From hell to heaven - Luke 23:26-43
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
There are Christian ministers- like our own Lee- who seem to have an amazing knack of striking up good Gospel conversations whatever the situation and being able to say just the right thing at the right time. So let me tell you of one such minister and what happened to him on a plane flight he was taking. He was sitting in his allocated seat minding his own business when a tall, beautifully tanned blond woman came scurrying down the aisle puffing and panting - she had almost missed the plane. As she more or less fell into her seat beside him, she blurted out: ‘I hate to fly. I put off getting here as long as I can.’ And she really did hate to fly. The minister was soon to discover that the way she coped with her fear of flying was by excessive talking. ‘I’m going home to meet my Dad.’ She enthused, ‘He’ll be amazed at my tan. And I’ve got this new boyfriend, he’s from Lebanon. He travels a lot though, so I only see him at weekends, which is fine by me because it gives me the house to myself. It isn’t far from the beach and………’ on and on she went.
Now the minister had learnt over the years what to do whenever a friendly, attractive woman sits beside him. As soon as is possible he reveals his status and his profession. He figured this kept everyone out of trouble. So he interjected as soon as she paused for breath, ‘Yes, my wife hates flying too, so I know how you feel.’ And then he quickly added, ‘And since I’m a minister, I know a part of the Bible you might like to read as we take off.’ And so he pulled out his Bible and turned to the 23rd Psalm. Now that approach is usually met with one of two responses. An embarrassed silence or some sort of contact. For this woman it was contact. ‘The Lord’s my shepherd’ she smiled; ‘I remember this from when I was a kid.’ But then a tear began to form in her eye. ‘It’s been a long time’ she mused wistfully, ‘a very long time.’ She then went on to tell the minister how she believed…once. She became a Christian, she said, when she was young, but she couldn’t remember the last time she went to church. Perhaps it was a few Christmases ago. So they talked about faith and the God who gives second chances. Then the minister paused and said, ‘Can I ask you a question?’ ‘Yes, sure’ she replied, ‘go ahead.’ ‘Do you believe in heaven?’ ‘Why yeah.’ ‘Do you believe that one day you will go there?’ She looked away for a moment and then turned and with a firm confidence replying, ‘Yeah. Yeah, I will be in heaven.’ ‘How do you know?’ the minister asked. ‘How do I know?’ she said. She then grew quiet as she started to put together some sort of response in her mind. But the minister knew what she was going to say even before she opened her mouth. ‘Well, I’m basically good. I don’t smoke more than a pack a day. I exercise. I’m dependable at work. I made my boyfriend get tested for AIDS’ (As if that was bound to impress the clergyman) and away she went counting each achievement on each beautifully manicured digit until there were no fingers left. Do you see what logic she was buying into? It was that by keeping a list on earth she could ensure a place in heaven. And I can assure you that the experience of that minister is not unique. It pretty well happens to me whenever I have a conversation with someone about eternity. Even with those who are not so sure that there is a God, the one thing they are sure of is that if God does exist then this is the basis on which he will relate to us- a list. But how do we know? What evidence is there that this is how our final destiny will be secured- by a satisfying a check list? That may be the basis for entering a country through customs- has the form been correctly filled out and the passport in order? - But is it the way by which we enter the final country of heaven and the new universe of which the Bible so enthusiastically speaks?
Well, this morning we turn to a passage which answers that crucial question. I say crucial because if what the Bible claims is true- and that is what we are talking about-true or false, right or wrong- not personal opinion- then hardly any other question we will ever ask will be so important. There aren’t that many questions upon which our eternal destiny turns. But this is one of them. And the passage is Luke 23 and it concerns the last encounter Jesus was to have with someone before his death.
Jesus did not die alone. He had company- two thieves pinned to crosses on either side of him. The whole sorry picture Luke paints for us is one of rejection and dejection. The only thing in the world Jesus had that was worth keeping, a cloak, the soldiers stole and gambled for-v 34. The people watched, the rulers sneered, and the soldiers taunted verse 36 ‘ They offered him wine vinegar and said , ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.’
And if that were not enough, those also suffering the same fate as Jesus turn on him too. Matthew in his account tells us that they were robbers- that is, violent bandits- not men who sneak into your bedroom windows wearing stripped jersey’s carrying a bag with ‘swag’ written on it, but men who would cut your throat rather than give you the time of day. And both of them, says Matthew, ‘heaped insults on him’. We are not told exactly what it was they said, although Luke does record the jibe of one of them; look at verse 39, ‘One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’’ Do you see what he is saying? In a voice husky with pain he sneers at Jesus’ claim to be a King-the Christ. ‘Some King of the Jews you are’. ‘Life is tough on Messiah’s these days then?’ ‘Ever handle nails this size back in your Dad’s shop in Nazareth eh Jesus? What about a miracle now?’ And each insult was applied just as cruelly and as intentionally as the soldier’s lash had been a few hours earlier, each designed to cause searing pain. Now, you may have expected it of the Pharisees. You might have expected it of the crowd. Even the taunts of the military do not come as a surprise. But from dying men? Crucified men insulting a crucified man? So little wonder that Imperial Rome consigns these men to the cross. Strip them naked so all will know that evil cannot hide. Nail their hands so all will see that the wicked have no strength. Post them high so all will tell their children, ‘That’s what happens to bad men.’ Every muscle in their bodies screams for relief. Nails pulse fire through their arms. Legs contort and twist desperately seeking relief. But there is no relief on a cross. As one of the most appalling instruments of torture ever devised, the one thing desired most of all- comfort- is tantalisingly absent.
But the one thing the cross could not do was silence its victims’ tongues. These two men seem to be about to die as they had lived- attacking the innocent. But in this case the innocent does not retaliate.
Admittedly, he wasn’t much to look at, the one they verbally abused. His body was whip-torn flesh, pulled away from the bone. He face was a mask of blood and spit; eyes puffy and swollen. A platted crown of thorns pressed into his skull. His lip was split. Maybe a tooth was loose. And to add insult to injury, a sign had been painted and placed above his head, ‘King of the Jews’ it said. Some King!
The man the thieves mocked was half dead. The man they insulted was beaten. But the man they cursed was at peace. And maybe it was the prayer which came from his swollen lips in v 34, ‘Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they are doing’, that caused one of the thieves to eventually explode and vent his spleen on him. He doesn’t want to hear pathetic, mealy mouthed words about ‘forgiveness’, he wants deliverance, a well placed miracle to obliterate the enemies and get them out of this hell hole.
And maybe that is your problem at the moment and why you are not yet a Christian. Your greatest need, as you see it, lies in your circumstances. The marriage isn’t going so well. The kids are proving to be difficult. The job is tedious and unfulfilling. The chilly wind of bereavement is becoming a little too cold. And you feel boxed in; so you are angry and frustrated; you want a way out. And if you cannot have a God who will lift you out of your situation at your beck and call then you will not have him at all. Is that it? But all of that assumes two things. First, that somehow we think that we somehow deserve something different. When difficulty comes our way, we immediately cry out, ‘Why me?’ But we could equally cry, ‘Why not?’ Why should any of us be free from the lot common to man, what the Bible calls ‘the curse’, that the world is littered with perpetual reminders that all is not well between us and our Maker. What God is interested in is not a comparing of lists- here are the good things that I have done, here is a list of the bad things that have happened to me, and somehow he has to make them tally; but rather what he wants with us is a relationship- better still, friendship. That is what we were made for- a deep, intimate, vibrant friendship with the Creator God. Everything else is rubbish compared to that. The trouble is we tend to settle for the rubbish.
And so we make the second false assumption, that our greatest need is physical and not spiritual. But Jesus prayer here is bang on target in revealing to us, and as we shall see in a minute, making possible, the answer to our greatest need as far as God is concerned which is forgiveness. If you think that forgiveness is unimportant or easy then you talk to the family torn apart by feuding; you speak to the child abused victim; you chat to the woman repeatedly cheated upon by her husband; you speak to the Dinka Christian women in the Sudan who saw their husbands and children massacred, their homes burned and themselves raped, whether forgiveness is unimportant or cheap. Our world bleeds for need of forgiveness and reconciliation at every level. But this is but a tragic reflection of the need for forgiveness and reconciliation with the one who is going to be our judge- God. And friend, you need to get that one sorted more than any other, you really do.
Well, there was one man on that blood soaked day which had his eyes wide open to this need and there we hear him speak in v 40, ‘But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God’ he said, ‘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.’
Now that is a real miracle isn’t it? That is something to take your breath away. The same mouth that a few moments ago cursed Christ now commends Christ. What happened? What took place between the initial thuds of the crosses as they were dropped into the ground and this profound profession of faith? Some sign and wonder perhaps? A sermon even? No. But a prayer, a prayer which spoke volumes not only in what was said, ‘Father forgive them’ but in the way it was said- Jesus really meant it. He meant it at the lowest point in his life. He meant it as the crowd circled his body like baying jackals. He meant it as the taunts came, the vinegar was offered, his clothes stolen- he really meant it- ‘Father, forgive them.’ They certainly needed it. And do you know what? So did this criminal.
Now look again at what this man said and it is more godly and profound than what is coming from many of the pulpits in our land today. ‘We are punished justly, getting what we deserve…. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ In one sentence, you have the core of the gospel and it comes from not from a rabbi but a robber. Do you see what he is saying and what we need to say if we are to be Christians at all? ‘I am wrong, Jesus is right.’ ‘I have failed, Jesus has not.’ ‘I deserve to die, Jesus deserves to live.’ The thief knew precious little about Jesus, but what little he did know was precious. An innocent man was dying an unjust death with forgiveness on his lips. So maybe, just maybe then, he is what that sign said he is, ‘The King.’ And Kings can help. Kings can offer royal pardons. Kings can take a pauper and make him into a prince- that is what Kings do.
And so with what little energy he has left, he calls out: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And that is when the heavy head of Jesus lifts and turns, and his eyes meet the eyes of the thief. And what Jesus sees is a naked man. Not just physically, but the man as he really is, no charades, no pretences, nothing to hide behind, just the man who knows his dying need and who recognises the only one who can supply it. And so the promise is made: ‘I tell you the truth- this is not flannel, this is not wishful thinking- this is reality- today you will be with me in paradise.’
Now to the crowds at the foot of the cross, that conversation would have been curious, to say the least. To the angels in heaven around the foot of the throne, the conversation would have been outrageous. Just how could a common criminal be given free access into paradise? Well, they were about to see. Luke’s companion, the apostle Paul, was to explain it several years before this Gospel came to be written, he said, ‘Christ took away the curse of the law put on us. He changed places with us and put himself under that curse’ (Galatians 3:13).
So imagine something like this taking place: The sins of the thief trusting in Jesus (and the sins of all of us thieves trusting in Jesus) leave him and go to Jesus. They appear as tiny flecks at first, then larger flakes and finally layer after layer of moral filth. Every evil thought; every vile deed; every act of betrayal; every cruel word; all of the cursings; all of the greed, all of those years ignoring God and blaming God now cover Christ. What sickens God in us now envelopes his Son from head to toe.
At the same instant, the purity of Jesus lifts and covers the dying thief. A sheet of dazzling moral radiance is wrapped around his soul. As the father robed the prodigal, so now Christ robes the thief. What Martin Luther called, ‘The Great exchange’ takes place. When he sees sin, God must either inflict punishment for it or assume it. In Jesus he does the latter. It wasn’t his death he died, it was the thief’s, it was ours. It wasn’t a ‘do’ list that this man had which gained him access into paradise, it was a relationship- he was now rightly related to God through Jesus the Son. What prevented that friendship- sin- had been dealt with. What was necessary for that relationship- righteousness- had been given. The thief didn’t bargain, he just pleaded.
Let me give an illustration of this, of what the Bible calls grace. Most tourists, who go to California, go to Disney land. We did a few years ago. And one of the most spectacular sights is Cinderella’s castle, which is the logo of Disney. Well, on one such evening, parents and children were packed into Cinderella’s castle when suddenly all the children rushed to one side as Cinderella arrived. This gorgeous young girl was perfect for the part, with every hair in place, skin which shone, immaculately dressed with beaming smile she stood waist high in a sea of children, each wanting to be touched. But, on the other side of the castle now vacated by most of the kids stood a little boy maybe seven or eight years old. It was difficult to determine exactly his age because of his disfigured body. His height was dwarfed, his face contorted from some congenital defect and he stood watching quietly and wistfully, holding the hand of his older brother. Of course what he wanted was to be with the other children. He longed to be near Cinderella calling her name, reaching out his hand to touch her hand. But he held back because he was afraid. Maybe he was self-conscious. He wanted to go to her, but he couldn’t. So what happened? She came to him. She noticed the little boy and politely but firmly made her way through the crowd of children and finally broke free. She walked quickly across the floor, knelt at eye level at the stunned lad and placed a delicate kiss on the side of his face. The rejected became accepted. The other children had only received a touch, he received a kiss.
Of course that is a woefully inadequate illustration of what we have just been reading, but maybe it will help capture something of the wonder of what Jesus has done. Cinderella gave only a kiss. When she left, she took her beauty with her and the boy was left as he was. But Jesus gave his life. Jesus took on our disfigurement in exchange for his beauty. So as that thief walked into paradise later that day into the very presence of the immortal God, he did so not as a rebel but as a prince reflecting the glorious shimmering, moral beauty of the Prince- his elder brother Jesus. You see, it is not a list we are to take into heaven when we die; it is a likeness- the likeness of Jesus.
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