Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

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Location: Moscow, Idaho

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Lenten Midweek 2

Lenten Midweek 2: “The Promising Word”[1]
February 24, 2010

Text: Luke 23:39-43 (ESV): 39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Beloved in the Lord, the second Word of Life from Jesus on the cross for our consideration this Lententide is a Word of Promise. Our bleeding, dying Savior declares to a justly condemned malefactor: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).

Behold, there are three crosses on Golgotha. The sinless Son of God, even our Lord Jesus Christ, innocent, righteous, unjustly condemned, hangs between two criminals, one on His right, and one on His left. One of the criminals rails against Jesus. “Are not you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (v. 39). “If You are who You say You are, You can simply do a miracle and deliver us from our punishment.” It is a perverted prayer for salvation. It is a prayer for salvation outside of, without, the cross. It is a prayer for deliverance from the cross, not through the cross. And, in reality, it is no prayer of faith. This criminal joins in the mockery of our Lord. His is a prayer of derision. “Some Christ You turned out to be! What an end You’ve come to! Imagine, executed, nailed to a tree, like a common criminal!”

What a difference between this criminal and that on the other side of Jesus. “Do you not fear God,” he inquires of his counterpart, “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” (vv. 40-41). It is both a confession of sin, and a confession of Christ. “We deserve nothing but death. We are justly condemned. We deserve all the fire of hell, in fact. We have no right to ask for deliverance from this fate. But this man, this Jesus of Nazareth, has done nothing wrong. He is righteous. Have you no shame? Don’t you fear God?” And then he turns to Jesus, who alone can help him in this, the hour of his death, and he prays for real salvation. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (v. 42). “Remember me.” The criminal doesn’t pray that Jesus would save him from crucifixion. He prays that Jesus would remember him. “Remember me in Your mercy. Deliver me from my sins. Deliver me from my just condemnation. O You who are what the sign above Your thorn pierced head declares, King of the Jews, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.” Beholding the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, beholding God’s Servant suffering the wrath of God on behalf of sinful humanity, beholding the Promised Messiah suffering for him, bleeding for him, this criminal beholds his only Savior, his Lord, and his God. Thus he prays: Remember me. And it is here, in this context, that Jesus, the King of the Jews, the King of the universe, God in human flesh, enthroned upon the cross, declares His saving Word of Promise: “today you will be with me in Paradise” (v. 43).

There is nothing essentially different about these two criminals. Both are guilty of horrendous crimes. Both are justly condemned. Neither has any righteousness of his own to boast of. Neither is worthy of mercy or help. The only difference is this: One believes in Jesus, and one does not. One trusts Jesus alone for salvation, for forgiveness of sins. The other rejects the salvation that Jesus gives. One prays in faith, the other mocks. One receives the Word of Promise: “today you will be with me in Paradise.” The other, rejecting that Word, resigns himself to an eternity in hell.

Beloved in the Lord, you and I must see ourselves in the criminals crucified on either side of Jesus. We are either the criminal who believes in Jesus, and so receives the Word of Promise, or the criminal who mocks, and so is lost. You and I should be justly condemned for our sins. The wages of sin is death. We are sinners, through and through, our nature so corrupted with original sin, producing all manner of actual sins, the bad tree bearing bad fruit, the terminal disease producing noxious symptoms. Out of our hearts proceed evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. Like the criminals, we are guilty, having no righteousness of our own to boast of. We are not worthy of mercy or help. We must confess that we are poor, miserable sinners, by nature sinful and clean, having sinned against God in thought, word, and deed. The question is not whether we are guilty. The question is not whether we deserve our punishment. The question is what we believe about Jesus. Because either we will be like the first criminal, who mocks and derides, who really has no faith or fear of God, or we will be like the second criminal, confessing our sins, but simply entrusting ourselves to the mercy of Christ, who by His holy, precious blood, and his innocent suffering and death, purchased and won us from sin, death, and the power of the devil, and so has redeemed us for God.

Jesus speaks His Word of Promise: “today you will be with me in Paradise.” Faith appropriates that saving Word. Faith grasps that saving Word and clings to it in the peril of death and hell. And so, repenting of our sins, we look to Christ crucified, who alone is our hope and our help. We cling to His promise. And take note, this promise is delivered not outside of the cross, not without the cross, but through the cross. It is won in the suffering and death of the Son of God. And so notice further, the criminal is not delivered from crucifixion on his own cross. Jesus promises him eternal salvation, but he does remove him from his current suffering, his current cross-bearing. The Promise does not remove from the thief the civil penalties for his crimes, nor does it remove him from the earthly consequences of sin. “This word, like Jesus Christ, does not bring an end to earthly suffering. It does, however, empty all our suffering of its verdict against us and fills it with Jesus Christ for us now and in paradise.”[2] And so we should not expect the Word of Promise to deliver us from all of our current sufferings. We will still have to suffer the consequences of sin and bear the holy cross in this earthly life. But we can do so in the faith of the criminal, who receives the Word of Promise: “today you will be with me in Paradise.” Heaven awaits. Paradise is the end of suffering. There is no suffering in Paradise. But Paradise comes through the vicarious suffering of Christ. And we are delivered to the life to come in the Paradise of God through many trials and tribulations. So be it. Christ is with us in our suffering and cross-bearing. And in our suffering and cross-bearing, we are molded into the cruciform shape of our Lord Christ, as we come to despair of ourselves, confess our sins, and rely on Him alone for mercy, help, and salvation.

So we take Jesus and His Word of Promise with us throughout our life, and into our death. For one day, it will be you and me staring death in the face. On that day, there will be only one help, one Deliverer, one Savior from death and hell. It is Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. And we can do no better than to pray the prayer of the thief on the cross: Lord Jesus, remember me, that I, unworthy beggar that I am, sinful and altogether unrighteous in and of myself, but pleading Your blood and righteousness alone, may come into Your Kingdom, and so be with you forever in Paradise. Grant it, O Lord, for the sake of Your bitter suffering and death. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] This year’s Lenten series is based on Words of Life from the Cross (St. Louis: Concordia, 2010). Though the sermon is my own, the theme and many of the particulars are taken from the series.
[2] Mark W. Love, Words of Life from the Cross: Daily Devotions (St. Louis: Concordia, 2010) p. 15.

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