Today You Will Be With me in Paradise

Posted: March 8, 2017 in Uncategorized

This is the second week of our sermon series drawn from Adam Hamilton’s book, “Final Words from the Cross”.  Some of the words of today’s message are mine and some are those of Rev. Hamilton, but the inspiration and credit go to him.  I hope you are blessed by these messages as the book has blessed me.

I love all four Gospels, but I especially love Luke.  His Gospel highlightfinalwordss Jesus’ concern for the least, the last and the lost.  Luke begins by pointing out the humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth.  As Rev. Hamilton says, “In Luke’s description of Jesus’ ministry, we find Jesus consistently concerned for the sinner, the outcast, the unclean, and the nobody.  In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus clearly identifies his mission as coming to ‘seek out and save the lost’.  It is not surprising then that only Luke’s Gospel records a conversation Jesus has as he hangs dying beside a thief.   As we consider this conversation, we’ll focus on the words of Jesus and ask: What does this scene teach us about Jesus, and what does it teach us about ourselves?”

People are often judged by the company they keep.  Throughout his life, Jesus associated with people who were looked down upon, and this troubled the religious leaders of the time.  In Luke 15:1-2 we read, “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”  Jesus associated with all sorts of undesirable people.  He touched lepers and ate meals with the unclean.  Even his inner circle of disciples consisted of a tax collector, several fishermen and other very ordinary men.

Rev. Hamilton points out that is Jesus’ day, the non-religious people did not generally like associating with religious people.  They probably knew that they were looked down upon, and they felt that they had to put on a show, pretending to be something they weren’t.  He says, “It is still that way for many nonreligious and nominally religious people today.  They might think about going to church, but then they think about what it feels like when they walk into church – and it doesn’t feel good.  The preacher seems to talk down to people like them, making them feel small.  But when Jesus was around nonreligious people, they didn’t feel small.  They didn’t feel like nobodies.  They didn’t feel like sinners.  They just felt like people who came to hear the good news of God in a way that made sense to them, and they found that they wanted to know more about this God Jesus talked about.”

Jesus stated his personal mission statement just a few days before his crucifixion.  Jesus was passing through Jericho on His way to Jerusalem, where the events of Holy Week would soon unfold.  Zacchaeus was one of the head tax collectors in the region of Jericho, and the Bible says he was a rich man. Jewish tax collectors like Zacchaeus were scorned by their countrymen for a couple of reasons: one, they were known for cheating the taxpayers; and, two, they worked for Rome. The other Jews saw Jewish tax collectors as collaborators with the enemy—traitors to their own people.  Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus as the Lord passed through town, but, because Zacchaeus was a short man, he could not see over the crowd. Knowing that Jesus would pass by a certain sycamore tree, Zacchaeus ran ahead and climbed the tree, figuring he could see Jesus passing below. To the complete astonishment of Zacchaeus and the crowd, Jesus stopped under the tree, looked up, and said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”  Zacchaeus was overjoyed, but the crowd grumbled because Zacchaeus was a tax collector, and they could not understand why Jesus would choose to associate with such a man—a “sinner” as they called him. Sharing a meal with someone in the Middle East in Biblical times meant that you were willing to call that person your friend.  So when Jesus said that he wanted to stay at Zacchaeus’ house and later had a meal with him, the religious people couldn’t believe it.  Why would Jesus want to stay and eat with a known swindler like Zacchaeus?  The book imagines the scene: “Zacchaeus invited all his sinful friends for supper that night – prostitutes, tax collectors and thieves.  I picture Jesus eating with them, laughing and telling stories about the kingdom of God in a way that made the people want to know more.  And I picture the religious people standing outside, waving their fingers and saying, ‘Why does he eat with people like that?’  That’s when I imagine Jesus got up from the table, went to the religious people and said, ‘You just don’t understand, do you?’  And then he gave them his personal life mission statement: ‘The Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.’”

As Jesus lived, so he died.  Even as he was crucified, Jesus was carrying out his mission statement and associating with sinners.  In his final moments, he reached out to save a lost soul.  If reaching the lost was so important to Jesus, what does that mean to us, his followers?

If we look at the two criminals who were crucified with Jesus, we can see the two possible responses people might make to Jesus.  Both criminals saw the same thing that day – a man who claimed to be the Messiah abused and crucified.  The heard the insults and the taunts.  They saw the cruelty.  They heard Jesus cry out, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  But the conversation, as recorded in Luke, reveals their different responses.  One man’s heart was hardened.  He looked at Jesus and saw failure.  He heard Jesus’ plea for mercy and heard weakness.  “But something was happening to the heart of the other criminal as he watched and listened to Jesus on the cross.  Perhaps as he reflected on what Jesus had said and what Jesus had prayed, he began to think to himself, ‘My life is hopeless right now.  I’m going to die in a matter of hours, humiliated and defeated.  But maybe, just maybe, Jesus might be my hope.  Maybe there really is a God who loves us.  Maybe there is a God who cares for the hopeless.  Maybe there is a God who gives second chances.’  Then, whether from an emerging faith and understanding of what Jesus was doing or from a sense of compassion, he spoke to Jesus and said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’  Two criminals.  Two responses.  The question we must ask ourselves is this:  Which thief will I be?”

Jesus listened to the second criminal’s plea and answered him: “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”  This one simple statement has a lot to teach us about life after death, God’s mercy and heaven.  What did Jesus mean when he said the word “today”.  A question that is frequently asked is “Exactly what happens when we die?”  Some scriptures talk about a future resurrection day when Jesus will judge the dead, while others seem to point to heaven immediately after death.  Let me share what Adam Hamilton has to say on this question.  He says, “After 30 years of study, my own view of what happens to us when we die is shaped by this passage and several others in the Bible.  I believe that when we die, we immediately enter into Christ’s kingdom – we are raised to life.  I believe this because Jesus is recorded as having conversations with Moses and Elijah in the Gospels.  I believe this because Paul noted that if he died he would be with the Lord, and his statement seems to indicate that this would happen immediately.  I believe this because Jesus turned to the thief on the cross and promised him that ‘today you will be with me in paradise.’”  On Ash Wednesday we confronted the finiteness of life … “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”   Jesus’ promise to the thief on the cross assures us that there is more after this life is over.  His use of the word “today” is reassuring and comforting to us. Even so, this reassurance is not the primary point of Jesus’ statement to the thief on the cross.  So what was his main point when he said, “Today you will be with me in paradise”?

The main point of Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross was to demonstrate the great mercy of God.  Luke, whose focus throughout his Gospel was the concern that Jesus had for the lost, forgotten and the outcasts, wants us to see that even as a criminal was dying for the crimes he committed, Jesus offered salvation.  As the book explains, “We would do well to notice that Jesus didn’t say, ‘Before I can offer you salvation, I need to make sure you fully understand some things.  Do you believe in the Trinity?  Do you believe that I am fully God and fully human?  Do you believe the Bible is the inerrant, infallible Word of God?  Have you been baptized?  Have you accepted me into your heart?  No!  Jesus saw that this man was reaching toward him, and he offered him paradise.  I’m not suggesting that understanding Christian doctrine and being baptized are not important; but what we see here is that Jesus looked at a man who had just turned to him in that moment, and that was enough.  This man did not know Christian doctrine.  But he had faith the size of a mustard seed, and that was enough for Jesus to say, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  Sometimes, we think we have a handle on who is saved and who isn’t, who we’ll be seeing in heaven and who we won’t.  But how many of those people we don’t think make the grade have as much faith as that thief on the cross? Shouldn’t we be hoping that Jesus’ words to the dying thief on the cross reflect the heart with which Jesus will judge us?  That he will look past our mistakes, our misconceptions and misunderstandings, our faulty theology.  That he will see that we wanted to be with him and put our trust in him.  That will be enough … as Ephesians 2:8 tells us, “We are saved by grace, through faith, and this is not of ourselves, it is the gift of God.”

Finally, let’s look at what Jesus’ words tell us about heaven.  Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  The original Greek word for “paradise” in this scripture comes from a Persian word meaning the “king’s garden”.  In ancient times, the king’s garden was a walled garden that was a place of incredible beauty.  When someone was being honored in ancient Persia, they were given the privilege of enjoying the king’s garden.  I love the image of heaven that this brings to mind – the King’s garden.  There are not a lot of descriptions of heaven in scripture, but the thought of spending eternity in the King’s garden with people I love, without hate or violence or stress or anxiety, sounds like paradise to me.

“Today, you will be with me in paradise.”  These words of Jesus from the cross point us toward his mission, and ours: to seek and to save those who are lost.  This includes those who, to us, seem hopelessly lost.  The words beckon us to be like the thief whose heart was moved by seeing the crucified Jesus, and to pray with him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  These words lead us to the paradise that was restored by Jesus on the cross, and remind us of the promise we have of dwelling in the King’s garden with him.


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