As we’re celebrating the Risen Christ on this Easter morning, I want to talk about the relationship between life and God, because for many of us, life and God appear to be one in the same.
So, when life is good, God is good. And when life is not good, God is not good. And if life gets really-bad, it's easy to assume that maybe there is no God at all. If there were this wouldn’t be happening.
Now, what makes this so complicated is that we were taught or come to believe in a personal God who walks and talks with us, or that God is behind everything and that makes it virtually impossible not to confuse your life experience with God and to place the frustrations that you have with life, on God.
That was the case with today's character. We don't know his name, we don’t know how old he was, and we don’t know where he came from. All we know that at some point, his life spun completely out of control and he finds himself in a Roman jail cell which was probably just a hole in the ground.
He is condemned to death and his only value in life is to illustrate the futility of defying Rome. They're going to crucify him as a warning to anyone else who would defy the Roman Empire.
Now, this man had seen crucifixions before, so he knew exactly what he was in for. He would fight and curse and scream but, in the end, death would take him. His body would be peeled down from the cross, it would be put on a wagon, taken to the south side of Jerusalem, down into the valley of Gehenna and he would be placed in the city dump because no one would be given permission to claim his body.
There would be no defense, and there would be no mourners. His friends, his family, his government and even God had abandoned him.
And on the morning that they dragged him out of that jail cell, he'd discovered that he would not die alone, there would be two other people crucified that same day. Perhaps he knew one of them, we don't know. But he discovered that Jesus, the Jewish rabbi, had also been condemned to death and he would die with him as well.
Let’s listen to our text this morning: READ Luke 23:32-43
When you're reading a familiar text like this, it’s easy to just plow through it but for those first century readers there is so much packed into one little word within the text; the word crucifixion. For us, it’s a symbol we put in church and talk about during Easter weekend, or we hang around our necks as jewelry or for good luck but for them this word brought up very real images of pain, terror, violence, and agony.
You see, crucifixion was something they saw and experienced firsthand. They knew it took hours and, in some cases, two or three days for someone to die and not everyone was crucified the same way. There were all kinds of creative things that the Romans did to crucify people. Now, the Roman’s didn’t create crucifixion, but they perfected it and it was designed to inflict as much pain and humiliation as possible.
And on this day, people would have gathered from all over to watch this spectacle because there’s something about tragedy and pain that’s embarrassingly fascinating. Isn’t there?
And the scripture tells us, that the other two people, the one that hung to the left and the right of Jesus, were hurling profanity and curses at those who had come to watch.
But as they are shouting profanities, they hear the guy in the middle, the Jewish Rabbi, utter something that no one would ever utter from a Roman cross, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
But he wasn’t just praying for the people who had come to watch, Luke says there was another group of people there as well, the rulers. The very people that had been so threatened by Jesus’ authority, threatened by his miracles, and threatened by his words that they had him arrested.
And they sneered at him, because it wasn't enough that he was dying. After years of constantly being publicly shamed by Jesus’ snappy answers to their “got you” questions, this was there moment to take out all of the revenge and anger that they held towards him and they shouted, "He saved others, let him save himself if he is God's Messiah, the chosen one."
Then the soldiers joined in. Now, when someone crucified, their feet would have been about six inches off the ground so that people could walk up and almost be face to face with them, and scream in their faces, and spit on them and walk away because the whole idea of crucifixion was humiliation.
The soldiers walked right up to Jesus and hurled their insults at him and offered him wine vinegar, which is basically cheap soldier wine. And they said to him, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself."
Now, they refer to him as King of the Jews because when Pilate decided that Jesus would be executed, he ordered that a sign be made that read, "King of the Jews." because he wanted everyone to know that if you claim to be a king, when you receive a triumphal entry, this is what you can look forward to.
And then, as if all that wasn't enough, one of the criminals turned his anger and animosity away from the crowd and the Romans and dumped it on Jesus. Now, Matthew says that both were hurling insults.
But in Luke, its only one who said, "Aren't you the Messiah? Aren't you supposed to be able to do something about this? If you were the Messiah, this wouldn’t be happening to you. And if there was a just and righteous God, this would not be happening to us. So, save yourself, and us.”
But then suddenly during the chaos, and the pain, and the insults, one of the criminals – our guy, begins to sense something strangely selfless about the Rabbi as hears him say, “Father, forgive them. All of them." He begins to think, "Maybe we’ve got this wrong. This is a righteous man, a man sent from God.”
So, he says to the other criminal, "Don't you fear God?"
I mean, here is a man who is suffering unjustly; a man who has done nothing wrong and yet he is suffering the same fate as we are. Here is a man who is experiencing life just as we are, and yet somehow can maintain his faith in God.
If you were to read the narrative of Jesus found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, here's what you'll discover about the life of Jesus; He took life right in the face, He experienced life the way we experience life. There were no shortcuts. He never played the God card. He never got to the restaurant and said, "I'm Jesus, put me at the corner table.”
Over and over and over, there were opportunities for Jesus to leverage being Jesus, but He never did it one single time. He knew what it meant to be lonely, he knew what it meant to be abandoned by friends in the darkest hour, he knew what it felt like when he knew God said, "No."
And yet despite life and despite experience, Jesus never lost his confidence in God; even as he hung on a Roman Cross.
And as this criminal hears Jesus say, “Father forgive them”, the wheels are spinning, and he begins to see Jesus in a way that no one else in the crowd; the religious guys, the guards, or even the other criminal is seeing Jesus. And in this moment, he’s thinking, “If an innocent man who suffers like a guilty man can maintain faith in God, how much more a guilty man for whom there is justification for his suffering should maintain their faith in God.”
This is the Messiah. The sign is correct, this is our King. Stop hurling insults at him, don’t you fear God?
Then with all the pain, and to the best of his ability, he turns his head, and he says to Jesus, "Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Not because of anything I've done, I mean I deserve this but because I now see who you are and if you can maintain faith in God during these unjust and horrific circumstances, I believe there is a good and just God after all and you are His Messiah.
Isn't that amazing?
All there is from a cross is a desperate plea for grace and mercy and Jesus says, "Today, you will be with me in paradise”. Please don't miss this, Jesus’ thoughts about you and His love for you are not reflected in what's happening to you.
Wow! What if that's true? What if life has left you broken, but not God? What if life has left you abandoned, but not God? This is Jesus' last message before he dies.
Here's what happened next, it was now about noon and darkness came over the land until three in the afternoon. So, for several hours, they hung there in the dark experiencing excruciating pain and misery. And then Jesus cried out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”, and in that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two.
Now, if you grew up in church perhaps you understand the significance of this. This was the curtain that hung between the holy of holies, the place where God dwelt. It was a thick curtain that separated the rest of the temple, essentially the rest of the world from the presence of God.
The text tells us that when Jesus died that curtain was ripped, not from the bottom up, but from the top down to signify that everyone was welcome into the presence of God. Because in this moment, everything that separated every man and every woman from God was being taken care of on that hill through the death of Jesus.
And Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Abba, Father." Father who could have stopped this, Father who could have kept this from happening. Father who could have spared me. Father who I decided to trust anyway. "Into your hands, I commit my Spirit." And when He had said this, he breathed His last.
So, here's the question, Have you drawn conclusions about God because of what you've experienced? Have you drawn conclusions about God based on what has happened to you; based on prayers that weren't answered, based on loved ones that experienced things that you thought God should never allow anyone to experience? Have you drawn conclusions about God based on your experience? It's natural, it's easy. Maybe in your case, we would say it's unavoidable.
If you were to tell us your story, we would say, "Well, of course, you've lost faith in God. Of course, you're angry with God. Of course, you quit praying. Of course, you walked away from church. I get that.
But here's Jesus' message to you from the cross, "God, is not what you have experienced. God can be trusted despite your experience. And although your life might be exceedingly difficult, and completely not fair, God, because of His love for you, sent Jesus to bring you life”
In Jesus, you will find Grace, mercy, and love.
Through the years, I've seen so many people face so many kinds of difficult circumstances and yet continue to exhibit confidence in God. I've seen it at hospitals. I've seen it at grave sites. I've seen it in the eyes of children whose families were blowing up. I've seen it in the eyes of parents who lost children. Couples who lost jobs. Families that just could never seem to get a break and yet week after week after week, they show up and they worship Jesus. Jesus who came to dwell among us, to experience life as we have experience life, who died on our behalf and was raised to conquer death in order to bring us new life. And it's awe-inspiring.
This morning, I hope that you discover, that Jesus' message from the cross for you is simply this; Life happens and sometimes it really stinks but God can be trusted.
Yes, your disappointment with life is completely understandable. But you do not have to live your life disappointed with God. And when you open your hands and surrender to Jesus, instead of clinching your fists in anger, you will receive the life-giving, life-changing grace and love of God that will at some level fill and re-define your personal experience.