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A Place In The Garden

Luke 23:33-43 NIV

33 When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”[a] And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

35 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.”

36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”

38 There was a written notice above him, which read:  THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.

39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.[b]

43 Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Christ The King Sunday, The Last Sunday of The Christian Year

“How did we get here?” you might ask. How, on this Sunday after Thanksgiving, do we find ourselves at the crucifixion of Christ? This is Christ The King Sunday, the last Sunday of the Christian Year. Next week, is the first Sunday of Advent, when we begin to look all over again for the coming of the Christ. But today, the story of God ends for this year. “But,” you say, “why does it end so grimly? What happened to the resurrection and the hope and joy of Easter?”

To which I would answer, we will see the resurrection during the Easter season, but today we focus on Christ as King. And to do that we face a grim scene. The last time we looked at Luke, we read the 21st chapter, where Jesus is telling us that the signs of the end, the persecution of his followers, would give us an opportunity to testify of Him. To get from Luke 21 to Luke 23 in our reading today, we have passed over…

  • the last supper Jesus shares with his disciples (22:1-38)
  • Jesus praying on the Mount of Olives in the garden of Gethsamene (22:39-46)
  • Jesus betrayed by Judas and arrested by the guard of the chief priests (22:47-53)
  • Peter’s betrayal of Jesus at the house of the high priest (22:54-62)
  • the guards hitting and mocking Jesus (22:63-65)
  • Jesus brought before the council of the elders (22:66-71)
  • Jesus brought before Pilate, the Roman governor (23:1-7)
  • Jesus sent by Pilate to Herod (23:7-12)
  • Jesus sent back to Pilate by Herod (23:13-25)
  • Jesus led away to be crucified with Simon of Cyrene carrying his cross (23:26-32)

The Crucifixion Scene 

When we finally arrive at Golgotha, the place of the Skull, we can only imagine the scene. Crucifixion in the Roman system of justice was meant as a deterrent to crimes against Rome. Unlike the television images we see today of small groups huddled quietly outside the gates of our prisons waiting for word of an execution that is carried out in the presence of only a few, Roman executions were more like lynchmobs.

The curious and the social outcasts often trailed the condemned to the place of their execution, which was usually on the side of a main road. Like billboards today that claim our attention for products, the crosses of the crucified were dropped into their earthen sockets beside the main roads as grisly reminders of what happens to those who incur the wrath of Rome and her power. Crucifixions were meant not only to kill the offender, but to send a an unmistakable message to the occupied population — “Stay in line. Do as you are told. Do not challenge the authority of Rome. Do not disturb the Pax Romana.”

We cannot imagine, nor do we want to describe today the horror of that scene. But surely everything about a crucifixion assaulted the senses — the press of the crowd, the cries of agony from the crucified, the dust and swirling wind that carried the stench of death, the taunts of those for whom this was gruesome amusement — all of this and more leaped out at unwary travelers trying to slip past this scene of terror.

Three Crosses, Two Criminals

To further add to Jesus’ humiliation, he was crucified with two criminals. Guilt by association. Character assassination. No distinction between thieves and insurrectionists, and one who healed on the Sabbath. The law was the law. No exceptions. No appeal. No mercy. Three men. Three crosses. Three death sentences.

Again, we turn our heads so as not to witness the actual nailing of human flesh to rough beams. As we cautiously turn our eyes back to Jesus, our ears pick up a strained and brief conversation. Drowning as their lungs fill with fluid, all three men struggle to breath, their bodies slumping on their crosses.

Suddenly, one of the thieves cries out, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” The Christ — the Messiah, God’s anointed — was not supposed to die. He was not even supposed to suffer. The messiah was to liberate God’s people. Moses had been a type of messiah as he had led God’s people from the bondage of Egypt. David, God’s anointed king, had been a type of messiah as he had freed God’s people from the madness and corruption of King Saul. Nehemiah had been a type of messiah as he had rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. Now, the word was out that Jesus from Nazareth did amazing things — he healed people, he stood up to the corrupt religious leaders, he befriended the down-and-out and sinners and lepers and the hungry. If he wasn’t the messiah, who could be?

But, he wasn’t acting like a messiah. He was on a cross, between two thieves, gasping for breath just like he was as guilty as they were. So one thief, in desperation, cried out — “Save yourself and us.”

Before Jesus could answer, if he even tried, the other thief shouts back –“Don’t you fear God since your under the same sentence? We’re guilty, he’s not. We’re getting what we deserve. He did nothing wrong.”

A Request and A Promise

And then to Jesus he says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Some manuscripts have the saying a little different — “Jesus, remember me when you come with your kingly power.” The idea is really the same. The thief, recognizing his own guilt, and recognizing the power of God, asks not to be forgotten. Not saved, not forgiven, not snatched off the cross — just remembered by the King.

In his mind the man might have been thinking, “This is my last chance. This is my only hope. This is the King of all kings and I am next to him. Maybe if he remembers me, my life in the world to come will be better than my life in this world.”

Jesus assures him, “Surely, without a doubt, today you will be with me in paradise.” Now, there is a lot of speculation about paradise. Theologians have come up with about a dozen explanations of what Paradise is, where it is, who might be there, and so on. But, it’s really very simple. In Jesus’ day, this word had its roots in Persia. Paradise was the garden of the king. If the king wanted to honor someone, the king would invite his guest to stroll in the king’s garden with the king himself. What a nice picture — walking in the cool of the day, among the finest flowers and plants on earth, walking with the king in a lovely garden.

Another Story In Another Time

Now let me tell you another story. This is also a true story and happened a long, long time before Jesus and this grim scene we have just witnessed.

One day God made a garden. In that garden he placed the pride of his creation — a man and a woman. God gave the man and the woman everything they needed and made them partners in tending the garden. As the day drew to a close, God would call to the man and the woman, “Come, let’s walk together in the garden.” And they would. They would walk and talk together, and it was a scene we cannot even imagine. Pristine air, unpolluted by the modern world. Air so clear that the sunshine sparkled off the dew on the flowers. Plants so green and robust that today’s botanists would be astounded. Trees that yielded fresh fruit without decay or disease. Plenty to eat, and a feast for the eyes. And each day God would call out to the man and the woman, “Come, let’s walk together.”

Until one day, God called and no one answered. Searching for the man and the woman, God found them embarassed and covering their nakedness. And God said, “What have you done?” The story of disobedience spills from their lips, and they lower their heads, blaming each other. “The woman gave it to me,” the man said. “The serpent tricked me,” the woman retorted. Now God’s great garden was spoiled.  God’s great love for the man and the woman was repaid with arrogance. Now God must act.

So the man and the woman were put out of the garden. An angel with flaming sword guarded its entrance. God no longer called to the man and the woman at the close of the day, “Come, let’s walk together.” But God still wanted to. And so God set out to make everything new, again.

Walking With God, Again

So God sent Jesus, who himself could say to a fisherman tending his nets, “Come, let’s walk together.” Or, to a tax collector, “Come, follow me along the way.” And he could again walk in God’s creation, and walk with men and women, providing food, and healing, and forgiveness, and friendship, and hope, and most of all, love.

And so it is to a garden Jesus goes to pray. And it is in a garden that God is again betrayed. And when it seems that the King himself has been shut out of his own garden, that the forces of darkness have won, that the Paradise of creation is hopelessly unredeemable, Jesus commands the angel with the flaming sword to stand aside. And, Jesus walks back into the garden. And to the thief he calls, “Come, let’s walk together in my garden.”

But, even though our text ends there, the story doesn’t. The thief is not the only one Jesus calls to that day. Luke tells us that the sky grows black, a sure sign of God’s judgment. For three hours the sun stops shining. We are back before creation, before God said, “Let there be light.” In the chaos of darkness. And in this chaos, the veil of the temple, the very thick curtain that separates the people from the presence of God in the Holy of Holies, that heavy many-layered curtain is torn from top to bottom. And God calls to his people in that symbolic act, “Come, let’s walk together in my garden.”

John the Revelator will take up the invitation in Revelation 2:7, where he says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise — the garden — of God.” And, so God calls us back to our place in his garden.

God Would Give Us A Garden

Tuesday of this week was Debbie’s birthday.  That morning, she went out for a while, and like all men, I did not have a card, a present or anything. Staving off panic, I thought, “maybe I’ll write something for her.” And as soon as I thought that the words, “If I could I would give you a garden” came to mind.

So, I sat down at my computer and began to write, and here is what I wrote. The poem is titled,

I Would Give You A Garden

If I could I would give you a garden,

filled with zinnias and pansies and more,

where the sunlight plays on bright flowers,

and roses bloom by the door.

 

If I could I would make you a pathway,

among dogwoods that gracefully sway,

passing lilies, crepe myrtles, and astors,

to a place you could quietly pray.

 

If I could I would walk that path with you,

holding hands as we stroll there each day,

watching butterflies light upon flowers,

recalling young children at play.

 

If I could I would watch your eyes sparkle

at each flower and plant all arrayed

like a choir of jubilant singers,

singing songs of beauty and praise.

 

If I could I would tell you I love you,

and how wonderful my life has been

since we met long ago in our childhood,

and have grown wiser living our dream.

 

If I could I would hold you so tightly,

whispering words meant only for you,

of days and of nighttimes together,

of true stories too good to be true.

 

If I could I would keep my life with you,

growing old with the passing of time,

sharing secrets belonging to lovers,

living lives gentle and kind.

 

If I could I would give you a garden

with no weeds to clutter the beds,

where flowers flourish in sunshine,

and bluebirds sing overhead.

 

With love I can give you this garden

filled with all of God’s good gifts galore,

for no one would love it better,

and no one deserve it more.

 

November 20, 2007 for Debbie’s birthday, by Chuck Warnock

Copyright 2007 — all rights reserved.

Somehow, I think that is very much what God is saying to us today — “With love, I give you this garden, filled with all my great gifts galore, for there is no one I love better, and no one needs it more.”

Amen.