This is the second in a 5-part Lenten sermon series called “He Chose the Nails,” based on Max Lucado’s book by the same title.
Scripture: Matthew 27:38-44; Luke 23:39-43
My brother, Todd, is 2 years younger than me, and my sister, Kourtney, is 8 years younger than me. Even though we all grew up in the same household, had the same resources at our fingertips, went to the same schools, went to the same church, were a part of the same youth group—despite all the sameness in lives, it should come as no surprised that we have different interests and abilities, have a different focus in life, and have raised our children differently. And that’s because we’re three different people. However, when it comes to the deeper aspects of life—our morals, our life-choices, our guiding values and principles, and our basic stations in life, it happens to be that we’re pretty close to each other. Most of us would chalk that up to the fact that we receive the same basic nurturing growing up.
We sometimes marvel when two children who were raised by the same parents, in the same household, under the same conditions, turn out so different from one another. Not so much when they display different interests and abilities. But when one of them generally makes the kinds of choices that lead them down a path of success while the other seems to constantly make the opposite choices, which lead them down a path of self-destruction. Both had the same nurturing, but took such different paths in life.
If you don’t know who the man on the left is, count yourself in good company. His name was Edwin. In the prime of his life he was a well-known stage actor, but today he’s not well known, and very few recognize him. In April of 1865, his family was thrust into the public’s eye, the cause of it bringing shame upon the whole family. Edwin was forced into retirement, and probably never would have turned his life around had it not been for an unplanned opportunity to which he responded without thought or hesitation. He was standing on the platform at a train station when a well-dress young man, pressed by the crowd, lost his footing and fell between the platform and the moving train. Without hesitation, Edwin locked a leg around the railing, grabbed the man, and pulled him to safety. Weeks later he found out that the young man he’d saved was Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of President Abraham Lincoln.
Now, do you recognize this man? He’s John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated President Lincoln. The family tragedy I mentioned earlier was this assassination Because the brother of John Wilkes Booth was Edwin Thomas Booth. How ironic that while one brother killed the president, the other brother saved the president’s son.
Edwin and John Booth. Same father, same mother, same profession (stage acting), and same passion—yet one chooses life, the other, death.
What accounts for this? How about freedom of choice? Part of being created in God’s image is that we’ve been given the ability to choose for ourselves—regardless of our upbringing, or our level of wealth, or our education. We all have the power and freedom to choose.
Consider these folks in the Bible.
Abel and Cain, both sons of Adam and Eve.
Abel chooses God.
Cain chooses murder.
And God lets him choose.
Abraham and his nephew Lot, both pilgrims in Canaan.
Abraham chooses God.
Lot Chooses Sodom.
And God lets him choose.
David and Saul, both kings of Israel.
David chooses God.
Saul chooses power.
And God lets him choose.
Peter and Judas, both deny their Lord.
Peter seeks mercy.
Judas seeks death—his own.
And God lets him choose.
As author Max Lucado points out in his book, He Chose the Nails, “in every age of history, on every page of Scripture, the truth is revealed: God allows us to make our own choices.” Even if what we choose is destructive, or unfulfilling, or leads to a dead-end or nothing at all. Just as Jesus chose the nails of the cross, so each one of us given the freedom to choose what we will — whether it leads to health and life, or costs us or others dearly.
One of the most common arguments used to deny the existence of God goes like this: This world is full of suffering and pain and turmoil, much of it the result of people hurting people. If God is all-loving, he wouldn’t want this kind of suffering to happen. And if he’s all-powerful, then he wouldn’t allow it to keep going. And since it’s real, and it continues, then there must not be a God. In other words, because people knowingly choose to hurt other people, then there must not be a God.
But that’s just it. For reasons that we will never understand while on this side of Heaven, God has ordained life on this planet such that we have the freedom and power to choose to hurt other people. But….We also have the freedom and power to choose to fight back against injustice. To help people who are hurting. To work to make life better and more just. We can choose to ignore the problems, to turn a blind eye away from them. Or we can choose to be involved in finding solutions. We can choose to let someone else do it. Or we can choose to serve. It’s our choice.
One of the things God doesn’t want are puppets for his people. I could program a robot tell me every day, “I love you, Drew.” But that forced declaration of love is empty and meaningless. It doesn’t tell me that because it really feels that way. It tells me that because I told it to. It’s has no choice.
Likewise with us, God wants nothing to do with forced obedience. Or forced love. No, he desires the real thing from us, and that requires a choice. Truly choosing God requires that we have the choice to reject him. Let me say that again. Truly choosing God requires that we have the choice to reject him. Otherwise it’s not a choice, right? If we can reject him, then choosing him is a true choice on our part. Forced love is no love at all. God wants the real thing from us, and so he gives us the ability and freedom to choose otherwise.
Here’s something Jesus said about choices. “You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.” (Mt. 7:13-14)
According to Jesus, here are our choices. We can choose:
- a narrow gate or a wide gate
- the narrow gate leads to life, and the wide gate leads to destruction
- a narrow road or a wide road
- the narrow road is the pathway of life, and it’s more difficult to navigate;
- the wide road is the pathway of destruction, and it’s easy to find and stay on
- the small crowd or the big crowd
- the small crowd are the few who actually choose the go through the narrow gate and walk the narrow road;
- the large crowd are the majority of people—including many good Church-going folk—who choose the easy way, the wide road
Every one of us here gets to make our own choice which gate we’ll enter, which path we’ll follow, which crowd we’ll surround ourselves with.
Jesus tells us we have some other choices. We can choose to:
- build our lives on the rock or the sand (Mt. 7.24-27)
- serve God or riches (Mt. 6.24)
- be numbered among the sheep or the goats (Mt. 25.32-33).
In each case, it comes down to a choice between life or death. Wellbeing or destruction. Good or bad. Wise or unwise. Now remember, God will never force or manipulate us, but will allow us to make our own choice. And then we either reap the benefits of a good choice, or deal with the consequences of a bad choice.
Consider the two criminals crucified alongside Jesus. Two different men who have a lot in common. They’re convicted by the same system. Condemned to the same torturous death. Surrounded by the same crowd of people. Equally near to Jesus as they hang on their respective crosses. And according to Matthew, they begin to mock Jesus with the same sarcasm. Matthew recorded that these two men, “ridiculed him in the same way” that the crowds did.
But at some point one of those criminals changed his tune. According to Luke,
“One of the criminals hanging beside him scoffed, “So you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself—and us, too, while you’re at it!” But the other criminal protested, “Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”
And how does Jesus respond? With love and grace. He says to the man, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
He didn’t promise the same to the other criminal, did he? And that’s because he made his choice. At the moment he took his final breath, he’d chosen to remain bitter and unrepentant. And from what we can tell, he died in his sins. But the second man changed his mind, and chose a different path. The path of repentance and forgiveness. And ultimately, the path of life.
Every one of us, no matter what we’re dealing with right now, has a choice as to how to respond. Though neither God nor I will force you to choose it, my prayer and hope is that whatever is happening in your life today, you’ll respond with grace… and love… and mercy… and kindness. That you will choose hope… and light. That you will choose to listen to and act accordingly when a friend tells you, “it hurts now, but it will get better.” That you will choose to bite your tongue and not retaliate in kind the next time that person speaks unkindly to you. That you instead of remind someone how much they’ve let you down, instead you’ll look and find something to thank them for. The list of choices is endless.
There’s one choice that’s most important of all. And that’s choosing Jesus Christ. He won’t force himself on anyone. But he does issue the invitation: “Follow me.” At that point, it’s up to us to decide what we’ll do.
Choosing to follow him will lead you down a path of blessing, riches (though rarely monetary), deep joy, purpose, delight. But it also comes with a cross to bear. Choosing to follow him means choosing his way over my way, his life over my life, his perspective over my perspective. But the truth is, when we choose this path, eventually we see that it was the right choice, the best choice. And in the end, the only choice that results in eternal life.
It was a choice offered to the thieves on either side of Jesus. One refused it, and the other accepted it. What, dear friend, will you choose?