In the Name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Have you ever been robbed? A side window of your car smashed and things taken? The sickening feeling that comes when you see the back door of your home ajar and you enter to find your house ransacked? You feel violated. You feel vulnerable. You feel fear and anger. What you have worked for for years is taken in a matter of moments. How dare they! How can anyone stoop so low! That was the job, if you can call it that, by which the two crucified with Christ made their living. They brazenly took what others had worked so hard for, making them feel violated, vulnerable, angry and afraid.
What a horror-filled night was spent by these two thieves as they awaited their execution on the following day. It is one thing to die. It is quite another to fall into the hands of the living God. It is a horrible thought to have to give an account for a life ill lived. It was not just the excruciating torment of a form of execution intended to inflict pain, humiliation and death, it was the prospect of falling into the eternal Abyss. So it goes will ill-lived lives. Yet, can anyone here claim a life well lived? As the rite of Private Confession and Absolution states: “I, a poor sinner, plead guilty before God of all sins. I have lived as if God did not matter and as if I mattered most. My Lord’s name I have not honored as I should; my worship and prayers have faltered. I have not let His love have its way with me, and so my love for others has failed. There are those whom I have hurt, and those whom I have failed to help. My thoughts and desires have been soiled with sin.” (Lutheran Service Book, p 292)
There they are: two thieves, with the Holy One of God in the middle. A thief to his left and a thief to his right, and thieves all around. Everywhere nothing but thieves! See the soldiers cast lots for what was not theirs. Hear the leaders of the people robbing Jesus of the honor due him. Witness his cowardly disciples robbing him of comfort and aid.
Thieves to the left, thieves to the right, thieves all around, for all to him are thieves. You too are thieves. You would rob God of his honor. You claim credit for the blessings which he bestows upon you through his grace. Your whining robs him of his praise. You worry robs him of the integrity of his promises. Your plans for a stress-free life rob him of his prerogative to chastise you. You steal from him a portion of the life he gave you saying, “This is my space! You cannot come here! I’ve had enough, I’ve done my part, I’ve had it up to here! This is my time, my time for self pity, for anger, for lust, for disgruntlement!”
Thieves to the left, thieves to the right, thieves all around, a family of thieves. Our father Adam took what was forbidden. His son Cain took his brother’s life. Jacob connived and took what God had already promised him. King David helped himself to many things. Judas dipped into the apostolic treasury. The brothers James and John tried to rob their apostolic mates of the best seats in the house at Jesus’ left and right. Zacchaeus took from the people and Caesar. Caesar stole the title “Son of God.” False prophets rob God’s people of the truth. Modern science robs him of his title “Creator.” And all too many Christians rob the Lord in their skimpy offerings. We steal from Jesus his honor as Savior by despising his saving gifts of Word and Sacrament. We rob God of the thanks due him by our complaining. We rob the needy by our conspicuous consumption. Thieves to the left, thieves to the right and thieves all around.
But that is not the whole of it. Let me tell you a secret. Shhhhhhhhh! Listen carefully. You’ll hardly believe it. It is the big Epiphany. It is the shocker of all shocks. A thief to the left….. a thief to the right…... but greatest thief is in the middle, on the center cross! The conspiracy of conspiracies! Saint Paul told the Thessalonian Christians, “For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” (1 Thess 5:2) See the thief, the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. He came in the deep of a Judean night. Beguilingly harmless, “A sleep on the hay,” but a thief nonetheless. As he himself said, “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil.” (Lk 11:21) The strong man is the greatest thief of all. Satan, he would’ve taken over heaven had not Saint Michael not cast him down to the earth. In a rage he took us away from our Maker. He locked us up in his palace and we willingly went with him, snatching up the glittering trash he passed out. We would be like God just like our father Adam. We would choose our own way. We would take what isn’t ours. But one stronger than Satan has arrived on the scene, Jesus Christ the Valiant One whom God himself elected. He rifled the strong man’s palace. He rendered his weapons useless. The powder and the shot of his cannon, that is our sins and God’s just judgment, he rendered useless. The volley of God’s wrath against rebellion and sin inflicted a mortal wound upon the Valiant One, but in his dying we live. In his sacrificial and atoning death he spoiled the Tempter’s palace. He took the spoils, poor souls like us, and carries us to his Father’s house. The common thief takes what another has worked for; Jesus takes what belongs to him.
In God’s infinitesimal grace a thief who had no hope in the world was snatched like a burning brand from the fire. One thief plummeted into the Abyss, another heard words unimaginable, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Lk 23:43) Right up to the end the thief remained what he had been, a thief, for he took what another had labored for. His mark was an easy target, for Jesus’ palace of grace is always unlocked, his treasury always open, his purse is always in clear sight. His grace is unaccounted for. He does not ask how often we have stolen our way into his house, nor how much pardon and peace we have made away with. He looks the other way and thieves doomed to perdition make away with his gracious goods. At the very last moment, on a Friday we call Good, a dying thief snatched away an eternity of grace and the gracious owner of the house snatched him away forever.
Dear friends, if the thief gets in, then we all get in. Glory to God in the highest, and peace, good will toward men!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. §
The Reverend Fr. Peter M. Berg is pastor of Our Savior Evangelical-Lutheran Church, Chicago, Illinois.