Luke 23:39-43 “One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But his man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’”
When Jesus was crucified, there weren’t different ways of looking at a crucifixion. It was only an ugly, brutal, cruel method of executing a criminal. There was no positive spin, no alternative view to offer. Jesus has changed that. His words to the criminal crucified next to him make it a source of promise. Jesus promises something we wouldn’t expect to find there: heavenly comfort.
Already this thief on the cross was with Jesus, hanging just a few feet away. Already he was learning to seek Jesus’ help while bearing his cross, or perhaps we should say, while his cross was bearing him. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” is a statement of faith. It says, “I know who you are. I know where you are going. I trust you to help me.” Maybe he doesn’t make our pain go away immediately. He does not remove all the crosses from our lives now. But he is still with us to hear our prayers, forgive our sins, and stand alongside us as we trust in him for our help.
And Jesus rewards that faith with the promise, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Our comfort is that Jesus’ presence with us does not end in death. Death is more like the beginning, the beginning of a visible, tangible experience of Jesus’ presence. Death is the beginning of our life in Paradise, the heavenly garden of God.
So many people I have known want to escape the man-made jungles of concrete and steel, the man-made worlds where people are stacked on top of each other and there is hardly room to breathe. We call them cities. Weary citizens want to retire and escape to the country, the forests, the mountains, the lakes, the green and unspoiled goodness of God’s creation.
But sin will follow us wherever we go. So will its effects. No part of this world is unspoiled. No part of ourselves is unspoiled. From the cross, of all places, Jesus can promise us real escape with him in Paradise.
Are there different ways to look at a cross? Some still remember that it was an instrument of execution. Some wear it or display it as little more than a piece of decoration. Jesus uses it as a picture of lives that will suffer for him in this world. And from a cross, because of his cross, Jesus promises us sins forgiven and the comfort of a Paradise with him that never ends.