St. John's & Zion Lutheran Churches


Text: One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah?  Save yourself and us!”

     40 But the other criminal rebuked him.  “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.  But this man has done nothing wrong.”

     42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

     43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)

The apartment building is about to collapse, but a child is still trapped in his third-story bedroom. The fire chief has ordered everyone out. On the edge of the yard stands the firefighter who is a father of four. He stares at the flames and then slowly turns his head to the mom who is crying uncontrollably as she is held back by the police. Will the firefighter rush in, risking his own life and perhaps orphaning his own children to save this child? It’s the moment of truth.

You’ve dated for three years, surviving your share of challenges along the way and coming out stronger in the end. You saved up two-months’ worth of salary, became an expert on the four c’s, and bought the ideal-cut sparkling diamond. With sweaty palms and fidgety fingers you reach into your pocket for that tiny box, drop to a knee, and ask the life-changing question. Will she say, “Yes”? It’s the moment of truth.

You haven’t been feeling well as of late. After a recent visit to the doctor and numerous tests administered, the nurse calls and says the doctor would like to meet with you. After what seems an eternity in the waiting room, you finally get called back to a room. After another lengthy wait, the white-coated specialist finally opens the door and sits down on the rolling stool next to you. What’s the report? It’s the moment of truth.  I TELL YOU THE TRUTH . . . TODAY YOU WILL BE WITH ME IN PARADISE 1. Promise of today  2. Promise of companionship  3. Promise of location

We’ve all had them. Those crucial moments, those critical or decisive times on which much depends. With bated breath we wait and wait as our lives seem to hang in the balance during a moment of truth. Yet there is no moment of truth greater than when our very lives hang in the balance. Such was the case with the criminal whom we see hanging on the cross today. He is about to die. As his life flashes before his eyes this Friday afternoon, he’s not too happy with what he’s seen. The movie of his life would receive an “R” rating for violence and language. He knows the nails through his hands were pounded with a hammer of justice. He knows the burn in his collapsing lungs was ignited by the fairness of the law. “We are getting what we deserve,” he chided. But it wasn’t the burn in his lungs or the blood trickling down his arm that brought him to his moment of truth as he hung suspended on Golgatha. It was the “What happens next? What happens when I die?” And so he asks, he pleads to the One hanging next to him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  Imagine the turmoil the criminal felt as he tuned his ears to the center cross. Imagine the turmoil he felt during this moment of truth. “Will Jesus remember me?” Then imagine the relief when he heard these words, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Every segment of that sentence lifted the criminal’s soul. “Today,” Jesus said. Today you will be with me. For someone who sat on death row for who knows how long, for someone who had just begun one of the slowest forms of execution—one that could extend three or four days—how comforting that element of time must have been for this criminal. Before the sun would rise again, this man could be assured his suffering would be done.

The promises you and I make to one another come with conditions. If this happens, then that will happen. Perhaps we’ll visit there. Someday I’m going to do that. Jesus’ promise of relief to this repentant sinner was not in the form of an if/then clause. Nor was it preceded by a “perhaps” or a “someday.” It wasn’t a next month, a next week, or even a tomorrow, but a today. Through faith, this criminal could be assured his suffering would be over today. When we’re lying on our own deathbeds, Jesus says the same. For the one who looks to Calvary’s center cross, death is not just the cessation of breath. It’s the cessation of suffering. No more hunger. No more pain. No more tears. No more guilt. No more anger. No more envy. No more sin Jesus says, “today.”

That’s only the tip of the iceberg. Find comfort in Jesus’ other words: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus’ promise is not just a promise of time. It’s a promise of companionship. Imagine what that meant for this criminal. More than likely, a life of crime did not land him in the nicest company of people. Now, in the waning hours of his life, he saw people at their worst. As the passersby spit on him and shook their heads in disgust, scorning him with their words and their glares, imagine how emotionally deserted this criminal must have felt. That was part of the punishment of crucifixion. Not only was it physically tormenting, it was embarrassing and shaming as you were hung naked along the busiest street so that others could heap their insults on you.

But as much as this criminal wanted to escape the people around him, there was something that drew him to the man pinned on his left. There was something different about this thorn-crowned criminal. Something that made him different than the soldiers and the scorners. There was something about him that made him different than the other criminals. Instead of cursing as the nails were driven through his hands, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them.” Instead of the charges that convicted him to death being hung over his head, a statement of conviction, power, and fulfillment hung over Jesus’ head: “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.” The differences between Jesus and everyone else on that hill were like oil and water, black and white. It was the difference between sin and perfection. And the Holy Spirit used Jesus as the living Word of God to work on this criminal’s heart so that instead of wanting to run away from God in fear of punishment, he was drawn by his grace.

And Jesus assures the criminal that the sin that separated him from a perfect God was not unbridgeable. Jesus promises, “You will be with me.” Not behind me. Not a stone’s throw away from me. But with me. Jesus’ forgiveness is so complete that it allows us to be in the very presence of perfection. Moses, the greatest leader of God’s Old Testament people, couldn’t see the glory of God and expect to live. But in heaven, we will.

And what will heaven be like? In Revelation, God uses a palette of gold, jewels, and rivers to paint some beautiful pictures for John. Here, Jesus paints with the word “paradise.” A lush garden. For some of you that’s a picture of tulips and roses and gladiolas. For others of you that’s a picture of palm trees and citrus trees in the midst of a meandering river. But, ultimately, it’s not the species of plant blooming in the gardens of paradise but the One walking with you on the paths of paradise that makes it beautiful. Think about it this way: Suppose you have a son that has been serving in the military in Afghanistan.  When you’re at the airport to greet your son as he returns home from a two-year tour, does it matter if the airport walls are gray or blue as you throw your arms around him? Does it matter if the room temperature is 72 or 82 degrees? No, what matters is that you’re with your son. In heaven — in paradise—you’re with the Son of God. You’ll be with the Son who loved you enough to leave heaven and be with you on earth. You’ll be with the Son who loved you enough to live under the law that he was above. You’ll be with the Son who loved you enough to die for you, so that you might be with him. If Jesus thought having you in heaven with him was worth all that, you can be guaranteed it’s a spectacular place. I’m reminded of a little girl who walked with her dad under a star-lit sky and said, “Dad, if heaven is this beautiful from this side, imagine what it looks like from the other side!”

But how do you know this is what’s in store for you? When you’re on your deathbed, experiencing your “moment of truth,” how do you know that very day you’ll be with Jesus in paradise? Don’t lose sight of Jesus’ words we’ve been looking at all Lent: “I tell you the truth.” Those are the English words. Do you know what one word is translated “I tell you the truth”? It’s the universal word amen. Isn’t that awesome! Jesus’ “amen” for you, Jesus’ “Yes, this shall be so” is “Today you will be with me in paradise.” He left no room for doubt about whether or not that thief would be in heaven. Through his Word, he leaves no room for doubt whether or not you will be in heaven.

In its history, the word amen was used to express the basic concept of support. For example, architects would use it to describe a supporting pillar of a building. It was also used to describe a parent standing with strong arms, supporting a helpless infant. That picture of certainty or strength behind the word made it a favorite word of Jesus. Whenever he wanted to really drive home an important point, when he really wanted everyone’s attention and to say, “This is something you can lean on,” he would start out by saying, “Amen.” If there’s any time we need something to lean on, it’s at the time of our death. Today Jesus makes it clear that when that moment comes, it doesn’t matter what we’ve done in the past, but through his Word we can find something to lean on. We can lean on Jesus’ “amen,” his “Amen. Today you will be with me in paradise.” To that, let all God’s people say, “Amen.”