I preached the following sermon last night, April 14, 2017, at Hampton United Methodist Church’s Good Friday service.
Sermon Text: Luke 23:32-56
Last August, the mayor of Celeron, New York, unveiled a bronze statue to honor hometown hero Lucille Ball on the occasion of her 105th birthday. Which sounds great. What town wouldn’t be proud to honor an actress and comedian as funny and accomplished as Lucy herself with a statue in the town square? And it’s a lovely statue. Looks just like the Lucy I remember from reruns of I Love Lucy and The Lucy Show.
Unfortunately, this was not the town’s first attempt at honoring the local legend. Several years earlier, the town unveiled a statue that came to be known as “Scary Lucy.” And this statue looked nothing like her, as you can see from this photo. Can you imagine? After all she had accomplished… Few Hollywood entertainers, whether men or women, accomplished more in their careers than Lucille Ball—and this is what she has to show for it? This is how she’ll be remembered? I’m sure Lucy herself would say, “Thanks, but no thanks!”
Well… At least the town of Celeron, New York, finally made it right.
Yet we want to be remembered… I remember Kim, a beautiful young woman who was a classmate of mine at Henderson High School. I won’t dare say her last name for fear of embarrassing her. But I remember an evening in May of 1988—the night of the “Miss Henderson” Pageant. Kim was a contestant in the pageant. And during the question-and-answer portion of the program, she was asked the following question: “What do you hope your legacy will be?” What do you hope your legacy will be? Great question. And poor Kim, her face froze. She had the proverbial “deer in the headlights” look, as it became clear that she had no idea what the word “legacy” meant!
Who am I to judge? I’m not sure I knew what legacy meant at the time. But she didn’t. And she stood there, speechless… motionless. Ooh… Here’s a clever answer: “For my legacy, I want to be remembered as the beauty pageant contestant who didn’t know what the word legacy meant.”
Look, I’m sure she’s gone on to accomplish great things! But we all want to have a legacy. We all want to be remembered.
The second thief on the cross, the one who repented of his sins, wanted to be remembered: “Jesus,” he says, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
He’s usually regarded as the “good guy” in the story. But keep in mind: Although he’s often called “the thief on the cross”—and I’m going to refer to him as “thief”—theft was not a capital crime, as far as the Romans were concerned. While he might have killed some people in the commission of a robbery, it’s more likely that he was a terrorist or a violent revolutionary who killed innocent people while trying to harm the Romans. My point is, he’s not really a good guy.
I want to talk more about him in a moment, but first let’s talk about the other thief. He asks Jesus, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself… and us!”
Earlier this year, I preached on Jesus’ temptation in wilderness. Three times, Satan said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God…” “If you are the Son of God, turn this stone into bread. How will you accomplish the mission for which you were sent to earth if you starve out here?” Or “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself off the highest part of the temple, and the angels will keep you from injuring yourself. And think of all the people who will see this great miracle and place their faith in you. Don’t you want people to know that you’re God’s Son? A nifty miracle would prove it.” Or “If you are the Son of God, worship me and I’ll give you the power to rule all the world’s kingdoms. Isn’t that what you want? To rule the world? I can give you that power. Think of how much better the world would be if you were in charge!”
If you are the Son of God…
Jesus, of course, resisted these temptations. But Luke’s gospel, alone among the four gospels, records this important detail: “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.”
And when was that opportune time? The time represented by today’s scripture. Earlier in this chapter, the Roman soldiers ask a similar question: “If you are the Messiah—if you are God’s Chosen One—if you are the King of the Jews—save yourself.” And then, in the scripture I just read, one of the thiefs being crucified beside Jesus said, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” That can’t be a coincidence. Luke wants us to remember the earlier temptation in the wilderness, when Satan said, “If you are the Son of God…”
So this is Satan’s fourth temptation: for Jesus to save himself from the cross, just as he was tempted earlier to save himself from starvation. And makes no mistake: he could save himself from the cross if he wanted to. When he’s arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, he tells his disciples to put away their swords. He said that if he wanted to, he could ask his heavenly Father send twelve legions of angels—which is at least 72,000 angels—and they could wipe out everyone of Christ’s enemies right where they stand. Rick Warren, among others, has said that it wasn’t the nails that held Christ to the cross; it was his love. That’s exactly right! He could have saved himself.
But then… He wouldn’t have saved us.
Not that the first thief on the cross understood that. Of if he did, he didn’t care. So he’s usually considered the bad guy. But I don’t think he’s so different from many of us. He tells Jesus, “If you’re the Messiah, save yourself… and me!” In so many words, this man is saying, “Jesus, I will believe in you, I will follow you, I will obey you, I will serve you, I will follow you as Lord of my life if…” If you get me down off of this cross so I can get back to living my life.”
Are we so different? Do we have an “if”? “I will be faithful to you, Lord, if you do this thing for me.”
Is there something or someone in our life besides Jesus that we really can’t live without? Is there something or someone besides Jesus who’s at the center of our lives? I suspect there is, because when that person or thing is taken away—or when some event in life threatens to take it away—that’s probably when we do our best praying. Right?
Or let me put it this way: When are we more likely to pray? And go to church? And read the Bible? When everything in our life is A-OK? When life is smooth sailing? When there isn’t a figurative cloud in the sky? No. We tend to get on our knees and pray most earnestly when we fear that we’re going to lose whatever it is that’s more important to us than our relationship with Jesus.
That’s what the first thief is saying: “I love my life—or something in my life—more than I love you, Jesus. Save my life in this world—help me to keep this thing or these things that I love more than you—and I’ll try to love you, too, of course.”
But never works. Our devotion to Jesus in such cases doesn’t last long. The moment we get whatever it is that we think we need, we forget about Jesus all over again. Why not? He isn’t “lord” of our lives. Something else is.
Notice how different the second thief’s attitude is. Instead of saying, along with the first thief, “If you’re the Messiah save me!” He’s saying, “I know you’re the Messiah, Jesus. I know you’re God’s Son. I know that you have the power to deliver yourself from this cross. I know you have the power to rescue me from this cross—if you wanted to. But I also know that even if I lived another 30, 40, 50 years on this earth, if I lived them without you, I would have nothing. I only want you. I only want to be with you.”
Remember that great hymn by George Beverly Shea?
I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold
I’d rather be His than have riches untold
I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands
I’d rather be led by His nail pierced hands
Than to be a king of a vast domain
And be held in sin’s dread sway
I’d rather have Jesus
Than anything this world affords today
Would we rather have Jesus than anything else—that we would be willing to say, “Even if it means my life, Lord, I’d rather have you”?
Last Sunday, literally dozens of Christians, who are part of one of the oldest churches in the world, in Alexandria, Egypt, were killed doing what their brothers and sisters in Hampton, Georgia, were doing last Sunday—celebrating Palm Sunday. In spite of metal detectors and security guards who were trying to keep terrorists away from the church, a suicide bomber got in and blew himself up—and about 50 people besides him. Christians in Egypt have been targeted by terrorists plenty of times before. So they probably know that going to church under any circumstances can be risky—especially on Palm Sunday.
Here’s what I wonder: In light of what happened last Sunday, how many Egyptian Christians will go back to church this Sunday—on Easter? I’m not implying that Christians who stay home are wrong or that they shouldn’t care about the safety of their families. They need to be wise; they need to take precautions. But for those Christians who do go to church this Sunday—and for all Christians in Egypt who continue to publicly identify as Christians, who continue to bear witness to their faith, even though doing so may mean persecution and death—they are saying to their community, to their country, and to the world, “There is something more important than the preservation of my life—there is something more important than my reputation, my safety, my security, and any treasure I could gain in this life—and it’s my Lord Jesus Christ. Whether I live or die, I want one thing only in life: I want to glorify him. I want to love him. I want to be faithful to him.”
Truly, these Egyptian Christians are proving that they would “rather have Jesus than anything this world affords today.”
Does my life prove it? I want it to. Lord Jesus, I want it to!
But I confess I really like statues… in my honor. But you know what? Statues rust, corrode, fall apart. Some day—dozens of years from now, certainly hundreds of years from now—even that statue of Lucille Ball will be no more. Some day there will be no cable channel showing reruns of I Love Lucy. Some day Lucy won’t be remembered. And if that’s true for someone who was among the brightest stars of her generation, how much truer is it for the rest of us who were never any kind of stars?
I like being remembered for doing great things. I want a legacy. I want silver and gold and riches untold. I want houses and land. But all of that will pass away. I want a treasure that lasts.
Here’s the good news… So does God!
Jesus tells a parable about a man who finds treasure buried in a field. The field doesn’t belong to him, so he sells all of his possessions and uses the money to purchase the field. He gives everything he has in order to acquire that treasure.
Friends, Good Friday proves that, in God’s eyes, we are that treasure! Good Friday means that God gave everything he had to rescue us!