They held his hands firmly against the un-planed timber and placed the rough iron spikes over the junction of his wrists. The roman centurion lifted the mall and drove the first spike home with one swing. The man bucked and twisted in agony as the metal pierced his wrist like white hot fire, pinning his left side to the cross.
The second spike followed in his right wrist but the shock from the first wound tempered the pain. As the two guards crossed his feet over each other most of the fight was gone out of him and even the involuntary protest from his body was minimized as the spike was driven home, impaling both feet to the upright member.
As he lay there in the hot Palestinian sun his mind raced back over the short span of his life, everyone thought he had so much potential and yet here he was nailed to a cross. At what point did he go wrong he thought, when was it that he crossed over the line that made this day inevitable.
He drifted in and out of consciousness as the pain did its work and he had almost slipped into the silent cocoon of oblivion when the cross was lifted and dropped into the hole prepared for it.
If he thought the pain couldn’t get any worse he was wrong, as his weight crashed down on the three spikes holding him to the cross it was as if every nerve ending in his body had suddenly been stripped at once and then his body convulsed against the splintered wood behind him.
And the day was just beginning. As he hung on the cross the sun rose slowly across the horizon, the heat increasing and speeding the process of dehydration and death.
Through the haze of his pain he could hear the taunts coming from the crowd gathered around the three crosses. “He saved others, let him save himself if he is really God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.”
“If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”
The abuse continued until finally he heard one of the other two hanging with him yell out insults ending with, “So you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself—and us, too, while you’re at it!”
And he could stand it no more, struggling to catch his breath, he pushed himself against the spikes to take the pressure off his diaphragm and then in a ragged voice he spoke saying, “Jesus, Remember me when you come into power!”
The man of course was one of the two criminals crucified with Christ. And these words are recorded in Luke 23:42
We don’t know much about the thief that hung with Christ on that day. His plea to Jesus is only recorded in Luke chapter 23 and his name, Dismas comes to us only through legend.
What we do know is this: it was that criminal who was the first person in the history of the world to taste the Grace and redemption that Jesus Had to offer.
Listen to the words of the thief, Luke 23:40-42 But the other criminal protested, “Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”
And with those words two thousand years ago, on a Friday afternoon, when mankind had fallen to the lowest point in it’s history, a miracle happened. A man was born again!
The thief on the cross became a new creation. He may have been crucified as a criminal, he may have lived as a thief, but he died spotless.
And we celebrate that. The story of the thief on the cross is so cool. Until you suddenly stop and think about it and realize that the reward that the thief got was exactly the same reward as your dear sainted Grandmother who became a Christian when she was a babe in arms, never ever cussed or had a bad thought in her entire life.
And maybe you are thinking, That’s not fair. It was John F Kennedy who said “Life is unfair”, and might I add that there are times that grace seems unfair as well, it’s why some people refer to the Scandal of Grace.
We’ve been talking about Grace for the past six weeks, and we’ve looked at Grace displayed in an unlikely person, in an unlikely place, at an unlikely time and two weeks ago we saw how Jesus displayed grace at the table when he invited his 12 closest friends to celebrate with him at the last supper even knowing that those who were there would betray him, deny him and doubt him.
And then last week we looked at Grace in an Awkward Situation, when even after Peter had denied him three times Jesus didn’t give him what he deserved, he didn’t deny Peter, instead he embraced him and forgave him.
But Jesus knew that some people would struggle with this concept of Grace, grace unearned and undeserved. And so he told a story to address that very topic. It’s found in Matthew chapter 20, and here is the short version.
It was harvest time and the owner of a vineyard needed to hire some day workers to help harvest the grapes in his vineyard. So early one morning he went to where the day workers hung out looking for work and hired a group, agreeing to pay them a day’s wage. Later that morning he realized that he would need more workers so he went back and hired another group, telling them he would pay them what was right. And that part of the story repeated itself at noon, three o’clock and five o’clock.
When the work day ended the owner of the vineyard told his foreman to pay all of the workers, starting with those who were hired at five o’clock. And each group of workers got paid exactly the same amount, a day’s wage. And those who worked for one hour were a lot more excited about what they made then those who worked for twelve hours. And really, who would blame the?.
Let’s pick up the story in Matthew 20:10-12 When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage. When they received their pay, they protested to the owner, ’Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.’
And this was the response of the owner of the vineyard. Matthew 20:13 He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage?’
When your dear sainted Grandmother accepted Christ at the age of two, she was offered the same grace that the thief on the cross received, and the reward was exactly the same, an eternity with God.
Now before we get into the story a couple of observations about death bed conversions that I have made over the years.
We all like the concept of the death bed conversion when it comes to those we love. That even though they never had time for God, we hope in those last few moments, with their last gasp of breath that they too will call out to God saying “Jesus remember me.”
And truthfully that is the hope I present at every funeral I preach.
Poet William Camden was writing of a man who was killed when he was thrown from his galloping horse, when he penned these words: “Betwixt the stirrup and the ground,
Mercy I asked, mercy I found.”
And history records any number of deathbed conversions including Oscar Wilde, Buffalo Bill Cody, John Wayne and others. Which is just fun thinking of Oscar Wilde and the Duke as neighbours in heaven.
But some people wonder if it’s fair, fair to others or fair to God. Someone once said “A deathbed profession is burning the candle of your lifet for the devil and then blowing the smoke in the face of God.” Another person said “Many a man who was planning on coming to God at the eleventh hour died at 10:45.”
Now I know that we are all getting up on our spiritual high horse and silently protesting that we aren’t like that, that we would always celebrate the fact that someone stepped over the line of faith, regardless of when it happens.
And most of us like the fact that we’ll get to meet John Wayne in heaven. Oh stop it, hypocrisy doesn’t look good on you, you know very well that only goes so far.
On January 24th 1989 Ted Bundy was executed after confessing to the murder of 30 people, media outlets all over the US requested interviews with Bundy that he turned down, but on the day before he was to be executed he requested an interview with Dr. James Dobson from Focus on the Family.
Bundy felt that there was a very real correlation between the escalating use of pornography in his life from the time he was a young teen and what he had ended up doing and he wanted to warn people about that. If you watch the interviews you come away knowing why they referred to him as the Gentlemen Killer.
But that is not what we are here to talk about here today. In a later interview, with Dobson not Bundy, Bundy was dead by then, James Dobson talked about how he felt that Ted Bundy had been truly remorseful about what he had done and in those final hours had asked Christ’s forgiveness and turned his life over to Jesus.
How does that make you feel? That Ted Bundy, a self-confessed killer, in the last hours of his life could have a death bed conversion? When you get to heaven he could be your neighbour. Bet that knocked you off your high horse.
Through the years I have discovered that we want grace for ourselves and those we love but we want karma for everyone else. “Well they got what they deserved, they made their bed and now they are going to have to lay in it.”
But the story of Dismas and for that matter the story of Ted Bundy and each of our stories goes back to Ephesians 2:8-9 God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.
So the story of the thief on the cross is a story of grace. But it’s only half of the story, because Dismas wasn’t the only one crucified with Jesus that day.
There were two thieves and there are two stories. It is interesting that there are two men in the story, because throughout the gospels Jesus tells stories of two people. There were two brothers, there were two builders, there were two men working in a field, two women milling grain and there were the two men who came to the temple to pray.
And the reason that Jesus told stories about two people is because one person wouldn’t be enough for the story and three people would simply confuse it.
And so Jesus ends his life between two men, and the lesson we learn from these two are the lessons we learn from Jesus’ stories.
They Both Started in the Same Place The men crucified with Jesus weren’t nice people. Matthew and Mark both call them thieves and Luke simply refers to them as criminals.
And Dismas himself confirms that when defends Christ in the scripture that was read earlier, Luke 23:39-41 One of the criminals hanging beside him scoffed, “So you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself—and us, too, while you’re at it!” But the other criminal protested, “Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.”
There was no doubt that these men were sinners. Nobody here would deny it. They weren’t misunderstood, they weren’t victims of their childhoods, they were sinners. We know that. And it’s easy to categorize people when we have descriptions like criminal and thief and the like. Well they are bad people, they are sinners.
If you were going to try and categorize people on a scale of good and bad where would you start?
Say my iPulpit here is a scale and these sticky notes are people.
So if we wanted to think of someone really good, maybe Mother Theresa, where would you put her? Here on the top. And if we were going to think of the thief on the cross, where would he go? Maybe down here, not all the way down that would be reserved for people like Hitler and Stalin but pretty far down.
So then, where would I put Denn? Down here by Dismas or up here by Mother Theresa? There seems to be a big gap between the two, but understand the gap now between Mother Theresa and God is astronomical. That’s why Paul wrote in Romans 3:23 For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.
We all start in the same place. And we need to realize the same thing that Dismas did, that we are all sinners.
The next thing that we discover about the two thieves on the cross was that They Both Had the Same Choice Like the stories that Jesus told using two people each of these men had the power within their grasp to make the same choice. The each could have rejected Christ or they each could have accepted Christ.
They each had the opportunity to make either choice. And we are told that there are only two choices, accept Christ or reject Christ. No middle ground. No “But I’m a good person, or I’m a spiritual person, or I’m a moral person.” Jesus said very plainly in John 14:6 Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.”
If we go back to my fancy iPulpit with the sticky notes, here is Dismas, here is Mother Theresa and Denn is somewhere in the middle but God is way up there and there is no way that we can bridge that gulf on our own, we can’t be good enough, or moral enough or spiritual enough.
That’s why Paul reminds us in Romans 3:10 As the Scriptures say, “No one is righteous— not even one.” Not even Mother Theresa or Billy Graham or your dear sainted Grand Mother who got saved when she was only 2, and certainly not me or you.
Oh we try, we try to be good and moral and spiritual. We try to bridge that gulf but in the end the truth is recorded in Isaiah 64:6 We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags. Like autumn leaves, we wither and fall, and our sins sweep us away like the wind.
This is one of my favourite movie scenes, one I’m sure you are all familiar with. (Crocodile Dundee that’s not a knife)
I just picture Denn showing up in heaven and saying to Saint Peter “Look at all my good deeds, look at my righteousness, look at my holiness.” And Peter saying “That’s not holiness this is holiness” and opening up the door so I can see all of God and his holiness and it’s like 10,000 suns. And I look down and the little bit I hold in my hands looks like dirty rags.
You see here is the true scandal of Grace, 2 Corinthians 5:21 For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.
We are all offered the same choice. And we need to realize the same thing that Dismas did, that it is our choice to make.
The Each Made their own Choice
One thief rejected Christ and one thief accepted Christ. It was just that simple. One chose an eternity without God and one chose an eternity with God.
How? What could this common criminal have done on the cross that would have gained him admittance to heaven. Nothing, at least not in himself. But he understood some basic math, he knew that 1 + 2 = 3.
The formula is laid down in John 1:12 But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God.
So the formula is this Believing in his name, plus accepting him equals becoming the children of God. Some say, “well I believe in Christ” that’s not enough, James the brother of Christ tells us in the book that bears his name, James 2:19 You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror.
Belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God is not enough, if you don’t receive that which he offers. The entire Bible can be summed up by saying, “God created us, we blew it, Jesus paid for it, we must accept Him.” That’s what the thief did he traveled the longest distance in the world, the distance from his head, knowing that Jesus was the Son of God, to heart receiving what Jesus could do for him.
Let’s go back to our Story. Luke 23:41-42 We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”
First of all, he acknowledged the fact that he was a sinner, We deserve to die for our crimes Then he acknowledged the righteousness of Christ when he said but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.” And finally he asked Christ to do what he couldn’t do “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”1 + 2 = 3, Believe + Receive = Become a child of God.
I’m not sure what type of scene was in heaven that afternoon. I’m thinking that right up to the point that the thief spoke it must have been like a wake as the angels looked down in unbelief as mankind hung God on a cross.
They couldn’t believe what was actually happening, but then, then all of heaven began to celebrate, because Christ had said back in Luke 15:10 In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents.”
That same Grace is available for each one of us today. Regardless of where you are on the scale. And so I leave you with two thoughts. William Barclay wrote in relation to this story “It is literally true that while there is life there is hope.”
On the other side of the coin, years ago someone reminded me that there is one story of a deathbed conversion in the bible to show that it’s possible, but there is only one to show that it’s not probable. Let me remind you of the same thing that Paul reminded his readers of 2000 years ago in 2 Corinthians 6:2 For God says, “At just the right time, I heard you. On the day of salvation, I helped you.” Indeed, the “right time” is now. Today is the day of salvation.