Christ Covenant Church
Jon Marq Toombs
25 March 2016
“Do not despair: one of the thieves was saved.
Do not presume: one of the thieves was damned.”
— St. Augustine
Today is Good Friday, the day when we commemorate the crucifixion of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Most of us have already taken a moment or two to think about the significance of the cross for our life and family and community. But we want to take the next several moments to continue meditating on the cross.
A few months ago I took in the movie The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 along with my youngest daughter and one of her friends.
At one point in the film Katniss Everdeen — the Mockingjay — sits on the bank of a river and starts to sing a haunting song called The Hanging Tree. Some of her companions record the forbidden song and distribute it to the masses in propaganda messages — propos that support the cause of the rebellion. The first stanza goes:
Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Where they strung up a man, they say murdered three.
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met at mid-night in the hanging tree.
In the film, the song begins with one voice, but ends with many voices. [Click here to listen to the song.] The solo becomes a chorus.
While there is some internet debate over the precise meaning of the song, one thing is clear: the film-makers took it to be a cry of rebellion that was intended to unite all the helpless and harassed people of the Districts in Panem against the Capitol.
Today is Good Friday, and I keep thinking of the Hanging Tree and the ways it reminds me of the story of the cross.
In the New Testament Scriptures, the cross is called the tree where Jesus was hanged.
The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. (Acts 5:30 ESV)
And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, (Acts 10:39 ESV)
And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. (Acts 13:29 ESV)
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— (Galatians 3:13 ESV)
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. (1 Peter 2:24 ESV)
The cross of Christ is the Hanging Tree.
The song of the cross is a rally cry that is intended to unite all disciples in Christ, against the god of this age, our sinful flesh, and the world-system.
Jesus sang the holy and faithful song of the hanging tree to his followers.
The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. (Luke 9:22)
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23)
Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:33)
And Paul echoed the song of the cross in his letters:
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Cor 1:18)
But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Gal 6:14)
Just as the forbidden song of the Mockingjay posed a threat to the President Snow and the Capitol, so the story of Jesus Christ crucified poses a threat to the cosmic powers of this present dark world. As Paul warned:
For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. (Phil 3:18)
The song of the Mockingjay rallied the districts to rise up against the powers of the Capitol and destroy them with military force, but the story of Christ crucified rallies disciples to resist the powers and disarm them with meekness and faithfulness.
Jesus disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in the cross. (Col 3:15)
As Jesus drew near to the Capitol, the City of Jerusalem, he called his followers and the crowds to deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow him.
Some obeyed his call, but many did not.
Many looked back and turned away, for they loved their life in this world even more than life in the world to come.
What about you?
Are you, are you
Coming to the tree?
Where they hung the God-man in between two thieves.
Strange things did happen there
No stranger would it be
If we met our new life in the hanging tree. [adapted by JMT]
In our faith, the song of the cross begins with one voice, but ends with a chorus of voices.
Will you come and sing the song of the tree?
Tonight, we rejoice that when we were still weak, still sinners, still enemies, at just the right time Christ died for us in order to bring us back to God.
Tonight, we also weep for our friends who live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their “god” is their own gut-feeling, they boast and brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth.
But since we believe that Christ died for his enemies, we pray that our friends who are still his enemies, will soon be reconciled in his body of flesh by his death on the cross, and so become his friends — whether again or the first time — for their good and God’s glory. Amen
Now I hasten to remind you that on the first Good Friday three trees were planted in the ground on the hill that looked like a skull. On one tree was hung Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. On the other trees were hung two thieves.
I also want to remind you that it is not enough to be near the cross, for many are near the cross, yet so far away from the Christ.
No one was nearer the cross of Christ than the two thieves who were crucified on his right and left. Both were cross bearers; both followed Jesus all the way to the cross, yet we are told that one was saved and the was damned.
One cross-bearing thief identified with the majority — the crowd of skeptics and cynics. And like those unbelievers, he scoffs and mocks Jesus, not only in his heart, but with his mouth, for out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. He is doomed. He knows it. He feels it. There was nothing he can do about — or so he thinks.
The other cross-bearing thief identified with the minority — Jesus Christ. He hears the crowds and the other thief shouting insults at Jesus. The gravity of the situation starts to weigh on him. He acknowledges that he was playing with fire, and he felt the guilt and shame of his own sin, and he realizes that was just a few short breaths away from death — and eternal torment.
In a frantic act of desperate faith, he offers an eleventh hour, last ditch, here-goes-nuttin, death-bed cry for help, he confesses his sin and calls on the name of the Lord:
Jesus, remember me — remember me when you come in your kingly power!
What did Jesus do for the man who insulted, cursed, mocked, and blasphemed him just an hour ago? Nothing. Which is exactly what one thief asked him to do.
What did Jesus do for a broken, frantic, dying thief, who prays for mercy on his way to hell? Everything. Which is exactly what the other thief asked him to do.
“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Jesus answered thief’s prayer with a promise.
And Jesus answered the prayer of the other thief as well.
One got everything he deserved and perished. He received his just wage, and the wage of sin was death. The other got nothing he deserved and was rescued. He received mercy.
What made all the difference? Not their deeds, for they were both lawbreakers and criminals. Not their faith, for they both believed in something.
What made all the difference was the object of their faith.
One trusted in Jesus and received mercy. The other did not turn and trust him and received justice.
One cried out for help before he died. The other cursed God and died without help.
I like to think of the thief that was saved as someone who was snatched out of the fire.
Think about it. As the sun set in the West, a soldier stood before the thief, grasping a short thick club. After a brief pause, he swings hard. Twice.
Thief spent the last few moments of this life writhing in pain, gasping for breath, hanging on a tree, suspended between life and death, heaven and hell.
As evening falls, he loses consciousness, fades to black, and crosses over the other side. A millisecond later he wakes up in the presence of Jesus, in paradise, just as Jesus promised.
Jesus snatched him from the flames and saved him by mercy. Perhaps he smelled like smoke, and was singed around the edges, but he was with the one who promised to bring him all the way home.
By the power of mercy, he walks into the kingdom of Jesus Christ, his Lord and Savior and King.
Jesus remembered, and granted the thief’s request.
What would Jesus do for you — for all of you who turn and trust him as the thief did?
He will do whatever you ask him to do. He will remember you. He will forgive you. He will rescue you.
So ask, and it will be given. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.