Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The Power of Jesus and His Cross

[Here's this evening's Midweek Lenten worship message from Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. It's based on the fifth part of the Passion History, the history of Jesus' suffering and death.]

Luke 23:39-43
We associate certain furnishings with people who wield power and influence and can make a difference in other people’s lives. 

Throughout history, kings have had thrones. 

British prime ministers get people's attention when they enter or leave through the front door of 10 Downing Street. 

American presidents sit behind impressive desks in the Oval Office. 

Popes have Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. 

The furnishings given to such public figures cause billions around the world to pay attention to them, to attach authority to their words and actions.

On the other hand, there are other people whose attire or furnishings convey that they are without influence, power, or the capacity to make a difference in anyone’s life. A condemned man sitting in an electric chair, for example, isn’t someone who instills awe or a belief that he can do anything helpful for anyone.

This is why something mentioned in tonight’s installment of the Passion History, coming to us from Luke 23:39-43, is so odd. 

Jesus, His body already battered and bleeding from the physical and emotional abuse to which He has been subjected, is nailed to a cross between two thieves. Crucifixion, as you know, was a humiliating, painful, and usually, drawn-out means of execution. The victims of crucifixion often took days to die, usually succumbing to suffocation as they could no longer arch their bodies away from the nooses put around their necks when they were attached to their crosses.

It’s hard to imagine anyone less likely to incite awe or worship than a man on a cross. A cross is not a furnishing that imbues a person with power.

That explains why in Luke 23:35, we read that the religious leaders of the Jewish nation “sneered at [Jesus and]...said, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.’” 

It’s also why, we’re told in Luke 23:36, “The [Roman] soldiers also came up and mocked him.” 

Jesus had called Himself God’s Messiah, had accepted worship from people who proclaimed Him God in human flesh. But now, His friends having largely abandoned, betrayed, or denied Him, Jesus is alone in enduring the humiliation and death of a Roman cross. No wonder people were taunting Him!

According to Mark’s Gospel, even the two criminals who hung on their own crosses, one on Jesus’ right hand and the other on His left, joined in jeering at Jesus. 

But Luke tells us about something else involving those two.

Luke 23:39 says, “One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’” 

In the Greek language in which Luke composed his Gospel, the two criminals are literally called κακούργων, a compound word that means evil workers or evildoers. In other words, the two men being executed with Jesus are professional criminals, so given over to evil that they’re in the habit of only looking out for themselves, constantly working evil. 

That comes through in the mocking words of the first criminal Luke quotes. “Hey!” he’s saying, “If you really are the Messiah, Jesus, get us off these crosses.” 

His words echo those of the devil, speaking to Jesus when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. “If you are the Son of God...command this stone to become bread...worship me [to have the kingdoms of the world You came to claim]...throw yourself down from [the pinnacle of the temple]...” (Luke 4:1-13) 

Jesus, through His words, signs, and compassion had demonstrated His identity repeatedly. But for a cynical world filled with human beings intent on being their own gods and ignoring Jesus’ call to repent and follow Him, nothing Jesus did or said would ever be enough. 

So, the first criminal, railed against Jesus, literally, Luke says, he blasphemed Jesus. He slandered Jesus, profaned His good name. 

We can say that he was profaning Jesus’ good name because even Herod, the Jewish king, and Pilate, the Roman governor, had found Jesus completely innocent. “I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty,” Pilate had said (Luke 23:22). But, innocent or not, a cross doesn’t look much like a president’s desk or a king’s throne. Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, was no St. Peter's Basilica or 10 Downing Street.

Yet Luke tells us that the other criminal, as he observed Jesus being crucified with him, came to view Jesus differently than the other evildoer did. 

Verse 40: “But the other criminal rebuked [the first one]. ‘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.’” (Luke 23:40-41) 

And then, he turns to Jesus to offer a prayer request. “Jesus,” he says, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42) And Jesus assures the criminal that He will remember. "Today," Jesus tells him, "you will be with me in Paradise." (Luke 23:43)

Listen: When anyone is able to believe in the good news that Jesus Christ, truly God and truly human, died and rose so that all who repent and believe in Him will live with God in His kingdom for all eternity, it’s a miracle wrought by the Holy Spirit. Martin Luther writes in The Small Catechism, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in true faith.” Faith is always a miracle of the Spirit!

And while faith is a free gift from God, it isn’t easy. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, we read Jesus describing what it means to be His disciple: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross [that is, must acknowledge their mortality and their sin and their need of Jesus to save them] daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) 

Now, on a cross, a hardened criminal takes up his cross, admitting that he is a sinner who deserves to die, yet seeing in Jesus forgiveness of sin for the repentant and new life for those who trust in the Savior. 

He became one of Jesus’ disciples. 

Do you know what disciples are? They’re people who have come to the end of themselves and recognize that their only hope, every single day, is to be found in Jesus Christ alone.

But what did the Holy Spirit show the second criminal that drove him to repentance and faith in Jesus? 

He saw a sinless Savior Who had previously demonstrated His power over life and death--even raising people from the dead--Who laid His glory aside in order to take the punishment for our sins that we deserve. 

He saw God’s infinite and inexhaustible love for a human race that doesn’t deserve it. 

The apostle Paul says that “...the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18) 

In Jesus’ selfless death for him and all the other sinners of the world--including you and me, the second criminal saw the power of God to save sinners, to destroy the power of sin and death over all who take up their cross and follow Jesus.

As we look to Jesus today, may the Holy Spirit help us see this same thing: Jesus died for sinners like you and me. 

Jesus doesn’t need basilicas, thrones, or oval offices to prove His authority over sin and death or to provide for our deepest needs. 

He does it through His cross. 

May we, like the second criminal be led to understand that it’s worth bearing the cross of our mortality, sin, and desperate need of God to follow Jesus into eternity. 

To all who daily repent and believe in Him, Jesus promises that one day we too will be with Him in paradise. Amen

The Gospel of Luke, Chapter 17:20-37