March 4, 2018
Perhaps you look at the sermon title for today and wonder who these two people are. Most of you probably made the connection for who Billy is...Just As I Am was the signature song at his crusades. It is also the title of his autobiography. The Christian nation has mourned his passing this past week as he laid in state at his home and at the capital building, funeral on Friday. Of course I'm talking about Billy Graham. I am curious, how many of you have been to a Billy Graham crusade? I went to the one at the old Met Stadium in 1973. A confession though; I was invited by my girlfriend and my mind was much more occupied with her than with the message. Teenagers, right?
Don Mackay gave me an article last Sunday, Billy Graham Bore Witness for 99 Years. “The world listened to Graham...because he wasn't selling something. He was bearing witness.” It included an astounding statement about Billy Graham; but as we consider it, don't you think it might be true? “ He was perhaps the most significant evangelist since the Apostle Paul.”
Now as to the next name, legend gives Demas as the name of one of the thieves that died on the cross alongside Jesus, the one who received the promise of life from Jesus.
32 There were also two others, criminals, led with Him to be put to death. 33 And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right hand and the other on the left. 34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” And they divided His garments and cast lots. 35 And the people stood looking on. But even the rulers with them sneered, saying, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is the Christ, the chosen of God.”
36 The soldiers also mocked Him, coming and offering Him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself.”
38 And an inscription also was written over Him in letters of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew:
THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.
39 Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.”
40 But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”
43 And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
Demas was a criminal. He was most likely Jewish and he'd have been taught the ten commandments we heard Don read. But judging from where we find him, he probably did not keep to them. Hanging there on the cross, he defended Jesus then made a most simple statement of faith. The other thief, the one Luke says blasphemed against Jesus, has been called Cestus. I want to contrast the two thieves as presented in the gospel, then bring Billy Graham and his message back into the picture.
Let's go to our reading. Jesus and the two thieves were led to Calvary, which is Latin for “the skull”, the name of the place they crucified them. It is also known by it's Aramaic name, Golgotha. They put Jesus between the two thieves. This could have been to send a message of humiliation for Jesus. He was righteous, but plunked down in the middle of thieves sentenced to death for their crimes. The sinless son of God, perfect goodness in the middle of sin and death. But if we look at how Jesus spent his ministry, it was in the middle of sin, and death and disease and evil. He spent little time with the people who appeared the most righteous. We have a savior who understands the worse of who and what we may be; and loves us enough to die for us.
Luke doesn't describe the crucifixion itself, suffice it to say it is a most painful way to die. And the death actually comes from asphyxiation. In order to breath hanging on that cross meant lifting yourself up so your diaphragm can move and allow a breath. Talking would take a tremendous effort. Jesus lifted himself up to pray forgiveness for those involved in the deed. But he got no respect from the soldiers or the people looking on or the rulers. Less than respect; as he was taunted from all sides.
Even the thief Cestus worked himself up on his cross to challenge Jesus, “If you are the Christ, save yourself and us.” I think we can understand his sentiment, he was suffering and here was a man who's legacy was miraculous healings. Why not bring down a miracle now? “Save yourself and us.” Save...us.... That's what Jesus came for. Earlier, Luke quoted Jesus saying, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19: 10) The very name Jesus comes from the Aramaic word to save. But he didn't come to save us from the physical suffering in the world. His mission was bigger than that. Cestus would ask the question so many of us have asked, “Why is God making me suffer?” We see that he is suffering for his crimes. But we also know and have experienced suffering that is not directly our fault. Jesus doesn't promise to save us from suffering, rather he promises to walk with us through the suffering, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of death”...the Lord promises to be with us. Jesus saves, but not from the trials and tribulations of this earth.
The “good” thief, Demas, for some reason, he was able to look beyond the pain and the taunts. He saw something more in this man whose crime was written over him: “This is the King of the Jews.” Judy likes the phrase “God moment”. I'd call this a momentous God moment. God revealed to Demas the truth of who Jesus was. Note that when Cestus taunted Jesus, he began, “If you are the Christ...” Demas makes no such condition, “Lord, remember me.” Both thieves faced the same situation. But their prayers stand in stark contrast to one another. Cestus, a prayer for relief with a challenge to the Lord to answer. But Demas, his prayer a humble request, noting both the position of Jesus and his own need for the Christ to save him. What great faith. Somehow Demas understood what the rest of the people gathered there didn't. He understood what even his disciples hadn't yet grasped: Jesus came to earth to be both victim and Lord. And Jesus invited him to paradise.
I reworked a little skit that Max Lucado wrote in He Chose the Nails. Imagine that Demas has reached the pearly gates and is undergoing his entrance interview. Now it wouldn't have been St. Peter there because Peter, as we know, was hiding somewhere in Jerusalem at this time. Let's say an angel with a clipboard greets Demas,
Angel: Now tell me, Mr. Demas, how did you come to be saved?
Demas: I just asked Jesus to remember me in his kingdom. Sure didn't expect it to happen so quickly.
Angel: And just how did you know he was a king?
Demas: There was a sign over his head: This is the king of the Jews. I believed the sign and—here I am.
Angel: (writing on note pad) believed...a...sign.
Demas: That's right. The sign must have been put there by an apostle, John maybe?
Angel: No, that isn't right.
Demas: Hmmm, maybe it was that other fellow, Peter?
Angel: Nope, wasn't Peter either.
Demas: Then which apostle did it?
Angel: Well, if you really want to know, the sign was Pilate's idea.
Demas: No kidding, Pilate?? Would've never guessed.
Angel: Don't be so surprised. God used a bush to call Moses and a big fish to get Noah's attention. There is nothing that God won't use to get our attention.
Demas was lost, dying on the cross, but God got his attention at last. In those moments with Jesus, he recognized what the disciples didn't get until the resurrection: Jesus has the power over sin and death. And all we need do is believe. Believe in Jesus the Messiah. This exchange confirms what we have learned, Jesus didn't come as an earthly king to rule in power. He came as both victim and Lord; Suffering Servant and Reigning King; Sacrificial Lamb and King of kings.
Demas didn't have to learn the theology of the Christian faith, the right doctrine isn't what saved him. And it made little sense that the king was hanging on a cross. But as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified”. Three men were dying on the cross that day. One recognized the kingship of Jesus and believed, “remember me when you come into your kingdom!” He recognized the majesty of Jesus...while they were both dying naked on a cross. And that made all the difference.
This story is often explained as teaching that it is never to late to recognize Jesus as Savior. But I think Demas teaches us more than that. He, more than any other person in the gospels, shows that it is only by grace that we can receive the promise of paradise. Demas could do absolutely no good works to justify the promise of Jesus. He could make no claim of his good works or a life well lived. It was all grace for him. We need to recognize that it is all grace for each of us as well; not anything we can do or have done. We need to recognize that Jesus is Savior and Lord who gave his life that we might live.
In 1957 Graham held a major crusade in Madison Square Garden in New York. It lasted 31/2 months with 2 million people attending. He taught this same truth by telling his listeners to be aware of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. He told them that is is not because you live in a Christian country, nor if you have Christian parents. It isn't going to church or living a decent life; goodness, morality, virtue are not what connect us with Jesus. It is trusting in the grace of Jesus; just as Demas had to do to receive the promise of eternity. Have you connected with Jesus by trusting in his promises, by making a personal connection with the Son of God?
Billy Graham dedicated his life to helping people do just that. His message can be summarized, “The world is fallen, Christ is alive and Jesus loves us-just as we are.” We come to Jesus just as we are with no claim of special privilege or resume' of good works. Like Demas, Jesus welcomes us simply because we come to him in faith. Romans 10:,9 “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Billy taught it and Demas demonstrated it...it is that simple. Amen.
Hymn: Just As I Am 260 HLC