The Unnamed Thieves

Mar. 25, 2012

Luke 23:32-33

Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals – one on his right, the other on his left.

They are not named. We’re not sure what crime they committed. We simply know them as the thief on the right and the thief on the left.

At some point, a judge had determined they were hopeless causes and sentenced them to die. The judge saw no possibility that these two thieves would ever be anything but criminals and so they were condemned to die on crosses.

I’m not quite sure how a person prepares or approaches execution. My guess is these men approached death like another crime: no emotion, no expression. Just get it over with. While on the outside, they appeared hardened and tough, I’m thinking that inside they had to quiet their fears. They had to be afraid to die and certainly didn’t want anyone to see this fear.

Had they heard of Jesus of Nazareth before the day of the crucifixion? We don’t know. We can assume that most everyone in Jerusalem had. But they might not have seen him. Maybe some of their friends had gone to see Jesus teach; watch him heal the sick and lame, see if what people said about him was true. Maybe some of these friends came back and said he was different from all the other rabbis and peddlers of truth. Maybe the unnamed thieves had heard that Jesus acted different. Maybe they had discovered that Jesus would actually sit down and eat with their low-life friends.

Like Jesus, the thieves had to carry their cross-beams through the Jerusalem streets, outside the city gates to Golgotha. Like Jesus, they were laid across the wooden cross by the Roman soldiers. Like Jesus, their crosses were raised skyward and they had to endure the pain, agony and discomfort of crucifixion.

Yet, they were someone’s son. They were someone’s friends. Maybe they had wives and children. They had lived lives and now they were dying. While unnamed in the Bible, these two thieves did have names. And God knew them. Jesus knew them. And he loved them to the bitter end. Who does this? Only the Son of God.

Let us pray: O how marvelous, O how wonderful! And my song shall ever be: O how marvelous, O how wonderful is my Savior’s love for me. Amen.

Blessings –


The Ministry of Presence

Mar. 24, 2012

Luke 23:27-31

A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, “Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed! Then ‘they will say to the mountains, “Fall on us!” and to the hills, “Cover us!” For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

Maybe you are thinking: “What? None of this makes sense!” Or “You’ve got to be kidding me! Jesus wasn’t a woman. How can he ever know what it’s like to bear children!” Or “THIS is why I don’t read the Bible.  I can’t relate to it!”

And you are all right. Jesus’ words do not make sense to us.

Before giving up completely, let’s try to see if there is something we can grasp out of this. Who might be the loudest mourner, the person who would be experiencing almost as much pain as Jesus through this whole ordeal? His mother Mary. While we aren’t told specifically that Mary is part of this group, we know she was present at the crucifixion. I’m guessing there is a good chance she was present along the path to Golgotha. And I’m guessing her closest friends were with her, wailing along side of her. That’s what friends do when a friend looses a loved one.

Just a couple weeks ago, my oldest friend, Pam, lost her Dad. Pam is not my oldest friend in age; she’s my oldest friend in length of time. When my parents moved to Wisconsin in the early 1960’s, some of the first people they met were Pam’s parents. They met at the little Augusta EUB church. Pam was born four months before I was in September. She was the last baby baptized in the little EUB church, which closed the end of the year. It merged with the Augusta Methodist Church, which eventually became the Augusta United Methodist Church. I was the first baby baptized at the conjoined church. That’s how long we’ve been friends.

Rick and I went to Pam’s Dad’s visitation and funeral. After the service on the way home, Rick commented about how impressed he was that so many of my high school classmates and friends came to either the visitation or funeral. But that’s what friends do. One of the most important lessons I have learned as a pastor is that ministry is often less about what is spoken and often more about presence.

Sometimes, people tell me that they don’t know if they should go to a funeral, call someone or stop by a friend’s house when a friend is going through a terrible time. The most common reason why they don’t know if they should go? They don’t know what to say. I try to encourage them and simply be present. Words aren’t always necessary.  Sometimes fewer words are even better.

Mary is enduring the great sadness, heartache and grief mother’s experience that looses a child. Her soul will be parched completely dry through the next several hours. But her soul will be covered. She will not be alone for God will be with her. But sometimes God needs assistants. Mary had them in the other women who mourned and wailed with her. I’m confident their presence was meaningful for her. Let us not be afraid to be God’s assistants and just be present.

Let us pray: It is well, it is well. It is well, it is well with my soul. Amen.

Blessings –


Wrong Guy at the Wrong Time

Mar. 23, 2012

Luke 23:26

As the soldiers led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus.

Every Jewish man, at sometime in his life, is to celebrate the Jewish Passover in Jerusalem. This was Simon’s year; for him and his two young boys, Alexander and Rufus. They made the pilgrimage from their hometown of Cyrene, in our modern-day Libya. It was a trip of a lifetime. Think of it in terms of taking young children to Disney.

On Friday, the family was excited to go into Jerusalem, visit the Temple and observe the Passover remembrance. Excitement filled the air. Just a short distance from the city, they came upon something like a parade. Maybe one son asked if they could watch. As people formed a line, they joined.

Simon noticed this was not a regular parade. The procession was led by Roman soldiers, driving three people, caring heavy beams across their shoulders; the beams used as the cross beam for a cross. These men were going to be crucified.

One man was stumbling. His bloodied body had been beaten and whipped. Simon didn’t want his sons to see him. As he tried to pulled Rufus and Alexander away, the wounded man stumbled and fell at his feet. He couldn’t get up. A Roman soldier looked at Simon and said, “You there. You carry the cross.”

Simon looked at him. “Me?”

“Yes, you! Carry the cross!”

Simon told his sons to stay close. The soldier yelled again, “Pick it up!” Not knowing what else to do, Simon picked up the beam. Its heavy weight nearly made him sink to the ground. He noticed the crown of thorns around the man’s brow. Maybe Simon realized this must be the Jesus Christ he had been hearing about. Some thought he might be the Messiah. Simon extended his hand to him. He took it. With strength and courage, Jesus stood, composed himself and together, they walked forward.

It was a short distance to the Skull, the place where people were crucified. When they got there, Simon dropped the beam. Roman soldiers assembled the crosses for the three men being crucified. Two executioners assembled Jesus’ cross. He was stripped naked and soldiers forced his bloody body on top of the cross. They stretched his arms across the cross-bar before they took spikes and a mallet to attach him. Simon covered his son’s eyes as the mallet struck Jesus’ skin. Rufus cried out. Alexander became nauseous. They heard a cry of agony as the spike went through Jesus’ wrist. More spikes went through his ankles. As the cross was raised, they heard another groan of agony. Simon and his sons watched as a man die. They heard him speak. They witnessed these awful events.

We don’t hear of Simon again. Yet, watching the crucifixion must have had significant impact on him and his son’s lives. Mark’s gospel names Simon’s sons. They would have only been listed if people knew who they were. In Romans 16:13, Rufus is named again. He must be living in Rome with his mother; possibly a leader of the Christian movement in Rome.

Simon was the wrong guy at the wrong place at the wrong time. But those moments changed his life; forever.

Let us pray: Thus might I hide my blushing face while Calvary’s cross appears. Dissolve my heart in thankfulness and melt mine eyes to tears.. Amen.

Blessings –


The White Flag

Mar. 22, 2012

Luke 23:24-25

So Pilate decided to grant their demand. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will.

When two enemies are at war with each other, the universal signal that one surrenders is a white flag. As Pilate “surrenders” Jesus, in essence he waves a white flag.

Surrender. Often it’s the choice of last resort. Sometimes we get worn down and one side has to cave in. That’s the side that surrenders.

When had you had to surrender in your life? People who deal with addictions have to surrender in order to get the addiction under control. Sometimes we give up things that are important … or not so important. The higher the stakes, the harder it is to surrender.

I think it would be fascinating to speak to someone who had to decide to raise the white flag while in battle and surrender. After the flag was raised, what emotion was felt? Despair? Relief? Defeat? Peace?

Ultimately, it wasn’t Pilate that surrendered; it was Jesus. He had to choose to surrender his life for us … or not. What emotion did he feel when Pilate finally released him for crucifixion? Despair? Relief? Defeat? Peace?

We choose whether we believe and accept his surrender … or not. Jesus waved the white flag just for you. Lent is about coming to grips with whether this means anything to you … or not.

Let us pray: Jesus paid it all. All to Him I owe. Sin has left a crimson stain; He washed it white as snow. Amen.

Blessings –


The loudest voice

Mar. 21, 2012

Luke 23:24-25

So Pilate decided to grant their demand. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will.

Sometimes the loudest voice wins.

It’s a professional football game. After a questionable catch, the local crowd is sure the ref didn’t quite see it right. As the replay comes across the jumbo-tron, the crowd boos. The television announcers question if the head coach should throw the red challenge flag. While there is brief consultation with the coaches in the booth upstairs, the growing crowd noise explodes when the red flag lands on the ground.

It’s high school basketball playoff season. Finally, your team has made it to state. Only problem is the state refs allow for a lot more pushing and shoving inside than the you, the head coach, is accustomed to. This time, your player has ended up on the floor. It takes 1.3 seconds for you to get in front of a ref and you are not quiet. The ref hesitates and then makes the “right” call in your opinion.

She’s back at it. A member of your local congregation just needs something to complain about. This go-around it is multiple times gum has been put on the lip underneath the tables in the fellowship hall. The janitor said it only took a couple minutes to remove it from several tables. But now it’s been the topic of discussion at the Church Council meeting for over 20 minutes. Our kids do not respect church property, the woman says. Maybe we should stop offering programs for them until they learn how to take care of “our” tables. And if we don’t, she will just take her money to a church where four-year-old kids know respect.

Whether is it booing Bret Favre as he runs onto the field in a Minnesota Vikings uniform, berating a waitress for undercooked meat at a restaurant or bounding out of the house and yelling at the neighborhood kids, “I’ve told you and told you …” the loudest voice thinks it wins. That’s why we reserve our loudest voice for the times we want to make the most dramatic portrayal.

Remember how in Matthew’s Gospel Pilate’s wife warns him to avoid doing anything with the innocent Jesus? Pilate makes his position evident when the crowd is so loud they won’t listen to him. He saves his best words for his actions as he washes his hands with water in front of the boisterous crowd. He’s saying, “This death, his blood is on your hands; not mine.”

The quietest voice in the scene? The man condemned to die. Hmmm.

Let us pray: Jesus walked this lonesome valley; he had to walk it by himself. Oh, nobody else could walk it for him; he had to walk it by himself. Amen.

Blessings –


Who is right?

Mar. 20, 2012

Luke 23:22

For the third time he spoke to them: “Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.”

“Honey, this is where we turn right,” I said.

“But I think we have to go a little further,” my husband replies.

“No, this is where we turn,” I insist.

“This doesn’t look right,” as we approach the stop sign.

“I’m sure this is where we turn,” I say a little more emphatically.

Five minutes later: “We should have turned back there,” my husband quietly says.

“Now we’ll be late.”

Maybe these conversations only happen between my husband and me. They are even more challenging when you KNOW you are right but the other person insists THEY are right. What to do?

This is the situation Pilate finds himself in. No less than three times, he has told the growing crowd that he finds no reason to have Jesus killed. (Interesting that he has said this three times. Note to self: remember this on Easter morning when something else happens for three days.)

Pilate finds himself in a tug-of-war within himself. He has not established the minimum grounds to have Jesus killed. In Matthew’s Gospel, his wife even pleads with him: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” (Matthew 27:19)  What is he to do? Go with his gut and his wife’s input and risk loosing his governorship because he appears weak? Or side with the crowd and pacify them?

We’ll discover soon that Pilate has learned the art of carefully picking and choosing his battles. If you are a spouse, a parent, a sibling, have co-workers or work with volunteers, you’ve also been faced with this choice. When do you continue with your plan, ideas or suggestions – even when you know they are right or better – than what the consensus of the group feels? Of course, we know these situations must be dealt with case-by-case. And who is on the other side makes a huge difference also. Where to turn is not the same as a huge financial decision. What restaurant to eat at is not the same as how to celebrate family holidays. Being late is not the same as whether a man lives or dies.

It’s much easier for us to know what the right thing to do us because we know how the story ends. This one decision forever changed Pilate’s life. Some decisions we make will forever change our lives. I pray that when we are making those decisions, we’ll seek guidance in figuring out who is right.

Let us pray: Lead me, Lord. Lead me in Your righteousness. Make Your way plain before my face. Amen.

Blessings –


Part of the Crowd

Mar. 19, 2012

Luke 23:20-21

Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. But they kept shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

Crucifixion is an ancient form of capital punishment where the victim was tied or nailed to a wooden pole or cross. Often considered the cruelest and most horrifying death, the Romans perfected this form of torture.

While the cross was being prepared, the victim was flogged, scourged or beaten with a special whip. Flogging was intended to weaken but not kill the victim. Performed by professionally trained Roman soldiers called lictors, these men inflicted serious injury upon their victims. Jesus’ hands were bound with ropes and tied around a wooden post, leaving his back fully exposed. The whip had a long wooden handle. Attached were several leather thongs. At the end of the thongs, pieces of metal and jagged animal bones were attached, which were intended to dig into and tear through the flex on the victim’s back, buttocks and thighs. By Jewish law, Jesus should have only been beaten 40 minus one times, or 39 whippings.

These details maybe are more than you care for. I share them not to gross you out but to help us get a fuller concept of what crucifixion really involved. It’s more than being nailed to a cross. For most of us, the flogging would have been more than we could endure.

What motivated the crowd to get to the point where they are demanding Jesus’ crucifixion? Was he that awful of a man? That much of a threat? What allowed people to not step back and see what they were demanding?

I think the “mob mentality” is part of the problem. When in a crowd, one person makes a suggestion. Pretty soon, a whole group of people have decided this is the “right” thing to do without really thinking it through. Not wanting to appear weak, people go along. If someone realized the suggested action really isn’t right, too often people lack the balls to call the whole scenario into question. Not sure this happens? Talk to a college student who has been at a party and drank too much. Talk to someone who was involved in the KKK or a former Nazi soldier. It happens right in our communities. The mom ignored because she dresses poorly. The family not included because they are “weird.” The child teased to the point he or she no longer wants to go to school.

We’d like to think that if we had been present, we would have voiced a different opinion. It sounds good, but pretty hard to do. We don’t really want to admit that we were part of the crowd that got Jesus crucified. But unless we see ourselves there, it is impossible to fully grasp what Jesus did.

How are we part of the crowd? Anytime we’ve allowed someone to get bullied. Anytime we’re chosen to look the other way. Anytime we’ve denied having Christ in our lives because we’re afraid someone will think that is uncool.

Most of the time, we think being part of the crowd is safer. Sometimes we really don’t want to draw attention to ourselves because then we cannot be held accountable. Maybe we didn’t actually slap the whip across Jesus’ back that early morning in Jerusalem. But I know that I’ve been part of the crowd that has denied him, hurt him and turned my back on him. Is it any different?

Let us pray: Your gift of love they crucified, they laughed and scorned Him as He died. The humble King they named a fraud, and sacrificed the Lamb of God. Amen.

Blessings –


The worst criminal ever

Mar. 18, 2012

Luke 23:18-19

With one voice they cried out, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!” (Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.”

Jesus has been taken back to Pilate. Pilate sees no reason to kill Jesus. He’s gone through the due diligence to see if Jesus is guilty of the crimes the Jewish authorities have proclaimed. Not only does he see no basis, neither did Herod. According to Deuteronomy 19:15, “two witnesses,” by two authorities, one Roman and one Palestinian would also have given testimony. Still, there is not sufficient evidence for execution in a capital criminal case. Pilate has told the crowd that he will punish him and let him go.

Release is not what the crowd wants. The crowd goes into an uproar. We’re told the crowd spoke as if with one voice. Release a different man, the one named Barabbas, they plead.

We know very little of this man. Luke tells us he was a murderer. Matthew’s gospel calls him notorious prisoner and John’s gospel calls him a robber. It appears that he is well-known to the crowd. What we do know is that he’s an awful enough criminal that his reputation is well-known.

Who would we choose to be killed? Jesus or Jeffery Dahmer? Jesus or Adolf Hitler? Jesus or Saddam Hussein? Jesus or anyone else?

Imagine the crowd being less afraid of Dahmer than Jesus; willing to release Hitler than Jesus; take their chances with Hussein rather than Jesus. They’d rather take their chances with a harden criminal than allow Jesus to heal people on the Sabbath. Jesus is the worse of the worst? That’s what it seems the crowd thought.

But then again, when you are the Messiah, things don’t always make sense.

Let us pray: Was it for crimes that I have done, he groaned upon the tree? Amazing pity! Grace unknown! And love beyond degree! At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light, and the burden of my heart rolled away; it was there by faith I received my sight, and now I am happy all the day. Amen.

Blessings –


Who crucified Jesus?

Mar. 17, 2012

Luke 23:13-17

Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. Therefore, I will punish him and then release him.”

Who crucified Jesus?

Technically, of course, the Roman government did. They had to. The religious leaders could not. Doing so would have broken one of the Ten Commandments, the one that says, “Thou shall not kill.”

But we’ve just read how Pilate felt he could not kill Jesus. He had found no reason for such harsh punishment. He would have him beaten but that is it.

Several years ago when the movie, “The Passion of the Christ” was released, the Jewish establishment was appalled. They felt the movie casted the Jewish religious leaders in a negative way and over stated their involvement in Jesus’ crucifixion. They wanted people to ban the movie and asked for an apology from the producer, Mel Gibson.

Diane Sawyer addressed this issue with Gibson in an interview. She asked who caused Jesus’ death. Whether you are a Mel Gibson fan or not, listen to his answer, “Read the book, Diane. Read the book and see what it says.”

Sawyer looked at him a little puzzled and asked, “What book?” Gibson replied, “The Bible.”

I think there is another answer to the question, “Who crucified Jesus?” It is probably even less popular than Gibson’s answer. Here’s my answer: you and I. Every human being who has graced this earth and who will. We sin and somehow, our sin needs to be accounted for. God looked at our sin and decided to take care of it, once and for all, through God’s own flesh, God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

Now it’s your turn to answer the question. “Who crucified Jesus?”

Let us pray: Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Amen.

Blessings –


Unlikely Friends

Mar. 16, 2012

Luke 23:12

That day Herod and Pilate became friends – before this they had been enemies.

People can be so funny sometimes. I don’t mean “Ha, ha, ha!” funny. I mean, “What’s up with that?” funny. One day, arch enemies. Next day, best buds. Isn’t it funny?

Ever had a “friend” that didn’t give you a good first impression? I have. Having graduated from a small, rural Wisconsin high school, attending UW-Madison was huge. At my first college lecture, there were more people enrolled in this class than my entire high school.

The class was Dairy Science 101. (Before I was a pastor, I worked with dairy cattle.) We also had a weekly lab with about 20 students. For our first lab, we met where animals were rendered. It was about 90 degrees outside. There was no air conditioning in the building. Our project for the day: examine a cow’s four different stomachs, identifying and noticing differences between each stomach. It was hot. The stomachs had an odor. Add the humidity and the warm air temp, even my solid stomach was doing a roller coaster ride.

We were to work in groups of three or four. I knew no incoming freshman.  Thus, I knew no one in the lab. I scanned the people. My attention was caught by this blonde gal. Physically, she looked like a female version of a middle linebacker: a larger muscular frame. She was chumming with some of the guys. It appeared they kind of knew each other. But the kicker: this brut of a gal was dressed in a cutesy coordinating shorts outfit. I took one look at her and thought to myself, “She will never be a friend of mine.” I knew for sure when the smell became too much for her and she had to be excused. Right.

Within three weeks, she was one of my closest friends on campus. Today, I can call any time day or night. We’ve cried on each other’s shoulders, consider each other’s parents personal friends and shared a ton of memories. I really don’t want folks from church getting too buddy-buddy with her because she could share stories that don’t need repeating. She assures me this won’t happen because she would incriminate herself.

What brought us into a close friendship is not the same as Herod and Pilate. We didn’t have to deal with a person we felt threatened us. Yet, there is a similar thread. Like Herod and Pilate, my friend and I became close friends because we have significant shared experiences. When we repeat various stories, our husbands do not understand why they are so funny because they were not there.

As I think about my closest friends, sometimes it isn’t logical for us to be good friends. These surface things have very little to do with why we are rock-solid friends. We’re friends because we trust and respect each other. We’re friends because we have similar values. We’re friends because often we see something beyond ourselves and humanity.

Were Herod and Pilate thick-skinned friends or mere acquaintances? Those details aren’t included. They moved beyond the barriers that limited their friendship. Did they eventually look back and laugh about how one time they were unlikely good friends, as my friend and I do? We’re not sure. People can be funny sometimes. Shared experiences are very powerful when it comes to building friendships. Talk to any person who has served in the military overseas if you aren’t sure this happens. This is anything but funny. This is very real.

Let us pray: Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care? Precious Savior, still our refuge; take it to the Lord in prayer. Do thy friends despise, forsake thee? Take it to the Lord in prayer! In his arms he’ll take and shield thee; thou wilt find a solace there. Amen.

Blessings –