Thursday, March 13, 2014

Sermon -- Lenten Vespers (March 12, 2014)

LUKE 23:39-43
The Malefactor

In the name + of Jesus.

     There was a criminal who hung on a cross next to Jesus.  He had no love for Jesus.  He really had no use for Jesus.  Though he was sentenced to death, he still found a common bond with the high priests and scribes who stood beneath his cross.  They all poured out their mockery upon Jesus.  They all assumed that Jesus was a pathetic excuse for a Savior, and that he was a miserable failure of a Messiah.
     The malefactor was dying, but he had no compassion for the others who were dying with him.  He mocked Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Christ?  Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39)  Even if he himself were a pathetic figure dying because he deserved it, there was still time to make himself look better than Jesus.  But by mocking Jesus, the malefactor unwitting confessed who Jesus was and what he had come to do. 
     In fact, much of the mockery aimed at Jesus merely repeated the claims Scripture made about Jesus and that Jesus had made about himself.  The Jewish leaders demanded Jesus’ death because he had confessed that he was the Son of God.  They charged Jesus before Pilate, declaring, “He calls himself a king.”  And at the cross, the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!”  The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”  There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” (Luke 23:35-38)  All of this was supposed to belittle a man who was already humbled, beaten, and condemned.  Unwittingly, it testified of his glory. 
     For this mockery to make any sense, it had to be based on claims which were made about Jesus.  And of course, it was.  He is the Son of God.  He is the Christ.  He is the King who would be given the throne of his father David and (would) reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. (Luke 1:32-33)  And he has come to save others.  They intended to mock Jesus.  Unwittingly, they testified of him.
     The malefactor was a man who had it so right, but he rejected and despised everything he said about Jesus.  He did not believe that Jesus is the Christ.  And even though he did not want to die by crucifixion, he did not believe that Jesus could save him in any way.  Not from his sins.  Not from the cross.  Not from the grave.  Not from anything.  Though he unwittingly confessed the Christ, he died without any of his blessings or benefits.
     But how often do you want the same kind of salvation the malefactor wanted?  As useless as he thought Jesus was, he would have been pleased to have Jesus pull him down from the cross.  He would have thanked Jesus for freeing him from pain and execution, and for letting him get away with his crimes.  We cannot say that the malefactor did not want a savior, but he wanted the savior of his choosing.
     And so it goes for sinful hearts.  We want the Savior of our own choosing.  We want the Savior who delivers us from debt, who removes the pain, who makes us the winner, who afflicts the guy who hurt us, who gets us the job, or who takes all of the bumps out of the road.  We wonder what kind of savior this is when we still suffer, hurt, or struggle. 
     But no one chooses a savior.  No one can choose to be saved.  A man who is stranded at sea does not choose to be saved by the US Coast Guard.  The Coast Guard chooses to sail, to search, and to pluck people from the water.  Likewise, your Savior must act.  He chooses to save you. 
     Sinners live in a world in which they suffer, struggle, and endure hardship, sorrow, and pain.  But these are not your problem.  These are not why you die.  Even if the malefactor did not die by crucifixion, he was going to die of something soon enough.  Your curse is death, and your problem is sin.  This is what you need to be saved from because you cannot escape from it or avoid it.  And so Jesus has chosen to save you.
     Jesus is and does exactly what the malefactor unwittingly confessed him to be: “Are you not the Christ?  Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39)  Jesus is the one anointed to save mankind.  He had to save you precisely because you cannot save yourself.  Whether your life is a delight or a disaster does not matter.  You are a sinner who is going to die—whether by execution, car accident, or peacefully in your bed.  You do not know when or how you are going to die, but THAT you are going to die is no surprise.  For the wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23)  Therefore, Jesus, the Christ, has acted to save you.  He hung from the cross as the perfect sacrifice to pay for your sin and guilt, to deliver you from death and its curse, and to free you from Satan and his taunting.  Jesus would not save himself from the cross.  He had to die the cursed death so that the curse would be lifted from you.  He went to the grave in order to save you from yours.  Jesus is the Christ, as the malefactor said.  He has come to save you, as the malefactor said.
     No doubt, Jesus’ patience and perseverance was put to the test from all of the mockery and taunting he had to endure.  But all that mocking was not a waste of breath.  There was someone who was listening.  There was someone who knew his sin, felt his sin, and was sacred to death of the death he was dying.  It was the other criminal who hung next to Jesus. 
     For this mockery to make sense, it has to be based on some truth.  Of course, it was.  And the criminal believed this unwitting confession to be divine truth.  “Are you not the Christ?” (Luke 23:39) bellowed the malefactor.  The other criminal heard.  But rather then mock Jesus, he believed in him.  “He saved others!” (Luke 23:35) the rulers scoffed.  “If you are the Christ of God, his Chosen One,” (Luke 23:35) they hissed.  The criminal recognized that this was true.  There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” (Luke 23:38)  And the criminal, now penitent, now hopeful, saw the Savior who could deliver him into his blessed kingdom.
     His confession was not unwitting, but faithful.  In his dying hours and final moments, he saw the one who could deliver him into a blessed eternity.  He confessed his sin, and he pleaded: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43) 
     Dear Christians, this is your Savior, too.  Your confession is not made unwittingly, for the Lord has been pleased to reveal your salvation to you.  Here is your Jesus, your Christ, your Savior.  He may not take away all of the troubles you have, but he has lived and bled and died to deliver you from the sin which damns.  He delivers you from death to life.  He brings you from the torment of hell to the peace of Paradise where, at last, you will be free from all troubles and from every curse and consequence of sin.  It is by grace that you confess Jesus rather than mock him.  It is by grace that you have been saved through him.  And God is gracious.  And you are saved.

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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