Happy Easter to you all. I pray you all are well. My goal as a preacher, in the pulpit, has always been to preach Wesleyan grace theology and Christ crucified. There are many positive results from this, but a couple of primary results are these: Understanding John Wesley’s grace theology and Christ crucified enables people to realize just how much God loves them. So, my goal has always been, and will always be, to preach the love of God through grace and the cross.
This Easter, I want us to take the view of the cross from a close-up perspective, from the view of one of the two criminals, hung on crosses, on either side of Jesus’ cross.
For some reason, they are destined to die with Jesus. For one of them, it will be a blessing. For the other, we're not sure, because the Bible does not tell us. In the difference between these two deaths lies a decision, a decision that we all must make before we die. A decision that determines our eternity.
Now decision-making is a skill. Arriving at a decision between bad choices and good choices is not that difficult. Most of us would not have trouble making the best decision. But what if all of your choices were great choices? Now, that’s a difficult decision. Or, what if all of your choices were only lousy choices, each with bad outcomes? That’s an incredibly difficult decision.
The first and the last of these I see all the time at OH, the day shelter. People struggle to make the right choices in what to you and me would be simple choices. You and I would quickly choose sobriety and not sleeping in a tent in the freezing cold, or melting heat. Yet, due to dependency on and mind-numbing use of drugs and alcohol, many truly struggle with, what to you and me, is no decision at all.
Then, there is the choice with nothing but lousy outcomes. Many of the homeless, because of mental illness (absolutely no fault of their own), chronic incarceration, debilitating health, long-term drug and alcohol use, and a myriad of other extenuating circumstances, their resultant choice involves nothing but bad outcomes. There is no real choice for them to make. They have, and life has painted them into a corner. No real choice, except for which involves the least suffering.
So, how are your decision-making skills? Are you good at making decisions? There are business decisions, family decisions, money decisions, work decisions, relationship decisions, and many others.
Our scripture today is from the Gospel of Luke 23. We’ll begin with verses 32-34.
“Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with (Jesus) to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals–one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they divided up (Jesus’) clothes.”
This brief paragraph is describing an incredibly brutal process where in a matter of just a few minutes, three men are nailed to crosses and left to die, slowly, painfully, in agony.
The pain from the three spikes had to be excruciating. The Romans were efficient, the spikes go into the top of the ankle, at the base of the shin, and into each wrist, between the two forearm bones. This way, the condemned cannot rip themselves free. People watching now mock the dying. Luke 23:35-38.
“The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at (Jesus). They said, ‘He saved others;
let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.’ The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.’ There was a written notice above him, which read:
THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.”
So, not only are Jesus and the two criminals in tortuous death throes, where they will die and they know it. Now the spectators are hurling insults at them, as they die.
Jesus is busy fulfilling scripture. He’s not just dying, but he has things to do and say, as he dies.
The criminals have the decision to make. One realizes this, but the other does not.
All three, as they hang there dying, must deal with the pain, the commotion of the insults and the mocking, and the adrenaline and chemicals that kick in as their human bodies go into shock.
Jesus fights through all of this, fulfilling scripture to his final breath. Jesus was praying for others as he died. He was even forgiving those that were killing him as they killed him. Most importantly, Jesus was doing God’s will to the very end of his life.
It’s interesting to look at the reaction of the two closest witnesses to the dying Christ. This is because they too were experiencing the same painful death. Interestingly also, because they both had exactly the opposite reaction and decision from each other.
In fact, all of us must make a choice. Whether you have ever realized this or not, you have to make the same choice that each of these two criminals must make.
In verse 39, the first choice is made.
“One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at (Jesus): ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’”
This is a poor choice. This criminal, reacting out of anger (and pain), actually joins his torturers in insulting the Savior of the world. He would witness the salvation of the other criminal and the sky turning black at Jesus’ death. He heard the dying words of the Son of Man. Yet he was too stubborn, too prideful, too angry, too hard-headed, too stiff-necked, and too much a part of the world that was literally killing him to seek forgiveness. The world’s hold upon him was too strong for him to break free.
Don’t be this guy. I was this guy. You know my testimony. From the age of 15 to 30, I was an unrepentant hellion. I had many close calls, involving poor decision-making on my part. It was always God’s grace that kept me from harm. I did not recognize that grace then, but I do now as I look back. Do not be like I was. Don’t be like the unrepentant criminal. Don’t be this guy.
It’s time for us to look at the other criminal. Through the same pain and shock of dying, he comes to exactly the opposite decision from his friend. He makes what seems to be a tough decision.
But it’s not tough. It’s a smart decision.
It’s a decision that I would recommend for all of us. But it is a decision that only each of us, as individuals, can make. No one will make it for us, it won’t happen because we’re good people, or we donate things to the needy.
It’s a choice to believe in God’s Son as your Savior, admitting your sinfulness, seeking God’s forgiveness and salvation.
But you have to choose this. If you make no choice, you reside eternally, with that other guy, and millions of the unrepentant in hell. Luke 23:40-43,
“But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’”
When I get to heaven, I want to speak with family members, Paul, the disciples, Moses, and all the prophets. But most of all, I want to talk to this guy, the criminal who died beside Jesus on the cross, and made the good decision, the right choice.
I don't know your life’s details or your history, but please, don’t let any of that junk, bad or good, screw up your opportunity to make the correct decision in regard to Jesus as your Savior.
Like this guy dying beside Jesus on the cross, you may not be happy with where you are in life. But don’t let this make you too stubborn, too prideful, too angry, or too damaged to make a good decision about Jesus Christ. Then. the opposite, your life is too good, and you take God for granted. Either way, a decision must be made by us all. What is your relationship with the Risen Christ?
Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.
and Harmony UMC