The Thief Next to Jesus

Good Friday. The day we remember our Savior and His cruel death on the cross. The day He TOOK MY PLACE in the death that I deserve, because He loved me. He knew when He came here the fate that awaited Him. Betrayal. Mockery. Torture. A slow, excruciating death. But He came anyway. Just to give us forgiveness that we don’t deserve. I can never thank Him enough. I can never repay Him for what He did for me.

But tonight, the one who is on my mind is the criminal who hung beside Him. A man who, unlike Jesus, had lived a life of sin. A man who society had deemed worthy of death on the cross, because of the crimes he committed. And as he hung there, nearing death, he confessed Jesus as Lord. “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom,” he said. And what did Jesus say? Did he tell him he was unworthy? Did he tell him his sins were too great, that he was condemned to die and go to hell because that was the punishment he deserved? No. “Assuredly, I say to you,” He told the criminal beside Him, “today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

I feel like sometimes, Christians, we’re missing the point. And when I say Christians, I’m including myself, too. It didn’t matter what sins that man had committed. It didn’t matter if he spent his entire life on the earth going against everything God ever said. The minute he confessed Jesus as His Lord and Savior – and that minute just happened to be one of the final moments of his life – He was forgiven. Heaven-bound. Did he deserve it? Of course not! But do I? Do you? Does anyone?

I have a past – one that does NOT include Jesus. I try to forget about it, because I know God has, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still have nightmares about some of the things I’ve said and done. And guess what? I’m still far from perfect, despite all the work He’s already done in me. It doesn’t matter how “good” I try to be now. It doesn’t matter how many hours I spend in church, how much I give to those in need, or how many times a day I pray or read my Bible. That’s all good stuff, of course, but it’s not what saved me. Jesus saved me when He died and rose again, and the only thing I did to receive that gift is BELIEVE in Him and ACCEPT Him into my heart. That’s it.

We’ve never been more divided than we are today. And with that division comes such powerful hatred and cruelty. But Christians, are we helping the problem? Or are we stirring it up even more? It’s not wrong to stand up for what we believe in – in fact, we’re commanded to do so. But look at the way we’re doing it! Sharing hateful Facebook posts and memes, shaming the other side because they sin differently than we do. We’re no better than the Pharisees who were so blinded by their religious rules that they didn’t see Jesus for who He was – the Messiah! They put Him to death because He didn’t fit their idea of what a “religious” person should be. You guys, the Pharisees were some of the most “holy” people out there. They MEMORIZED the first five books of the Bible BEFORE THE AGE OF 12. They took the laws of Moses very seriously and when they condemned Jesus to death, they truly believed they were doing it in God’s name. They let their own religious rules blind them to Jesus’s message. They judged everyone around them.

Are we becoming modern-day Pharisees? Are we so high and mighty because of all the “good” things we do that we think we’re good enough to judge the world, when we’re missing Jesus right in front of our faces? The reality is, God loves EVERY SINGLE PERSON on this earth. He wants everyone to receive the gift of His Son and will give us to the very last moment of our lives to do so, if that’s what it takes. As Christians, we’re called to share His message with the world, so they will receive Jesus and eternal salvation. Are we doing that? Are we really sharing His message when we share hatred and judgmental social media posts? Or are we turning people away from the Truth with our religious rules and hateful speech? Life with Jesus is about freedom. It’s about relationship with Him. It’s about love. It’s not about rules and being “better” than anyone else. It doesn’t matter how “wrong” or lost someone may be – Jesus died for him, too. And we’re called to love, not sit on our throne in judgment and bully someone into thinking like we do. It doesn’t work like that. It’s not how Jesus reached people, and we sure won’t reach anyone that way, either.

I’m thankful tonight for His sacrifice and His forgiveness. I pray that I will never be a hindrance to His love and His message. I want everyone to know that there’s nothing you can do to make Him not love you. He will forgive any sin, any mistake you’ve ever made. Don’t wait until you think you’re “worthy” to come to Him. You’ll never get there. Accept Him today, and let Him come into your life just as you are right now – flaws and all. He loves you despite your past or even your present. All you have to do is choose to believe, to accept Him. He wants to do big things in your life. All you have to do is let Him in.

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Removing My Planks

It’s so easy to see the faults in other people.

As I read from my Bible this morning in the book of Judges, I read the story of one of the Book’s most famous couples, Samson and Delilah. I read about how Samson was set apart even before his birth, how the Holy Spirit would come upon him and fill him with superhuman strength. How his parents knew from the beginning that his hair was never to be touched with a razor.

But Samson had a weakness. Time and again, he trusted in women who betrayed him. Delilah was hired by Samson’s own enemies to find the source of his strength, and three times, Samson lied to her because he knew that she would use the information to betray him. And she did. Not only did she tell his enemies what he had told her, she had the nerve to get angry with Samson when the information proved to be wrong and she looked like a fool. Yet he kept going back to her. Over and over again, she tried to hand him over to his enemies, and it didn’t stop him from going to her again. And when she finally got the truth out of him – that his hair was the source of his power – his head was shaven and God’s favor and power left him.

I used to teach a class at the high school level called The Bible As/In Literature. This was one of the stories we studied in there, and I always laughed when my students would voice their frustrations with Samson because I shared those very frustrations. It is so clear to the readers that Delilah was the enemy. Why wasn’t that clear to Samson, too? Or worse…why did he know it, yet choose to ignore it? How could this man who had found such favor and power with God give that up for anything, especially her?

But today, as I read that story again, God gave me something new to think about. Of course Samson should have known better. There were many great men in the Bible who should have known better. Jonah tried to run from God and his directions. God Himself told Adam and Eve not to eat of that one tree, yet they listened to Satan and ate anyway. It’s hard to read these stories sometimes without thinking, How could this person be so foolish?  When I put myself in their situations, I always envision myself making the right choice. After all, if I had a direct line to talk to God and He gave me specific instructions or powers, my obedience wouldn’t even be a question.

Would it?

How many times have I messed up? How many times have I repeated mistakes, knowing what the results were the first time but in a moment of weakness, choosing to do it again? Hoping the outcome will be different this time? How many times have I chosen to ignore God’s directions, trying to twist His Word and His Truth in my own way to justify my actions?

It’s so easy to watch from the outside and judge while others make mistakes. But to see my own shortcomings, my own areas where I am prone to mess up – sometimes painfully obvious in the eyes of those around me – why is that so much more difficult?

Jesus promised, “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?…You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:2-5)

As I sat in judgment of Samson this morning, God drew my attention to my own planks. What a hypocrite I am, thinking of myself as better than these great men of the Bible! Blind to my own weaknesses while I worry about the “specks” in the eyes of others!

And as far as my attitude about my “direct line to God”…I HAVE ONE. We all do. It’s called prayer, and He wants us to use it to have a relationship with Him. HE WILL SPEAK TO US. Maybe He won’t appear in a burning bush (or maybe He will? Who knows?) but He will speak to us. It’s up to us to ask Him for guidance and wisdom, and then listen for the answers. He may speak to your spirit as you’re reading His Word. He may use someone else to reach out to you. His methods are infinite. But He has never failed to get a message to me when He wanted to – as long as I prayed for open ears and an open heart to receive it from Him.

The good news is, though Samson messed up over and over again until He finally lost his God-given power, he still wasn’t a lost cause. In the end, after realizing his mistake, he begged God to return his power to him one last time in order to help him defeat his enemies. AND GOD LISTENED. I’m so grateful that we serve a merciful God who never gives up on us, never turns His back on us, even when we don’t deserve His love and grace. Because with God, it’s not about our works and what we deserve. It’s about our FAITH in Jesus Christ and our BELIEF in what He did for us on the cross. And for that I praise Him today and every day!

My prayer for today is that God will reveal my planks to me, so that I can focus my “judgment” inward rather than on those around me.