April 2, 2010
Text: Luke 23:26-56
Dear Friends in Christ,
Do you not fear God? It is the question asked by the thief on the cross. Do you not fear God? Are you not afraid of God? It is a question that for a generation people were afraid to ask. There are two wrong answers that we commonly see. The first is for someone to say, of course I fear God, He is God after all. And yet, it is clear from their life that they have no real fear of God. It was a common joke in the nineteenth century that an indulgences peddler would have gone broke in Germany in those years, because no one cared about their sins anymore. The other common wrong answer is to attack the question. Of course I don’t fear God. We’re not supposed to fear Him, we’re supposed to love Him. Really what they mean when they use to word fear is respect. We’re suppose to respect Him. But that’s not the word that is used is it? The thief asked: Do you not fear God?
Let’s put the question in context. You are a criminal who has done terrible things. You are dying. In a short time, a few hours, you will stand before God’s judgement. You are helpless to put this off. And you know that you are worthy of nothing but God’s wrath. That’s fear. It is a terror that trumps even the pain and agony of crucifixion.
Do you not fear God? It is a question we too would do well to consider. For we are really no different than the thief on the cross. We are sinners. We deserve nothing but God’s wrath. We too will die and face the judgement of God. Perhaps we have a little more time than he had. But we are just as helpless to stop it.
What does the wrath of God look like? Do we have a picture of God’s anger over sin? Yes. It looks like a cross. In fact it looks like a crucifix. The thief on the cross knew that something important was happening. He understood that there was a reason why this innocent Man was dying. We don’t know if he fully understood. But he did understand that this innocent Man was bearing the wrath of God. He knew what God’s anger over sin looked like. We, in our age, have the benefit of hindsight. We have the commentaries of St. Paul and the other apostles. We have the insights of two thousand years of faithful theologians. We know exactly what was happening. Jesus Christ was bearing the sins of the world. He was dying in our place. He was bearing God’s wrath over sin, so that we would not. But in saying this we see just how seriously God takes our sins. We see how angry God is over sin. We see what value God places upon sin. God regards sin with such seriousness that only the Holy, precious, innocent blood of Jesus Christ, God the Son, could atone for it.
We also see in the cross what awaits those who do not heed the cross and repent of their sins. It is terrible and fearsome to contemplate. Sinners who fall into the hands of God, when He is still angry over sin, face a terrible fate. The fires of hell are real. Eternal damnation is real. Eternal torment is real. Eternal separation from God is real. We see this in the cross of Christ. We see what God has planned for sinners in what Christ bore. But for the unrepentant sinners, there is no resurrection the third day.
Have you no fear of God? What did the thief on the cross do? He turned to Christ. Remember me. The Biblical concept of remembrance is more than just fond memories. It is, at the minimum, to memorialize someone for their deeds. It also involves doing justice for someone or their family. Thus David could do nothing for his friend Jonathon, but he gave Jonathon’s crippled son Mephibosheth a place at his table. That’s remembrance in the Biblical sense. This is what the man on the cross hoped that Christ would do for him. He hoped that Christ would remember him and take actions towards his family and so forth in honor of his plea. But Christ’s remembrance goes much father. Today, you shall be with Me in paradise. No, I will not give your son a place at my table, for your sake. I will give you a place at My table. This is forgiveness language. This is resurrection language. Christ is saying that even in death He would live. And so also for the thief on the cross. He too would live with Christ.
Proverbs teaches us that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. But this fear also leads us to love God. For in the cross we see the wrath of God. We see God’s judgment against sin. But we also see the love of God. God, in love for sinful mankind, would pay the price of our sin Himself. God, in His holiness and righteousness, cannot leave sin unpunished. But in love God bears that punishment Himself. The cross places fear and love side by side, as they should always be. We fear God because He is the holy and righteous judge who will examine our every thought, word, and deed. He will judge sins we do not even remember. But in His love, those sins are remembered no more. Why? Because Christ paid for them in our stead. Thus we say that we come before God with fear and trembling. We come with fear and trembling because He is to be feared. But we come nevertheless because He is the One who bore our sins to the cross.