Sun. Jan 24th, 2021

The Eleventh Hour Request

Nicodemus came in the middle of the night. The centurion came in the middle of
the day. The leper and the sinful woman appeared in the middle of crowds.
Zacchaeus appeared in the middle of a tree.

The educated. The powerful. The rejected. The lonely. The wealthy. Who would
assemble such a crew? All they had in common were their empty hope chests,
long left vacant by charlatans and profiteers. Though they had nothing to offer,
they asked for everything: a new birth, a second chance, a fresh start, a clean
conscience. And without exception their requests were honored.

And now, one more beggar comes with a request. Only minutes from the death of
them both, he stands before the King. He will ask for crumbs. And he, like the
others, will receive a whole loaf.

Skull’s Hill-windswept and stony. The thief-gaunt and pale. Hinges squeak as
the door of death closes on his life.

His situation is pitiful. He’s taking the last step down the spiral staircase of
failure. One crime after another. Lower and lower he descended until he reached
the bottom-a crossbeam and three spikes.

He can’t hide who he is. His only clothing is the cloak of his disgrace. No
fancy jargon. No impressive resume. No Sunday school awards. Just a naked
history of failure.

He sees Jesus.

Earlier he had mocked the man. But now he studies him. He begins to wonder who
this man might be.

How strange. He doesn’t resist the nails, he almost invites them.

He hears the jests and the insults and sees the man remain quiet. He sees the
fresh blood on Jesus’ cheeks, the crown of thorns scraping Jesus’ scalp and he
hears the hoarse whisper, “Father, forgive them.”

Why do they want him dead?

Slowly the thief’s curiosity offsets the pain in his body. He momentarily
forgets the nails rubbing against the raw nails of his wrists and the cramps in
his calves.

He begins to feel a peculiar warmth in his heart: he begins to care; he begins
to care about this peaceful martyr.

There is no anger in his eyes, only tears.

He looks at the huddle of soldiers throwing dice in the dirt, gambling for a
ragged robe. He sees the sign above Jesus’ head. It’s painted with scarcasm:
King of the Jews.

They mock him as a king. If he was crazy they would ignore him. If he had no
followers, they’d turn him away. If he was nothing to fear, they wouldn’t kill
him. You only kill a king if he has a kingdom.
Could it be…

Then, all of a sudden, his thoughts are exploded by the accusations of the
criminal on the other cross. He, too, has been studying Jesus, but studying
through the blurred lens of cynicism.

“So you’re the Messiah, are you?

Prove it by saving yourself-and us, too, while you’re at it” (Luke 23:39,TLB).
It’s an inexplicable dilemma-how two people can hear the same words and see the
same Savior, and one sees nothing but himself.

It was all the first criminal could take. Perhaps the crook who hurled the barb
expected the other crook to take the cue and hurl a few of his own.

But he didn’t.

“Don’t you fear God?”

Only minutes before these same lips had cursed Jesus. Now they were defending
him.

Who could have imagined this thief thinking of anyone but himself? But as the
last grains of sand trickle through the hourglass, he performs mans’ noblest
act. He speaks on God’s behalf.

Where are those we would expect to defend Jesus?
A much more spiritual Peter has abandoned him.
A much more educated Pilate has washed his hands of him.
A much more loyal mob of countrymen has demanded his death.
A much more faithful band of disciples has scattered.
When it seems that everyone has turned away, a crook places himself between
Jesus and the accusers and speaks on his behalf.
“Don’t you even fear God when you are dying? We deserve to die for our evil
deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:40, TLB).
We are guilty and he is innocent.
We are filthy and he is pure.
We are the wrong and he is right.
He is not on the cross for his sins.
He is there for ours.

And for once the crook understands this, his request seems only natural. As he
looks into the eyes of his last hope, he made the same request any Christian has
made:

“Remember me when you come into your Kingdom” (Luke 23:42,TLB).
At this point Jesus performs the greatest miracle of the cross. Greater than the
tearing of the temple curtain.

Greater than the darkness.

He performs the miracle of forgiveness. A sin-soaked criminal is received by a
blood-stained Savior.

“Today you will be with me in paradise. This is a solemn promise”(Luke 23:43,
TLB).

Wow. Only a few seconds before the thief was a beggar nervously squeezing his
hat at the castle door, wondering if the King might spare a few crumbs. Suddenly
he’s holding the whole pantry.

Such is the definition of grace.

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