Preached as part of a Tenebrae Service at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.
The Second Word from the Cross:
Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43, NIV)
In an hour of purest pain, agony, and despair, a sinful man has heard the greatest words that could ever be spoken to any member of this sinful generation. A highwayman has been given hope where he once had none; he was given a tremendous gift when he did not expect it. For this criminal, condemned to death by the sword of the Law, has been given the Gospel in all its sweetness from the mouth of his Messiah. He knew that he had deserved his punishment, though what he did, we do not know. Mark says he was a robber, Luke, a “criminal,” and as such he may have been guilty of murder and terrorism as well. Nonetheless, he knew that he must suffer death under the Law for his sins, but he also knew that the carpenter crucified next to him deserved no such fate, and so he confessed his sin and proclaimed the carpenter beside him blameless: “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Did he merely think of the messianic kingdom the one crucified next to him had spoken of as some far-off event, or perhaps as something figurative? It really doesn’t matter, because what he assumed would happen in the future would actually happen in the here and now, that very day. Having acknowledged his sin and his need for a Savior, and having placed his trust in this man beside him— “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom”— his Lord spoke to him the promise of salvation. “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Not tomorrow, not next week, not ten years from now, but today. Christ’s promise to him is instantaneous. He will be with Christ; he, the first to embrace Christ as the one who saves others, will know his saving power, and live with him in blessedness in the salvation he won on the cross.
And it is the same for us. We, too, are sinful and deserve nothing less than death under the law for our sins. We may not have done what the “thief” on the cross did, whatever it may be, but we nonetheless are guilty, and the sentence is the same. But Christ speaks this promise to us as well when we turn to him in faith, and while the criminal on the cross trusted that Christ would do what he said, we know that he has done it. Christ’s work of salvation has been completed for us, and in him our sins no longer count against us. We, too, have the promise of forgiveness of sins and paradise with him today, tomorrow, and for all time.
The Fifth Word from the Cross:
Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” (John 19:28, NIV)
“I thirst.” Jesus spoke these words from the cross knowing that all things have already been finished, in order that the Scripture might be accomplished. And what Scripture might that have been? No clear prophecy exists— the Psalms speak of suffering with no relief, of horrible pangs of thirst, yet here Jesus’ thirst is slaked. What words are fulfilled? Jesus knows all things have been accomplished. The strife is over, the battle done; he has felt God the Father’s full wrath on the cross and has suffered the agony of separation from God for three hours in darkness, but now, that act is over. All that Scripture foretold has come to pass regarding his suffering for the sins of mankind, and so Christ asks for drink so that he might preach the good news of his work’s completion. He cannot make his final cry with a cracked and dry throat, and so he asks for a drink so that all those present at Golgotha might clearly hear his proclamation and he might rest from his labors. He does not ask for drink in desperation, but merely so that the whole world might know that the Scriptures concerning the work of the Son of Man have been fulfilled: “It is finished!”
And he asks for drink so that we too may hear his final preaching ringing down to us across the ages. For all of Christ’s work has already been finished for us; as it was then on that hill far away on an old, rugged cross, so it is now for us. We were to have suffered the greatest of punishment for our sins, but Christ took our sins upon himself and bore it all. And with it all having come to be finished, he asked for something to drink, and with his thirst quenched, shouted out the confirmation of Scripture’s fruition so that all people, we included, would know that he had indeed saved us from our sins. He drank vinegar so that we might know that we have been reconciled to the Father through the suffering and death of the Son, so that we might hear his call and come to him to receive the water of life and thirst no more.