March 29, 2020. Sermon Title: Jesus and the Two Criminals

First Mennonite Church
March 29, 2020

Jesus and the Two Thieves
Text: Luke 23:26-43
26 As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. 27 A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. 28 But Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ 30 Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ 31 For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
32 Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? 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 have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Jesus being led to Golgotha—the place called “The Skull” and the cruelty of his crucifixion were very dramatic scenes. Nobody was left untouched or could remain indifferent to what happened the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. As he stumbled along the street, Jesus needed help to carry his cross. Therefore, Simon of Cyrene was forced to help Jesus. The crowds were following Jesus from behind as he was being marched to his death. The people knew what was about to happen. Death by crucifixion was the Roman’s way of carrying out capital punishment. The women were crying, agonizing at the prospect of a cruel death coming upon their beloved Lord.

Once Jesus was nailed to the cross, the leaders ridiculed him. “He saved others, why can’t he save himself? If he is the Messiah, why doesn’t God come and save him from the cross?” The soldiers also mocked Jesus. In the way of sheer sarcasm, they offered him sour wine and demanded, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” Pilate also scorned Jesus. Pilate had an inscription nailed on the cross above Jesus’ head: “This is the King of the Jews.”

Today, I want us to take a look at the two thieves who were crucified on either side of Jesus. They also could not remain untouched. The two, exhausted and confronted by their own death, could not but look at the one whom everyone was looking at—Jesus on the cross. Their response were very different from each other’s. The first to speak joined those who were mocking Jesus. “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” he said. It was obvious that even at his last very hour, this man was only concerned about his own interest. He was challenging Jesus with the same temptation Jesus had rejected when he was in the desert. Jesus could have won the whole world without having to go to the cross. He only had to perform a miracle, proving his divinity. The thief did not know that Jesus had even rebuked Peter when he tried to dissuade Jesus from going to Jerusalem, knowing it’s there where he would be put to death. “Go behind me Satan,” Jesus told Peter. The thief did not that Jesus that had prayed to the Father, “Not my will, but your will.” Jesus was on the cross, not because he could not avoid it, but because he was obedient to the Father, even unto the very end.

Jesus, lovingly and patiently, did not fight back those who insulted him. As Peter says, “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly” (1Peter 2:23). Jesus did not respond. He bore the insults in silence.

The second thief rebuked the first, “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.” We can assume that the second thief had been witnessing the amazing humility, patience, and love emanating from Jesus even as he was being beaten, mocked and insulted. It could be that the second thief heard the way Jesus address the women, thus he spoke out of conviction that Jesus was a righteous man. The second thief knew that Jesus did not deserve to die; his death was unmerited and unjust, for he had done nothing wrong. However, his (the thief’s) dying was the consequence of his evil actions.
His fear of God, however, did not paralyze him. He made a heart-felt prayer to Jesus, who was at his side. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he pleaded. He believed Jesus was King and that although Jesus was dying, somehow, he would enter into his kingdom, not as a dead man, but as someone who could remember this plea for mercy. This second criminal knew that Jesus was able to honor his simple request. He knew that he had no power to save himself, but at least he wanted to live in the memory of a righteous man, who was dying next to him.

My dear friends, the scene of Jesus hanging on his cross between two criminals is Luke’s attempt to picture Jesus’ fulfillment of the words of Isaiah 53: 11-12.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities . . .
because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

Luke says that Jesus came to proclaim the good news to the poor. Jesus also welcomed and had fellowship with the outcast. His death is pictured no differently. He died among thieves.
Luke tells us that the first criminal to speak, “kept deriding” Jesus as he hung on the cross. The word “deriding” is literally “blaspheming.” Therefore, the first criminal had been insulting Jesus, possibly from the moment they first met. It is so sad to see the hardness and coldness of the heart of the first criminal even as he was dying. The first criminal, dying just a couple of feet away from the Savior, who could have extended him mercy, is the greatest irony of the human experience. However, many continue to die in their sin even when God’s salvation is at hand. The apostle Paul writes:
“The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart”
(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:8-9).

The first criminal died in mocking sarcasm, blaspheming the Savior. His bitterness blinded him from seeing, not only his wrong doings, but even the ability to distinguish between his condition and Jesus’ innocence. He was not willing to accept that his dying had come as the righteous judgement for his wrong doings, but that Jesus’ dying was unjust, for “he had not done anything out of place,” is literally what Luke writes.

On the other hand, we see the second criminal, who in some way embodied what Jesus said to his disciples. If you see your brother sin, rebuke him. The second criminal saw the error of the first, who had been blaspheming against Jesus, and rebuked him. The second criminal feared God. He acknowledged that his dying was merited, but not Jesus’. He knew he needed mercy, thus addressed Jesus by his name and pleaded: “Jesus, remember me when you enter into your kingdom.” Jesus not only promised to remember him, but made him a solemn promise: “Truly I tell you, ‘Amen, I say to you,’ today you will be with me in paradise.” In 2Corinthians, chapter 12, Paul says the following:
I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat (v. 2-4).

Paradise, literally means garden. In later Jewish writings, Paradise became known as the place where God welcomes the righteous after their death. What Jesus promised to the second thief was a reward for fearing God. The thief closed his eyes in the hope that God would have mercy on him and would welcome him in the place destined for the righteous.

My dear brothers and sisters, the events of Good Friday, as narrated by Luke, reveal they were not only dramatic but also traumatic for everyone who witnessed them and for everyone who reads them today. No one can remain indifferent to what happened on that day and especially to Jesus who was the center of everything. Therefore, this story invites us to respond. This story reminds us that the Savior who died between the two thieves continues to suffer rejection and cynicism. Yet, he is gracious to extend mercy to everyone who calls on his name. The prayer of the second thieve is one which we should also pray: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

May each of us hear with the ears of faith Jesus answering us: “Amen, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
May the Lord bless our heart with his word. Amen!

Let us pray:
Our loving God, we want to give you thanks and praises for Jesus, our dear Lord and Savior. You, Lord Jesus, are the same yesterday, today, and forever. You are merciful; you are patient. Help us, we pray, to measure ourselves, not against others, but against you who are holy, compassionate, and forgiving. Remember us and keep us in your heart. Amen!
May the peace of the Lord be with us all. Amen.