Lessons from the Crosses

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Sermon based on Luke 23:33-43

As we venture out driving chances are we might see some memorial along the interstate or some other road. These might be floral arrangements perhaps in the shape of the cross. Usually they are placed in memory of someone who died in an automobile accident. Although not as prevalent sometimes along the interstate and rural roads we might notice a few crosses maybe with the words, “Jesus Saves.”’ Sometimes on those really rare occasions we might view three crosses together, representing Christ and the two others beside him who were crucified. Jesus and the two criminals being crucified is the subject matter of today’s gospel lesson. When reading this passage from Luke my thoughts turn towards the subject of pain and difficult times in life. As we discuss the subject of pain there are two ways of looking at pain. One is to see it without purpose; the other is to see it with purpose. The way we react to pain is the way we look at life. In relationship to roses, some people would say, “Isn’t it awful that roses have thorns?” while others will say, “Isn’t it comforting that those thorns have roses.”

As we think of the specific pain of the crucifixion, no written description or movie could accurately portray the pain Jesus must have felt. It’s easy for us to overlook the pain of those two other men crucified alongside Jesus. After all, they were only two convicts. Their life and death means little to our faith and us. This morning I hope that we can learn some important lessons from those two who were crucified with Jesus. The lessons from the left side of the cross and the right side of the cross are drastically different. From the left side of the cross we learn that pain has the ability to make us bitter. For the criminal on the left side of the cross, he tried to intimidate Jesus into action. Imagine Jesus turning to this man, who is undergoing the same torture that he is and suddenly hear these words shouted at you, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” This person’s attitude had not changed. Upon the cross he was still the same conniving criminal, trying to con Jesus into springing him from his cross. He is no better because of his crucifixion. It sears him, burns him and tarnishes his soul. He refused to think of pain as being related to anything else, like how his own actions got him there. His thoughts are only of himself and how to get off the cross. For this person he died in his sins.

The other criminal, the man on the right side of the cross tries to rebuke him saying that their sentences were just for the crimes they committed, but that Jesus was innocent. This person on the right is the symbol of those for whom pain has meaning. As he struggled for breath, he did not ask much of Jesus. He merely requested that Jesus remember him. Jesus replies to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” This person died with his sins forgiven. As we study his actions and Jesus’ response, some people may think it is unfair that he could cry out “uncle” at the last minute and receive a heavenly reward. Why did this person respond so differently? I believe that Jesus’ forgiveness of those who had placed him upon the cross had an impact upon him. Jesus in verse 34 said:

      Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

These words of forgiveness and compassion had begun to open this person’s mind and heart in such a way that he began to understand the mercy of God. He began to understand that if pain had no reason, Jesus would not have embraced it. Jesus would never have allowed himself to be placed upon the cross if it had no meaning. There isn’t any doubt that Jesus could have saved himself from the cross. Jesus had at his disposal, the power to simply wipe out the entire crowd, soldiers, rulers and mockers. Jesus had the power to prevent his arrest and crucifixion. Jesus could have saved himself, but he didn’t, he knew that his kingdom was awaiting him in heaven, not on earth. Jesus was the one who died for the sins of the world.

What can we learn from these crosses? That answer can be found in a story about a room full of crosses. A person was having a difficult time in life. In desperation they dropped to their knees in prayer and said, “Lord, I can’t go on,” because I have too heavy a cross to bear in life.” The Lord replied, “My child, if you can’t bear its weight, just place your cross inside this room. Then open any door in here and pick up any cross you wish.” The person was filled with relief. “Thank you, Lord,” and they did as instructed by the Lord. As the person looked around the room they saw many different crosses; some so large the tops were not visible. Then the person spotted a tiny cross leaning against a far wall. “I’d like that one, Lord to which the Lord replied, “My child, that’s the cross you brought in.” All of us in life will face difficult times; we all have our own crosses to bear. Having struggles and difficulties in life is not always unbearable; but our failure to understand and make sense of the meaning is often what becomes unbearable. Sure our crosses in life can be devastating but they can also bring us a new perspective. Our perspective depends upon whether we put our faith in Christ. For us today, we are either on the left side or the right side of Jesus. Like the convict on the left, we can ask to be taken down to find our answers, or like the convict on the right; we can look towards heaven for our answers. Hopefully we will make plans to look toward the Lord and display an attitude that is filled with compassion and love.

As we speak of compassion and love, today we celebrate the Reign of Christ. As we celebrate the reign of Christ there is an image of Christ that we often see depicted in portraits and mosaics. This has Christ seated on a throne with the Book of Life in one of his hands and the other lifted in a gesture of blessing. While those images demonstrate the majesty of royalty, somehow the compassion and love that Jesus modeled on earth is hard to visualize in this image. I have always seen Christ our King, as one leaving his throne, his comfortable palace going out into the world to help others. Christ is one who would bring food to the needy and help the helpless. Remembering these words from Matthew 25:35-36:

 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I  was thirsty and you gave me something to  drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me,  I was in prison and you visited me.’

This morning in worship we have had an opportunity to express our love for the King of Kings by signing our covenant prayer card. We thank those of you who will covenant together to support our ministry in the year ahead.

Next Sunday we begin a new church season of Advent, as we prepare for the future coming of Christ. As we prepare our hearts and minds for Advent, may we all take time to grow closer to God and celebrate our love for the Crucified One who is Lord!

The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.

November 20, 2016