Luke 23:35-43 The Bible begins with God and man living in perfect fellowship in a beautiful garden. The Bible ends with God and man living in perfect fellowship in a beautiful garden. In between those beautiful bookends of life and fellowship is the story of man’s sin and God’s salvation.
Standing directly in the middle is what we see tonight: the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ and the sin that brought him there and the sacrifice that has restored what we have lost.
And if we are to journey from one end of the Bible’s story to another—if we are to go from Paradise lost to Paradise found-- we must know and believe what the repentant thief knew and believed: that the keys to heaven and a life with God are held in the nail-scarred hands of Jesus Christ. The Bible say that: the people stood by, watching.
Dear friends in Christ, we are in that crowd. We are those people watching these events unfold in the pages of Holy Scripture. We are those people hearing the accusation of the world against the man of the cross.
And as we witness these events unfold—and as we hear the words that are spoken on Golgotha—every one of us will depart from that place tonight in one of two ways: believing the words of Jesus that he is the one who holds the keys of heaven-- or rejecting that claim.
God grant us faith to turn a deaf ear to the lies of evil men and believe the words of Jesus that when we breathe our last, we will enter with him into Paradise—for there were many that days who rejected him-and his words- out of hand. The Bible says that:
The rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!”
When Jesus was baptized and began his earthly ministry, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him and God the Father proclaimed him his beloved Son. John saw him and said: Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. In his hometown synagogue, Jesus opened the Scriptures from Isaiah that had to do with the coming Messiah and said, Today these scriptures are fulfilled in your hearing.
When John the Baptist was confronted with the executioners sword and faced his own death, Jesus assured him the signs of the Messiah (the deaf being able to hear and the blind being able to see and the poor being helped and the lame walking) had all been fulfilled.
For anyone who had even the smallest grasp of the Old Testament, the evidence was inescapable: This Jesus of Nazareth was the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to send a Savior for the world. He was the Christ.
The religious leaders of the people of Israel should have been the ones leading the way to bring people to Jesus. But instead, they were opposing him every step of the way. And what is so shocking about that rejection of Jesus is that by their own testimony, they knew that Jesus had indeed saved others: He saved others, they said. And he had!
He saved a sinful woman from being stoned to death by forgiving her. He saved a widow from economic disaster by raising her son from the dead. He saved a broken woman bent from the waist and another with a flow of blood from a lifetime of misery be healing them. How true the testimony of the religious leaders at the cross: he saved others!
And yet THEY denied him and mocked him and convicted him unjustly and demanded from him one sign after another even as he died because no sign will even be enough for someone who does not believe the witness of Holy Scripture about Jesus.
When John the Baptist faced his own death he believed the testimony of Scripture about Jesus and entered into Paradise. The religious leaders who stood at the foot of the cross rejected it and would remain outside forever. What about the others there that day? The Bible says that:
The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
These men knew what a king was. They served one. They knew about power and strength and the kind of peace that could prosper an empire. At that moment in world history the Pax Romana held sway over the greatest empire that had ever existed.
These men knew about the glory and wealth and prestige that accompanied the Roman emperor. But they did not know the King of all Kings and the Lord of all Lords and they did not have a place in his kingdom despite the fact that the emblems of his reign were readily seen.
This king that was being crucified didn’t rule over some earthly nation or empire even one as great as Rome—he ruled the world. He spoke to the wind and the waves and commanded them to be still and they were.
This humble king did not rule by force of arms for there was no need. With merely a word he caused a violent, armed mob to fall helpless at his feet.
This dying king did not send men to their death by his cold, calculating command-- but rather called men to come to him and have life.
His royal power gave life where there was death and forgiveness where there was sin and eternal riches where there was spiritual poverty and true and lasting peace where there was conflict and hard feelings.
Most importantly, this king ruled an eternal kingdom that even his death could not end and he gave places in that kingdom to all who could see him for who he was even in the face of great evil and death. The Bible says that
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
As we watch on with the bystanders around the cross that dark Friday afternoon, perhaps it is these words of the dying thief that pose the greatest obstacle to us confessing Jesus as the One who holds the keys to heaven-- for this is the response of a broken and dying world to our confession faith.
The unbelieving world around us says, “Fine! We are glad enough to believe that Jesus is the promised Savior and a mighty king! We’d like to believe that there is a heaven to come. But what about our situation right here and right now! We are broken! We are dying! We are in need! If Jesus is who he says he is—if he is who you claim to be—let him change things for me right here and right now and then I will believe.”
And it is this assault upon both the goodness and power of Jesus that causes us so much difficulty as we confront a world that is broken and dying and filled with misery.
But here is the thing: it is ONLY at the cross that we see the answer to mankind’s need! It is only at the cross that we see the goodness of God on full display as he sacrifices himself for the sins of the world. It is only at the cross that we see the power of God on full display as he reconciles a world to himself and restores all things broken by sin. The old Lenten hymn says it this way:
Stricken, smitten, and afflicted, See Him dying on the tree! 'Tis the Christ by man rejected; Yes, my soul, 'tis He! 'tis He! 'Tis the long-expected Prophet, David's Son, yet David's Lord; Proofs I see sufficient of it: 'Tis the true and faithful Word.
There at the cross—in the One who suffers and dies for the sins of the world—is the sufficient proof that Jesus is the only one who can open the way back to God for us-- and that proof calls for our for our confession and faith just like the repentant thief. The Bibles says:
The other 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.”
Every little Lutheran grew up confessing that he was a poor, miserable sinner and that he justly deserved God’s temporal and eternal punishment and maybe we thought to ourselves that this is just what Lutherans do. But that confession of sin and that understanding that we deserve in time and eternity is punishment, is not a Lutheran thing—it is a bible thing that goes all the way back to what the repentant thief said on the cross!
He understood that he was simply getting what his sins deserved. He recognized that this is the course that sin always takes because the wages of sin is death—not just for the thief—not just for the really terrible sinners—but for all of us.
But he also knew and confessed and believed that even in that dark moment of sin’s consequence—even with death staring him in the face—there was still hope for him because of Jesus. So it is for us.
The rest of our confession is this: “I pray Thee of Thy boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Thy beloved Son to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor sinful being.”
Again, that is not a Lutheran thing—that is a Bible thing—it is exactly what the repentant thief said: This man has done nothing wrong! He is innocent! Jesus, remember me! And so he would! Jesus said: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Those are the gracious, merciful words that Jesus speaks to every repent sinner who turns to him in faith: You will be with me in Paradise!
Here’s what those words mean to you and me. The Paradise that we have lost on account of sin (our relationship with God, our purpose in life, even our very lives) has been restored to us by Jesus Christ.
He is the blood covering provided by God that hides our guilt and shame. He is the tree of life that we can hold to and live forever. He is the Savior King who holds in his hands the keys to heaven and opens it to us who cast ourselves on his mercy and confess him as our king. Amen.