Jeremy Sarber
Pastor and Bible teacher

A Christian mother joins the penitent thief of Luke 23 in paradise

I officiated the funeral of Sharon Rice, 80, at Billings Funeral Home in Elkhart, Indiana on October 13, 2019. Luke 23:39-43, the penitent thief hanging next to Christ at his crucifixion, was the focus of my message.

Welcome and invocation

On behalf of Cindy, Amy, and their entire family, I want to thank you all for being here. Your presence alone is more encouraging to them than you probably know, so thank you for coming today.

My prayer is that we can accomplish three things this afternoon. First of all, I want us to honor the life and memory of Ms. Sharon Rice. Second, I want us to lift up her family with our love and support. And third, I pray we will glorify God who created Ms. Sharon, gave her life, redeemed her, and blessed countless people through her.

To that end, let’s pray.

Our heavenly and gracious Father, we seek the presence of your Spirit here today. Fill our hearts with the peace of Christ, your Son. Renew our minds with thoughts of your incredible promises as we reflect on the life of your dear child, Sharon. Help us, Lord, to honor you as we honor her. Allow her family’s sorrow to be balanced with joy and hope. Bless us, Lord, as only you can. In Christ’s name. Amen.

Music

The Bible often uses rain as an analogy to the outpouring of God’s blessings. For example, Jesus said of God, He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt 5:45). In other words, God extends a degree of grace to all of his creation.

That thought came to my mind as I read the lyrics of the song we’re about to hear. A box of rain will ease the pain, and love will see you through,” says The Grateful Dead. This song is special to Amy, in particular, and we’ve printed the words so you can read as you listen.

[“Box of Rain” by The Grateful Dead]

I love music. I especially love songs that are open to interpretation. You may hear one thing while I hear another, but the lyrics have meaning to each of us nonetheless. That’s just one of the extraordinary powers of music.

Scripture reading and remembrance

Through the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, God says, Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isa 41:10).

God speaks with remarkable tenderness in this passage. Are you afraid? God says, Fear not” (Isa 41:10). Do you feel alone or abandoned? God says, I am with you”. Are you unsettled or disturbed? God says, Be not dismayed”. Are you weak? God says, I will strengthen you. I will help you. I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Why? For I am your God,” he says.

Notice the personal designation God uses. He is not a God or the God, but your God (Isa 41:10). Like all loving fathers (or mothers), he cares about his children. He does not want them to be afraid, alone, unsettled, or helpless. He is willing to go to incredible lengths to rescue them, to rescue us from danger and despair. Fear not,” he goes on to say, I am the one who helps you” (Isa 41:15).

According to the book of Genesis, God created man in his own image; male and female he created them (Ge 1:27). We bear a resemblance to God. By his design and purpose, we share many of his attributes.

As I listened to the stories Cindy and Amy told me about their mom, I thought about the many ways in which she bore God’s image. Namely, she was a fantastic mother who was willing to make sacrifice after sacrifice for the good of her children. If that sounds familiar to you, perhaps you’re acquainted with the gospel of Jesus Christ. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (Jn 3:16). God gave himself in the person of Jesus, his Son, to save his children.

I think Sharon’s example puts many parents to shame. For instance, how many parents would go to their daughter’s college class, sit through a long, boring, relatively complicated lecture, and take extensive notes because their daughter was sick and unable to be there? I fear I would tell my own daughter, Feel better soon. I’m sure you’ll get caught up on your schoolwork soon enough.” It would not cross my mind to attend class for her. It will now thanks to Sharon, but I would not have thought of it on my own.

When Sharon’s family needed extra money for college among other things, she didn’t apologize to her children and say, I’m sorry. We just don’t have the money.” Instead, she spent night after night digging in the mud to find night crawlers she could sell. I’m told she did pretty well at it, too.

Some parents are great about financially supporting their children, but fail to support them in other ways. Think of the father who works hard to put food on the table, but never goes to his kids’ little league games or helps them with homework. Sharon, on the other hand, did it all. For example, she supported Amy through years of competitive swimming. She supported Cindy on her long road to becoming a nurse. Suffice it to say, I admire her. She faithfully bore the image of God in the ways she loved and provided for her children.

I’m sure you have many of your own stories about Sharon to tell, so I invite you to do so now. How would you describe her? What kind of impact did she have on you? Tell us one of your favorite memories of her.

You don’t have to come up to the podium. Just stay at your seat. You may sit or stand. If you prefer, we’ll bring you a wireless microphone, or you’re welcome to speak without one. I know public speaking can be difficult, but you’re among family and friends. Just imagine yourself sitting around the dinner table, sharing memories with one another.

I believe Cindy has offered to go first.

[Family and friends share memories]

Thank you, everyone.

Music

Let’s take a brief moment to reflect as we listen to Dancing In the Sky.”

[“Dancing In the Sky” by Dani and Lizzy]

Scripture reading and message

Luke’s Gospel describes for us the crucifixion of Jesus. Among its details, we learn the Roman soldiers crucified two criminals on either side of Jesus. We read:

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at Jesus, 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 Jesus said to him, Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)

As Jesus hung on the cross, everyone mocked him. The Jews, the Romans, and even the criminals who hung on their own crosses hurled insults at him because he claimed to be the Son of God, Messiah, and King of kings. What kind of divine King would let himself be crucified like a lowly miscreant? He deserves to be mocked for his outrageous claims, they thought.

Luke’s Gospel doesn’t provide the whole story. Matthew and Mark, however, tell us the robbers, plural, who were crucified with Jesus also reviled him as everyone else did (Mt 27:44). Two thieves reviled him, but one of those men abruptly changed in the midst of this event. Suddenly and without explanation, one criminal turns on the other, rebukes him, and says, 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,” speaking of Jesus, has done nothing wrong” (Lk 23:40-41). Evidently, his heart underwent a dramatic transformation in that moment.

What happened? I believe the thief experienced what Sharon experienced not too long ago. First, he began to fear God. Why should anyone fear God? Second, he recognized his guilt before God. He knew he deserved to be condemned and crucified because he had violated God’s perfect law. The Bible says, None is righteous, no, not one (Ro 3:10).

Third—and here’s the good news—the thief realized Jesus is innocent, yet he was willing to suffer the wrath of God against our sin. As the Bible says elsewhere, For our sake God made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2Co 5:21).

So the penitent thief turns to Christ and says, Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42). He makes a simple, humble request. He doesn’t ask for eternal life. He doesn’t request a prominent place in God’s kingdom. He doesn’t say, Spare me, Lord. Save me from this agonizing death.” No, he wants only to be remembered by Jesus when Jesus enters the kingdom.

Even so, Christ responds, Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43).

While Sharon may not have been a convicted thief, her experience was equally profound. She feared God, felt the weight of her sin, and turned to Christ, the Savior. In her heart, she pleaded, Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom (Lk 23:42). And in her heart, Jesus assured her, Truly, I say to you, you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43).

The Greek translation of the Old Testament uses the same word, paradise, to describe the Garden of Eden (Lk 23:43). It’s a place of perfection. It’s the dwelling place of God (Rev 21:3). It is where God is with man and will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore (Rev 21:4).

Today, Sharon is in paradise. She is free from every struggle and burden. The pains and problems she’s carried throughout her life, especially these last twenty years, are finished. Today, you may weep, but you aren’t crying for her. We don’t need to pity her. She now stands in the warm presence of her loving, heavenly Father. He has wiped away her tears, and never again will another roll down her cheek. Never.

But the story of Sharon’s redemption doesn’t end with her soul going to heaven. God will not be satisfied until he has made her thoroughly whole. In the Bible, the apostle Paul writes:

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

Death is swallowed up in victory.” O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:51-55, 57)

In other words, Sharon will not remain a disembodied soul forever. She will walk again. She will talk again. God will redeem even her body and make it new. And unlike before, her mind will never be devastated by dementia. Her hands will never bend beyond her control. She will appear more radiant than ever in a glorified, imperishable, immortal body. That is why Job of the Old Testament could say, After my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:26).

I thank God for the hope he has given us and pray you will hold on to that hope. I encourage you to keep Sharon in your heart while you gladly anticipate the day when, by God’s grace, you will see her again.

Prayer

You should have a copy of the Lord’s Prayer. Will you recite it with me?

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen. (Matthew 6:9-13)

Music

Let’s hear one last song before we bring this service to a close. As the lyrics so aptly state, There’s no power like it on this earth; no treasure equal to its worth; the gift of a mother’s love.”

[“A Mother’s Love” by Jim Brickman]

Benediction

If you will remain seated, our funeral director, Dorinda, will dismiss each row starting at the back. Once dismissed, you are welcome to walk around to the front of the chapel, pass by the casket to see this beautiful woman one more time, and briefly speak to her family before you leave.

Again, thank you all for coming. May the grace of the Lord be with you.