“Today you will be with Me in Paradise” — Sermon by Pastor Rolf Preus

Wednesday Vespers
February 24, 2016
“Today you will be with Me in Paradise”
Luke 23:39-43

Two evildoers — criminals – were facing their just deserts. They did the crime and now had to ‘face the punishment. Matthew and Mark tell us they were robbers. They preyed on the innocent. They cared nothing for their neighbor’s wellbeing. We might regard death by crucifixion as too severe a penalty for robbery, but it would be good if robbers were as afraid of severe justice as innocent citizens are of being robbed. Those lawless thugs were only getting what they deserved. The Bible doesn’t question the justice of their penalty. God’s word does present us with a stark difference between them. Both deserved to die. Both were facing eternity. Both died. One of them went from the suffering of the cross into the beatific vision of God, from agony to the pure joy and blessedness of Paradise. The other went from the agony of the cross to the greater agony of hell. One believed in Jesus while the other did not.

Why? Why did the one believe while the other did not? We don’t know. We know that our Lord preached a powerful gospel sermon to both of the robbers as he suffered between the two of them.

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do!” The innocent prays for the guilty! The victim prays for those who urdered him. Jesus is our priest. While offering himself on the altar of the cross as he bore the sin of the world, he prays for those who mocked and slandered Him. He intercedes for the guilty. This is what the robbers heard. The religious leaders and the soldiers joined in making sport of Jesus. They mocked his claim to be the Savior. “If you are the Christ, if you are God’s chosen One, if you are the King of the Jews, why don’t you act like it? Come down and save yourself if you really are a savior.”

One of the criminals joined in. He heard the prayer for forgiveness that Jesus prayed. He knew that Jesus suffered as an innocent man He knew that Jesus wanted his tormenters to be forgiven. He knew that Jesus patiently endured cruelty without complaint. He thought Jesus was a fool. “Why should you not scream your defiance against those who mistreat you? How can you put up with this? You’re going to die anyway! And if you really have power, if you are really from God, why don’t you come down from that cross and while you’re at it, save us too from the hell we’re going through?”

But that’s what Jesus was doing by remaining on the cross. That was why he was there. He was not going to come off of that cross until he had done what he came to do: save the whole world from the hell it so richly deserved. The dying thief was facing eternity. Dying next to him was the only way to an eternity in fellowship with God. Dying next to him was his Savior. He did not want a Savior.

The man lived a useless life and he died as he deserved to die. And yet that man is like millions of law-abiding, respectable, church-going, tax-paying, religious do-gooders who share the same belief as that criminal on the cross: “I don’t need, I don’t want a Savior. I don’t need, I don’t want God to become my brother and suffer for my sins. I don’t need it, I don’t want it, and I will scream my defiance against the presumption of God to insist that he die for me, that he pay for my sins, that he suffer indignity in order to save my soul from hell.”

The thief was what the respectable religious people would have called trash. Good riddance! Now he’s dead and can’t rob anyone else. But that thief’s religion is the religion of every self-righteous person in the world. It’s the religion of everyone who spurns God’s grace in Christ, trusts in his own virtue, will not repent of his sin and cast himself on the mercy of God in Christ.

The other thief confessed his sin to God, heard in faith the words of Jesus’ prayer and applied that intercessory petition to himself. He believed that Jesus was praying for him, too. He dared to speak to Jesus as a sinner to his gracious God. “Remember me. I know that your kingdom is not of this world. I know that you have come from God and are now returning to God, and the suffering you endure, surely you endure it for me. I know who you are. Despite the scorn, the mockery, the sharne, you are the holy One of God. You are the Lord God come to us to save us from our sins. Remember me. I claim nothing good. You can see my worthless life. I deserve what I am getting, but for your mercy’s sake, remember me.” Here was a man facing eternity and knowing what was beyond. What a precious knowledge this is!

Only one man can give you Paradise and that is the Man who is also the eternal Son of the eternal Father. Only one man can lead the sinner into God’s kingdom, and that is the one Man who suffered for our sins. He is the One whose prayer for forgiveness was answered as surely as he rose from the dead. He is the one who heard the prayer of that penitent robber and gave him the promise of eternal life.

The man had no debt to pay. Was he perfectly sanctified? By no means! Was he free from all sin? N o, he just confessed that he deserved the crucifixion he was receiving. But Jesus said to him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” He didn’t say, “After masses have been offered for you and prayers have been prayed for you, you will enter Paradise. No. “Today you will be with me in Paradise.

There is no such place as purgatory. It is a myth and a delusion. The robber had no debt to pay because Jesus himself paid it. The blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sins. When God justifies a sinner, he reckons to that sinner the perfect righteousness of Christ. There is nothing lacking in it. The criminal who never did a good deed in his entire life, departed this life a righteous man. The blood shed on the cross next to him cleansed him from all his sin and made him fit to enter Paradise.

The penitence of the penitent thief did not make him worthy to ender Paradise. The blood shed for him made him worthy. But no one can believe in Jesus except the penitent. To be penitent is to be sorry for your sins. There cannot be sorrow for sins where there is no sin. When sin is defined away there is no longer any sorrow for it and no faith in a Savior who suffered to take it away. Those whose hearts bleed for openly unrepentant sinners and who refuse to condemn their sins may think that their bleeding hearts will benefit these people. But only Christ’s blood can benefit a sinner and he must know he is a sinner before he can receive any benefit.

We live at a time when sin is defined as disease; when violence and adultery are no longer sins but elements in a dysfunctional relationship; when repentance is out of style. The gospel of self-gratification, self-esteem, and just plain selfishness has silenced the judgment of God’s law as taught in the Ten Commandments.

God blessed that dying criminal by condemning him in his own conscience. We don’t need instruction from the spiritually blind who imagine that the solution for sinners is to define away sin. We need the blood of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, shed to forgive us all our sin. And we need to be condemned first so that we will see in Christ’s suffering our salvation.

We face eternity every moment of every day. To what should we be turning, to whom should we be turning, but to Jesus who was crucified for us? From his wounds flow the sacraments that bring us life. From his mouth come the words of absolution for all our sins. From his death our life is guaranteed. So we pray:

On my heart imprint thine image,
Blessed Jesus, King of grace.
That life’s riches, cares, and pleasures,
Have no power thee to efface
This the superscription be:
Jesus crucified for me
Is my life my hope’s foundation,
And my glory and salvation. Amen

About Pastor Rolf Preus

Pastor Rolf David Preus grew up on the campus of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, the fourth of ten children, where his father, Dr. Robert David Preus, taught for many years. Pastor Preus graduated from high school in 1971, from Concordia College, St. Paul, Minnesota in 1975 and from Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana in 1979. He was ordained on July 1, 1979, at Trinity Lutheran Church, in Clear Lake, Minnesota. He served Trinity Lutheran Church in Clear Lake (1979-1982), First Lutheran Church in East Grand Forks, Minnesota (1982-1989), St. John's Lutheran Church in Racine, Wisconsin (1989-1997), River Heights Lutheran Church in East Grand Forks, Minnesota (1997-2006), and First American Lutheran Church in Mayville, North Dakota and Grace Lutheran Church in Crookston, Minnesota from (2006-2015). On February 15, 2015 he was installed as Pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Sidney, Montana and St. John Lutheran Church, Fairview, Montana. Pastor Preus received his Master of Sacred Theology degree from Concordia Theological Seminary in 1987. His thesis topic was, “An Evaluation of Lutheran/Roman Catholic Conversations on Justification." Pastor Preus has taught courses in theology for Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, Concordia University Wisconsin, and St. Sophia Lutheran Theological Seminary in Ternopil, Ukraine. Pastor Preus married Dorothy Jean Felts on May 27, 1975, in Coldwater, Michigan. God has blessed Pastor and Dort with twelve children: Daniel, David, Paul, John, Mark, Stephen, Christian, Andrew, James, Mary, Samuel, and Peter. David, Paul, John, Mark, Stephen, Christian, Andrew, and James are pastors in the LCMS. God has blessed Pastor and Mrs. Preus with forty-three grandchildren so far. Pastor Preus' mother is living in Minneapolis. Three of his brothers and two of his brothers-in-law have served as pastors in the LCMS.

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