Luke 23:33-43 Hope when life goes wrong

We heard last week from someone who’s 20-year-old friend was on a hiking trip in New York State. They were exploring caves. One moment she was fully radiantly alive. Then she slipped and fell 150 feet to her death.  

One can imagine the pain of the parents, of the boyfriend, of other friends – although I suspect that one needs to have experienced something like that to really know what they are going through.

And it sent me into one of those Ecclesiastes moods
For those of you who don’t know the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, it is well worth reading. But not when you are depressed! It speaks of the futility, the pointlessness of life. If this - what we see and hear and taste and smell and touch – is all there is to life, then it is meaningless. ‘All is vanity’ says the philosopher.

And for some people, and there is no reason to think that we will escape this, life can go very wrong.

That was what had happened to this man who was crucified with Jesus.
We don’t know much about him.
Tradition has given him a name, Dismas.
He was almost certainly quite young and may have been a slave. Maybe there was a woman, and if so, there probably would have been a baby or young child. It appears that he had been involved in some petty uprising – in view of what he says later it doesn’t seem to have been a particularly noble cause, a cause that was worth dying for. Maybe he was a bit of a hot head, out with the lads, carried along by them and their ideas, maybe he had killed someone, but then not been as cautious as his mates. Perhaps he had been betrayed. We don’t know. But he had been picked up by the Roman security forces. And he had been sentenced to death. Not any normal death, but death by crucifixion.

Crucifixion was not a pleasant process.

Tom Holland in his book Dominion writes,
“Exposed to public view like slabs of meat hung from a market stall, troublesome slaves were nailed to crosses. ... No death was more excruciating, more contemptible, than crucifixion. To be hung naked, ‘long in agony, swelling with ugly weals on shoulders and chest’, helpless to beat away the clamorous birds: such a fate, Roman intellectuals agreed, was the worst imaginable. This in turn was what rendered it so suitable a punishment for slaves.”

So now he hangs there, in agony, waiting to die. Naked, shamed in front of the crowd. Mocked by the soldiers. Maybe his wife, his parents are in the crowd: they wan
t to be there for him; or maybe, as I suspect, they just could not bear to watch.

What is life all about?
As a pastor when I was in England, I have sat beside the bed of many people who are dying. Some were old and were longing to die, but death wouldn’t come. Some were young, with small children, and even despite medication, were going through dreadful pain and yet were still trying to hold on. Some had had dreams that were never fulfilled: they had always wanted to be married, to have children, to do a particular job, to go somewhere, to be someone. But it didn’t work out. Some had been through hell, struggling with mental illness, or with desperate multiple tragedy in their life. I remember visiting one older man. His wife had died, his first daughter had died, and I was going round to see him because his second and only surviving daughter had just died.

What is it all about?
Is life, in the words of Ernst Hemingway, ‘nothing but a dirty trick. A short trip from nothingness to nothingness?’

Are we like Dismas, just pieces of meat that can be hung up?
Are we freakish beings created through the chaos of random mutations – who have developed consciousness, and find ourselves able to ask such questions? Are we the temporary combination of zillions of atoms, colliding together in an instant of time, governed by unexplainable patterns that we call laws, now here – now gone?

Maybe Dismas was thinking about such things, but I doubt it.
The excruciating pain of crucifixion would have made it hard for him to think of anything, apart from the instant, and the desperate desire for the mercy of oblivion.
But there will have been moments when the pain relented sufficiently for him to have flashes of clarity.

At first there was the resistance: the blaming of others, the cursing of God, of the world, of whatever could be cursed. We are told in other gospels that both the criminals at first join in with those mocking Jesus: ‘If you are the Messiah, the King of the Jews, save yourself and us’.

But then something happened. God alone knows what.
Because as the other criminal continues to mock Jesus: ‘Save yourself and us’, Dismas becomes silent.
Something changes.
He challenges the other, and he cries out, ‘Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom’ (v42)

He sees himself with a crystal-clear clarity.
He has been mocking Jesus, but he is the one who has made a mockery of the life that God has given him. He has wasted it; he has spat in the face of God and in the face of people; he has intentionally or more likely, thoughtlessly – because it seemed to be cool - destroyed others. He has broken the hearts of those who love him and abandoned those dependent on him. He realises that he is not a victim. He has only himself to blame for being where he is.  
Listen to his words: “We indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds” (v41)

He sees himself and he sees Jesus.
Last week when we were in Kyiv I spoke briefly with a young woman who has recently returned from the UK to Ukraine. She had been in Kyiv last Christmas and went along to the Anglican church’s carol service there – because, she said, it was something to do and a place to meet people. She made no claim to have any faith. But it meant that when she returned a few months ago, she went back to the church, and this time she met with Jesus. And she was telling me how the world looked so very different. She sees everything with new eyes.

And Dismas sees Jesus with new eyes.
He realises that this Jesus, who is hanging on the cross beside him, who has been stripped of all that he has, who is being mocked by the leaders, by the soldiers, by the other criminal, is different. He realises he is innocent. And he realises – and this must have hit him like a train – that the one who he is mocking as Messiah is in fact the Messiah. That the one he is mocking as being unable to save himself – could save himself. And that the reason He is not saving himself, is so that he can save others.
As is often said, it was not the nails that held Jesus to the cross, but love.

Jesus – the Messiah, the King – identifies himself with criminals, with sinners, in order to save sinners. He identifies himself with us. He takes onto himself the penalty that we should each pay. He dies for our sins. He becomes sin for us (2 Corinthians 5.21).
And so by his death he saves us.

And Dismas cries out: ‘Jesus remember me when you come into your Kingdom’ (v42).

That is an astonishing statement of faith

Jesus: Dismas cries out to the crucified Jesus as Messiah.
He is saying that this Jesus is the person who will rule as God’s King.
He is saying that Jesus is the King who will establish and rule over the Kingdom.
And he calls out to him.
I am reminded of Acts 4:12 which speaks of the name of Jesus: ‘There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved’.
The word in itself is not able to save – but the one we are calling on, who lived and died and rose again 2000 years ago, who answers to that name, is able to save.
And whether we are calling him from the agony of the cross, from the wonder at looking at the stars at night, or from under the pillow when the alarm has just gone off at some unearthly hour in the morning, it makes no difference. If we call on him, he will come to us and save us.

Remember me: He is declaring his faith that Jesus is bigger than death.
I don’t think Dismas was expecting Jesus to be rescued from the cross, and there would have been no point in asking Jesus to remember him if death was the end.
So he must have assumed that Jesus would be raised from the dead.
Again, I think of Romans 10:9, ‘If you confess with your lips and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved’.
For Dismas it was an act of faith that was based on the promises of the Old Testament, that God would not let his anointed one suffer death.
For us, it is easier to grasp – because we live after the resurrection. The first Christians saw the risen Jesus. They spoke with him and ate with him. And their lives were transformed. And we have their testimony, their witness that God raised Jesus from the dead.

When you come into your Kingdom:
Dismas declares his hope in the coming Kingdom of God.

This was the Kingdom about which the prophets spoke.

Jeremiah speaks of a faithful shepherd who will establish justice and righteousness in the land.

Isaiah speaks of a King who will bring in a new order. There will be harmony – creation will be at peace with itself: the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion will live together, and they will be led by a little child. There will be abundance – the land will be fruitful and there will be no more hunger or famine. There will be laughter and joy and no more weeping. There will be peace and no more war, healing and no more sickness or disability, life and no more death.

And it is the resurrection of Jesus, his victory over death, his Kingship, and the coming Kingdom which gives us hope.

So remember in your Ecclesiastes moments: we live in a fallen world. And so this life might go all wrong for us or for others. It may feel empty and meaningless. We may experience bitter bereavement. We may face cruel disappointment or be cast aside. We may suffer immense tragedy. We may be completely crushed or find ourselves in the pit of despair. We may like Jesus be stripped of all that we have, be shamed and mocked and be tortured. We may at times long for death. And yes, if this world is all that there is, then it is meaningless and vanity.

But this world is not all that there is.
Our hope is in Jesus and in his Kingdom.
He is with us now, and one day he will return and we, and all, will see him.
His Kingdom does begin in the hearts and minds of those who turn to him today, but one day it will come in its fullness.   

And as people who call on Jesus, this is what keeps us going, this is our hope: that one day we will be with him in paradise.

The story is told of the preacher who was speaking to his congregation. “Jesus said to the penitent criminal on the cross: ‘You will be with me in paradise’. Do you want to hear him say what he said to him to you?” And the congregation all said ‘yes’ (it was one of those sort of congregations) – all of them apart from one man who said ‘no’. And the preacher addressed him and said, ‘Don’t you want to go to paradise’. And the man said, ‘Of course I want to go to Paradise’. And the preacher said, ‘Then why did you not say yes to my question, do you want to hear Jesus say to you what he said to Dismas?’ To which the man replied, ‘I want to hear those words ‘You will be with me in Paradise’, but I’d prefer that he did not begin by saying ‘Today’!

Well, whenever it is, today or in 60 years’ time, if you are prepared to identify yourself with Dismas, and to recognise that you are a sinner and to take responsibility for your own sin and if you are prepared to cry out to Jesus, to the risen Jesus, to King Jesus for mercy – then because he died for us, because he identified himself with sinners, because did not save himself – the words that he spoke to Dismas, are words that are spoken to us, ‘You will be with me in Paradise’. 


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