Today we celebrate the sixth Sunday of Lent. It is also Palm Sunday -- the day we commemorate as we remember the Lord's entry into Jerusalem. It is only days before He will hang on that cross. It is only days, also, before He has a brief but eternally promising conversation with a criminal who will hang on his own cross near his savior. It is that crucifixion that forms the central point of my message today.
Several years ago, Nancy and I were vacationing in Florida. During my morning prayer in our hotel suite, I heard a young child outside our door call anxiously to her father, “Daddy, wait for me. Please.” I assume he stopped, and I heard a muffled response, “Come on, we need to go.” A moment later, I heard small feet patter past the door and down the hall.
Her plea interrupted my prayer, and I replayed her plaintive cry again and again in my mind, “Daddy, wait for me, please.”
Although I could not see him on the other side of my door and down the hall, I sensed he was in a hurry to get wherever it was they needed to get to.
“Come on,” he said. “We need to go.”
Did he sound a little impatient? I can’t know for sure. As I said, his voice sounded muffled. But I remember myself several decades ago in similar situations.
Countless times, I’m sure, our children called out to me as I raced to get wherever it was I needed to get to. “Daddy, wait for me, please.” And I know I must have called behind me – probably – and I am sorry to admit – most often impatiently, “Come on, we need to go.”
And then, as I thought about the little voice outside the door, and my own memories of our children, the Holy Spirit changed my focus. It is that Holy Spirit guided change of focus – especially now during this sixth Sunday of Lent – that I want to focus our attention.
You probably remember the story of the two men hung between heaven and earth, nailed to crosses on either side of the One in the middle. Two men, thieves, struggling against death, knowing it was only a matter of time before death finally sank its talons into their flesh. And all the while, they watched the Stranger in the middle.
Here is how St. Luke records this scene in his gospel: When they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left. But Jesus was saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots, dividing up His garments among themselves. And the people stood by, looking on. And even the rulers were sneering at Him, saying, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One.” The soldiers also mocked Him, coming up to Him, offering Him sour wine, and saying, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!” Now there was also an inscription above Him, “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.”
One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:33-43)
I want to draw our attention to the three responses we see in this short section: The response of the sinner to his sin; The response of the sinner to his savior; and The response of the savior to the sinner.
First: One thief knew he deserved to die. He’d broken the law, and now was paying the penalty. The other, even while dying, joined the mob at the foot of the cross in mocking, cursing, and blaspheming the Stranger in the middle.
But the penitent thief would have none of it. And here we see the sinner’s response to his own sin. He acknowledged it. He confessed that he was wrong in what he had done.
When was the last time you confessed to God that you were wrong and that He is right to demand of us righteousness?
And so, the penitent thief rebuked the other: “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”
That was the sinner’s response to his own sin. Acknowledgment. We must all, every one of us, first do that. It’s called making a good confession – not a casual confession of sin to God, but honestly being SORRY for having sinned.
It’s like saying, “Daddy, wait for me, please. I’ve stumbled. I’ve fallen. I want to go with you, but I’ve allowed myself to be distracted. I’ve allowed myself to be tempted away from You. Daddy, please wait for me. I’m coming to you now.”
Have you ever in your life felt that way? Stumbled into sin? Fallen deeply into sin? But you woke up, took stock of where you were and where Daddy was . . . and you called out to Him – “Daddy, wait for me. I’m coming”?
If you’re like me, you’ve done that dozens and dozens of times in your walk with Christ. And if you have not – you need to get alone with yourself and ask yourself, “Why not?” Maybe – and I suggest this very cautiously and kindly, but also firmly and with great earnestness – if you have not daily confessed your daily sins, then maybe God is not really your Father. Maybe He is for you just a nice idea.
Secondly, let’s now look at the sinner’s response to what He hoped would be the Savior’s mercy: He said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into Your kingdom.” (Luke 23:40-42)
In that moment he did what everyone must do – not just once, but repeatedly in their life.
The broken and contrite thief recognized Jesus had a kingdom. He recognized Jesus was Lord in His kingdom. And the thief wanted to be with Him in that kingdom.
If we think about it, the thief’s response to his own sin and to what he hoped would be the Savior’s response was not too dissimilar to King David’s response to the savior after his sin with Bathsheba:
Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; According to the greatness of Your compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight . . . . . Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow . . . . Hide Your face from my sins And blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. . . . . (Psalm 51).
If you are Catholic, you recognize how close David’s prayer is to the Act of Contrition we sometimes say in the confessional: O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins because of Thy just punishments, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who art all-good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin.
Or, another way of saying it: “Daddy. Daddy. Wait for me, please. I’m coming to You.”
The thief’s response was first to acknowledge his sins. To own up to them. His second response was to turn to the Savior in repentance, to ask for mercy and forgiveness.
Repentance does amazing things in and for our soul. It lifts us to where Jesus hangs on the cross, face to face with His nailed and bloodied body – brutalized because of our sins. Repentance frees us from ourselves, from our arrogance that binds us to eternal death. It teaches us humility and unveils for us our fleeting mortality and our desperate need for an eternal savior. Repentance brings us into an intimate relationship with the King of Glory reserved only for the penitent.
Here again is what the penitent thief said: “Jesus, remember me when you come into Your kingdom.” He spoke less than a dozen words. Short prayers from the heart are as efficacious as long soliloquies.
And finally for today, number three: Now we see the response of the savior to the penitent sinner who pleaded: Jesus, remember me. And Jesus responded: “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
How often did the Lord Jesus say to others, “Come, follow Me”? Lots of times. His offer is embedded from one end of the Gospels to the other. And oh, how I do want to follow Him. And I will assume you do, too.
But how then is it so often the case that you and I get distracted from following Him? Like little children distracted by a bug crawling in the grass, or the breeze blowing though leaves, the cat cowering by the tree trunk – or even a piece of trash crumpled along the sidewalk, we so often get distracted by life around us. And we take our eyes off the Shepherd and dally in the distractions. Until we suddenly notice I’m not as close to Daddy as I was at the first.
“Daddy, wait for me, please.”
What causes a child to be so easily distracted and lose focus? Whatever it is, and I know there are many things responsible for catching a toddler’s eye – whatever it is should not be what causes ME or you to lose focus. St. Paul wrote something to this point in his letter to the church at Corinth:
When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. (1 Corinthians 13).
Oh, God almighty, help me. Help us to mature better into adults with spiritual maturity to better fix our eyes on Jesus as we follow Him wherever it is He wants us to go.
Daddy, wait for me please.
The good news this sixth week of Lent is this: Unlike human fathers who sometimes turn back and call impatiently to the lagging child, “Hurry up. We need to get going;” Unlike the human father, our heavenly Father never once, never ever once, has He ever turned back and said with impatience: “Come on. Hurry up. We need to get going.”
Instead, He always turns back and says to us – as we find in the great love story of the Old Testament, the Song of Songs, chapter 2:
‘Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come along. ‘For behold, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. ‘The flowers have already appeared in the land; The time has arrived for singing. The voice of the turtledove has been heard in our land. ‘The fig tree has ripened its figs,
And the vines in blossom have given forth their fragrance. Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come along!’”
And so, this sixth and final Sunday of Lent, the day we remember the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, what sins have you committed and for which you are ashamed . . . or ought to be ashamed? Have you brought them to the savior with a humble and contrite heart?
The story of the thief on the cross holds a critically important lesson for us in 2022. As often as we do what he did – humbly acknowledge our sin, our rebellion, the times we have turned our backs on His commandment, and then ask Christ’s forgiveness, Jesus always responds to us, “Truly I say to you, you will be with me in Paradise.” Or – Come along, my son, my daughter. I’m waiting here for you to return. Come. Come home.