In the 9th chapter of his gospel, St. Luke wrote these words that we have repeated many times over the last several months, “When the days drew near for Him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (Lk.9:51). Those were the words that we heard in our Gospel reading 22 Sundays ago. And Sunday by Sunday for 22 weeks now, we have been on this journey with Jesus to Jerusalem.
And now this morning, we come to the destination of that journey – a place called “the skull.” Which is a very strange destination for anyone to “set his face to go to.” Besides it being the worst possible way to die, it is the object of utter ridicule and scorn and shame. The cross is the symbol of utter failure and futility and the one who hangs from it is truly “despised and rejected by man.”
And yet this is precisely where Jesus Christ, “in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” “set his face” to go.
Never has the One “by whom all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities…” descended so low, that only the lowest of the lowly may declare that “in him…” even they, “have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
This morning we join this journey with Jesus as it makes its way down the road that leads out of the city of Jerusalem to the place where the crucifixions take place. This journey has become a grizzly death march.
“There followed him a great multitude of the people…” Who are they? Certainly, at least some of this ‘great multitude’ were those who had followed him from Galilee and Samaria and Judea and had witnessed the miracles and heard the teachings and “hung no his every word”.
And certainly some of this ‘great multitude’ was made up of the religious leadership of Israel who despised Jesus for upsetting their status quo and challenging ‘the system’ that had come to mean more to them than the Scriptures.
And there were also “women who were mourning and lamenting for him.” Who these women were is hard to say for sure. Certainly some of them were the women who had followed Him so faithfully, providing for Him out of their means.
But it was also the custom for pious women to show up at funerals to provide the wailing and crying. Jesus offers them no comfort but warns that soon they will be crying for themselves and wishing that the mountains would fall on them and buried them.
There are also two others who have joined this journey with Jesus. Luke identifies them as ‘criminals.’ Matthew and Mark tell us that their crime was robbery. They were ‘thieves.’
When they arrive at the “place that is called ‘The Skull’,” they are crucified. For all the build up that has been mounting for the last 22 weeks, we would have expected Luke to give us more than he does. Three times along the journey, Jesus purposely told His disciples that this was where they journey was headed. “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Luke 9:22).
But when the critical point in the journey is reached, the entire act of crucifixion is carefully condensed into five words – ‘and there they crucified him…” In fact, none of the gospel writers gives us any of the gruesome details that the media of our day would have certainly made the focus of attention, because we all know, that’s what sells.
It’s not the gruesome violence that occupies our attention here, but the incredible mystery of God. He who is “the image of the invisible God…” hangs from a wooden cross that has been cut from a tree that He Himself created when He said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed…” (Gen.1:11).
In paradise, there in the “midst of the garden” there stood a tree that bore a forbidden fruit that “was a delight to the eye and desirable for making one wise.” And when the woman took it and ate it and gave some her husband and he ate of it, it produced great shame in them and caused them to be thrown out of paradise, “the cherubim and a flaming sword” guarding the gate so that they could not get back in.
Now, here in the “midst of” this hideous garden of skulls, there stands a tree. And the fruit that hangs from it is so disfigured and disgusting, “from whom men hide their faces” and that is “despised and rejected by men, who esteemed him not.” (Is. 53:3).
And yet, there has never been a tree in all creation that has borne such fruit as hangs from this one. For the fruit that hangs from this accursed tree is the promise that God spoke in the Garden of Paradise, that the offspring of the woman would crush the head of the serpent who deceived them and the curse would be broken and “death would be swallowed up in victory.”
“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” With those words, the tree has now become an altar upon which the innocent and spotless lamb has been bound and sacrificed for the atonement of the sin of the whole world.
• In Him, divine justice is carried out perfectly and the punishment for our sin is satisfied.
• In Him, divine mercy is carried out perfectly as the ransom for sin is paid in full by another, and the guilty sinner is set free and declared righteous and holy in the sight of God.
• “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.” (Col.1:13)
He’s stripped of His clothes and the religious rulers ‘scoff at him… ‘He saved others, let Him save Himself.’ And “the soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.’
And now Luke directs our attention to the other two who were crucified with Him, “one on his right and one on his left.” And only Luke gives us the incredible dialog that takes place between these two and the One in the middle. And it is in this dialog that Luke gives us an deeper look into the deeper mystery that is taking place here.
Jesus is in the middle of two criminals. Both of these men are guilty. There is no innocence in either of them and neither is able to himself. And it should not be hard at all for us to see that we too are hanging there with them, because aren’t we all just like them, ‘criminals’ before God?
• Aren’t we the ones who have broken every law and refused to obey every commandment of God, repeatedly?
• Aren’t we the ‘thieves’ who have ‘stolen’ from our heavenly Father, the joy and the delight and the pride that a Father deserves to have in His children by being disrespectful and unappreciative and are always questioning Him and demanding He give an adequate explanation to every ‘why’ question that we have before we will honor Him as we should?
• Aren’t we the ones who refuse to LISTEN to our Father who only wants what is good for us and who only really speak to Him when we need something from Him and when He gives it hardly ever remember to give Him thanks?
In fact, I don’t think it’s a stretch at all to say that in these to ‘criminals’ hanging on His right and His left are all of humanity since Adam’s fall into sin, who have robbed God of the joy of calling His beloved children, “my people,” and hearing them respond with sincere and loving hearts, “my God.”
And so there is “no distinction” between these two men, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). And yet there is a great distinction between these two. And it is in the way that each regards the man who hangs between them.
“One of the criminals who were hanged, railed at him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.”
There’s no trace of sorrow or repentance in this man’s voice. Who knows how many desperate situations he had been in his life? But he’d always been able to wiggle out of them and live another day. But there would be no wiggling out of this one. So in his desperation, he “rails at Jesus.” Not blaming Him for getting Him into this mess but for not getting Him out of it. ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.”
If we were keeping track, we’d realize that this is now the third time that Jesus has heard those words, “save yourself.” Here in this ‘deserted place’ at the end of His journey, He is again being tempted by the devil just as He was in the desert at the beginning of the journey.
All of these people want Jesus to come down from the cross and save Himself. None of them, except for the devil, understands that if He saves Himself, they are all damned. And so are you and so am I.
Then there’s the other criminal. He is just as guilty as the first, but rather than denying it and “railing at Jesus,” he calls his fellow sinner to repentance. “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 then he too prays to Jesus. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Here is a man who offers no excuses for his life, no final pleas for one more chance, no explanations for why he is actually a very nice person. His only hope is that this man in the middle who has prayed that God the Father would forgive those who nailed Him to this cross, might also remember him and pray that he too, may also receive divine mercy and grace.
Though out the Old Testament, God reveals Himself as a ‘REMEMBERING’ GOD who does not forget either His promises or His people. “And God remembered Noah… and the waters subsided.” (Gen.8:1) “And God remembered Rachael and opened her womb…” (Gen. 30:22) God heard the groaning of His people Israel in Egypt and He ‘remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.’ (Ex. 2:24).
“Remember me…” he cried. “And Jesus said to him, ‘Today, you will be with me in paradise.’”
And with all the authority in heaven and on earth that has been given to Him by the Father, the Son of God throws open the gates of paradise to this man and he is with Jesus forever. This criminal asked for an indefinite and vague ‘when you come into your kingdom,’ and Jesus responded with the definite and certain, ‘today you will be with me in Paradise.’
This ‘good thief’ is the picture of the Christian Church, which prays to the One “in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins,” saying, “Lord, remember us…” Urging all ‘criminals’ to turn to the Lord “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” (Heb.4:7)
For this man and for all who put their hope and trust in Jesus Christ and Him crucified, the journey continues, death is not the end, but only the beginning of an ETERNAL TODAY, “in paradise,” that has no end.