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 this 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.’”

Do you remember earlier in Jesus ministry, when he came down from the Mount of Transfiguration, and he found his disciples trying to drive out a demon unsuccessfully? The father of the possessed boy pleads with Jesus, “If you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” And Jesus replies, “If you can? Everything is possible for him who believes.” The boy’s father exclaims, “I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.”

The criminal next to Jesus is in a situation no less desperate. Really, it is more so. Before the day is over he is going to meet God face to face. The challenge to his faith is not a foaming, convulsing child. It is a bleeding, dying Jesus. And yet there is no word of doubt in his simple prayer. There is no “if.” “If you are the Savior you claim to be.” “If you are going to take your place on your throne.” He speaks a confident “when.” “When you enter your kingdom.” “Remember me when you enter your kingdom.”

 Jesus only reinforces the certainty. “I tell you the truth.” “Amen” is the word Jesus used in his native tongue. When you and I say, “Amen,” for us it is usually the conclusion to the matter. For Jesus it was usually the introduction. “I tell you the truth” means you can have full confidence that what follows is fact. No doubt Jesus had a sense of humor and could kid around with his disciples at other times. But the cross was no place to be kidding. Every word required heroic effort just to get it out. There was no time or energy for wasted words. Death and eternity were mere hours away. This was no place to be joking. This was the place for “Amen,” certainty, nothing but the truth, and that is exactly what Jesus promised this dying thief from the cross.

The promise itself is spoken in certainty. “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Sometimes the further we can put our promises in the future, the less we fear we will be held to them if we can’t keep them. Time has a way of making people forget. But Jesus assures this dying man that before this day is over, the two of them will stand together in Paradise, the garden of God, the home of life. Jesus can speak with such certainty: “Today” this will happen.

Jesus can speak with such certainty because on this cross, at this moment, giving his life, opening the doors to heaven for us all. As the life slowly faded from his body, so did the crimes and sins of the criminal pleading for his mercy. So do ours. They shrink and fade until Jesus breathes his last, and they completely disappear. And as our sins shrink and fade from sight, the glow of heaven’s glory grows brighter and closer. Our own final “today” comes soon enough, and with it the certainty of Paradise.

He Can’t Save Himself

Luke 23:35-39 “The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.’ The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.’ There was a written notice above him which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’”

Do you notice the common theme running through the words of anyone who had a comment about Jesus’ crucifixion on this day? “Let him save himself.” “Save yourself.” “Save yourself and us!” The irony seemed clear to them. This Jesus styled himself as the one who was going to save Israel. Some people had already been referring to him as the Savior. Some Savior he turned out to be. If he couldn’t even keep himself from being killed like a common criminal, why should anyone else trust him to save them?

It’s a logical conclusion, isn’t it? If Jesus can’t keep himself alive in this life, why should we trust him for the life to come? It makes more sense to get back to the business of real religion, the business that occupies most of our spiritual energy. It makes more sense to do what everyone was taunting Jesus to do: Save yourself.

For isn’t that how we think? Isn’t that what we work at almost all of the time? We are good at saving ourselves, or so we imagine. From the time we get up in the morning until the time we go to bed at night, we are all about looking out for number one. How can I work the system today? How can I turn the whole world to serving me? I can save myself a load of time if I can get someone else to take this project. I can save myself from the hassle and irritation of dealing with that manager I don’t like, or that customer I don’t like, or that coworker I don’t like, if I can just find an excuse to miss the meeting or call in sick today.

A few years ago I was struck by the words of a political commentator scratching his head over a block of voters he believed were voting against their own interests. I don’t mean to suggest it’s a virtue to vote against your own interests, but the way he talked about it made it sound so self-evident that everyone should be in it for themselves. It was almost as if you had to be crazy to choose something, or someone, for principled reasons that didn’t somehow work to one’s own advantage. In a thousand little ways every day we go about the work of “saving ourselves.”

And then we apply it to our religion. Practically every religion, every faith practiced by man, consists of a system of behavior designed to save yourself. And because doing the kinds of things God really wants is often hard and unpleasant, these systems usually consist of made up little sacrifices God never asked for: don’t eat this, don’t drink this, don’t wear this, don’t enjoy this. You know that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day had mastered this approach to faith. The monasteries of medieval Christianity were full of it. Much of what passes for conservative Christianity in our own country suffers from the same disease.       

“But Pastor, we are grace alone, faith alone Lutherans. Surely we have avoided that kind of legalism.” Let’s not fool ourselves. About a hundred years ago one of the fathers of our own church wrote a very uncomfortable essay titled, “Legalism Among Us.” We may be too well educated in the Bible to come right out and say, “I think my good works will save me.” But even Lutheran Christians like us start to get the idea that what makes us different, what makes us better, has to do with how we keep our own traditions, or how we stand against the old traditions. Issues of taste, whether for the old or for the new, become a badge of pride.

My friends, let’s be honest. We stink at loving God and loving our neighbor, much less navigating any of the externals of faith-life in way that could possibly be pleasing to him. The irony isn’t the idea of Jesus’ saving himself as he slowly gives up his life on the cross. The irony is a world of mankind, including ourselves, who think that they are any better at it.

The irony is that, by refusing to save himself, Jesus has managed to save us all.


Mark 1:14-15 “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!’”

A key concept at the heart of Jesus’ preaching was the well-worn preacher’s call, “Repent!” It wasn’t a very new message, was it. When God came to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden after they ate the forbidden fruit, what was his message to them intended to do? He was calling them to repent. When you read the prophets that God sent to his Old Testament people, a common theme running through all 17 of them is the call to repentance. When John the Baptist came preaching and baptizing, how did the people know he was a prophet? Like those before him he preached repentance.

It doesn’t stop there. When Peter preached to the crowds on Pentecost day, what did he tell them to? “Repent and be baptized, everyone of you.” When Paul summarized his ministry to the Gentiles in his trial before King Agrippa, he told him, “I preached that they should repent and turn to God.” Every day, Jesus’ call to repentance is still directed to you and me.

So often people think of repentance in terms of changing behavior. The Bible itself calls for such “fruits” of repentance. But behavior has never been God’s first concern. In the New Testament’s Greek, the word “repent” is formed by combining the words “change” and “mind.” It is God’s call to change, not first of all your doing, but your thinking. Ultimately, it will change your very being. With the command to repent, God is saying, “Stop thinking about sin. Stop wanting what I have forbidden. Stop considering sin enjoyable. Stop thinking you must live for yourself. Stop harboring lustful, hateful, hurtful, resentful attitudes. Change your thinking!”

Have we? Have we changed our minds about sin? At times we have our behavior more or less under control. In our minds some of our past sinful behavior still sounds appealing. When someone has been awful to you, what is your immediate gut reaction? Smother them with love? Or are anger and resentment closer to the mark? Changing our minds about sin is a work in progress.

Sin isn’t the only thing Jesus calls us to see differently. “Believe the good news.” Every pious Jew in Jesus day was waiting for the time when God would keep his promise to send the Messiah to deliver God’s people. Now Jesus had good news. God had been faithful. Jesus is that Messiah with more good news to share.

“The kingdom of God is near.” God’s kingdom is not a place on earth. Jesus was not going to establish a political kingdom in Israel. God’s kingdom is spiritual. It is Jesus’ ruling activity in the hearts and lives of all who believe in him. Wherever Jesus is present with his word, there his kingdom is. This kingdom was was not coming soon. It was near because it was standing right in front of them. Jesus brought forgiveness and life to sinners, and all who believed his promise had the kingdom’s gates flung open wide. They entered as they believed.

Jesus still preaches “repent and believe the good news” as we begin the season of Lent. Do you see why it makes sense to follow Jesus closely through this season? Early Christians established Lent as a “penitential season.” Nothing changes our minds about sin like following Jesus through his suffering. Nothing stirs our hearts to faith like seeing his love at the cross, dying for our sins. The time has come. Listen to what our Savior says, see what he does, and you will find God’s Kingdom at the end of this pilgrimage. Its gates are open wide for you to enter.


Isaiah 53:5 “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”

            One of my favorite cartoon strips is Calvin and Hobbes. If you don’t read this comic regularly, Calvin is a little boy with a typical preschooler’s imagination and knack for getting into mischief. In one series in the strip Calvin invented several clones of himself, but then he lost control of them. The clones go around getting into trouble, and Calvin winds up taking the blame. In time, however, Calvin learns how to turn the tables on them. Then he performs the mischief, and the clones take the punishment. Wouldn’t that be every child’s dream–to have someone to take the blame and the punishment for everything we did?

            For Christians, we know this is reality. We DO have someone who has taken the blame for us. He has taken the blame for every sin committed by every human being. Jesus has done this with his vicarious death. He has lived and died as our substitute. That is what Isaiah describes in these words: “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities.”

            The word “vicarious” isn’t a word we use every day. In the Lutheran church, some are more familiar with a part of this word, “vicar,” referring to pastors in training. During a seminarian’s training for the ministry, one year is spent under a pastor in a congregation. The vicar learns by substituting for the pastor in many situations. He calls on the sick, preaches sermons, teaches classes, and makes evangelism calls in the pastor’s place. 

            In a sense, each of us has been called to serve as vicar, or substitute, for Christ. Rather than do all the work of spreading the gospel himself, he has chosen us to go in his place. But there is one important way in which we cannot serve as his substitute. Only Jesus can pay for the sins of the world.

            The reason we need Jesus to do this vicarious work is simple: We don’t live up to God’s perfect standard. The Bible makes it clear there is only one way for us to obtain heaven on our own. When asked what a person must do to obtain heaven, Jesus replied, “If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.” But God isn’t satisfied if we occasionally keep his commands or resist temptation. He expects nothing less than perfect, faultless obedience: “Be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” 

            That doesn’t sound like Isaiah’s description of us here. “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities. With his commandments, God has drawn a line, set a limit, and warned us not to go any farther. But a rebel lives inside us all. Not only do we step across that line, by nature we have our feet planted solidly on the wrong side it in defiance. We have transgressed. We are far from perfect.

            Sometimes we may use our imperfection as an excuse. We are all familiar with the disclaimer, “Nobody’s perfect.”  When we fail to remember the date of our anniversary, to get a job done right, to complete a task for school or work, and we can’t get around it or deny it, we may be tempted to say, “Nobody’s perfect.”  But our imperfection isn’t an excuse. It’s the problem. And it’s a problem that doesn’t just affect ourselves or the people around us.  It costs us our good relationship with God. 

            That is why we need a substitute. That is why we need the vicarious life and death Jesus lived and died in our place. He is the perfect substitute, the vicar we need. 

In this brief passage of Isaiah, only our sin is evident: our transgressions, our iniquities. Jesus has done nothing to deserve the kind of treatment he received. Still, “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

A Present Reward

John 4:36 “Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together.”

You know as well as I do that some people have gotten financially rich doing “church work.” With few exceptions that has involved some kind of perversion of the gospel. Five hundred years ago it came from making the church a political institution. Beware of those who want to lead it down a path of political power today. In our time we have seen the rise of the rich televangelist and the prosperity gospel. As Jesus once said of the Pharisees, they have already received their reward in full.

In our own circles, the material rewards are more modest. Clergy, teachers, church workers have all they need–shelter, food, clothes. If we are honest, some have more than some of the people they serve. The pastor or teacher is rarely the poorest person in the congregation. But often their gifts and talents could have made them member of the elite if they had decided to pursue a different path.

The joke for church workers goes that the pay may not be much, but the retirement plan is out of this world. It’s true, you can’t improve on eternal life. But Jesus promises a present reward. “Even now the reaper draws his wages.” His promise implies something special. He is teasing us with this offer of present payment. What are these wages he has in mind?  “Even now he harvests the crop for eternal life…” The wages for the Christian who shares his faith are a share of the crop, the souls, the people with whom we are going to share eternal life.

Give your own field a closer look. The communion of saints, the fellowship of believers, the family of faith is a gift Jesus gives you for your work in the harvest of souls.

The Church, you see, is not the University of Phoenix, an online institution giving out degrees to people who have mastered the information, people who otherwise don’t know each other and have no relationship with each other.

The church is not Facebook, where you have virtual friends. I have not counted them, but many of my Facebook friends are people I have never met in my life.

Maybe my illustrations limp a little, because I can’t claim to have met every member of the Holy Christian Church, either. But I will. And the ones I do know are a gift of God’s grace to me. They are love to be shared and enjoyed, “so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together.”

Be glad, be glad to be a part of this little fellowship of humble people broken by their sin and redeemed by God’s forgiveness. Enjoy each new addition you find in your little corner of God’s field, coming with their unique set of gifts, loving you, serving you, and enabling you to reap farther and harvest more. God hasn’t merely given you a task, fellow workers. He has given you an ever-growing family to enjoy.

Open Your Eyes

John 4:35 “Do you not say, ‘Four months more and then the harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.”

You know the background for Jesus’ words to the disciples here. It’s the part of the story we know best: Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. It is this fascinating study in evangelism methodology. He breaks the ice with a simple request for a drink, turns it into discussion about our need for spiritual life, weaves a presentation of the law into a brief mention of her family life, uses her attempt to change the subject to focus further on her need to know God better, and finally drops the gospel bombshell on her: He is the Christ that she has been waiting for. Jesus saw his mission field clearly.

Meanwhile the disciples had been off in town buying food. Nothing indicates they even recognized they were in a mission field. And we know there were some obvious reasons for that. John the gospel writer notes the woman’s surprise that Jesus would talk to her because Jews do not associate with Samaritans. These two groups got along like Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals. For the disciples, going to buy that food may have felt a little awkward. These were people you didn’t talk to except to have an argument. “Let’s get our food and get out of here.” The disciples saw their mission field poorly.

The difference between Jew and Samaritan–the moral and spiritual tensions, the cultural differences, the historical resentments– didn’t make them less of a field. In many ways, it made them the field. You don’t have to harvest the grain that is already in the barn. You have to bring in what is outside. And until now, these people had been outside.

Does Jesus’ example help you see the harvest better? Give your field a closer look. I don’t deny that some of the people in it may look, dress, think, and act pretty much like us already. The goal is not to make our church an eclectic mix of people, a motley crew of humanity, for its own sake. Go ahead and reach the white, middle-class family with traditional values and previous Christian background. Don’t feel guilty about doing so for one second. After Jesus ascended, the disciples started with people who looked just like them, too. Jesus told them that they would.

But the gay couple who just moved in next door are part of that field as well. I don’t deny that there is some difficult and delicate work to do there. There are obvious differences to address, issues that can’t be overlooked. But “change” is repentance’s middle name. It is its first and last name, too. I don’t know how exactly you will break the ice and start the conversation, but the gospel harvest tools we’ve been given are sharp and effective.

Maybe you have heard of Rosaria Champaign-Butterfield. She was a lesbian-feminist professor of gender studies at Syracuse. Today she is married to a man who pastors a Christian church, and she is the mother of four children. Another pastor simply started asking her questions about why she thought the way she did, and then he listened to her answers patiently. It opened up the door to conversations that led to the gospel, and conversion. Now she gives her Christian testimony around the country.

Maybe you have heard of Nabeel Qureshi, a descendant of the prophet Mohammed’s own tribe, who studied to be a doctor at Old Dominion University in Virginia. When Christians tried to explain the Trinity to him by calling it a “mystery” he thought, “The only mystery here is how you could believe in something as ridiculous as Christianity.” But he became friends with a Christian classmate named David, whose spiritual passion matched his own. David didn’t give up on his witness to Nabeel, and he didn’t give up on the friendship, either. Nabeel found Jesus and spent his last years as a Christian apologist and speaker.

Our kind were once the fields that were hard to see. It took a special vision to get Peter to visit a Roman centurion, and Paul to cross over to Europe on his Second Missionary Journey. But Jesus bled and died to save worldly Greeks, power-hungry Romans, and pagan Germanic tribes beyond them. Grace enabled early Jewish Christians to see a harvest among people like us. See your neighbor through your own forgiven sins, and see the harvest when you give your field a closer look.

Still Able to Help

Matthew 8:26-27 “Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. The men were amazed and asked, ‘What kind of man is this? Even the winds and waves obey him!’”

One of the hang-ups people have about Jesus is his obvious humanity. It bothered so many of his contemporaries. They knew his parents and watched him grow up. He grew tired from his work. They ate and drank with him. The day came when their whips and thorns and spikes tore at his skin and he bled.

Jesus called himself humble and gentle. But then he claimed the authority to forgive sins. He seemed to put his teaching ahead of Moses. He claimed to know Abraham personally. He called himself the “I Am.” Modern day Rabbi Jacob Neusner looks at Jesus’ claims and asks the question that also bothered his contemporaries, “Just who does Jesus think he is, anyway–God?”

The rabbi is on to something. It is for our comfort, to gain our confidence, that Jesus shows himself to us as a man. He belongs to our family and calls us “brother” and “sister.” He is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, because he experienced them. Colds and flu and fever–his body had to fight them just like ours. If the fish hadn’t quite been cooked through, or the milk had been warm a little too long, he might be up all night with vomiting and dry heaves just like us. If playmates made fun of him, when Pharisees mocked or accused him, the rejection stung. He did not shield himself from our pain with his power. He embraced it, because he wants us to know that he gets it. He is one of us.

So here he is in the storm with the others, soaked to the skin, chilled to the bone. He is probably clinging to the rails or the seats or the mast so that he doesn’t fall out. He orders the wind to stop and it obeys. He speaks to the sea and it answers with a great calm. This is the work of a god, your God. Just because he is also a man doesn’t mean he can’t work wonders. He still can. You can trust him. He will save you. He is more than us.

It’s Going to Be Alright

Matthew 8:24-26 “Without warning, a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him saying, ‘Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!’ He replied, ‘You of little faith, why are you so afraid?’ Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.”

Are you a deep sleeper? When I was a little boy, I remember waking up in the basement on a couple of occasions. There were tornadoes, and my parents picked me up and carried me down the stairs. The sirens were blaring, but I hadn’t heard them. When I was a young father, there were times I woke up because of some movement in my bed. Robin was getting back in after tending to one of our children who was hungry or needed a diaper change. My children were bawling, but I hadn’t heard a thing.

I don’t think even I could sleep through such a storm at sea that the boat is about to sink. Jesus had to be wet, as well as thoroughly rocked back and forth. The disciples themselves are surprised at him, maybe also irritated. Mark tells us in his gospel that they asked, “Don’t you care if we drown?” It’s a little unbelievable to them that he could let the situation get this bad and still do nothing to help.

I don’t want to be too critical of these men. I don’t think we would have been any less panicked, or irritated, by Jesus’ inaction. Looking in hindsight from our position outside of the storm, however, we can see they had some clear indicators everything was going to be alright.

First was Jesus’ own reaction. If Jesus is sleeping through this, and he is the Messiah who has not yet completed his mission, doesn’t that say something about how the story is going to turn out? Would they have felt better if he was as panicked as they were, running around trying to secure the mast, bail the water, or row against the wind? If he felt such peace that he was sleeping, couldn’t they take a cue from him?

Then there was his presence. He was their ace in the hole when they needed help. They had seen him cure diseases, control demons, transform water into wine. Admittedly controlling the weather may have seemed bigger, but where did they think his power ended? Why hadn’t they gone to him sooner instead of waiting until the last moment before the boat sank? Maybe they needed things to get so desperate to teach them where to turn for help. Then they learned that just because his help was delayed, that did not mean that they were going to die.

Is it hard to see an application? What’s the storm you’ve got going that seems to find Jesus sleeping in the back of the boat? Have you prayed? What’s the prayer that doesn’t seem to be getting answered? Jesus may seem to be sleeping while we suffer through chronic health issues, family drama, joblessness, loneliness, even temptation. Do you trust him? If he isn’t doing anything yet, that’s an indication the situation is not as desperate as we think. When it needs to be resolved, or if it needs to be resolved, it will. Trust Jesus. Just because he seems to be sleeping doesn’t mean you are going to die.

Keep Calm

Matthew 8:23-25 “Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. Without warning, a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him, saying, ‘Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”

Humanly speaking, it’s no surprise to find these men in this storm. This is the Sea of Galilee, after all. But maybe we are surprised to see this happen when they are traveling with Jesus.

Doesn’t the psalm promise us, “If you make the Most High your dwelling–even the Lord, who is my refuge–then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent”? How much more can you make the Lord your dwelling than to be literally following his Son around all day, eating where he eats, sleeping where he sleeps, listening to him teach and watching the example that he sets?

Even more, this boat trip across the lake was Jesus’ idea. He put these men in this position. “Then he (Jesus) got into the boat and his disciples followed him.” Would Jesus really lead me into danger, or into trouble?

The short and simple answer to that question is “Yes.” Just because you are traveling with Jesus doesn’t mean you won’t have storms. It may come as a surprise to some, but Jesus didn’t come into this world fix it. He didn’t even come to create safe zones for those who follow him. He didn’t magically fix the climate of Northern Galilee to prevent these sudden storms. He could have. He has the power. But that was not his mission. People died in incidents on the lake like this before he came, and they died after he left. Although the circumstances are different, in the last 10 years there have been at least two drownings on this same sea.

The same thing is true for almost everything we experience while we live here. Jesus did not come to make all the people treat each other nice. He preached love, that is true. But he wasn’t interested in forcing anyone to act that way. Change has to be sincere, from the heart. Just because you are traveling with Jesus on your journey through life doesn’t mean you won’t have some stormy relationships. Look at his. His countrymen persecuted him and eventually executed him. His friends abandoned him in his hour of need. The strain in your marriage, the tension with your coworkers or your manager or your classmates, may not be right. But they aren’t a surprise. It’s the way people are.

I could go on with examples like this for hours. Jesus did not come to give us perfect health, fix our broken politics, restore fairness and justice, or create favorable economic conditions. Traveling with Jesus on the journey of faith does not make us exempt from life’s storms. Utopian dreams for the world we live in now will all be crushed. They tend to become a form of idolatry.

But keep calm. Jesus may not fix our world, but he does rescue us from it. His death rescues us from sin. We are forgiven. His resurrection rescues us from death. We have eternal life. His Spirit rescues us from ourselves. We have faith and new love. When it serves his purposes, his power may even rescue us from physical dangers, as he does here. But keep calm. Jesus will rescue us when the time is right.