And he said to him, "Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power."  And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

                                                            Luke 23:42-43


The criminal hanging next to Jesus had lived a hard life.  He had done a lot of bad stuff.  Now he's dying.


He doesn't try to justify himself.  He doesn't make excuses for the mess he's made of things.  But hanging there, he makes a U-Turn with what's left of his life.


"Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power."


That's all it took.


"Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."



I keep bumping into people who claim to be on a spiritual search.  They're not sure what they're looking for, but it's something "spiritual."   Maybe they're looking for God.  Maybe they're looking for peace.  Perhaps they're trying to find fulfillment. 


They try this church and that church.  No satisfaction.  They try spiritual retreats.  Mysticism.  Breathing exercises.  Spiritual books.  


"Have you found it yet?  Well, no, but I'm on my journey.  That's the main thing.  I'm on a spiritual journey."


But there's one word you almost never hear from these spiritual seekers.  They shun it like the plague.  The word repent. 


"Repent?  Give me a break!  I'm beyond all that religious stuff.  I'm on a spiritual journey. I'm not religious.  I'm spiritual."


And even those of us who come to church, who are convinced that it's essential for our spiritual journey to gather together and worship God, many of us are not too fussy about that word repent.


"Repent?  That sounds like old-fashioned fundamentalism."


Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news."

                                                                        Mark 1:14-15

If we could wipe away 2,000 years and have Jesus standing before us in flesh and blood, he would say exactly the same thing:


"The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news."


"Wait a minute, Lord.  What do you mean, Repent?.  What do I have to repent of ?  I'm not the thief on the cross!  O, I know I'm not perfect.  But you've got to admit, I'm living a decent life.  Here I am in church, trying to do right.  If I were a bank robber, if I were a dope dealer, I'd have something to repent of.  But I'm a good citizen.  I pay my taxes.  I come to church.  I help people from time to time.  And you know I pray.  I keep sending up these quickie prayers all day long.  So what do I have to repent of?"


When we hear the word repent, we think it means stop doing something bad!  Stop thinking those bad thoughts! 


But when Jesus says, "Repent and believe the good news," he's talking about something much more basic.  He's talking about letting go of your old life.  Turning around!  Changing direction!  Making a spiritual U-Turn.


If you're the thief on the cross, you do it on the cross. Where else?  If you're Andrew, Peter, James or John, you do it right in the middle of your busy life. 


And passing along by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen.  And Jesus said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men."  And immediately they left their nets and followed him.  And going on a little father, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets.  And immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in  the boat with the hired servants, and followed him.

                                                                                    Mark 1:16-20


Once your ears open and you hear the call, it's time to let go and turn your life around.  That's what these men were doing.  For Peter, Andrew, James and John, this was not their first encounter with Jesus.  They'd already met Jesus down at the Jordan River where John the Baptist was baptizing.  They knew Jesus.  Jesus knew them.  They were drawn to him, fascinated by his powerful words.  But so far they were still in the same old rut. 


Now Jesus calls them to leave that rut and follow him.  He doesn't tell them what sinners they are.  He doesn't make them get on their knees and pray the "sinner's prayer."   But when these men get up and follow him, they are repenting---just like the thief on the cross.  They're turning around.  They're giving up their old life, making a spiritual U-Turn.  That's what Jesus means by repentance. 


Early on Friday afternoon, I'm getting ready to go out on calls, when I look out the window of my study at my church in Detroit and see these two guys coming up the steps.  Ray Orozco and Bill Zeigler are on a mission.  They want me to go with them to the County Jail and see what can be done for their friend Eddie, who's in trouble again.   It seemed like the right thing to do to push other things aside and join the delegation.


Ray walks up to the counter at the jail.  "I want to see Eddie Rimka."   "Yeah, what's your relationship?"  "He's my brother."  (Ray is Mexican, with black hair, Eddie is a blonde Finn.)   But who's checking on details?  


After the jail visit, Ray and Bill and I return to the church and spend the rest of the afternoon talking about God.   They weren't in the mood to do any repenting, but something seemed to be pulling on them.  


I'd go over to Ray's bar and give him New Testaments to pass out to his best customers.  Picture it, Ray walking around his establishment with a gun in his belt, passing out Bibles.  I'd visit Bill in his home for the occasional chat.   They were fascinated by the believers they were beginning to meet.  They were clearly moved by Jesus' words of promise and warning.   But they still weren't ready to make the big turn-around. 


Months went by.  I began to think that these dudes were a waste of time.  Then one day I look out the window and here comes Bill.  Not him again!   He sat down and heaved a big sigh.  I wasn't feeling very friendly at the moment and snarled, "Look, Bill, what can I say?  The door is open.  Jesus is waiting…."  


Suddenly Bill is on his knees crying out to God.  Surrendering his life into the hands of his Lord.  Making the U-Turn.  That was years ago, and Bill is still walking with the Master.  Like the rest of us, he has had his ups and downs and struggles.  But he's still walking with the Master.   Not long ago, Bill bought a "pre-owned," GMC Suburban.  Parked it in front of his house, a few blocks from the church.  4:00 a.m. one morning his truck was firebombed.  Totaled.  He's still walking with the Lord.


It took a little longer for Ray.  But soon he made his U-Turn and began walking a new path.  Ray sold his bar and went into the paving business.  His workers would be paving the parking lot of a huge Catholic church when the priest comes on the scene.  "Hello,   Father," says Ray, "do you love Jesus?  Let's talk about the Lord."  Bold.  Years have passed and Ray is still witnessing with holy boldness. 


Maybe we can look back on a moment when we decided to wake up and make that U-Turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, to start taking Jesus at his word.  Maybe we cannot pinpoint a time when it happened.  All we know is that we're walking in a new direction now. Or maybe we're just beginning to hear the call.  We haven’t made the U-Turn yet.


Wherever we fit in this picture, a walk with God always begins with a spiritual U-Turn, when we abandon ourselves to the Master, giving control of our lives to him.  Repentance. 


If there is someone reading these words who hasn't made that U-Turn yet, only you can decide when you're ready.  No evangelist or preacher can force you or trick you into it.  You know when you're ready to say with your heart, "Here I am, Lord, I turn myself over to you.  You call the shots, and I will follow."


But here's what many people don't understand.  That U-Turn is only the beginning.  Yes, we've entered at the Narrow Gate, turned ourselves over to the Lord.  Now we start walking the Narrow Road.  And to stay on that road without falling into the ditch on either side involves Daily Repentance.  A Daily U-Turn from my way to God's way. 


And he said to all, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me."

                                                            Luke 9:23


Deny himself/herself---the U-Turn…

Take up their cross daily---the Daily U-Turn…

            And follow me.


Daily…."Lord Jesus, here I am for this day.   I'm letting go of my past, my ambition, my 'program.'  I'm dying to my way and rising with you to your way."


It's a way of life.  And it works.  That U-Turn every day keeps us alive in God, strong in faith, fresh every day.  So let's not be afraid to make that U-Turn and keep making it every day as long as we walk this earth.


You could say that the Thief on the Cross was lucky.  He repents, and the next thing you know, he's in Paradise.


But you know what?  We're lucky too.  Every day we make that Turn and walk with the Master is Paradise right here on earth.


So let's do it.