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What To Do When You Don’t Know What to Do: The Man Who Came Last

Luke 23:32-43

Jeffrey Dahmer.

You remember him. I mean, how could we ever forget him? They called him “The Milwaukee Monster”. They said that he redefined the boundaries for barbarism. But you know, I must confess that I don’t quite know what to think about Jeffrey Dahmer.

I know what to think about what he did. Eleven corpses together with the body parts from other corpses, all of it found in his Milwaukee apartment. This is not the place to describe in graphic detail all that Jeffrey Dahmer did. It would sicken us all. My Synonym Finder has 187 synonyms for the word “vile”- not one of them is adequate to describe what Jeffrey Dahmer did. Take a clutch of them like degraded, debased, debauched, demonic and degenerate—and even taken together they fall short of describing the atrocities this man committed.

And I know what to think about his trial. Do you remember his face in the newspapers after the trial- sitting there frozen, impassive, emotionless? No response. No remorse. How could he sit there unflinching in the courtroom in the presence of the very families whose loved ones he had brutalized? How could he display no visible sign of sorrow or regret as the ugly litany of his crimes was read to the nation via television?

And I even know what to think about his sentence: life in prison without possibility of parole. But I wonder if a person could ever be in prison long enough to atone for what he did. Even if the court had decided to execute him, how could his death have offset the tragic unnecessary deaths of so many?

So I know what to think about his murders, his trial and his sentence. But what gives me big problems with Jeffrey Dahmer, what I don’t know what to think about is his conversion. That’s what I said—his conversion. You see, just a matter of weeks before his fellow inmate in prison killed him, Jeffrey Dahmer claimed to have accepted Christ and to have become a Christian. He expressed deep remorse for what he had done. He repented. He was baptized. He began to read the Bible and to correspond with several ministers. He became a regular at the prison chapel services. Understand please, in virtually every circumstance I know I am thrilled when someone comes to faith in Jesus Christ. But not this time. This one is too much to accept. I mean, is that all it takes? Here is the most demonic mass murderer of our time and all he has to say is “I’m sorry for what I did”—and that’s enough? He acknowledges Christ as Savior and Lord and suddenly he is forgiven for all that he did and he gains entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven—come on now, surely not! I can’t believe it.

That is, I couldn’t believe it until I read Luke 23:32-43. It’s the story of the dying thief. You remember it. Two thieves were crucified at the same time as Jesus. At first those two thieves cursed Jesus. They hurled words of cruelty and rebuke at the One who was being crucified between them. But suddenly, something very unusual happened. One of the thieves changed. He stopped cursing Christ. Instead, he came to Christ. Speaking first to his companion in crime he said: “Do you not fear God since we are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly for we are receiving the due reward for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then, twisting his head against the wooden cross in order to better see Jesus, he said: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus said: “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” And before the sun set that day, they were both dead.

Now I want us to focus on what happened to this dying thief in terms of the Apostle Paul’s great definition of faith in Acts 20:21. There Paul says that belief is “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” I want to say right now that no one better represents those words than the dying thief—the man who came last. Unless, of course, the same thing can be said of Jeffrey Dahmer. But hold that thought for a few minutes while we look at the thief.

Think first of his repentance toward God.

This thief was the last to come to Christ during Christ’s earthly ministry, and this thief was the last you would expect to come. Let’s not be tempted to make him into something he wasn’t. Many have tried to do that. Legends have grown up about him and they all tried to soften him, even glorify him. It is said, for example, that when the Holy Family was fleeing into Egypt after Jesus’ birth, they were saved from a band of robbers by the robber chieftain’s son. This boy apparently pleaded with his father to spare the lives of Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus. Then supposedly as the Holy Family turned to leave, the boy said to the infant in Mary’s arms: “Little one, if there comes a time when I am in need of your mercy, forget not this hour.” According to the legend then this boy thief grew up to be the thief on the cross beside Jesus—and there a dramatic debt was repaid. It’s rather a lovely story. But that’s all it is—just a lovely story. It is not true.

You see, the language of Scripture is quite specific. The thief on the cross was no romantic figure. He was a hard-bitten back-alley killer, every bit as much on the wrong side of the law as Jeffrey Dahmer. Therefore, his coming to Christ in true repentance is forever proof of the fact that God can shine the light of faith into the very darkest of hearts—even into a heart as dark as the dying thief’s; perhaps even into a heart as dark as Jeffrey Dahmer’s heart. But I’m still not sure about that. So for now let’s concentrate on the thief and try to discover what led him to take the step of repentance.

Perhaps it was the agony of his dying. I have known those who in the desperate pain which sometimes precedes death, have found faith. I have sat beside those who, when every breath for them was an awful hurt, still expended those last breaths in a deep reliance upon God. I have seen that happen. Maybe that’s what happened to the thief. Maybe in the midst of the hell of dying he found heaven. Could be.

Or perhaps it was his memory which turned the key. The work of the Montreal Neurological Institute has taught us that the human brain forgets nothing. Everything we have ever experienced is retained on some super-sensitive, never-failing computer chip in our brain. Certain extreme psychological pressures can cause us to instantly access that full bank of memory. You’ve heard people say that in a life-threatening moment their whole lives flashed before them. Maybe that’s what happened to the thief. Maybe the stress of dying down-loaded into his memory all of the bright hopes of his yesterdays. Could be.

Perhaps it was seeing the loving sacrifice of Jesus. Seeing someone suffer for the sake of another person can be a spirit-moving experience. Albert Einstein, himself a Jew, saw Christian sufferers during the Nazi persecution of the Jews, when had they been silent, they would have been spared. Einstein then said: “No argument for the Christian faith has ever moved me as much as the suffering love of those Christians did.” Maybe similar mechanisms were at work in the dying thief. Could be.

Or perhaps it was hearing the words Jesus spoke. Jesus said: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” There’s an old book called The Silence of Dean Maitland about a dean who does wrong and then does more wrong to try to cover up the first wrong. He even allows an innocent man to go to jail for what he has done. He refuses to repent. His whole life turns into a wilderness. Then one day he gets a letter from the man who had taken the rap for his deeds. It’s a letter of forgiveness, and it cuts through to Dean Maitland’s heart so that he says: “God called to me through many years, but I repented not until I was forgiven.” Maybe Jesus’ words of forgiveness drove a wedge into that thief’s stony, stony heart. Could be.

I don’t know what it was precisely, but this much I do know: encounters with Jesus Christ melts peoples’ hearts as nothing else I know. When the thief saw Jesus for what He was, when he saw the love and the courage and the strength and the compassion in Jesus—when he saw that and then saw himself in the light of that, he repented. The words camehard, but they came. He said: “I am receiving the due rewards for my deeds.”

Paul says that the beginning of belief is repentance toward God. The dying thief repented. Interestingly enough, Jeffrey Dahmer repented too. I wonder what we are to make of that.

But think now of this thief’s faith in Christ.

He didn’t say much. And he didn’t use all the right words in what he did say. But the nine words he spoke were enough. He said: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” His words reveal his faith in Jesus Christ.

Later on, Jesus, after His resurrection, said to Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen but still believe.” I think that when He said that He was referring to the dying thief.For this thief never had the joy of seeing Jesus perform His healing miracles. He never heard Jesus tell a parable. If he was ever in the crowd that followed Jesus, it was only to pick the pockets of those who were listening. He never saw Jesus as the great conqueror of death walking about on the very earth in which He had once been buried. The thief was never baptized. He never sat at the Lord’s Table. All of the things which are aids to people in their faith, he never knew. Yet still he believed.

Do you catch the significance of his confidence in Christ? The only throne he saw was a cross. The only crown he saw was of thorns. The only sceptre he saw was made of nails. The only royal robe he saw was in the hands of dice-throwing soldiers. Yet, in spite of that, he could acknowledge: “Jesus you are a king. The cross will not finish you. Victory will be yours. In that moment, remember me.” Catch it, please. The thief did not say, “Jesus, if you come…” He said: “Jesus, when you come into your kingdom, remember me.” It is enough, you see, to be remembered by such a King. Therefore, the words of the thief are a magnificent statement of faith. And if it was enough for that dying thief, then is it also enough for Jeffrey Dahmer?

The Bible says that from noon to three o’clock that day there was darkness over the whole land. However, I believe that for Jesus and for this thief there was light. For Jesus there was the light of the thief’s repentance and faith. You see, at that moment, the thief was the only one on the face of the earth who really believed in Jesus. Most of the disciples had run away in fear. John was there with Mary, but eventually they went away, sorrowing. None of them said anything like “when you come into your kingdom.” They thought Jesus was finished. They didn’t expect Him to triumph over the cross. Only the thief expected it. Only one believed. But I think it uplifted Jesus to know that He had at least a congregation of one. And there was light, too, for the thief. For his cry was answered immediately. Jesus said to him: “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” He may have been the last man to come to Jesus, but he was the first man to enter Paradise with Jesus. Do you understand what Bishop Fulton Sheen meant when he said, “The last thing this thief stole was heaven”? I do, and suddenly it dawns on me that if this thief could steal heaven, Jeffrey Dahmer could too.

Now in light of that, someone may be tempted to say: “All right, then, I’ll play it like the thief and like Jeffrey Dahmer. I’ll do whatever I want, I’ll live however I wish, and then just before the midnight hour of my life, I’ll cry out ‘Jesus, remember me.'” Dear friends, that’s a very foolish thing to do. Most people who plan to cry out at midnight die at 11:30! And not all of those who come to such a time are in a mood of heart and mind to call forth the love, confession, and repentance which are necessary. Frankly, I think that Augustin was right when he noted that the Bible records upon its pages the story of one man who in the last minutes of his life was saved. That is recorded so that no one might ever die without hope. But the Bible records only one such instance in all of its pages so that no one might ever presume.

Don’t presume. Know for sure. Be certain. Stop living your life for yourself or your work or your friends. Start living your life for Jesus Christ. Say it here and now: “Jesus, remember me.” If you do, then you will begin to discover Paradise in your life, starting today!

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