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Today, we continue with our series of sermons on ‘What Christians Believe’. Let’s recap where we have got to so far.
We began by considering how we are created in the image of God; made beautiful, made for a life of worship and praise. Then we thought about how our sinfulness has marred that perfection but God has met us with grace and mercy and forgiveness and wants to restore us to our original state creation. After that, we thought about God made a covenant with all humanity and the basis of the covenant is that, no matter how far we fall from him, he will never leave us and he will always be willing to restore us to his loving presence. Then we thought about how the prophets began to prepare God’s people for the ultimate demonstration of his love towards us: Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, who lived on earth and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.
Jesus Christ was the living embodiment of the love of God for his creation. Jesus Christ lived his life as a dedication to others; to the lost, the lonely, the vulnerable, the outcasts, the marginalized. Jesus Christ gave himself to the ministry of healing and teaching, raising from the dead, casting out demons, and restoring the marginalized to community again.
And because Jesus Christ was the embodiment of God’s love, we might assume that he would be embraced by all who came across him, that he would be loved and adored by everyone. But, of course, we know that didn’t happen: it wasn’t his destiny – and that Jesus Christ was eventually hung on a cross, crucified, and left to die.
The death of Jesus is at the heart of the Christian faith. But why is it so important? What did Jesus achieve by dying on the cross for us? That’s where we are up to in our ‘What Christians Believe’ series today…
Almost every week here in church, we say that Jesus died in order to save us from our sins but rarely do we take time to actually reflect on the historical reality of what happened that first Good Friday, that darkest of days in human history. So let’s take a moment now…
First, Jesus had to take the long walk towards his death. Nobody was crucified in the city of Jerusalem itself: crucifixions happened outside the city boundaries. So, as we read in verse 26, “Jesus was led away” to be crucified. As he walked, he carried the crossbeam of the cross on his shoulders. This would have weighed about 6 stone, digging into the open wounds of the flesh on his back, after he had been whipped by his persecutors. But Jesus had been weakened by the hours of torture, whippings and beatings and so a passer-by, Simon of Cyrene, is forced to carry the cross for him.
But even in this moment of physical pain and weakness and humiliation, Jesus is less concerned for himself and more concerned for those who are grieving for him. In verse 28, he turns to the women with him and says: “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and your children.” Jesus knew that judgment was coming and those who identified with him needed to be prepared for that.
And then, after this long walk to his death, Jesus is brought to the place of crucifixion known as Golgotha or Calvary. It was a hill area outside of Jerusalem because the Romans liked to crucify people on hills beside main roads so that everyone passing by could see the inevitable result of what happens when people tried to rebel against them. Jesus is placed on the cross for crucifixion and the nails are driven into his wrists and his feet.
But even in this moment of physical pain and weakness and humiliation, Jesus is less concerned for himself and more concerned for those who are crucifying for him. In verse 34, he turns his eyes to heaven and says: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus knew that judgment was coming and those who were crucifying him needed to be prepared for that.
Here is the loving mercy and grace of Jesus most clearly revealed. Even while the nails are being driven into his body, even as he is being hung upon a cross because of what we have done to him, Jesus shows no vindictiveness or anger or resentment. Jesus loves those who put him on the cross. The Roman soldiers. You and me.
And then, as Jesus hangs there in agony, he is mocked by those watching this event. First, the Roman soldiers cast lots for his clothing. Then the Jewish leaders turn up and scoff at him, saying, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, the Chosen One!” Then the Roman soldiers join in the mocking: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” And just in case anyone missed the point, they made a sign of mockery and pinned it over his head.
Everyone is mocking Jesus as he dies in humiliation and pain. No-one tries to defend him. People shout abuse or they remain silent. But no-one speaks up on his behalf.
And all the while, Jesus just keeps loving and loving and loving…
But Jesus isn’t being crucified on his own. As Luke tells us in this Gospel reading, there are two criminals being crucified with him, one on his left and one on his right. And even one of these criminals joins in the mockery, verse 39: “One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’”
Could there be a more disturbing scene in the history of the world than the Son of God being mocked and tortured and crucified to death? It truly was the lowest point in the history of sinful human behavior.
And then sometime quite extraordinary happens in verse 40 – we read this: “But the other criminal rebuked [the first criminal], saying, ‘Do you not fear God..? We have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’”
Those words that we sang at the beginning of today’s service: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”. Those words that we made our own today, just as they were owned by the criminal on the cross who recognized that he was being rightly judged for his crimes: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”.
And Jesus’ response to this condemned criminal who is so aware of his own guilt is quite incredible: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise”.
This condemned man, this guilty man, this broken and wounded man, who knows that he is so undeserving of any grace and forgiveness whatsoever, receives the most extraordinary words of hope and love that could possibly be uttered: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise”.
Salvation is for today – not for tomorrow. Hope is for today – not for tomorrow. A new beginning with God is for today – not for tomorrow.
Jesus is for today. And Jesus says the same thing to each one of us: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise”.
But we do need to notice this from the passage: Jesus did not make that promise to both of criminals: only to one of them. Why was that? Both of them had committed the same crimes. We know from Matthew’s Gospel that, for a time, both of them had been mocking Jesus. Both of them were equally guilty before that day and on that day. So what was the difference between them? Why did Jesus offer that degree of hope to only one of them?
The difference between them was that only one of them asked to be a part of Jesus’ kingdom. One asked to be saved but the other didn’t. One had faith in Jesus but the other didn’t. Only one knew his need for Jesus and wasn’t too proud to ask. And because he asked for grace, Jesus offered it and promised it.
And so we are left with one question today: Have we actually recognized deep in our hearts our need for Jesus? Have we actually acknowledged that we are utterly lost without him? Have we actually asked Jesus for his grace and mercy and forgiveness?
It is easy to come to church each week and to participate in the worship – but unless we have made that personal request to Jesus for his grace and healing in our lives, then we can never move forward spiritually and take our place in Paradise with him.
Jesus offers Paradise to us all. But we need to recognize our lostness, recognize our need for Jesus, and ask him into our lives in the most personal of ways. And then the offer of Paradise can become a living reality for us.
The religious leaders mocked Jesus on the cross by saying, “Why does he not save himself?” The answer is simple: Jesus did not save himself so that you and I could be saved.
His death is our life. His sacrifice is our gain. His descent into Hell is our ascent into Paradise.
Without the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, we have no access to Paradise. All we need to do is realize that truth in the depths of our hearts. All we need to do is recognize that we are utterly lost without him. All we need to do is ask Jesus to lead us into Paradise – and he will.
We sang at the beginning of the service: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”. Then we sang: “God forgave my sin in Jesus name”. Later, we will sing: “There is a redeemer Jesus God’s own Son”. Don’t let those be empty words that we just sing today. Instead, let them be words that come from deep within our heart as we recognize afresh what Jesus has done by dying on the cross for us. Let them be words that come from deep within us as we celebrate the new life that is ours through Jesus Christ, if only we would ask him, and if only we would respond to his offer of Paradise.