Throughout Lent, at LNPC we are exploring the Biblical Stations of the Cross. We have the stations up in our sanctuary, and the congregation is doing a Lenten Worship Project, bringing in images that we find in media, our lives, art, etc. and helping to construct one of the stations during worship each week. This week, we explored Jesus' Promise of Paradise to the Crucified Thief: Station 11.
Station 11: Jesus Promises Paradise to the Crucified Thief
Lenten Worship Project Words: hopelessness, despair, impossibility
(Each person selected a rock from a basket when they came into worship).
I invite you to hold this rock through the reflection time. Feel the weight of it in your hand. Let it sit in your palm as you listen.
We’re walking an unusual journey this Lent- we are spending the whole five weeks of Lent in Jesus’ last week of life. His last conversations, last connections with people, last words and encounters, his fears and his choices that week, we are immersing ourselves in that experience.
We’ve seen Jesus’ presence in our places of pleading and sorrow, we’ve seen him there in our places of shame and regret, and today, we meet him in our places of impossibility. Where there is nothing we can do, no way forward, those places we’ve given up as lost. And to do this, we are focusing on Jesus’ conversation on the cross.
In addition to the outer dialogue happening, I imagine the inner monologues that day on the cross. The crowds below, yelling, jeering, and way up on the cross, the three men. Sharing this moment, their last earthly moment. The end.
The first one looks over at Jesus, at the other thief, at the crowds around them and his thoughts go something like this…
This is a nightmare.
Suspended here in front of everyone, the heat and the flies and the gasping, persistent pain. The end. This is how it ends? How could this have happened?
I was great. Smart, resourceful; no common criminal, a master thief. Is this even real?
Look at that fool. King of the Jews. Look at those crowds gathered around us, mocking him. And they should be. He’s pathetic.
I’m not supposed to be here. This is not how I am supposed to end. Don’t look at me.
At least I am not pathetic. I’ll never be pathetic. I may be dying, but I am not a spectacle.
He doesn’t even answer!
He just hangs there. King of the Jews, HA! Some savior; hanging there and taking this abuse.
I would never take it. I would tear down from here and smash them for what they say. I would grab the two on either side of me and we would climb down and leave in a royal chariot, kicking dust on them and their empty crosses.
Some king. At least I am not that poor loser. At least I have some dignity.
“Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
The second thief gasps.
How could he say that? Doesn’t he get it? The rule of justice has him hanging here, and yet he still would mock that man? Has he no fear of God?
Even now, he has no awareness that his life is over; his deeds have caught up with him and he is paying the penalty he deserves for what he has done.
But that man, he has done nothing! He hangs here innocent. No justice holds him to that cross. He should not be here!
They mock him. And that shame will be on their own heads when they answer before God. But him, how could he say that?
“Do you not fear God? You and I hang here under the very same sentence that he does. But we have been condemned justly! We are getting what we deserve! This man is not like us. He has done nothing wrong!”
I have nothing to say to my charges. I am guilty. I am dying a just death. I have earned my place in hell. It is over for me. There is no more.
Nobody will mourn me. Nobody will hold my place, speak fondly of me, commemorate the day of my death. When this day is over, it is as though I had never been. I am nothing.
But he, he will surely live on. He will surely be with God. This innocent one, dying here alongside me. If there is any justice at all, God will surely take him. He shared this end with me, he saw me bleed and heard me struggle for my last breaths. If he would remember me, wherever he goes from here, that would be enough.
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And Jesus looks at the man.
And if he could have put his hand on him he would have, but instead, he holds his gaze and the noise of the crowd seems to fade to the background for a moment and it seems it is just the two dying men, in a room alone that nobody else can reach; Jesus says to him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
And into that place of finality and loss, the place of utter hopelessness, Jesus pronounces these strange words of promise – today you will be with me in paradise.
How much more out of place can these words be? Today you will be with me in paradise? These are words of safety, joy, abundance, these are words of vacationing and now and relaxing and celebrating. What in the world is going on up there while the rest of the crowd sees only death and defeat? What is happening in this moment, between these three men, while the onlookers see only someone’s end? The story is wrapping up, folks. Jesus’ story. The thief’s story. Their run at it is complete. The story of the Christ, the King of the Jews, this Jesus-preacher was over. Everyone could see it, even the thieves knew it. Life ends in death. Period.
But this story, for as much as we have considered it to be for all the times we’ve heard it, was never about the two thieves, the good thief and the bad thief, the unbelief of the one and the faith of the other. This was always about our God. Our Christ, alongside them, alongside us, sharing the same fate but not the same view. Where they saw death, he saw new life.
One thief looks at him with our questions.
If you are God, then save us! Take away the suffering, end evil. Why don’t you, God? But it’s a bigger question than that the thief asks, he isn’t asking to be spared, really. He’s not crying to the heavens and asking God to save him or to end suffering in the world. He is saying what is even harder for us to grapple with, and that is this:
If you really are the God of all, the savior of the world, then come down off that cross- because good gods don’t die. What would you be doing in those places of suffering? Why wouldn’t you avoid the pain and torment of the rest of us?
We like to see our gods in glory, we like our kings to have some authority and wield some power… What kind of savior would just let themselves suffer too, with us, for us?
It makes no sense whatsoever.
If you are really God, get down off that cross. Save yourself. And us too, while you’re at it. It’s impossible to accept a dying god.
The other thief looks at him with our resignation.
We’ve gotten what’s coming to us and this is our just end. So when you get out of this mess, this mess we’ve made and perpetuated, this mess we’ve suffered and inflicted upon each other, when you do save yourself, when you do get back to wherever you really live, God, your holy place, your set apart place, that place where we humans can’t go and screw everything up like we’ve done here, when you finally give up on us and return to your kingdom, when this world has done its worst and is eventually given over to the defeat that awaits us, then please, remember us.
Just remember us.
When you leave and we are left to what we deserve, please at least hold our memory.
But Jesus’s answer is earth-shattering, course-correcting, cosmos-altering. Today – YOU will be WITH ME in paradise. I don’t go away and leave you all to yourselves. And I don’t get down off this cross and spare myself your suffering. I endure and hang in there with you so far and so long that I take you all with me, that I move all of it forward from death to life, I bend the whole thing back to God again and there is no way, in life or death or anything present or yet to come, that I will ever leave you or forsake you.
We come up against impossibility every day. If not in our own lives, just turn on the news for three minutes. People dying because they can’t have clean water. Terrible impossibility. Thirty people, death warrant signed, standing between their country and nuclear disaster. Hopeless. That relationship that cannot, no matter how hard you try, ever be truthful, caring, respectful, mutual. Impossible.
We live in a world where the struggle never seems to end, where people fight and die seemingly for nothing as corrupt governments hang on and squash the people’s voices and lives, where people are still searching for the missing and the rebuilding can’t even begin the destruction is so massive, where no matter how many applications or interviews or prayers there is just no job, and where the chemo drains away strength and the tumor holds strong – we know impossibility.
We don’t have to be hanging on a cross breathing our last to recognize hopelessness.
But as certain as you are that you have defined yourself irreversibly, that our trajectory has been cemented, or that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, our story today says two things:
One, Jesus is right here. With us, alongside, right in the middle of it. All of it.
And two, this is not the final word; this is not even remotely the end. The whole thing goes in a direction that we could never begin to imagine, beyond anything we could conceive of hoping for or would dare to ask.
You’ve been holding this rock the whole time. It is warm with the heat of your body. It has begun to feel natural to hold it, the weight has become, if not comfortable, then familiar. We carry the weight of our impossibilities. We carry the weight of the world’s hopelessness. Every day we do. Those things that have no promise of ever getting better. Those things we’ve given up on. They are with us.
Now imagine your body and your mind, your heart welling up these things, they don’t have to have words you can articulate, just feelings or impressions, sadnesses or impossibilities, imagine them coming out of your thoughts and feelings and muscles and memories and flowing down your arm into this rock. All the places you’ve given up on, in yourself, in the world, all the questions and the anger and the fears, and the deadness where no life has been in a long time. All the things you wish you could share with God but you can’t.
Imagine them in the weight of this rock. Squeeze the rock as hard as you can. Now relax your hand and hold it gently. Imagine it as a prayer. Your prayer. Your prayer without words, but with weight. You can feel it and it feels heavy, it presses on you. As our prayer today, we are going to lay it down. I will invite you come forward when you are ready and lay your rock at the foot of the cross. Come lay your burden down. Come and find the place where hopelessness meets the suffering savior.
Jesus Christ, we can’t imagine that you would share our place, really. That you would suffer here with us and be found in our times of guilt or pain, the most painful suffering and awful darkness in the world. Forgive us when we demand you come down off the cross and show yourself in distant power.
In the places of impossibility and hopelessness, help us to recognize your face and know that we are not alone.
Lord God of justice, we can’t imagine that you wouldn’t leave us to clean up our own messes. That you wouldn’t give us what we deserve. Help us to see that this world is your own, that no matter how we distort and pollute and destroy this planet or the people around us, our very own lives, your love embraces us and brings us back to God. And you promise to restore and heal and renew.
In the places of impossibility and hopelessness, help us to recognize your voice and know that this is not the end.
We bring to you tonight the impossibility we carry, the hopelessness we wear next to our very skin. And we lay it down at the cross. Give us courage to release the weight we carry. And tonight we hold up these images that represent the world’s impossibility and hopelessness, and we put them into the story of your cross, the truth of your death and resurrection. Give us the courage to keep seeing, and not forsaking, those places and situations in the world and in our lives, and holding them up to you. Amen.