Last Wednesday night, I was ordained into the ministry by my church. Surrounded by my friends, family, and mentors, I was able to share and confirm my calling with those I love. It was an incredible night, and I am so thankful for everyone who played a part in it.
For my blog post this week, I'd like to share the sermon I wrote and delivered for this service. It's something that I've been thinking through for the past couple of years, and I think it represents my hopes for my ministry going forward. I've embedded the video below, but I've also included my manuscript in case you'd rather read it. As many of you know firsthand, I'm a much more natural writer than speaker.
Either way, I hope you enjoy it.
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” —Luke 23:39-43
If you ever attend a Passover seder, you might notice something a little peculiar. Sure, you’ll see the expected Passover lamb and unleavened bread. We know all about that. But then you’ll also see the cups. As part of the meal, everyone gets a cup of… well, Free Will Baptists call it “grape juice.” There’s one for mom, one for dad, maybe one for grandma and grandpa, and one for every aunt and uncle, too. But once all the cups have been passed out, you might notice that there’s still one more. There’s an extra cup just sitting there, full, ready for someone to drink it. And you might wonder, “Who could that be for?”
And if you get up the courage to ask, the family members will be happy to tell you exactly who that extra cup is for. It’s for the prophet Elijah. As you probably remember from the book of 2 Kings, Elijah’s life didn’t end the way human lives normally do. Whereas most people throughout history have died, had funerals, and been buried, Elijah took a different, more theatrical, route. You see, when Elijah’s time had come, he did not go gentle into that good night. Instead, he rode off into the sky in a chariot made of fire, leaving nothing but his cloak and his stupefied apprentice behind.
And it only makes sense that if Elijah went riding off into the sunset, he’s got to come back down eventually. He never actually died, after all. And good Jewish families want to be sure that if the prophet shows up for dinner, they’ll be ready for him. And so, every Passover seder, they set out an extra cup just for Elijah in case he decides to grace them with his presence that evening.
Now, I’m not telling you this to make fun of this practice. In fact, I think it’s beautiful. It highlights a truth that these Passover celebrants are often better at recognizing than we often are. It celebrates the fact that we worship a God who loves to make exceptions to the rules.
And don’t you just love it when you get to be the exception to the rule? It makes you feel special, right? I remember when my family and I went to Disney World, we had the best time. My brother had just had knee surgery, so he was in wheelchair, which meant that we got to go the front of all the lines! We didn’t have to wait 45 minutes to get on the Tower of Terror like all of those able-bodied suckers in the back. No, we got to march right up to the front and hop on in no time as everyone else gave us death stares and we just smiled.
We like to be the exception to the rule. It’s fun when you get that free refill at your favorite restaurant. Or when you get to use that coupon that expired yesterday. And I think most of us have experienced the relief that comes when you get caught driving just a little faster than you should be and the officer lets you off with a warning. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have rules. Rules are in place for a reason. But we all have times when we enjoy the benefit of being the exception.
And in our text from Luke, we see another example of someone who benefitted from being the exception to the rule. The man being crucified next to Jesus wasn’t a saint by any means. We know that at the very least, he was a thief, and who knows what else he did to get himself up on there on that cross? Whatever it was, he clearly felt like he deserved what he was getting. Little did he know that he was about to get so much more than he deserved.
Can you imagine what it must have felt like for that thief when Jesus looked him in the eyes and said, “Today, you will be with me in paradise”? If I were him, I would be dumbstruck: “Wait a second. I’m being killed for my crimes, and here the savior of the world is telling me that I’m going to go hang out with him when this is all over? How did we get here?”
You see, that thief was mere hours away from a terrible fate. He’d lived his life, he’d made his choices, and now, he was about to suffer the consequences of what he had done. When Jesus turned and looked at that man, he saw someone headed for hell. But when he looked away just a few moments later, everything had changed. With one sentence, Jesus reversed the trajectory of that man’s eternity.
It wasn’t anything that that man had done. He hadn’t made any sacrifice or prayed any special prayer. He just… hung there as Jesus declared that he was saved. This thief was the first person to receive eternal life through Jesus Christ, and he received it for no other reason than that Jesus chose to give it to him.
That, my friends, is the greatest exception to any rule in all of history. A human soul on its way to hell suddenly changed course by the grace of God, and now, that thief will spend eternity in heaven. The importance, the innovation, the incredible nature of this event cannot be understated. In this moment, God made an exception to the rule, and it changed everything.
God made an exception for Elijah. He made an exception for the thief on the cross. And he continues to make exceptions to this day.
The truth is that each of us in this room who are Christians have benefitted from being made exceptions to the rules. The rules say that anyone who commits sin, who turns away from God, who participates in the brokenness of this world, is deserving of separation from God, spiritual death, and eternal punishment. That’s what the rules state, clear as day. But praise God, he made an exception out of each and every one of us. God broke his own rules. He broke into history, overcame sin and death, and gave each of us an opportunity to be an exception to the rule. To know him. To be reconciled to him. And to live forever with him. Aren’t you thankful for that?
And as I read this story and reflect on what it means for God to make exceptions to the rules for us, it makes me wonder about ways that we can share in that, ways that we can make exceptions to the rules for others.
The rules say, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Except, Jesus taught us to forgive others rather than to seek revenge.
The rules say, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” Except, my church has a food bank every Monday from 1:00 to 3:00. Won’t you come?
The rules say, “A preacher can’t have a haircut like that!” Except, here I am. Sure, my church family likes to poke fun at me for my (admittedly unorthodox) hairstyle, but they don’t mean it negatively. Many of the people at my church are as old-school as they come. And yet, they accept me with all of my quirks. As trivial as it may sound, they’ve made an exception out of me in this, and I can’t thank them enough.
The rules say that our society is divided on social, racial, economic, and political lines that cannot be crossed and cannot be reconciled. Except, the Bible tells us that, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus“ (Galatians 3.28). And may I add that in Christ, there is no black or white, no rich or poor, no liberal or conservative. We are called to be the exception to the rules that try to divide us.
The rules say that this world is a broken place full of fallen people and that nothing good can come of any of it. The rules say that we are selfish, sinful people who aren’t interested in anything except our own well-being. The rules say that we are helpless in the face of the evil that surrounds us and that all that’s left for us to do is to give in. Except, we worship a God who sets us free from all of that. Who breaks the rules for us and invites us to do the same for others.
We serve a God of order. A God who made the rules that we adhere to. But we also serve a God of grace. A God who makes exceptions to the rules, who performs miracles, who lets us off the hook when we clearly don’t deserve it.
Here’s the thing about grace. In the words of one of my favorite musicians, “The beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair.” It’s not fair when an exception is made to the rules, and some people may not like that. But we serve a God who has a habit of making expectations to the rules, and my hope for my ministry is that I can share the grace that’s been given to me, that I will alway seek ways to share that exception-making with as many people as possible. And I invite you to do the same.