Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Sermon: Luke 23:39-43

Here is the text to my sermon at Chippewa United Presbyterian Church in Beaver Falls on Memorial Day weekend, 2014. I was greeted with hospitality and hope to come back soon.
Scripture Text: One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “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.” And he said, “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.”

This weekend is the weekend, in our civil holiday calendar, that we remember and celebrate those who have gone before us in national faithfulness. Regardless of whether or not you have veterans who have fallen in your family, this remembrance is regarded as an important part of our civic consciousness: part of being American is to honor those who have died for the defense and spread of our national ideals – freedom, justice, and democracy. But we know that our memories are short and rather selective; it has become a proverb in my family that if there is something important to remember, I’ve already forgotten it. Last night, around the dinner table with friends, my wife told a variety of stories, some involving me, of which I had no recollection. My age must be finally showing through.

The most famous Biblical incidence of this is found in the book of Genesis, in the Joseph narrative. Joseph properly interprets the dream of the cupbearer, bringing him good tidings of restoration, and asks “Only remember me, when it is well with you, and please do me the kindness to mention me to Pharaoh, and so get me out of this house. For I was indeed stolen out of the land of the Hebrews, and here also I have done nothing that they should put me into the pit” (40:14-15). However, as the story proceeds we learn “the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him” (23). It isn’t for another two whole years (41:1) that Joseph comes up to the remembrance of the cupbearer and eventually joins him as a valued and trusted servant of Pharaoh. The rest of the story, how Joseph saves the kingdom from famine and rises to be chief vizier of the Pharaoh, is well known. How was Joseph able to bear the wait, which must have been excruciating? The text does not tell us, but I think it is safe to speculate that he did not trust in the memory of the cupbearer, but in the memory of God.

It may seem strange to talk about the memory of God. Is it even possible for the God who has made everything, who has declared “the end from the beginning” (Is. 46:10), to forget? Let any such thoughts be far from us! Memory, in the Scriptures, is not mere calling to mind something that has been forgotten. Joseph asked the cupbearer to remember him long before he was forgotten! Rather, it is a term of grace: the one who remembers will act in favor towards and for the one brought to mind: to remember is to act on behalf of someone. So we see, all over the Scriptures, God remembering. His remembrance, though, leads not just to a position of power, as in the case of the cupbearer. His memory leads to our salvation. Again, in Genesis, we read of how “God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the livestock that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided” (8:1): God acted on Noah’s behalf, not leaving him stranded, but guiding that ark of salvation for the world to its resting place. The Psalms, that prayerbook of the Bible, record over and over again cries for God to remember and so to act: “Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love, for they have been of old. Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of Your goodness, o Lord” (Ps. 25:6-7). To be remembered by God is to be saved.

When we reach the criminal on the cross next to the Lord Christ, then, we see his appeal is more than just a casual “bringing to mind.” Rather, he is asking Jesus to act on his behalf in God’s Kingdom. The context of the passage will help us to understand this request more clearly. During the crucifixion, the criminals and the elders of the people and the Roman soldiers all mocked him: “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his chosen one!” and “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself” and the mocking title from Pilate “This is the King of the Jews”. Through this Luke is bringing to our attention another incident earlier in his Gospel: Jesus is reliving the first temptation from Satan, who had sought to entice Him away from His saving work by promises of status, sovereignty, and safety. The Devil used the same language of “Son of God” as his ace-in-the-hole. Just like in that first encounter with the enemy, Jesus’ answers overcome: there, He had untwisted the Scriptures that the Serpent perverted; here, He offers forgiveness for their ignorant actions (“Lord, forgive them, they know not what they do”) and does not return taunts for taunts, evil for evil, but rather is “like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not His mouth” (Is. 53:7). In the light of this, as the criminal on the left continues the taunting (“Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”), the criminal on the right begins to see that this One truly is the King of Israel. He has done nothing wrong, nor does He seek vengeance against His enemies, nor does He break out in imprecations against His accusers; rather, He offers clemency to the worst offenders, even to those justly condemned who are being crucified next to Him. And so the thief believes.

This faith is what prompts him to ask for the Lord’s remembrance, for Messianic action on his behalf. “Jesus, remember me when you come into Your kingdom.” Rather than asking for immediate relief from the tortures of death on a cross, though, he contents himself to share that fate with his new Lord. His request is for some future action, once God has vindicated the King and given Him glory, although it is hard to tell what he would have been imagining. The criminal, who tradition names as Dismas, is like Joseph, seeking remembrance from the cupbearer of God, the human messiah, once he is lifted up into the presence of the Great King. The Lord Christ, who in His human nature is the Davidic king, the right-hand man of God, but who in His divine nature and person is that self-same Great King, offers the penitent much more than human remembrance. He offers Dismas immediate divine action. “Truly, I say to you,” offering him a strong oath, “today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Is this not the great mercy and grace of our God? We come, as the prodigal son, seeking merely to be servants to the One we have wronged; He offers us the fatted calf and the family robe and the angelic celebration over one wicked person who repents! But what does this mean “today you will be with me in Paradise”? Didn’t our Lord first need to descend into Hades, the abode of the righteous and unrighteous dead, “in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison” (1 Pt. 3:19)? Wasn’t He in the tomb for three days before He was resurrected and 40 more days amongst us before He ascended to the Father’s right hand? What is this “Paradise” and how could our Lord have offered it to the criminal “today”?

It will help us to examine some of the symbolism in this passage. I mentioned earlier that these events play out as a repeat of the temptation by Satan found in Luke 4. That passage, along with this one, shows how Jesus, the Son of Adam, overcame the temptations by which our foreparents fell. In the earlier passage, Jesus overcomes the Serpent by properly using Scripture. In this passage, the symbolism is deeper: Adam died by eating from the forbidden tree, Jesus hangs on a Tree and dies. Where Adam was disobedient, Christ is fully obedient to the Father. Where Adam accuses Eve and even God Himself (“the woman that You gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree…”), Jesus blesses (“Father, forgive them…”). Christ has rejected the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and instead ascended the Tree of Life, by which He conquered the ancient enemy of humankind. Satan is undone: by the cross Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them” (Col. 2:15). He ascended this Tree so that “through death He might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:14): that which held Adam and all his descendants in bondage to sin has now been undone, unraveled.

The consequence, though, of Adam’s sin was exile and a barred entrance into God’s garden. The Lord “placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the Tree of Life” (Gen. 3:24). The way is shut, for Adam cannot “reach out his hand and take also of the Tree of Life and eat, and live forever” (3:22). If Adam were to do so without repentance, then the corruption of death and sin would always stay in God’s good creation and God, who had warned Adam about death (“on the day you eat of it, you shall surely die”) would be made into a liar. No, for man’s good, so that he might be saved from the slavery to sin and death, Adam must die. He is, as the thief says, “justly condemned.” How, though, shall we reenter that communion with God that Adam and Eve originally enjoyed? Here it is important to note that the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which the New Testament authors knew, read from, and loved, renders the word ‘garden’ as ‘Paradise.’ Jesus, seeing the faith through death of the penitent, opens up the gates of Eden again, banishing the flaming sword, dismissing the cherubim. He has “opened for us a new and living way through the curtain, that is, through his flesh” so that we might “have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus” (Heb. 10:20, 19). The criminal, by faith, rejects the Serpent’s way and reaches towards the Tree of Life for this restored communion with God Himself, for “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Cor. 5:19).

The Lord Christ, acting as the Creator God, has planted this Paradise and now is placing this newly-made man in that place with Himself. Instead of understanding “Paradise” as a physical location to which Christ and Dismas go, we should understand it in the same symbolic way the Apostle Paul does: “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:14-17). The Lord Jesus, taking upon Himself Adam’s self-imposed curse, has died – the righteous for the unrighteous – that all might die in Him through baptism and repentance, being found as new creations through faith. In this new creation is the true Paradise of God, as St Peter tells us, “according to His promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pt. 3:13).

The penitent criminal, bound for Paradise, functions as a symbol of all of us. We who have, by faith, cried out to Jesus for mercy, for remembrance, are made, by His grace, new creations; no longer should we consider one another after the flesh, but as those who are indwelt by and walking according to the Spirit of God. “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Our flesh, though, by which the Apostle means our connection to the corruption and death brought about by Adam, is crucified with Christ, as the penitent was. We shall no longer walk according to that life, so take hope you who, like me, struggle against the flesh: Christ has put it to death, so that we might share in His eternal, resurrected life, which is the Spirit: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:16-23): this is Paradise, this is the new creation, this is the remembrance of the Lord our God, crucified for us, in which we are invited now, “today” as He says from the Cross, to partake in. How shall we partake in this, when it seems so hard and so tiring to fight against the flesh? As the author to the Hebrews says, “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25), for “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the daytime…put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom. 13:11-14). “The Day” is at hand: beloved, it is here! For the penitent, “today” was the day of his death with Christ: this same Lord calls us to “take up our cross daily” (Lk. 9:23): let today be the day that we call to remembrance our Lord Christ and lose our life for His sake, that it might be saved (9:24). All over the Scriptures, this day is the day we are to turn to God and remember Him: “choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:15); “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts” (Ps. 95:7-8); “Working together with [Christ], then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For He says, ‘In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.’ Behold, now it the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation…Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 6:1-2; 7:1). Above all, let us remember that He first has remembered our lowly state in Adam (1:52) and visited us (1:68). Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, blessed be the Lord Christ, blessed be the Lord and Giver of Life, the Holy Spirit; one God now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.