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TEXT: Luke 23:39-43
SUBJECT: Last Words #2: With Me in Paradise
Modern medicine is a wonderful thing. Two hundred years ago, respected physicians bled their patients, performed surgery without washing their hands, and thought the best cure for toothache was smoking a pipe! Since that time amazing breakthroughs have occurred for which we ought to be deeply thankful.
But if modern medicine is a blessing from God, it is not an unmixed blessing. While it has given us longer and healthier lives (on average), it has also taken some things away from us, one of which was very dear to past generations, but is hardly thought of today: modern medicine has robbed us of Last Words.
In 1969 Herbert Lockyer published a fascinating book called All the Last Words of Saints and Sinners. Some of his entries are deeply moving. Joseph Addison, for example, called loved ones to his bedside and whispered, See in what peace a Christian can die. Others are more disturbing. Edward Gibbon could only despair, All this is now lost, finally, irrevocably lost. All is dark and doubtful.
There are many books of this kind, of course, and I'm sure more will be published. But I wonder if the new books will be updated? Or have doctors and drugs and families put an end to Last Words? I pass no judgment and offer no advice, but it seems to me, Last Words need to be spoken, heard, and remembered.
This brings us to the second sermon in our series on the Last Words of Christ. His crucifixion occurred between nine o'clock in the morning and three in the afternoon. Over the hours He spoke seven times and not a word was wasted. What a critic said of Him in life is doubly true in death-
Never has a man spoken as this Man speaks.
His first words were spoken to God: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do. While both our Lord and His Father were terribly wronged by the crucifixion, neither held a grudge. Both were eager to pardon the ones behind the notorious crime. And not only their sin, but yours too! While God is firm and does what needs doing, He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. He prefers mercy to justice and would rather save sinners than to damn them. This means He will pardon you, if you want Him to. And that no sin is too bad and no life is too dirty to be forgiven and washed clean.
What He prayed for in His first word from the cross, He does in the second. C.S. Lewis once quipped, It is easier to pray for a bore than to visit him. That's right, it is. It's also easier to ask God to forgive a sinner than to forgive him yourself. But this is precisely what our Lord did way back when. And what He does today.
Matthew and Mark say our Lord was crucified between two thieves. They told the truth, of course, for the men hung up alongside Him were thieves. Luke is more general, calling them criminals or malefactors, and John mentions them without specifying what crime they were guilty of.
The character of these men, therefore, is rather sketchy. Until you remember who else was sentenced to die that day. His name was Barabbas and he was a Zealot who wanted to expel the Romans from Israel and set up the Kingdom of God on earth. This sounds rather noble, devout and patriotic.until you recall the Prophecy of Daniel.
Five or six hundred years earlier, God said four great Empires would rule Israel in succession. They were the Babylonians, the Persians and Medes, the Greeks, and then the Romans. While the Romans were in power, He would set up His own Kingdom, a worldwide Empire that would never fall. While God Himself would do all this, He would do it through the Messiah. This means Barabbas took himself for the Messiah and a good many Jews agreed with him--including the two men who were crucified that day.
The thieves to our Lord's right and left were thieves, but this is not all they were: they were also fools, murderers, and terrorists. False men they were, pinning their hopes on a false Messiah.
THE FIRST THIEF
The first thief died in the bad faith by which he had lived. If Barabbas is the Messiah, Jesus is not, and so he spent his last hours on earth ridiculing our Lord-
If you are the Christ, save yourself and us.
What an awful way to die: in scoffing at a man. Especially if the Man is also God. Luke says he blasphemed Him, and while this word is not used only in reference to God, it usually is, and this is what (I think) he is getting at. He has no fear of God, no sense of sin, no thought of the Judgment to Come! Like Judas Iscariot, he loved cursing-not saying four-letter words (which is bad enough)-but asking God to damn people.
This man asked for no mercy and he got what he asked for.
The Lord's mercy is yours for the asking. You don't have to qualify yourself for mercy; if you could qualify yourself for it, you wouldn't need it. But you do need it-we all do. Why don't you ask for it? Instead of waiting to feel religious enough to seek the Lord's mercy, why don't you seek it because you don't feel religious enough?
Babies don't know anything, but they cry for milk when they're hungry! They can't define 'milk' or explain how their mothers produce it, or where they learned to nurse or how their digestive system works or if candy bars might taste better than milk! All they know is: We're hungry and when we cry loud enough we get something to eat!
I wish you'd cry to God for mercy. If you did, you'd get it. Without knowing the meaning of mercy of the depth of your need. If you want mercy, you'll have it.
THE SECOND THIEF
While the first thief appears in the story it is only by way of contrast. For that wicked man had a partner in crime, and by his own admission, he was every bit as sinful as the first thief. Matthew says he too cast the same in our Lord's teeth. He also blasphemed on the cross.
But something happened to the second thief. As he listened to his friend's scoffing, it occurred to him that while they were both malefactors, the Man they mocked at was the Messiah.
Offended by the cruel words, he scolded his friend, justified Jesus, and then made a bold request,
Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.
You talk about guts? This man has got them! He had lived a life of crime, had followed a false Messiah, and until five minutes ago, had been heaping scorn on the true Messiah! But now he's got the nerve to ask for a favor, and it's not a little one he wants, but a big one. He wants a place in the Messiah's Kingdom. What exactly he meant by that, we can't say, but the big idea is clear enough. According to Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the Messiah's kingdom includes forgiveness, a new heart, and the filling of God's Spirit.
We need what he had: chutzpah! Guts, nerve. We have a hymn to this effect,
Thou art coming to a King,
Large petitions with thee bring;
For His grace and power are such,
Not can ever ask too much.
When it comes to seeking God's favor, too much boldness is not our problem, but too little! We call it humility, but God calls it pride. We don't feel we're good enough to ask for something big, but this is pride, for where does the Lord ever say, 'Be good enough and I'll give you want you ask for'? It is also unbelief as though the Lord isn't big enough to do what we ask Him to do-or generous enough.
If the man's prayer is big, our Lord's answer is bigger!
Truly I say to you, this day you will be with Me in paradise.
I believe the thief thought our Lord's Kingdom was a long way off, but that when it came, in the distant future, he personally (or maybe indirectly in his children) would have a place in it. It would be a low place, certainly, about as far from the throne as you can get in the Kingdom. But better to in the kingdom's worst neighborhood than out of it.
But the Lord doesn't give him what he asked for. The Lord is going to heaven in about three hours, and a few hours later, the thief will be there too-and not just 'in paradise', but in paradise with Christ. Almost as though they were equals!
I mustn't import too much theology into the story, but I need to remind you that believers in Christ are also in union with Christ, and this means: Everything that belongs to Him belongs to us. It's like community property. If a man earns a billion dollars while his wife paints her fingernails in front of the TV, it's her billion too!
We're the lazy wife in my story, and while our Husband is earning Eternal Life for Himself, it belongs to us as much as it does to Him! In other words, we can only go to hell if Christ goes to hell. And if Christ goes to heaven we do too-not may--but have to go to heaven!
One word needs attention: 'Assuredly' my Bible says, or 'verily' in the King James. The word is 'amen'-and it means there is no doubt about it. The thief went to paradise that day-not because he lived a good life-but because He looked to Christ and the Lord, Remembered [him] when He came into His kingdom.
If the story is good, the message is better: It is not too late to find God's mercy.
To be saved at a young age is a real blessing. But it is not God's only blessing. If He saves some in their early years, He saves others when they are old. I don't believe our man was old, but he was at the end of life: not six months to live, as doctors often tell terminal patients, but perhaps six hours. Or fewer than six hours. He sought the Lord's mercy late in life, dangerously late-but not too late. If he found it near the end of his life, you can find it near the end of yours.
You don't have to know a lot, you don't have to read the Bible from cover to cover, you don't have to develop a disciplined prayer life or reform your bad habits. You may not have time to do these things. Death is more certain than life! And the only thing more certain than death is.God's mercy. To everyone who wants it and seeks it in Christ. Don't let the past determine your future; history is not destiny! No matter how far you've strayed from God, or for how long, you can have His mercy, but you can't have it tomorrow, because He doesn't offer it to you tomorrow. He offers it today. Now is the accepted time; now is the day of salvation.
If I were speaking to a non-Christian audience I would end my sermon here. But I'm not doing that (I hope!). I'm speaking to a church. What does the story say to us? The same thing it says to the others: It is not too late to find God's mercy.
Because most pastors are middle-aged men (or older), we spend a lot of our pulpit time on the sins of youth. Now, young people have their set of sins, and they're sinful, and preachers ought to spend some time on them, of course. But in doing that, we must not forget the sins of older people. They, too, need to be named, and forsaken.
What are the sins of the middle-aged and older Christians? Several could be listed here, but the most serious of them is also the one we hardly ever think of. What is it?
You've heard the saying, 'nothing succeeds like success'. This is true. And so is this: 'Nothing fails like failure'. And this, I think, is a pretty good definition of an older Christian: failure. We've tried to live good lives, but more often than not, we haven't done it. We have failed our wives or husbands and we have failed our children. We have been poor witnesses for Christ and mediocre church members. We haven't formed many good habits or broken many bad ones. The more we fail, the less we try. This leads to more failure, which leads to less trying. On and on it goes. And then we give up.
No hope of being the kind of husband I thought I would be. No hope of being the father my children need me to be. No hope. If I were younger, I might summon the energy to try again, but I'm not younger. If things hadn't gotten so bad, I'd try again, but they have gotten so bad. And so, I give in to despair.
But then I remember the men in our story: One man was hopeless, but he found hope in the other Man, because the other Man was our Lord Jesus Christ, who commanded him-and commands us--to hope in Him and promises to make good on our hope.
If you have given up trying to live the Christian life, pray, Lord, remember me. If you're giving up the Christian life, pray, Lord, remember me. If you're thinking about giving up the Christian life, pray, Lord, remember me. The words are not miraculous, but the one you're praying to is!
In his sermon, Christ's Greatest Trophy, J.C. Ryle says of this man,
I ask anyone to say whether a case could look more hopeless and desperate than that of this penitent thief once did.If ever there was a case that seemed lost, gone, and past recovery, it was his.and now we see what happened.
What happened? The hopeless man got the mercy he needed, but never expected. Why? Because the Lord remembered Him. He will remember you, too, if you ask Him to. So ask Him.
Ask and you shall receive.
Seek and you shall find.
Knock and it shall be opened to you.
The hour is late, but not too late. No matter what you've done or how long you've done it, you can find forgiveness with Christ, you can find cleansing and you can find a fresh start.
It is not too late to find God's mercy. So find it. And find it where it is: in Christ!
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