For many of us “Amen” is probably a background word. It’s the thing that happens at the end of prayers mostly, or a congregational response, the closer of the sermon. In truth, it is a word we say a lot: hundreds, maybe thousands of times a year. It’s also used hundreds of times in the Bible, Old and New Testaments. So, it must be of some value, right? Most certainly and tonight, very specifically. “Amen” comes from a Hebrew verb meaning something like “to confirm”, “to support”. It gives the sense of “certainty”. That’s an important idea for us – certainty. That’s how the writer of Hebrews actually defined faith itself: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Most specifically, tonight, as we listen to Jesus’ second word from the cross, we get an “amen” from him. He says, “I tell you the truth…”, but very literally that’s, “Amen, I tell you…” And what a great gift that “amen” is! Because when Jesus says “amen” we can be certain that what he says is true and what he says we can trust.
Consider what Jesus says to us tonight in his second word from the cross: Jesus answered [the criminal], “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” Here Jesus gives us a certain assurance about the truth around the people in his promise, “you” and “me”. Who does he mean? “You” is directed at one of the criminals. This one had either once committed something so egregious as to earn death, or by a life of repeated crime had gotten to the same. He’s a sinner. And he’s in play because he spoke out and then made a request of Jesus. The other criminal had jeered along with the crowd and said, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” Selfish desperation in the face of coming death. Finally the “other one” says this to the first, “Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence [of death]? We are punished justly for we are getting what our deeds deserve…” Jesus addresses a sinner, justly punished for his sins, undeserving of anything more – by the criminal’s own admission.
There’s always the temptation at the cross to judge the criminal: “If there’s anybody who deserves death, it’s this kind of guy. And if there’s anybody who doesn’t deserve kingdom consideration, it’s this kind of guy. And for him to get in at the end – that’s unfair!” To whom? To people who likewise are regularly in big and small ways criminals against the law of God – have not perfectly kept it? To people who, like the disciples in the upper room, sometimes argue over their own greatness, even in the face of Christ’s humility? The truth here is that you ought to find you in this “you”. We are people, along with that criminal, whose deeds don’t deserve anything from Jesus, people who can confess their own guilt and unworthiness.
And to help here’s the instructive contrast: the truth around the “me” in Jesus’ words. He’s talking about himself – the criminal would be with Jesus. But who is he? From the criminal’s point of view again, “We are punished justly for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Think of this criminal who has maybe spent a few hours with Jesus – and what he’d observed. Maybe he’d trudged through the city with Jesus, heard him speak to the women along the way – not with spite or sarcasm, but with gentle words of warning for their faith. Maybe the criminals had cursed as they were nailed to the crosses, but from Jesus heard nothing except a request that his Father would forgive. And as he hung there, Jesus silently received the insults, mockery, accusations – not a word of defense, nor of anger, not a thing out of place.
Literally, when he says, “[Jesus] has done nothing wrong,” the criminal says, “there’s nothing out of place.” Maybe you remember a mother or a grandmother who had a room in the house that was “just so” and was to remain “just so” and to keep it “just so” you were to remain just outside except when invited. In a room like that nothing is out of place – every curio arranged, every plate spotless, every surface dusted – perfection. Jesus has no thing out of place – every thing small to great, just so. But you know, rooms like that, they’re actually perfection without a purpose – they’re sort of a bauble – Jesus’ perfection is for the best thing…
Think of him with his disciples the night before his death – not taking the greatest position (though deserved) but placing himself as the least (for service). Though he is not even in the category of “sinner”, he serves them who are by suffering humbly and for their good. So that everything will be in place for them – to be part of his kingdom and kings with him. This is the “amen” Jesus gives – the certainty that, though we fit will with criminals in the guilt of sins, he is putting his perfect self in our place so that everything will be just perfect with God for us. The criminal’s request is perfect for us who identify with him, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom.”
Blessedly, Jesus also gives us “Amen!” – certainty – in the promise of Paradise today. Listen to him again, in response, “Amen to you I say, today with me you will be in Paradise.” See in your Savior’s words the beautiful promise to do far more than we can ask or imagine. The criminal – recent convert – is asking Jesus the Messiah, when he comes back in power and glory sometime far off, that he’d simply not forget this man who’d seen the light so late in life. What certainty and comfort Jesus brings! He speaks a promise for that very day! He promises not only to “remember” but that this man will have a place with Jesus, in his immediate presence! And where? Not in some mystical dream-space or some dark spirit waiting room, nor some place where all the crimes he had previously done could be worked out or punished… No! Where? He will be with Jesus in Paradise.
For some paradise is sandy beaches and tropical weather and azure ocean. For others it’s quiet under a wool throw with a loved one in front of a fire. And we can dream about that first Paradise – Eden – what kinds of trees, what kinds of temperatures, what sorts of sounds and smells. But really, God’s basic idea of paradise is very similar to what Jesus says, “you will be with me”. Paradise is like it was for Adam and Eve before the Fall – where it was totally natural to walk with God in the cool of the day. Paradise will be like it promises in Revelation, where every wrong of sin will be no more – rest from labor, no death, no tears, no sorrow, no pain – and to perfectly serve God and be comfortable in his presence as people who have been washed clean of sin and made holy and perfect for him.
This is what Jesus promises his disciples – be they criminals come to faith at the last moment, or those who by faith have known and loved him life-long. When death overtakes us – that day we will be in the presence of Almighty God and absolutely belong – free from every sin and every corruption it brought. The faithful who wait can be certain that the faithful who have gone before them enjoy the most beautiful presence of Jesus in paradise, free from sin. And while we wait and struggle and persevere – that our Savior has promised that we will be with him, that he will not forget, but that his service is bringing for us paradise far greater than we can ask or imagine.
As I was preparing for this sermon, I went hunting after how many times “amen” appears in the Bible. And I ran across a post by Norwegian pastor way back from 1998. His church was considering adding “amens” to their liturgy – didn’t have any. But he was concluding that in Scripture, the Amen was never used by people to confirm a blessing spoken about themselves…so that we shouldn’t sing “Amen, Amen, Amen” after the blessing or that we shouldn’t say “Amen” after the sermon – that would be self-serving. That kind of conclusion always makes you question what you do a bit. Maybe we shouldn’t say amen? How about this instead? There are lots of reasons why I might not say anything good about you or me by nature, but tonight we’ve considered again what Jesus says. There we saw and heard who we are and who Jesus is for us sinners. There we considered what Paradise he promises by his work. And tonight I’d have us say this: if Jesus says “amen” that there is paradise, forgiveness, and peace for a sinner like me, isn’t it service to our Savior that his disciples agree with him and say the same? Hear Jesus’ second word, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise,” and say,
“Absolutely!”, “Without doubt!”, “It’s true!” and “Amen!”