“…today you will be with Me….” Luke 23:43
It was nine o’clock on an April morning. The day had started like most. As the sun rose the city bustled to life. It was a special weekend and the shopkeepers knew that, with the city filling up with people arriving on their annual pilgrim to the Temple for Passover, business would be good. Their shelves were stocked, their doors were open, they day had begun.
It was nine o’clock on an April morning. Except for the curious, the people coming into the city turned their heads away. The sight was all too familiar. Once again the Romans were killing some of their people. The Romans seemed to enjoy it for there was no love lost between them and the people of Judea. If you were a soldier garrisoned in Jerusalem it meant you were either new to the world’s greatest army and had no seniority or you were in trouble with someone a bit further up the legion food chain. Regardless of the reason the result was you were pulling duty on the far edge of the empire in a land that did not like you or want you. Anyway, the pilgrims coming into the city were more interested Mt. Zion than they were Mt. Calvary, ominously referred to as Golgotha, the place of the skull.
It was nine o’clock on an April morning and the curious detoured to the place where the Romans like to kill the Jews. It was a multiple execution that day – three crosses, three criminals. As was the norm, the crowd gathered to mourn and witness the most terrible of deaths and the soldier-executioners supplemented their income by dividing the last of the dying men’s possessions. They would gamble for the clothes that had been stripped off the dying. Did any of the gamblers hear the soft, raspy voice of the man in the middle as He asked God to forgive His killers? Did they even know the man, except for the name and charge nailed atop the cross, just above His head? Or, had they learned to drown out the words of the dying? For the most part they were words like the other two dying men…cursing one moment, moaning for mercy the next.
Did they miss irony of the moment? The one thought to be guilty asked God to forgive the ones thought to be innocent. After all they were just following orders.
It was nine o’clock on an April morning. Three crosses suspended three men just above the crusty clay earth; crosses that would not release them until they were dead. Three crosses, three men and three different responses to the moment. All the Gospels tell the story, but the Gospel of Luke shares more information about the other two crosses, occupied by two convicted thieves. All stories tell how they both cursed and cut Jesus, joining in with the taunting religious leaders. But Luke tells of the thief that, in the midst of in the hours of agony, notices that Jesus said little and what He did say were prayers. “Father forgive them,” the thief heard Him say. No cursing, no begging, no cries for God to revenge His death. Instead the words Jesus spoke were words of kindness and understanding. One thief cursed the other sought what the dying “King of the Jews” was offering: Forgiveness.
Somewhere in the chaos of this cruel death a dying thief sought life from the dying Savior; and the words Jesus spoke three years early came true in the life of the thief. “Ask and it shall be given, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened.” Then Jesus shared comforting words with this dying man, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with Me in paradise.”
The three crosses on the hill that April morning are reminders to humanity. The cross in the middle reminds us that Jesus did for us what we could not do for ourselves. He brought forgiveness to a world that just doesn’t understand. We don’t understand that God is God, that God has standards, that only God can set the standards, and that humanity cannot live to those standards thus we have earned death – eternal separation from God in a terrible place known as Hell. But God loves us so much that He gave His one and only Son to die for us. Then God simply said that if we believe in Him, Jesus, that we can have everlasting life. God made the way. That’s the message of the middle cross.
The other two crosses are reminders of the responses that a dying race can have to a loving God. One can laugh and jeer and cut the Man in the middle; or, one can call out for mercy, forgiveness and favor. Both are dying and both deserve to die. However, neither needs to die. Both can seek the kindness and forgiveness offered through the Christ of the cross and both can find the forgiveness and promise offered by the dying Son of God and Savior of humanity. There are only two ways to respond and there are only two results: cry out to or cry out against, Paradise or Punishment.
It is now three o’clock on an April afternoon. The man in the middle has breathed his last. As He died He used his lost breath to say His last words, “It is finished.” Did anyone hear? Did anyone understand? I guess someone heard Jesus’ last words for they have been recorded in the Bible. I have a feeling that thief who took the time and effort to talk with Jesus did too. But did anyone understand? I have a feeling that a couple hours later that thief who had taken the time and effort to talk with Jesus did.
Have you heard His words: Father forgive…today you will be with Me? Do you understand?