(To the members of St John’s and Trinity, the citizens of New Minden and Hoyleton, to all those affected by the storms of life and seek from the Lord great and abundant mercy; grace, mercy, and peace be with you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.)
How do you comfort someone who is almost literally going through hell? That is the pastoral task that was before Jesus Himself as He hung on the cross between two thieves. “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” begs the one.
What do you say to someone like that? How do you offer them comfort, hope, assurance that everything is going to be ok? What could even Jesus possibly have to offer this man now?
What could I possibly say to comfort you? You who have lost friends and neighbors? You who have lost homes, buildings, pets, a livelihood? You who are at times so overwhelmed by the size and the scope of what needs to be done to move forward that you don’t know whether to get started or to run and hide? You who are begging to be remembered?
What can one pastor say to another, or one congregation to another, who has lost their sanctuary? What words are there?
The thief, of course, suffers justly. He even admits as much to Jesus face. He is a scoundrel, who deserves the punishment he receives, harsh though it may be.
For you, however, there is no direct cause and effect. The tornado did not come because you missed church on Sunday, or because you fought with your spouse, or even, as one news channel reported, because “Father” Mueller celebrated “Mass” at the Lutheran church Sunday morning.
No. Rather, God sees the sin of the whole world. He sees us all, sinners through and through, and He wants to warn us. God sends disaster so that we may know what the world looks like without Him in it. This storm ripped through our region to give us a glimpse, just a short vision, of hell. He shows us this so that we may repent of sin, large and small, and turn to Him.
The thief on the cross sees this first hand. He sees what it is like to go through hell, although he does not experience it. He sees it, not in his own life, but in the fading life of the man next to him, the Son of God crucified for all men.
Jesus Christ suffers through a death completely devoid of God’s goodness. He is forsaken, abandoned upon the cross, to atone for all the sin, all the evil, all awful things that the thief has ever done, that you and I have ever done.
Because the Son of God suffered hell, the thief does not. That very day he was in paradise.
I cannot promise you that today you will be in paradise, at least not in the same way that the thief was. But I do promise this: because Jesus Christ has suffered hell, you will not. You are remembered in His kingdom.
Jesus remembered you at the cross as He prayed, “Father, forgive them…”. There He wiped away the stain of sin from your conscience. He remembered you at your baptism. There He put His name on you. Jesus claimed you as His own, as a citizen of His kingdom. He will not forget who belongs to Him.
He remembers you today, gathering you here to be consoled by His word. Today He wants you to hear Him: “I will never leave you nor forsake you. I am with you always.” This disaster cannot make Him forget you.
Jesus will remember you on the last day, when He calls you by name from the grave. “Where O death is thy victory? Thanks be to God who gives us the victory over death through Jesus Christ our Lord.” You will rise again, immortal, to live in His kingdom forever.
He remembers you by sending His army to your aid. Normally we think of the angels as “the army of God”. And certainly they are a great and powerful heavenly host, but that is not who I am talking about tonight. Those who belong to the kingdom of Jesus are His hands and His feet in this world. We are the body of Christ.
The neighbors who called to see if you were ok, they are the body of Christ. The woman who put her arms around you and prayed; she is the body of Christ. The strangers who stopped by and picked up scrap metal for hours on end; they are the body of Christ. Those who cooked meals, offered shelter, gave hugs, prayed without ceasing; they are the love and compassion of Jesus Christ in action.
Jesus remembered you in His kingdom. He remembered that He cleansed you at the cross, that He claimed you in baptism, that He will call you by name on the last day. And He sent His kingdom, His body, to your aid. And He will continue to do so.
Jesus Christ never forgets His people. He came into this world to make for Himself a holy people. He will always remember them. He will always remember you.
Like the thief on the cross, you have come as close to hell as you ever hope to get. And tonight you also have a glimpse of paradise. You have seen the kingdom of God gathered to help and serve. Now you see them gathered to receive His Word, and to await from His great and abundant mercy.
Keep praying, “Lord, remember me in Your kingdom.” And have confidence, because He will never forget. Amen.