The Sanctuary Sermon for 2/28/21
“Begging Your Pardon” Luke 23:32-43
I had an epiphany regarding my father when I was 14 years old. Dad was a no-nonsense kind of guy in disciplining his boys but on the flip side of that he had a wry sense of humor and was very witty. That said, I had this childhood friend John, whose escapades I’ve shared with you on more than one occasion. If I wasn’t at his house, he was at mine; we were co-conspirators, which most times proved to find us in some sort of predicament, one way or another. Hmmmph. We were the 70’s version of the Little Rascals.
So, in between John’s house and ours we had this neighbor Mr. Krieger who was the Curmudgeon Rex: King of the curmudgeons. He was a cranky old man who kept to himself spending hours in his yard with his dog Tiny who barked incessantly. His lawn was impeccable, the flora filling the yard was unspoiled and if we stepped foot in it, he yelled at us. If a bike would ‘happen’ to stray off the sidewalk, he’d yell at us. If a ball we were playing with should go into his yard, he’d take it and go inside with his little barking dog. He never passed out any candy on Halloween so we would see how many times we could ring his doorbell before he would come out with his little yapping dog. He didn’t receive much admiration around the neighborhood—especially from my father, which is saying something. Dad always found the best in people.
Though the coolest thing about Krieger’s yard was how the back of his property butted up to the woods. He had created a serpentine path that wound back and forth down a hill that led to a park with benches, bird houses and deer feeders. The winding path was bordered by pine trees with old-fashioned light bulbs strung along them.
One of our favorite pastimes was to take our BB guns into the woods and shoot at targets to see who could hit it first. You know where this is going, right? One afternoon when John, my brother and I were coming out of the woods, we saw the sunlight reflecting off old man Krieger’s light bulbs—the motherlode of all targets. Who could hit one first? We fell down at the edge of the woods, taking aim to improve our marksmanship. Soon, we were popping them like balloons. 1,2,3…4,5,6... We were worried that the sound of bursting bulbs would attract attention, so we crawled back into the woods.
A few days later there was a knock at our door, it was old man Krieger. Oh boy. “Art, I need to have a conversation with you and your boys.” Not wanting Mr. Krieger inside, dad called us out onto the front porch.
The conversation went something like this, “Someone has vandalized and broke out most of the light bulbs hanging in my backyard.” Gulp. Mark and I glanced sideways at each other. “I believe that your boys are probably responsible for it, I’ve seen them and that Mellen boy going into the woods with their BB guns on more than one occasion.” He had us there, our reputation preceded us.
Time stood still. Dad had his arms crossed as he slowly turned his head toward us. To this day I know he saw us begging his pardon with our eyes. “You boys wouldn’t damage Mr. Krieger’s property, would you?” We shook our heads and succinctly said, “Nope.” Go straight to hell. Do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars.
In one of the most surprising rejoinders I had ever witnessed by my father, he said, “I didn’t think so. If my boys say they didn’t vandalize your property, then I’ll take them at their word.” What the what? Dad never took us at our word, he knew that we were always walking a thin line.
“Well, I just wanted to let you know. I can’t prove it because I didn’t see them but I’m afraid that they’re not going to get what they deserve,” old man Krieger said.
“It’s not your business if they get what they deserve or not. It’s mine. Have a good day Alfred,” dad said.
As we watched Krieger make his way down the driveway dad said, “Whatever you deserve or not, I’ll be holding your guns for a month,” as we went into the house. Mark and I were in disbelief and before the winds of fortune shifted, I hurriedly said, “We’re going to John’s!” Mom said, “Be home for dinner, boys.”
On the way up the street, seeing old man Krieger’s dog barking in the window, Mark and I wondered what had just happened. It was like the scene in The Christmas Story when Randy’s mom tells him as he’s crying under the sink, “No Randy, your father’s not going to beat Ralphie!”
In a way, it was a grateful, graceful come to Jesus moment for me.
And you know what? There were those who came to Christ in all kinds of ways, and in all kinds of places. Nicodemus came in the middle of the night. The paralyzed came in the pool and through the roof. The centurion came in the middle of the day. The leper and sinful woman appeared in the middle of crowds. Zacchaeus appeared in the middle of a tree. Lazarus came out of a tomb.
The educated. The powerful. The rejected. The sick. The lonely. Who would have ever assembled such a crew? Though they had nothing to offer, they asked for everything: a new birth, a second chance, a fresh start, a clean conscience. And without exception their requests were honored.
And now, one more beggar comes with a request. Only minutes from the death of them both, he stands before the King. He will ask for crumbs. And he, like the others, will receive the whole loaf.
Let’s look at our text.
32 Two others, both criminals, were led out to be executed with him. 33 When they came to a place called The Skull, they nailed him to the cross. And the criminals were also crucified—one on his right and one on his left.
34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” And the soldiers gambled for his clothes by throwing dice.
35 The crowd watched and the leaders scoffed. “He saved others,” they said, “let him save himself if he is really God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” 36 The soldiers mocked him, too, by offering him a drink of sour wine. 37 They called out to him, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 A sign was fastened above him with these words: “This is the King of the Jews.”
39 One of the criminals hanging beside him scoffed, “So you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself—and us, too, while you’re at it!”
40 But the other criminal protested, “Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? 41 We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”
43 And Jesus replied, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
We are at Golgotha, Skull’s hill—windswept and stony. We see a thief—gaunt and pale. Hinges squeak as the door of death closes on his life.
His situation is pitiful. He’s taking the last step down the spiral staircase of failure. One crime after another. One rejection after another. Lower and lower he descended until he’s reached the bottom—a crossbeam and three spikes.
He can’t hide who he is; he’s on display for the whole world to see. His only clothing is the cloak of his disgrace. There is no fancy jargon here. No impressive resume. No Sunday School awards. Just a naked history of failure.
But then he sees Jesus.
Now, Matthew’s account records that both crooks had mocked the man. When the crowd first chorused its criticism, he’d sung his part. But now he doesn’t mock Jesus, he studies him. He begins to wonder who this man might really be.
The criminal hears the jests and the insults and sees the man remain quiet. He sees the blood on Jesus’ face, the crown of thorns imbedded in his scalp. He then hears a hoarse whisper, “Father forgive them…”
He wonders, why do they want this man dead?
I imagine that the thief looked at the huddle of soldiers rolling bones in the dirt, gambling for a seamless robe. He sees the soldiers mocking Jesus as a powerless, impotent king. I wonder if he looked up and saw the sign above Jesus’ head. It’s painted with sarcasm: King of the Jews.
They mock him as king, the thief thinks. If he were nothing to fear, they wouldn’t kill him. Would they? You only kill a king if he has a kingdom. Could it be…
All of a sudden, his thoughts are exploded by the accusations of the criminal on the other cross. “So, you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself—and us too, while you’re at it!”
It’s inexplicable to me, how two people can hear the same words and see the same Savior—one sees hope and the other sees nothing but himself. I think we all know someone like that.
We know by now that we are the crooks on the cross. These two thieves represent the history of humanity that has had to make a choice when it encounters Jesus Christ. It is a choice that each of us must make, not just once, but over and over throughout our lives. How do I respond to Jesus when he asks, “Who do you say that I am? C.S. Lewis said, “Either he is a liar, a lunatic or Lord.” You decide.
In spite of the excruciating pain, knowing that eternity was going to punch his ticket soon at the last stop of his destination, the first thief was incredulous.
“Don’t you fear God?”
Only minutes before, these lips had cursed Jesus. Now they are defending him. I wonder if every head on the hill lifted to look at this one who spoke on behalf of the Son of God.
Who could have imagined this thief thinking of anyone but himself? He’d always been the bully on the playground, the purse snatcher, the thief, the terrorist, the thug. Who could remember the last time he came to someone’s aid?
But as the last grains of sand trickle through his hourglass, he performs man’s noblest act—He speaks on God’s behalf.
Where are those whom we would expect to defend Jesus?
A much more spiritual Peter has abandoned him. A much more educated Pilate has washed his hands of him. A loyal mob of countrymen has demanded his death. A much more faithful band of disciples has scattered like leaves on a windy day.
When it seems that everyone has turned away, a crook has an epiphany, a spiritual awakening and places himself between Jesus and the accusers and defends God.
I’ve often wondered if these two thieves knew each other and also about Jesus—if they had heard him preaching of the kingdom of heaven, or saw him perform miracles, or knew of the claims that he is the Messiah, the anointed One who was to come.
I’ve also wondered what paths the two crooks preyed upon that they wound up nailed to a Roman cross. Maybe they were from the countryside and were glad for the large crowds gathering for the Passover celebration so they could ply their craft and increase their wealth, picking off pockets like they were light bulbs. Pop, pop, pop. Or maybe they were so poor and in such dire need that thievery was all they knew.
But the fact is, we really don’t know anything about them. What we do know is that they choose to respond to Jesus in two different ways at a critical moment in their lives. One chose to reject him, and one chooses to accept him.
The first thief cries out, “Don’t you even fear God when you are dying? We deserve to die for our evil deeds, but this man hasn’t done one thing wrong!”
The priests cease their chattering. I imagine that Jesus struggled to lift his wounded head and looked at him to see the one who had spoken when all others had remained silent. He fought to focus bloodshot eyes through swollen lids on the one who offered this final gesture of love he’d receive while still alive.
I wonder, did he smile as this last sheep straggled into the fold?
Think about it. For that, in effect, is exactly what the criminal is doing. It’s last call and he’s stumbling into heaven just before the gate is locked. Lodged in the thief’s statement are two facts that anyone needs to recognize in order to come to Christ. Hear that phrase again. “We are getting what we deserve. This man has done nothing wrong.”
We should die for our crimes. We are guilty and he is innocent. We are wrong and he is right. He is not on that cross for his sins.
He’s there for ours.
Once the crook understands this, his request seems only natural. As he looked into the battered, swollen face of his last hope, he made the same request every one of us has made.
“Remember me when you enter your kingdom.”
No stained-glass sermon. No excuses. Just a desperate plea for help.
Begging your pardon.
At this point, Jesus performs perhaps the greatest miracle of the cross. It was greater than the earthquake. Greater than the tearing of the temple curtain. Greater than the darkness. Greater than the resurrected saints appearing on the streets.
He performed the miracle of forgiveness. A sin-soaked criminal is received by a blood-stained savior.
“Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
My, my, my. Only seconds before, the thief was a beggar nervously squeezing his hat at the castle door wondering if the King might spare a few crumbs. Suddenly he has the keys to the whole pantry.
Such is the definition of grace.
Thank God that because of Christ’s atoning work on Golgotha, we don’t get what we deserve. It’s as if God said to the devil, “It’s not your business if they get what they deserve or not. It’s mine.” Dad was on to something there. Thanks for the example Pop.
This is the word of the Lord for the day.