March 1, 2017              Repent: Turn to Jesus; He Holds the Key to Heaven

Text: Luke 23:35-43

 There are times in life when we all would have to say that “we were expecting something else!” After preaching at St. John’s in Kendall and St. Matthew’s in Southridge just a week before we came to West Newton we went to the neighboring town of Mauston in Wisconsin to have lunch. We were so hungry that we just pulled into the first restaurant they we found. It was called the “Roman Castle Café.” From the outside it did not look like much. But inside it was clean and neat. It had a wonderful menu which included pizza. We ordered the pizza. It was one of the best that we had ever had. We were pleasantly surprised and commented to each other, “I wasn’t expecting that!”

 “I wasn’t expecting that!” We see this principle at work again and again in the life of Jesus. Wise men from the East went to Jerusalem bearing gifts fit for a king. They were expecting to find him in a palace. They eventually found him in the little town of Bethlehem. They weren’t expecting that. Or think of the time when Jesus told the disciples to give a mass of humanity—well over 5,000 people—something to eat. After raiding a little boy’s picnic lunch, the disciples decided that Jesus would have to send the crowd away hungry. The situation was hopeless. Hopeless, until Jesus served up the most famous fish dinner that the world has ever seen! The disciples weren’t expecting that.

 “I wasn’t expecting that.” This is perhaps nowhere more true than when Jesus hung on the cross. The sign over Jesus’ head mocked him as the King of the Jews. We certainly expect mockery from those who hated Jesus. But we wouldn’t expect the criminal hanging next to Jesus to recognize that he literally held the keys to heaven! Who would have expected that?

 But first, let’s dwell on the mockery. Pilate’s sign said that Jesus was a king. He was a king RIDICULED. The leaders of Israel—Pharisees and Sadducees, priests and religious professionals—were there on Calvary as Jesus was crucified. It wasn’t enough for Jesus’ back to feel the whip, his hands to feel the nails, and his head to feel the thorns. Now insult was added to his injury as his ears reverberated with the ridicule dished out by Israel’s elite. Note well that they mocked Jesus for being who he truly is. Those religious leaders show us a nasty human tendency to turn away from God and hate what is true.

 Christ is King, a King ridiculed not only by the religious leaders but also by the soldiers who “mocked him. Hadn’t the soldiers already had enough fun? Earlier in the morning, they had put a purple robe on Jesus and had made a special crown of thorns for his head. Now the soldiers continue mocking a man they had just nailed to a beam of wood! The soldiers show us a nasty human tendency to turn away from God to prey without mercy upon the weak.

 Christ is King, a King ridiculed not only by the leaders of Israel and the soldiers of Rome but also by Pontius Pilate. Pilate was likely having a bit of fun when he exclaimed at Jesus’ trial, “You are a king, then!” (Jn 18:37). He wasn’t interested in Jesus’ kingdom—a kingdom not of this world. He certainly wasn’t interested in Jesus’ truth. He dismissed both Jesus and the truth with a cold retort, “What is truth?” His little sign on the cross showed what he thought of the Jews—and this Jesus. Pilate shows us a nasty human tendency to turn away from God so that wrong can be right and right can be wrong.

 Christ is King, a King ridiculed not only by the leaders of Israel, by the Roman soldiers, and by the Governor Pilate, but also by a common criminal. Can you imagine anything more humiliating than being heckled by the scum of society? A criminal insults the Christ! The criminal on the cross shows us a nasty human tendency to have no real love for God or faith in God, yet expect everything—even salvation itself—from him.

 Christ is the King we simply don’t expect. We don’t expect kings to be lipped off to by a governor or mocked by prime ministers. We don’t expect kings to be brutalized by army privates or mocked by men on death row. We expect kings to be on thrones, not crosses. We expect kings to wear crowns, not thorns. We expect him to march down Main Street to the music of choirs and the blast of brass, not the catcalls of a crowd. Christ is King—a King ridiculed.

 Does that upset you? How easy it is for us to think this evening: “If I were there, I would have told the leaders of Israel to stick a sock in it!” “If I were there, I would have told the soldiers enough already.” “If I were there, I would have ripped that sign off the cross and replaced it with a John 3:16 sign.” “If I were there I’d tell that criminal to keep his mouth shut!” “If I were there, I would kneel in humble adoration at the foot of the cross and thank Jesus for his suffering and sacrifice!” Or would we . . ?

 The question of how we would have reacted can probably best be answered by asking another question: Why was Christ THERE? Christ was there because if we had been, we would have easily found our place in the crowd. How could I have told the leaders to put a sock in it, when I so often have a sock in my mouth when it comes to speaking God’s truth? How could I have told the soldiers to be nice, when I so often enjoy hurting others—not with hammers and nails—but with words that are designed to wound? How could I have ripped Pilate’s sign off the cross, when my life has been a walking billboard for sin—a light under a basket, salt that has lost all saltiness? How could I have rebuked a criminal, when deep down I know the only difference between his crimes and mine are that I haven’t been caught. In truth, if I were there, I probably would not have come to Jesus’ defense. And in so doing, would show a nasty human tendency to turn away from God so that we can go right along with the sinful crowd.

 But right then, something happened that no one was expecting! Right in the middle of rejection and ridicule, we hear a voice of faith-filled repentance: “But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘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.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’”

 If there is such a thing as a living hell, this criminal was living it. Things had been heading in a bad direction for him. He had lived a life of crime until the Romans caught up with him. I can’t imagine that his stay in a Roman jail was particularly pleasant. At his trial, his ears heard the death sentence pronounced. Now his ears were filled with the insults of the crowd gathered together to gloat and jeer. With nails driven through his hands and feet, he was hung out to die as a bloody example to everyone. He would feel the torture every single second until death finally came. And then there was that nagging feeling in the back of his mind and the pit of his stomach—a soul-chilling knowledge that there was a reality far, far worse waiting for him just on the other side of his final breath. 

Yet in the midst of this living hell, he caught a glimpse of heaven. Having heard Jesus’ word of forgiveness for the executioners, he, in faith, spoke a humble request: “Jesus, remember me.” He didn’t even know what to pray for. Just, remember me . . .

 And remember him Jesus did. “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’” Christ, the King ridiculed, is Christ, the King redeeming. The thief’s humble prayer was answered—immediately!—beyond his wildest dreams: “TODAY, you will be with me in paradise.” And in so speaking, Jesus shows us a marvelous tendency in God to be gracious with the most undeserving. Jesus is the key to heaven for everyone. With one sentence, Jesus turned the key and opened the gates of heaven for this criminal!

 How can that be? Because Christ came to save sinners by not saving himself! Did you catch the common temptation that wound its way through all the ridicule?  “Save yourself. . . . Save yourself. . . . Save yourself. . . .” Jesus could have easily saved himself, washed his hands of Pilate, and sent the world packing off to hell. But instead of saving himself, he completely sacrificed himself! His forsakenness is your forgiveness. His judgment is your justification. His humiliation is your glory. His pain is your peace. His wounds are your healing. His death is your life!

 Jesus, remember me too. Remember me in depression, when life is only clouds and loneliness. Remember me in heartbreak, when everything seems to hurt. Remember me in turmoil, when those I love most are terrible to me. Remember me in sickness, when I can no longer remember feeling well. Remember me at the funeral parlor, when tears of good-bye sting my eyes. Remember me each and every day, as life proves to me in 1,001 ways that I’m not in heaven yet! Jesus, remember me.

 And Jesus answers that prayer too. Jesus does remember us. He even remembers the number of hairs on our heads! His memory is perfect. And this evening, we rejoice that Christ remembers how to forget: “Do not remember the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways” (Ps 25:7). Jesus answers that prayer too. Which is precisely why one day, someday, maybe even today, we will be with Christ—and a forgiven criminal—in paradise!

 Repent, then, and turn to Jesus for he holds the key to heaven! Only Jesus can turn the key to the gate of heaven Only Jesus can unlock the gate to heaven. Only because of Jesus does the gate to heaven stand open for you! Amen.

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