If you are a listener to sermons, it may help you to know that even preachers don’t always remember preaching entirely or exactly. I have one vivid memory, however, of a sermon I heard one Sunday before Easter as a teenager, around the time I gave my life to Jesus. I’ve never forgotten its basic message.
There’s so much of the Scripture that we hear on Good Friday and Easter Day that is rich and deserves deeper attention; I hope you’ll meditate on a passage such as Luke 22, 23 and 24 this weekend. But I want to focus on just a few words from Jesus, uttered from the cross, to a criminal who was hanging on a similar cross on one side of him. This criminal had a different stance than the other. One of them insulted Jesus and, thinking of himself, tried to get Jesus to use his power as the Christ (which he willingly acknowledged!) to rescue the three of them from the death they were about to face. The other criminal rebuked him and said, “‘Don’t you fear God,…, since you are under the same sentence?…Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise’” (Luke 23.40-43, NIV).
This was the text of the sermon I remember so well. It was a word of hope, a word of grace, a word of love. Jesus could have chosen to feel sorry for himself as he hung on the cross, naked, bleeding, gasping for air, dying. Instead, he chose to reach out to a sinner who recognized him and who repented.
Both criminals knew Jesus for who he was; even the insulting criminal averred, “Aren’t you the Christ?” (Luke 23.39b, NIV). This man was willing to acknowledge that Jesus was who he claimed to be. But he was not interested in what Jesus stood for, unless it was going to get him out of his immediate situation.
The other criminal, looking around Jesus, rebuked his partner in crime, saying that while they were getting what they deserved, Jesus had done nothing wrong. Then he asked Jesus to remember him in his eternal kingdom. And at that moment, when any normal human being might have ignored him, Jesus reached out. His loving arms nailed to a cruel cross, all Jesus had with which to reach out were his words: “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
Can you imagine being that criminal? Can you imagine having that assurance, right from the lips of the Saviour himself? “Today!” No delay. “When you breathe your last, you’ll be with me,” is what Jesus said, in effect.
Of course, if the cross were the end, Jesus couldn’t have said what he did. His death would pay the price for sin, but only when he broke the bonds of death on the third day would he open the gates for believers to receive eternal life. And because that happened on that first Easter weekend, all who follow Jesus, everywhere, ever since, have had the promise of freedom from sin and new and everlasting life.
Think you’re not good enough? Of course you’re not. None of us is. But it’s not our goodness that wins our salvation. It’s faith. That’s why a career criminal was the first to taste eternal life – at the invitation of the Saviour.
God’s best for your weekend – in sorrow at the cross, and in victory at the empty tomb!