A sermon on Luke 23:26-46 by Rev Richard Keith on Good Friday 2022
This is a picture of the Free Fall exhibit at Questacon in Canberra. As you can see, a person dangles over an edge holding onto a bar. They let go of the bar and for a second or two they experience weightlessness as they fall to the ground, before the slide at the bottom catches them.
I wanted to do this, but those of you who know me, know that I’m afraid of heights. Or more precisely, I’m afraid of falling -the whole point of the exhibit. So for about 10 to 15 minutes I carefully observed the people having a go at Free Fall. Most of them were ten years old or younger. And none of them, not one of them, fell to their grisly deaths. Not once was an ambulance called. Not once was any first aid required. Every single one of those ten year olds survived the experience intact. And it made me think, if they can do it, I can do it. So I did it. The queue was too long to do more than once, but I was proud of myself for having a go.
The message today is about the power of a bad example. We are familiar with good examples. People who are talented. People who are good at what they do and get paid lots of money to do it. The problem about these good examples is that they are a little intimidating. I mean, there’s nothing about watching Michael Buble singing in concert that makes me think that I could do it too. On the other hand, there’s nothing like listening to someone destroy my favourite song to make me say, Give me the microphone. If she can do it, I can do it.
We see the power of a bad example in our passage today when Jesus said to the thief on the cross,
“I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Because if he can, I can.
Jesus’ exchange with the thief on the cross comes at the end of a series of mocking words. Jesus had been found guilty and sentenced to death by crucifixion. As he died, his enemies couldn’t resist the temptation to drive home a few of their own nails into his flesh.
He saved others, they said, let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.
See how it draws attention to his current helpless state and how it undermines his claim to perform miracles and to possess a special relationship with God. How can he claim to heal, to save others, how can he claim to be the Messiah, God’s chosen king, if he can’t save himself?
But the irony is that it is precisely because he is saving others that he cannot save himself. And that it is by losing on the cross that the Christ, God’s chosen Messiah, will win over the forces of sin and death and hell.
The soldiers guarding the execution joined in.
If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.
Prove it, they demanded. Perform a miracle, so we can believe in you. There is added irony here. The charge against him was written on a plaque above the cross. It read, this is the king of the Jews. Which is odd, don’t you think. I mean, if he has to save himself to prove he is the king of the Jews, if his present helpless state, dying on the cross, undermines his claim to be the king of the Jews, then for why is he being put to death for being the king of the Jews? It doesn’t add up.
Even one of the criminals being crucified on either side of him joined in with his own mocking words.
Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!
Although his words sound like a plea for help, the message he is actually trying to get across to Jesus is that you are no better than us. A rebel at the mercy of Rome. That’s what these thieves are. Rebels. What people in power call outlaws. Bandits. Like the Kelly gang. They aren’t monsters. They aren’t serial killers. They are desperate men, forced onto the fringes of society, on the run and staying alive by robbing the establishment. They were men like Barabbas. Pilate offered the crowd to release either Jesus or Barabbas, a man in custody for insurrection and murder. Meaning that he had led a rebellion against Rome in which people had died. These thieves on the cross were his co-conspirators, who had tried to win against the power of Rome and were paying the price for losing.
But the other man rebuked his friend.
“Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Of course, when I said that these thieves weren’t serial killers, I didn’t mean that they were good men. I didn’t mean that they were just misunderstood. They were guilty. They were bandits and bandits don’t just survive on robbing banks, but by robbing merchants and travellers and farms. Think of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan when the man travelling to Jericho fell into the hands of bandits. And they beat him and robbed him and left him for dead. That’s the kind of person being crucified on Jesus’ right and left. People had died because of the choices they had made and by the law of the land their crimes meant death in the worst possible way. Crucifixion, the death reserved for runaway slaves and rebels.
But Jesus was different. He had done nothing wrong. And if he was leading a rebellion, it wasn’t against the Roman empire, but against the forces of evil that treat human beings like rubbish. Everyone knew it, but everyone else either had too much to gain from getting rid of Jesus or lacked the courage to admit it. Except the rebel, the bandit, the thief on the cross. Seeing the plaque above Jesus and realising that Jesus was the kind of king he wanted to follow, and perhaps being familiar with much of what Jesus had said and done, he said to Jesus,
Remember me when you come into your kingdom.
What kind of king wears a crown of thorns? The kind that beats death by dying. That rules by serving. That wins by losing. Who rules a kingdom of men and women who admit their crimes and throw themselves at the king’s mercy and put all their hopes in him.
And to this rebel, this bandit, this thief on the cross, Jesus said,
I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.
Behold, the power of the bad example. This is no saint, no angel, no great hero among people to whom Jesus said these words. Pronouncing them emphatically by stressing that he was telling him no lie, but speaking the complete, undiluted, indisputable truth. He spoke them to a bad man, who admitted his crimes and put all his hopes in Jesus as his king. Who received the promise that he would live in paradise with Jesus. And so if he can, I can. If he can, we all can. If he can, even you can.
It is the same message as the apostle Paul’s.
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.
Paul, a persecutor of the church, the worst of sinners, was shown mercy by the Lord Jesus to prove that Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And if a man like Paul can be saved, then I can. If he can, we all can. If he can, even you can.
This is the blessed assurance that we are going to sing about in a minute. The grace of God that isn’t rationed out to the great and to the good, but poured out richly even to the worst so that we may know that it can reach even us. If we follow the faith of the thief on the cross who admitted his crimes and threw himself on the mercy of Jesus and put all his hopes on him as his king. Because if he can, I can and I hope you can too.