You could make a good argument for certain days being the best “sports days” of the year. Super Bowl Sunday seems as much a national holiday as any other day, for instance. The Olympic diehards might have a case due to the global scale and rarity. But, for my money, the opening days of the NCAA tournament have been just about as fun as any other.
Many young men could not begin to tell you the plot line of Cinderella or anything about glass slippers or muster up any verbal expressions of love in an anniversary or Valentine’s card, but with all the eloquence of Cyrano de Bergerac could rattle off who George Mason knocked off in ’06 en route to becoming a true “Cinderella story.” Yes, this time of year is what they call March Madness – the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. You know it’s started when your husbands start using ridiculous phrases like “Yeah, baby!” and “Diaper Dandy” not because they’ve found some new-found enthusiasm to connect with your children, but because their new best and most annoying friend-for-the-month is now Dick Vitale.
March Madness always falls during the season of Lent in the church year. It’s a season that carries a very different kind of enthusiasm. And yet some parallels remain: It’s a long journey with a very specific climax. There’s a thorough weeding out process to see who has “IT” to make it through to the end. And there is a heart-warming, last-minute victory….a true Cinderella story.
Some of you may have already guessed, I’m talking about a man on a cross. However, I’m not talking about THE man on the cross. As the embodiment of God himself, it wouldn’t really be accurate to refer to Jesus as any sort of Cinderella story, although his victory did come as a surprise to all but himself.
The one I’m actually talking about here is the buzzer beater story of the man next to Jesus on the cross.
Technically, the Gospels tell us there were two men next to Jesus, on either side. And according to Matthew’s Gospel, they BOTH hurled insults at Jesus as they were placed upon their crosses with him (Matt. 27:44).
But a few hours is all it took to melt one of their hearts. Seeing the ridicule that Jesus faced despite his obvious innocence and hearing his humility and grace despite the unfair circumstances (Luke 23:24), one of the criminals changed. If I witnessed firsthand a man face what Jesus faced and yet be so willing to forgive, I think I might be compelled to think he was beyond mere human myself.
Whatever moment it was that the Spirit penetrated the still-living criminal’s dead heart, without a doubt, it did happen. He couldn’t take the mockery of Jesus anymore. He started expressing real fruits of faith as he rebuked those who insulted Jesus. To the other criminal, he said, “Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:40-41) Then the criminal turned to Jesus and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (v. 42) At this, Jesus promised, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (v. 43)
The implications of this dialogue are many and deep. For starters, the immediacy of heaven for the departed is taught here (i.e. “today”). The fact that entrance into heaven cannot be predicated by human merit is clearly taught here (i.e. how many “good works” do you honestly think the criminal racked up before he passed away?). The simplicity of doctrinal understanding to be a saved child of God is evident (i.e. how many Bible passages do you think the criminal could legitimately recite or to what degree could he expound on complex doctrines). For our purposes here today though, I’d like you to dwell on one point….as long as there is still breathing and brain waves, there’s still time.
If, upon the criminal experiencing Jesus for a few short hours, the Holy Spirit is big enough to operate on the heart of a hardened, wicked unbeliever who had been sentenced to state execution, don’t you dare think that God’s Spirit isn’t big enough for the challenge of operating on the heart of your atheist father, gay brother, suicidal sister, or apathetic husband. They will experience Jesus through you.
I’m not going to offer you promises of false hope, but I’m also not going to allow you false, ungrounded pessimism either. You and I have both seen God accomplish way too much to ever be pessimistic about what he’s capable of.
Upon Jesus’ cross, your sins, my sins, and all sins were paid for. Mere feet away from that cross, arguably the most well-known last second victory ever was won. But it won’t be the last. There’s still time.
P.S. MSU over Ohio St., 76 -68.