“Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed 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.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” – Luke 23:32, 39-43
Video: In Paradisum from the Requiem by Gabriel Faure’
This is the second Sunday in Lent, and the second week in a sermon series on the Seven Last Words From the Cross. I missed you all last week when the First Word was “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” – a word that points to our human need for forgiveness.
“Father forgive them…” is a good place to start because this is where we all start with God. We’re not perfect, much as we might want to be. Most of us will admit we could ‘make a few improvements’; but to become truly righteous is a different ballgame. The Bible says no person is righteous, that we have all fallen short of God’s perfection.
The word sin – an old-fashioned word that has been terribly over-used – originally was an archery term meaning to ‘miss the mark’. If you picture in your mind’s eye an archery target, the ‘mark’ is the center of the target. To miss the target completely is called a ‘miss’; and a ‘sin’ is to hit the target but not the mark.
Which is a good way to describe how we human beings live: we do the best we can but we still miss the mark, we still sin. Jesus speaks truth when he says “they don’t know what they’re doing.” But Jesus begins that observation with the prayer, “Father forgive them…” And that was our first word from last week, which lays the foundation for this week.
This week we look at the Second Word from the cross: “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Lent tends to be a dark time. It’s a time of year when it’s still winter, and the days are still short and dark. In the church it’s also a time of self-examination and confessing sin. But today, for a moment, sunlight breaks through. Today hope breaks through.
But we’re starting at the end of the story, so let’s back up and get it from the beginning.
Jesus has been crucified between two other men. Scripture says these men were ‘criminals’: the actual word in Greek translates ‘evildoers’. Back in Roman days people who lived in nations that had been conquered by Rome didn’t necessarily have to have committed a crime in order to be crucified. But these two, by their own admission, are guilty of something, though the Bible doesn’t say what.
We should also keep in mind as we take in this scene, the things crucifixion does to a body: physically it’s very difficult and very painful to speak. So every word is deliberate. Nothing is spoken accidentally.
With this in mind, in our passage for today, the first criminal speaks first. He uses his energy, what little he can muster, to ridicule Jesus. He is repeating what the crowd says in Luke 23:35: “‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God.’”
The first criminal hears this and he joins in. He says: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
This isn’t a cry for help, in spite of how it sounds. This man doesn’t really believe Jesus can save him. He doesn’t believe Jesus is the Messiah. He’s venting anger and frustration. And he’s essentially saying he’s equal to the people down at the feet of the crosses who are making fun of Jesus. He doesn’t really belong here, is what he’s saying.
The other criminal hears this and is horrified. He says: “Don’t you fear God? We are guilty. He’s innocent. He’s done nothing wrong.” This criminal knows he is guilty as charged. He knows it’s only a matter of hours before he sees God face to face, and he knows he doesn’t have much to show for his life.
But he knows Jesus is innocent: not just innocent of crime, Jesus is God’s holy one. He sees the sign nailed to the cross over Jesus’ head that says “this is the king of the Jews” and he knows it’s true. And he says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Not if you come into your kingdom. When you come into your kingdom. That’s faith.
And Jesus answers, “truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
How can Jesus say this? He is in utter agony but he is still ministering to the hurting and the lost. He can do it because he’s keeping his eyes on the prize. Jesus is not listening to the mockers. He’s listening for words of faith. Jesus knows where he’s going, and his plan is to bring people with him.
Which leads us to the question: What is this ‘paradise’ Jesus speaks of? What is heaven like?
The Bible says surprisingly little about heaven. Most of Scripture deals with how we live here on earth: how to have faith in God, how to be God’s people. But we do wonder about the future and where we’re going. And it’s OK to wonder about that. God, after all, is a Spirit, and we are physical beings. So how’s this going to work? What’s it going to look like?
The first and obvious answer is: heaven is where God is. God loves us and we love God and being where God is, is heaven. And that’s a great start.
But ‘heaven’ is not the word Jesus uses. Jesus says ‘paradise’ which, while it’s not different from heaven, it’s a different way to describe it.
Back in Jesus’ day the word ‘paradise’ basically meant “the king’s garden”. You may remember the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World” – they included things like the Pyramids, and the Colossus of Rhodes – and one of those seven wonders was the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. These gardens were five or six stories high, held up with columns and staircases, and there were statues, and a river ran through it: it was a blaze of color, and it was attached to the king’s palace. That’s the kind of picture that would have popped into the criminal’s mind when Jesus said ‘paradise’: a place of beauty so intense it was almost too much to bear.
The Bible gives us hints of things like this throughout scripture, and encourages us to think about them when life becomes difficult, or when the faithful are suffering for their faith. Scripture says ‘remember’ and hold on to the vision God gives us of the King’s Garden. Here are some examples from scripture:
In the book of Exodus, the instructions Moses gives for the building of the tabernacle describe incredible beauty. Everything in the tabernacle was made of acacia wood overlaid with gold. The place was lit with oil lamps that burned scented oil in lampstands that had branches like gold trees with flowers on the end, with gold petals holding the burning oil. The curtains were fine linen with cherubim embroidered into them in purple, blue, and scarlet. The overall effect was one of being surrounded by cherubim worshiping God, in the most beautiful place, with delicious smells as the incense and offerings were burned. Worship in ancient Israel was a delight to the senses, and a foretaste of paradise.
In Revelation, the apostle John writes about the new Jerusalem, the city of God:
“The wall is built of jasper… the city is pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations… are adorned with every jewel… jasper… sapphire… agate… emerald… onyx… carnelian… chrysolite… beryl… topaz… chrysoprase… jacinth… amethyst. And the twelve gates are twelve pearls… the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass… And the city has no need of sun or moon… for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” (Rev. 21:18-23 edited)
Isaiah, in his prophecies, says:
“On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces… The LORD has spoken.” (Is 25:6-8)
That’s what Jesus is talking about when he talks about ‘Paradise’.
Returning now to the foot of the cross: If you had asked any of the Roman soldiers that day about this second criminal they would have told you he wasted his life. He never did anything worthwhile. He belonged on the trash heap of humanity, which is exactly where he ended up.
But the power of God to forgive and redeem, through Jesus Christ on the cross… changes… everything… and this man, whose life was wasted, became in his death an example for all of us who have fallen short of God’s holiness. He becomes a man whose words will be remembered forever, and who shows us how a Christian dies.
And he is the reason – he and people like him – are the reason why Jesus did what he did. Jesus went to the cross to save sinners and bring us into God’s kingdom. We are the prize Jesus has his eyes on. And even before he died the first of us, this common criminal, was the first to enter the King’s Garden.
So for us today, remembering these words and these events – three things:
First, remember God loves sinners and delights to have mercy. The Pharisees and Sadducees who stood at the foot of the cross mocking had issues with Jesus because Jesus was always eating with ‘tax collectors and sinners’. But Jesus chose to hang on a cross with criminals rather than to hang out with the Pharisees and Sadducees. And this is good news for you and me, and for the people we know and love. Adam Hamilton, the writer of our Lenten devotional Final Words, encourages us to seek out the kinds of people Jesus loved – people the world considers ‘riffraff’ – and welcome them into our fellowship so they can hear this good news.
Second, Jesus’ words give us the courage to face death. The second criminal said, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The word ‘remember’ in the Bible means more than just ‘call to mind’. It means ‘have mercy on me and help me’. In the Old Testament when God ‘remembered’ Israel it meant return from exile. When God ‘remembered’ Rachel she became pregnant after years of trying. ‘Remember me’ is almost like saying ‘take me with you’. And that’s exactly what Jesus does.
The second criminal teaches us how to face the moment of death. He gives us the prayer we will need: “Jesus, remember me in your kingdom.”
Third, we catch a glimpse of what eternal life will be like for those who love Jesus, who put their faith and trust in his sacrifice on the cross, and who to seek to follow him. We will be with Jesus. And we will be in paradise.
The end of the book of Revelation describes a wedding scene in which Jesus and his bride the Church are married, and we hear these words:
“It is I, Jesus… the bright morning star.” The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come…” (Rev 22:16-17)
The door to the King’s Garden is open, by the power of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. The Spirit and the Bride say ‘come’.
Lord Jesus, thank you for loving us. We hear your promise and we long to answer your call. We confess we have missed the mark in many ways. Have mercy on us and forgive us. We look forward to being with you in the King’s Garden. In the meantime, help us during this Lent to invite others to come, in Your name. AMEN.
Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 2/21/16