING FROM GOD’S WORD
Message: “Today You Will Be With Me in Paradise”
Prayer of Application
Song of Response: “Jesus Remember Me” Ps.H. 217
WE LEAVE TO SERVE IN CHRIST’S NAME
Doxology (optional) “To God be the Glory.”