March 29, 2015
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE THIEF ON THE CROSS
The sixth in a series of eight.
Nobody is a nobody to Jesus. Everybody is a somebody. That’s been our theme this Lent as we’ve been working our way through Luke. We’ve called Luke “The Gospel of the Nobodies” because we see this special concern on every page. Jesus is always reaching out to people who have been made to feel small or insignificant or worthless. Others had rejected these people, but not Jesus. He is always telling them, “You’re not a nobody, no matter what others think of you. No matter what you think of yourself. You matter to me. You matter to God.” He is always lifting up the lowly. And he is always challenging the high and the mighty to be less proud and less arrogant. How do proud and arrogant people become less proud and less arrogant? By loving as Jesus loved. By loving all people, not just a select few.
Today we reach the cross. Today this series of Lenten sermons intersects with our Lenten study, “Final Words from the Cross.” There were seven final words. Actually seven final sayings. Each saying, brief though it is, is several words. Today we’re going to look at what Luke tells us Jesus said from the cross. Of the seven final words, Luke records three of them. And these three are only found in Luke. Nowhere else. These are the three:
(1) Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
(2) Truly I tell you today you will be with me in paradise.
(3) Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.
One of the provocative questions Adam Hamilton raised in our Bible study groups was this: Who is the them? When Jesus said, “Father, forgive them,” who did he mean? Of course he meant those who had nailed him to the cross. Of course he meant those who had participated in the whole miscarriage of justice that resulted in his being crucified. There’s a long list of people who shared in the responsibility for Jesus dying on that cross.
But Adam Hamilton says it’s a longer list than we think. It’s a list that includes your name. It includes my name. We too have rejected Jesus, run away from Jesus, caused Jesus to go through the agony of the cross over and over again. He died for our sins. Not just long ago sins. He forgives your sin and my sin, today.
One of the biggest roadblocks in our lives as Christians is
our inability to accept forgiveness. We carry all that guilt. It’s
heavy. It’s weighing us down. It’s making us miserable. We’d love
to get rid of that heavy burden but we can’t get rid of it because feel we deserve it.
Like that woman I wrote about in “Monday Musings”. She had been told so many times she was unforgivable that she couldn’t forgive herself. She was told by that unconventional Denver preacher named Nadia Bolz-Weber that as many times as she had been told that she was unforgivable she needed to hear that God is gracious and merciful and loves her and forgives her and sets her free no matter what she had done.
I want us to take a moment right now. Bow your head, close your eyes, ask yourself: “What forgiveness do I need?” It might be something big. You’ve been carrying around the guilt and the shame for a long time now. Maybe something you’ve convinced yourself is too big for God to forgive. It isn’t. It might be something small. Something stupid that you said or did just last week. It’s still bothering you. Whatever it is, I’m inviting you to pray a simple prayer. “God, forgive me.” We’re going to give you time right now to pray that prayer and to accept God’s forgiveness.
Lord, hear our prayers. Wash us clean. Make us new. Redeem us and save us from our sin and from ourselves. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Forgiveness is not a one way street. Jesus was very clear about that. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Accepting forgiveness is only half the battle. We also need to forgive. There’s a connection between the two. If you have a hard time forgiving others if might be because you have a hard time forgiving yourself. If you had a hard time just now with accepting forgiveness, it might be because there’s some forgiving you need to do.
When Jesus said, “Father, forgive them”, he was not only forgiving us. He was also modeling for us how we are to forgive others.
There’s the weight of guilt and shame that we can carry around. There’s also the weight of hurt and resentment. They are equally heavy. They are equally capable of ruining our lives.
We human being are very good at hurting each other. Even when we don’t mean to, it happens. All the time. Life does not work well, life does not work at all, for people who are too stubborn to forgive.
If you don’t learn to forgive, you will not stay married. If you don’t learn to forgive, you will not do well at work. If you don’t learn to forgive, you are going to have a hard time holding onto your friends.
And this isn’t just about all the petty, personal stuff we all deal with. It’s about the future of civilization. Why do we keep having wars? Why does this cycle of revenge and counter-revenge never end? What it really boils down to is a failure of forgiveness. Those words from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”, are words we all need to hear and to heed.
I got honked at the other day. It wasn’t a friendly honk. Where I come from in Central Oregon you would tap on your horn lightly as a way of saying “hi” to another person. This wasn’t that. I was waiting at a red light. The light had turned green but just as I took my foot off the brakes I noticed a family of ducks starting to make their way across the street right in front of me. I figured I’d let them go first. The driver behind me didn’t see the ducks. He just thought I wasn’t paying attention to the traffic signal. So to get my attention, he leaned into his horn. It was much longer than it needed to be. I turned around and pointed to the ducks. Then I glared at him. He glared back as me. He was angry. I was angry. I almost honked back. It could have turned into a duel of the honking horns. Like they do in New York City. Then it dawned on me. This is stupid. On my way to church to finish my sermon on forgiveness and I can’t forgive a driver who honked his horn when he shouldn’t have?
That’s a little thing. You might have something really big that happened to you. It’s so big you can’t forgive. What happened to you is unforgivable. But here’s the thing: Forgiveness isn’t saying what that person did to you was OK. Forgiveness is saying you aren’t going to hold it against that person any more. You’re going to lay down the weight of that burden of resentment. Can you imagine telling Jesus your story about how you were treated so terribly that you can’t possibly forgive and then you notice the nails piercing his hands. Jesus says, “Tell me about it. You think you have a lot to forgive!”
Here’s a good saying for a wall poster:
The first to apologize is the bravest; the first to forgive is the strongest; the first to forget is the happiest.
Fifty years ago our country was in the middle of an intense struggle for civil rights. As we recall those years, there were heroes and there were villains. George Wallace was one of the villains. When elected governor of Alabama, in his inaugural address he spoke the words for which he is best remembered. “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” When the courts ruled that black students must be admitted to the University of Alabama he was standing in the doorway, blocking their entrance.
While running for president in 1972, there was an attempt on his life. He was shot five times by a young man named Arthur Bremer. He survived but he would never walk again. He lived the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Pain was his constant companion.
For the rest of the 70’s, he was searching and seeking. At the end of that decade he announced that he had become a born-again Christian. The announcement was met with skepticism. But for those who knew him best there was no doubt. He was a changed man. He had many regrets as he looked back over his life. He needed to apologize. He met with civil rights leaders in Alabama and told them how sorry he was. He asked for their forgiveness. He not only sought forgiveness. He gave forgiveness. He wrote to Arthur Bremer in prison.
Your shooting me in 1972 caused me a lot of discomfort and pain. I am a born-again Christian. I love you. I have asked our Heavenly Father to touch your heart, and I hope that you will ask him for forgiveness of your sin so you can go to Heaven like I am going to Heaven. I hope that we can get to know each other better.
Congressman John Lewis was very much involved in the civil rights struggles of the 60’s with George Wallace as his antagonist. The two met for the first time in 1979, about the same time Jesus was doing his thing with George Wallace. Here’s what John Lewis wrote about that meeting.
I could tell he was a changed man. He acknowledged his bigotry and assumed responsibility for the harm he’d caused. He wanted to be forgiven. When I met George Wallace I had to forgive him. George Wallace should be remembered for his capacity to change. Our ability to forgive serves a higher moral purpose in our society. Through genuine repentance and forgiveness, the soul of our nation is changed.
Governor Wallace was elected to a fourth term as governor of Alabama in 1982. He got 90% of the vote. That means he got an overwhelming majority of the African-American vote, too. They remembered what he had done but they also believed God had forgiven him and that he deserved another chance. If God could forgive him, they could too.
Let’s bow our heads again. This time I want you to think of a person you have a hard time forgiving. A person who caused you pain that you didn’t deserve. You’re not excusing what they did, but you’re choosing not to be controlled by the bitterness and the pain anymore. I want to invite you to name that person before God and to say, “God, please help me to forgive.”
God, you know how hard this is for us. Give us the power by your Spirit to let go, to forgive, and to be free. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
After Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” he was taunted. In several ways. They had stripped him naked. They cast lots to see who got his clothes. They laughed at him. “He saved others but he can’t save himself.” They were doing their best to make Jesus feel like a nobody. And joining in the chorus of taunting voices was one of the two thieves being crucified on either side of. He didn’t have an original thought. He basically was just parroting what they others had saidHeHH. “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
All these nobodies surrounding the one who was a true somebody and they were doing their best to make him feel small and insignificant.
Except there was one lonely voice speaking up for Jesus. It was the other thief on a cross. He said to the first thief, the one who had just taunted Jesus, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”
He’s the only one who got it right. Jesus is an innocent man. He’s the only one who dared dissent from the group-think of that lynch mob. “He did nothing wrong.”
And then he said something even more daring. He turned to Jesus as he spoke. I imagine it hurt so much to say what he had just said that he was gasping for breath until he could speak again and say what he really wanted to say. Then he said it. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
He didn’t know much about Jesus. Maybe he’d heard of him before. Maybe not. He had heard the taunts of the crowd. And he had heard Jesus speak that simple prayer. “Father, forgive.” Based on that much information, he made his decision. He was dying. Jesus might be his only hope. What little faith he had he placed in Jesus.
And Jesus heard him and honored that faith. “You will be with me in paradise.” He’s not going to save himself. He listens to the taunts. He says to the taunters, “I’m not going to save myself, but I will save him.” And you. And you. And you. He is going to honor faith. Simple faith. Small faith. Sincere faith. Faith even at the end of a faithless and a misspent life. The faith of about as lowdown a nobody as we could possibly imagine. If you don’t think you’re good enough, I guarantee you this thief on the cross wasn’t good enough either. He was a real bad person. And Jesus said to him, “You will be with me in paradise.”
It’s only three verses later but it’s three agonizing hours later that Jesus spoke for the last time. If you don’t read this carefully, you might think he spoke his very final words right after he promised paradise to that thief. Not so. It took him three hours to die. “It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.” That’s when he said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
We have reason to believe Jesus had much if not all of the Hebrew Bible committed to memory. This, by the way, would not have been unusual for a devout Jewish boy with parents who were intent on passing on their faith. So he no doubt had memorized Psalm 31:5. “Into your hands I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God.”
This was a bedtime prayer. It was taught to Jewish boys and girls, much as we were taught that, “Now I lay me down to sleep . . .” prayer. I think Jesus was taught this prayer. It may have been the first prayer he was taught. He prayed it each night as Mary and Joseph tucked him into bed. And so it’s really not surprising. His first prayer became his last prayer. The prayer he first learned came first to mind as he breathed his last breath. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
I don’t know if you still say bedtime prayers, but whether you do or don’t, this week, Holy Week, I’m going to suggest that you do. And I’m going to suggest that it be this prayer. As you are lying in bed, getting ready to drift off to sleep, let your last thought be that God is holding you in his hands. And then pray this prayer, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
We trust you, dear God with our lives. You hold the whole world in your hands and you also hold in your hands that small but significant part of the world that is each one of us. Thank you for forgiving us. Thank you for promising us paradise. Thank you for trusting us with your work. Including that very important work of lifting up nobodies as Jesus lifted up that thief on the cross. In his name we pray, Amen.