By Rev. Heidi L. Barham | November 24, 2019
Read Luke 23:33 – 43
During this season of Thanksgiving, as we prepare to welcome family and friends into our homes to partake of delicious meals… or perhaps spend time sharing blessings with the wider community by helping serve a hot meal or visiting with someone who is unable to be with family for the holiday… In the midst of our preparation for any or all of that, it seems like a rather odd time to reflect on our New Testament lesson about Jesus’ crucifixion and the two criminals who were crucified alongside of Him.
That is until we shift our perspective a little. So, let’s consider for a moment just who was there on that particular day, and what, if anything, would have turned their hearts to thoughts of giving thanks.
We know that Jesus was there, of course, giving His life as the ultimate sacrifice for us, taking on the punishment that our sins truly deserved. And even as He hung from that cross, being ridiculed and tortured, His words reflected nothing but grace and mercy… “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
As we see throughout the scriptures, and as we see in His final hours as He hung dying on that cross, Jesus was petitioning God the Father on behalf of someone else -- without regard for His own pain and suffering as the nails dug into His flesh and the simple act of breathing became torturous at best.
He was praying for the very ones who were responsible for Him being on that cross – the rulers, the soldiers and even the people in the crowd who had shouted, “Crucify Him!”
But that is because Jesus knew that all of this had to happen in order for God’s will to be fulfilled -- the salvation of our souls. That is why in spite of what He must have been feeling in His physical body, His spirit was filled with grace, mercy, forgiveness and yes, even thanksgiving.
Why thanksgiving? Because Jesus understood something that is often difficult for us to accept which is that the only way for there to be a resurrection is for there to be a death.
Let’s look at the story of Lazarus as an example. After Jesus got word from Mary and Martha that their brother, Lazarus, was sick, Jesus told His disciples, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4). And then Jesus stayed where was for two days before going to Lazarus.
His disciples did not understand what was actually going on and when Jesus told them that Lazarus was “sleeping” the disciples thought he would simply get better and wake up again. That is when Jesus explained to them, “Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, that you may believe. Nevertheless let us go to him” (John 11:14).
And as He stood outside of the tomb of His beloved friend, praying before Lazarus’ resurrection, Jesus said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me” (John 11:41).
Jesus wanted everyone gathered around to understand something what He had told Martha only moments before, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25).
The fact of the matter is that we have the promise of the resurrection but it can only come after death.
And this idea is something that is reflected even in the words that Jesus spoke at the Last Supper, words that we are reminded of each time that we come to the Communion table:
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." (Matthew 26:26-28).
Jesus gave thanks for the bread and the wine, not just as a means of saying grace before a meal, but in thanksgiving for what He knew His sacrifice on that cross would mean for the disciples and for all believers… forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
But when we look back at our text, we read that there was also a crowd of rulers and other people gathered who taunted Jesus saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.”
There were soldiers there as well who said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
And even one of the criminals who was hanging on a cross beside Him said, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
And while we don’t exactly hear much “thanksgiving” in their insults and jeers, they were, nonetheless, the beneficiaries of Jesus’ prayer for forgiveness. And that is something that we can be thankful for even now. Because the same prayer for forgiveness that Jesus offered for them… the same sacrifice that He made for them… that same forgiveness is available to us through Jesus' sacrifice as well.
Now if Jesus was willing to pray for forgiveness for the very ones who were crucifying him, what won’t He pray for… for forgiveness for us?
I don’t know about you, but just the very thought of Jesus asking God to forgive me for… (well, you can fill in the blank) just suffice it to say, I am beyond thankful!
But there is someone else in our text who calls for our attention this morning, and that is the other criminal who hung on that cross next to Jesus. He understood the gravity of his crimes and accepted the severity of his punishment.
In fact, the scriptures say that he rebuked the other criminal and said, “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.”
This criminal does not ask for his sentence to be commuted, he does not beg for a pardon or even ask for leniency, life in prison in place of crucifixion. Instead, he simply says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And that is when this man, someone who must have been a truly heinous criminal, someone who understood and accepted that his crimes deserved the death penalty… this man heard the words that should fill all of our hearts with anticipation and thanksgiving, Jesus told him, “Truly I tell you, TODAY you will be with me in paradise.”
But there is something that I think we need to remember in all of this… the criminal still had to pay the penalty for his crimes. He still was crucified… In other words, he received the punishment for his crimes that he deserved… and that is called justice.
It’s important for us to note that because sometimes, people think that Jesus’ paying the penalty for our sins so that we can have eternal life is like a “get of jail free” card that gives us license to do whatever we want and simply ask forgiveness later without any repercussions. But that is not the case, we are ultimately accountable for the things that we do. And make no mistake, our sins do have consequences.
In Romans 14 (10b-12) we read, “For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written: ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.’ So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.”
Although we will all have to give an account of ourselves when the time comes, that thought should not fill us with fear and trepidation, because that same criminal in our text also received something almost unimaginable given his circumstances. And it is something that is promised to us as well.
That man, in spite of his seemingly extensive criminal record, was given the gift of grace… something that he did not deserve but that Jesus gave to him anyhow… Despite all of the man’s crimes, he was given the greatest gift imaginable… spending eternity with Jesus in paradise.
Think about this for just a moment.
This man was given the death penalty which was the justifiable punishment for his crimes. After all Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death…”
But the good news for that criminal and for us as well is found in the second half of that verse which reads, “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
That man died on that cross as a criminal but he awoke to eternal life in paradise with Jesus!
He didn’t have to wait to do penance or make restitution for his crimes or jump through any of the hoops that our justice and even some religious systems try to impose upon people. The text says that Jesus told him, “TODAY… you will be with me in paradise.”
And that is some really good news for us as well. God’s grace is immediate, it is eternal and it comes with no fine print, no pre-requisites and no pre-qualifications. There is absolutely nothing we can do to earn it.
In fact, Ephesians 2 (8-9) says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Now just like that criminal, whether we want to admit it or not, all of us have sinned at some point in our lives. We may not have done things that were as abhorrent as the man in our text for the morning, but we have all sinned nonetheless.
In fact, in Romans 3:23, we read, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” But the good news comes in the next verse which says, “and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
There’s that grace again… and that is something that we can all be thankful for TODAY…
Because TODAY we do have the promise of eternal life that comes through Jesus Christ, through the gift of grace that God has given to us… and it is not because of anything we have done but simply because God loves us.
And TODAY we have the opportunity to do as Christ commanded, to share the good news of God’s love with others. Jesus told the disciples in John 13:35, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
And TODAY is a good day for us to let the world know that we are Christ’s disciples by showing love for one another -- in our homes, on our jobs, in our schools and wherever else we may go.
TODAY promises to be filled with plenty of opportunities to demonstrate our thanksgiving for all that the Lord has done for us as we surrender our lives in service to God and God’s people, being living examples of God’s love in action.
So, now, (TODAY), let us join our hearts and voices together in thanksgiving to God as we stand and sing our Hymn of Discipleship: I Am Thine, O Lord #601.