On Dec. 15, 2011—after 62 years on earth, the clock finally hit zero! The combination of Stage 4 cancer and pneumonia were too much to overcome as news started to leak out all over the country and world that Christopher Hitchens was dead! The New York Times bestselling author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and leader of the New Atheist Movement was suddenly no more. Naturally, his death prompted responses from the secular, scientific, and scholarly world who lauded his intellect, prose and brilliance. More surprising however, was the outpouring from the religious world: Rick Warren tweeted, “My friend Christopher Hitchens has died. I loved & prayed for him constantly & grieve his loss. He knows the Truth now.” Lee Strobel- atheist turned Christian author shared, “I was among many who shared Christ with him; so sad he rejected the Gospel.” Until the very end people were holding out hope that on his deathbed, Hitchens would turn from for atheist to ally.
From Luke 23:39-46, we are able to turn our gaze towards Eater, seeing through the Eyes of the two thieves on the cross, one on the right and the other on the left, as the earthly life of Christ ticked down to zero!
The first thief on the cross uses his final breaths to verbally condemn Jesus. Luke 23:39- One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” The thief like Hitchens, until the very end, used his strength to join in the mocking of the King of the Jews. The thief wanted power as seen through performance, rather than power display through restraint. The thief’s words resemble those of Satan’s in the desert during the 40 days Jesus faced temptation. “If you are the Son of God”–the angels will “lift you up in their hands so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” The irony, is that the one whom angels would protect, would be a stumbling block to those who mocked the Son of man. Proverbs 4:19 reminds us of the confusion outside of Christ, “But the way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble.” The thief mocked the only one who had the power to save him.
In the book Reading for Preaching, Cornelius Plantinga Jr. tells the story of Seth MacFarlane. Many of you may recognize the name from the popular animated cartoon comedy “The Family Guy.” During an NPR interview host Terry Gross asked MacFarlane about 9/11. “It seems that on that day of national tragedy MacFarlane had been booked on American Airlines Flight 11, Boston to LA, but he had arrived late at Logan airport and missed it.” Later in the morning Flight 11 was flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. At 29 years old his life should have been over, the clock clicked down suddenly and violently in fire, smoke, and national sadness. Yet stunningly he was alive and well, free to live on! Asked later in the interview: “After that narrow escape, do you think of the rest of your life as a gift?”
“No,” said MacFarlane. “That experience didn’t change me at all. It made no difference in the way I live my life. It made no difference in the way I look at things. It was just a coincidence.”
To be so close to a life-changing moment of transformation, like a marathoner who can finally see the finish line, only to miss it all together. The heartbreaking truth is that for millions of people outside of the church, they experience life like MacFarlane, like the first thief, being so close to the presence of Christ, nearly seeing who is his, and what he has come to do, only to miss it completely! Yet inside the church we are far from off the hook on missing the chances for transformation. When we spot a homeless person at the stop sign we are approaching we become uncontrollable interested in the inner-working of the radio we start fiddling with or we chalk up the kids who walk to school without a coat simply to lousy parenting. The appeal of not-knowing, the safety of ignorance, the comfort of cloudiness is far often the status quo.
Instead of living in this way, we have the opportunity to come into the light of righteousness—to drive away paralysis of darkness. What will you take away from the cross this Easter? Will you be like the first thief who ended the day spiritually as dead as his crucified body, with hardness of heart, living and dying with the status quo, the mocking muse, and the impatient demands or will you embrace the King of Kings? Reaching out, Christ came to die in our place on the cross, so that by touching the face of God himself our futures are seal in the splendor of divine love to reveal the greatest truth of all: Grace Wins!