Monday, April 25, 2011

“The Man in the Middle”

Luke 23:39-43

A man knocked on my door last week and introduced himself as a member of a local church called the Jehovah Witnesses. He invited me to his church for their Easter Service this weekend. He told me that some people think that they don’t believe in Jesus Christ, but he assured me that they do believe in Him. The service would be a memorial to His life and ministry on the occasion of His death.

I told him that I wouldn’t be able to attend, as I would be attending another Easter Service for which I was already obligated. We wouldn’t be holding a memorial service for Jesus but a celebration of His resurrection from the grave and in our hearts. That’s why here this morning. How about you?

All over the world people are gathering for memorials and celebrations. Some are doing both and between these different expressions of faith is a world of confusion about exactly who Jesus Christ really was.

When Easter comes I like to remember and read in the Bible once again the events of what we call Holy week or the Passion of Christ. I have watched films and attended large passion plays in out door theaters to remember all the details of that event. The meaning flows from the story and can be very hard to miss. Yet many will miss the meaning again this Easter and I don’t want us to be among them.

Sometimes on Easter morning I address the believers as I look at the disciples as they follow Christ to the Cross and beyond. Sometimes I consider the crowd that shout His praise and then demand his death just a short time later. We can be an angry mob and deny Christ and the foot of the cross.

Today I want us to consider the three crosses and the men that hung upon them, especially the man in the middle. He hangs between two men who don’t understand who He really is and in a crisis they all share. These are three desperate men, criminals but the man in the middle is about to change history.

39. One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
Luke 23:39-43

This man was a criminal who wanted to survive the sentence of death. He was a desperate man and who can blame him? Who here would not fight for your life when it is threaten? We all want to live and die. Whether we are guilty of our crimes or not, no one in their right mind wants to die. I really believe all three men on the crosses that day were desperate to live.

Some people won’t even talk to God until they are in the desperate place where it is a life and death situation. Most people will start talking to God before they are at death’s door but almost all of us won’t come until we are desperate. What will it take to get you to talk to God? How bad do things have to get before you will start a conversation with Him and cry out to Him?

I so identify with this criminal. I don’t know what his crime was but it was bad enough that he was sentenced to death on the cross. When he shouts at Christ he doesn’t deny the charges and claim to be innocent. He just wants to live.

We are all criminal in God’s eyes when we first come to Him. We have stolen from Father God what is most precious to Him. We have murdered His only Son. We have broken all His laws and defied His good and perfect will in our lives despite many warnings. If God were to judge us guilty today He would be well within the right and the verdict is death, first spiritual, then physical and finally eternal.

The first criminal is like you and me when we shout at God and blame Him for all the evil in this world and for all the harm that comes our way. We don’t hurl insults when things are good but only when things turn bad for us in particular because that is the way criminals think. They are only interested in the law when it affects them in a negative way then they become bias experts.

A desperate criminal will confess to anything and do anything to avoid the punishment of death. They will want to make deals, but if they find nothing is working they will work the angles to find what will motivate those who stand in judgment over them. In the Easter story we have a criminal appealing to fellow criminal and not to the judge. He hurled insults trying to motivate Him to save Himself and make a break from the judgment of death. He may have heard that the man in the middle was innocent but then don’t all criminals claim to be innocent? They only think he was interested was whether Jesus had the power for a jail break or not. He wanted Christ to answer the scoffing of those who dared Jesus to come off the cross. The sign above the head of Jesus said, ‘King of the Jews’, and the soldiers yelled at the man with the crown of thorns, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” (Luke 23:37).

Jesus did not answer the soldiers or the first criminal. The criminal was desperate and willing to do anything to save Himself, but Christ would not respond to his desperate plea for salivation any more than He would acknowledge the mocks of the Roman Guards.

All were under the sentence of death that day but these who called on Christ to save Himself were in the greatest danger. Have you ever appealed to God believing that you could find leverage with the God of the Universe by making a bargain? I find it the height of foolishness to think that we would have any bargaining position with the creator of the Universe. The Lord God saw us getting ourselves into a desperate situation long before we became aware of what we were doing. He even tries to stop us but we ignored our conscience and went right into law breaking until the law caught up to us.

Should we be surprised if Christ is not interested in the desperate calls of guilty people who are only interested in avoiding punishment and in making prison deals? I am afraid that there are many desperate people in the world today who are like this criminal and they pleas, bargains, and threats are a waste of time. No deal will be made for them.

There was another criminal who was very different than the first one. He hung on the cross on the other side of Christ.

40. But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41. We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
42. Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Luke 23:39-43

This second criminal is desperate as well, but his desperation is different than the first criminal. He knows that there is no way out of the sentence or off the cross. His thoughts turn towards what will happen he dies and the second court case he must face and the second verdict upon his life. If men can judge him and get it right what hope does he stand before the Holy God of the Universe to be judged. He is going to the court of Heaven with a criminal record and plenty of evidence of his guilt. His desperation is born from the fear of standing before a just God and be found guilty of all his sins against God.

In his fear of God He has even given up rationalization, saying ‘that his crimes aren’t so bad because everyone breaks the law at some point in their lives.’ Dealing honestly with his condition he knows when someone is lying and when someone is telling the truth. He knows just by looking at Christ that Jesus was not a career criminal. He was not guilty like them. If there could be still one good man who was innocent then he could not longer appeal to being no worse than anyone else. The final excuse he had before God was removed by the innocent man in the middle.

So many people who I talk to are desperate like the first criminal and I can’t really help them, nor can God. If we allowed them to escape or gave them one more chance they would just do more harm to other and continue to break the Law of God. There is no heart change, only the cries of a desperate person trying to avoid the consequences of their own lives.

Few people are like the second criminal who fears the judgment of God more than any court or prison here on earth. He feels the weight and conviction of his conscience upon his soul and no longer rationalizes or justifies his actions. Scoffing and mocking have been dropped for the desperate reality of confession. So far under conviction he knows God would be right in sending him to an eternity in hell. He knows that to let loose criminals in heaven would only ruin the place with sin and rebellion of the lawless.

This desperate man is a person who I can relate to and I hope you can as well. If you can’t I pray that someday you will relate to this criminal and know the desperate place that the conviction of a guilty conscience can bring you if you will face the truth.

As this second criminal faced the truth the most he could ask for and the best he could hope for was to be remembered. He wanted to matter to someone after he had died. All three men on the crosses that day were facing the same death and all were desperate. One was desperate to escape, one desperate to be remembered and the third desperate from something very different.

The second criminal was asking for a memorial service in heaven but the man in the middle had something very different in mind.

43. Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Luke 23:39-43

Jesus was a desperate man but not to escape what was coming and not to be remembered at a memorial service. He was desperate to do the will of His Heavenly Father. In the ultimate act of faith he would face not only death for the first time but taste the bitterness of sin as He took the sins of the world upon himself. Physical death was not as bitter as those sins. I know this because some of those sins were mine. They were so vile as to cut Jesus Christ off from Father God for the first and only time in infinity. That’s when Jesus cried out from the cross “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” Then he followed this was a statement: “It is done!” Christ had accomplished what Father God had requested and bore the guilt of my sin upon that cross. Your sins was on Him that day.

What we are desperate for is revealed in where we look. Have you ever heard that old country song “Looking for Love in all the wrong places?” We look for what we desperately want. The first criminal was desperately looking for an escape. The second criminal looked to be remembered after he had died. What was the man in the middle desperate for? We can tell by where he looked.

Jesus final words were to Father God, “Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit.” With those words He died.

With those words he lived. Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, looked to the Father and for a resurrection by the Father’s hand on the other side of the grave. When He looked to Father God, he placed his whole life into His hands and trusted Him to take Him through to the other side…to paradise.

Paradise is not an island, or a golf course. It is not the happy hunting grounds or some version of Los-Vegas. Paradise that Christ looked to was to be by the Father’s side. He was leaving this world having accomplished on the cross what the Father requested because Jesus was desperate to do Father God’s will. When he got ready to leave he offered to take the second criminal with Him, to give Him more than a memorial service. He would reward the second desperate criminal with an introduction to the creator of the universe, His Father God.

In three days, on a Sunday God raised Him from the dead and know He lives in Heaven and in the hearts of those who are desperate for Him in their lives.

We are all facing death each and every day of our lives. Someday we will be told this is our last day. For others it will come sudden and without warning. Some of us will look for cures, for a way out…a way to cheat death like the first criminal. He wasn’t ready to die and face the judgment that is to come and he knew it in his heart.

Some of us will accept death when it comes and hope that we are remembered by those who loved us and that we made a difference in this world. We are looking for a nice memorial service and loving words on our tombstones. We are like the second criminal hoping the few acts of kindness and faith at the end of our lives is enough to wipe out the harm we have done.

How many of us will be like the man in the middle? How many of us will look to Father God and say, “I trust you even in death.” How many will believe like Christ did that we will be raised and that even the grave can not hold us down when God calls our name. Our way of escape is through the grave. We don’t need to be remembered when Christ Himself will embrace us in His arms.

The second criminal stumbled into those arms and found paradise in the presence of Father God. He asked to be remembered but did all that was necessary to be forgiven and redeemed. He had Godly sorrow for his sin and confessed his guilt to Jesus Christ and the world. He believed that Jesus was the Son of God and lived on this earth without any sin in His life. He asked Jesus to remember Him well in heaven despite his crimes. The only way Jesus could do that was to forgive those sins and that is exactly what Jesus did and without asking for paradise He stumbled into the arms of Christ.

Today you could stumble into the arms of Christ. Today you could do the same. Stop looking for an escape, there is none. Stop trying wipe out the memory of your sins by a few good works. Look to the man in the middle, to Jesus Christ. Confess, repent and be born again. Be desperate for God’s will in your life. No grave will hold you down.

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