This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Matthew 22:37-40
Sermon prepared by Rev. Henry Kranenburg, Hamilton, Ont.
Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ:
Introduction: The cross
More happened on the cross that afternoon than the death of Jesus. The gospels tell us of words and events that took place from the cross and around the cross. Often the last things a dying person says are important to those who love him or her. You remember them. You think about them.
That has been historically true of the words of Jesus on the cross as well — words that aren't just part of a story line but say something about Jesus and his death and what that means.
This morning [afternoon/evening] we are going to look at the first of what is traditionally called the seven words of the cross — words that help us focus on the cross [if a cross is one of the symbols/furniture at the front of the church, the reader can refer to that] and so on Jesus who hung there. As we have read in the passage those first words of Jesus are: "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing." The message will look at that, following the outline you find in the bulletin. [If outline is printed in bulletin] We will fill in the blanks as we go along.
I. The circumstances
Before we look closer at the words themselves, it would be good to look again at the circumstances around the cross. That's the first point:the circumstances. It will help prepare us to look at these specific words of Jesus.
I don't know how hardened you've become to violence over the years, whether you are younger or older. It depends, I suppose, on what you allow yourself to watch on TV, or on videos, or what you choose to read in books. But I would like to think that for any of us who would have been there that afternoon, what they did in a crucifixion would seem very gruesome and cruel. We can't avoid looking at that if we intend to see what Jesus suffered in our place.
Being crucified on a cross was not only a gruesome way to die; it was also marked as the most low and cursed way to die. God himself had said that if you die by hanging on wood, you're cursed. Well, the Romans, who supervised this method of death, knew all this. And that is why they, as bloody and violent as they were, made a law stating that no Roman citizen would ever be allowed to die that way.
But Jesus was hung on this wooden death instrument. Nails were driven through his hands and through his feet. To hang by your arms like that would tighten your chest and slowly suffocate you. Although for a while your muscles would work hard to let you breathe, your muscles would tire out and breathing would get harder and harder. The person hanging would try to resist that by pushing up with his feet or pulling with his hands to free his chest for breathing; but that would of course make the pain against the nails in his flesh excruciating. Add to it that all this was done under the hot Mid-East sun and you get a sense of the terribleness of death by crucifixion. I don't know whether this was the worst possible death or not. I do know that together with the curse that God had put on crucifixion, it was a horrible death.
Around this time in the process, the criminals would be screaming with pain. And in their pain they would scream out revenge and curses on those who put them up there. Or, knowing their death was looming, they would scream, confessing their wrong, maybe hoping it might help and someone would have mercy.
But not Jesus. Jesus doesn't scream.
Instead Jesus says: forgive them. In pain and under the curse of hanging there on that wood, Jesus says of these people that have nailed him to these beams: Father forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing.
II. The words
You listen to those words, and that's the second point: the words. From a human point of view it's kind of incredible. We're not used to real life stories going that way. Out of our human nature we tend to want and even expect people to get even, at least in some fashion. In fact, we tend to admire people who find good ways to get back at bullies.
One pastor describes such a scene from a movie he saw. A truck driver is sitting in a restaurant, eating his food and minding his own business. The door to the restaurant bursts open. In swagger several nasty looking members of a motorcycle gang. They walk over to the trucker and bark, "We want that table." The trucker glances up at them and quietly says, "I'm not finished yet." The leader of the bikers leans over, grabs the trucker's cup of coffee, and slowly pours it over the plate of food. "You're finished now," he snarls.
So the trucker gets up silently and walks out the door. The bikers laugh. One of them sneers as they settle in at the table: "He's not much of a man, is he?" A nearby waitress looks out the window and says, "Whoa, he's not much of a driver either. He drove his rig right over a bunch of motorcycles out there."
Well, we may hate to admit it, but there is a part of us that wants to cheer as we chuckle. We can imagine the faces of these bikers when they realize they weren't as powerful as they thought, and there's nothing they can do about it. The trucker not only got them back, he did them better. Similarly, today there's a lot of anger that makes people snap back and hit and sue and steal and rage on the road. We are part of a society that has our rights and wants to settle scores, and we are encouraged to do so with a legal system that will help us pursue it. But these words? "Father forgive them"? How can Jesus say that? None of those guys around the cross have even said they were sorry. They don't even know what they are doing. Can you forgive where there is no repentance?
And what about the ground of Jesus' forgiveness here: "because they don't know what they are doing"? Is ignorance now an acceptable basis for forgiveness? Think of it: "Dad, I smashed the car up. I didn't realize how dangerous it is to race your friends at night without lights on", "Of course son, that's okay then, if you didn't know"?
"Mom I'm pregnant; we got carried away and weren't really thinking?" "Sally, I want out of this marriage. I didn't really know what I was doing when we got married"? Forgiveness based on ignorance? And so you have to just roll over and take it?
But that's not what the Scripture teaches. And that's not what Jesus says here — not in the context of the rest of God's word. While we don't have time to get into all the reasoning behind what Jesus says, there are two things that these words do point to.
First of all, the Greek word used for forgiveness here can mean "to hold off on sentencing someone; to not yet affect the penalty that is coming." That is, to ask for forgiveness with this word can mean to ask that the judgement that should come would be postponed, or suspended for a while.
It's as if Jesus is saying: "Father you have the power to take the life of these soldiers, all these people. And for what they are doing to me, your son, you have that full right. I could then be freed from this cross and this death. But please, hold off on the punishment, allow a time of grace so that these people can come to know who I am." Jesus prayed that God would allow a time of grace precisely for repentance.
That's the second thing. God says in the Bible that repentance, that is, godly sorrow for sin, is a part of how this whole forgiveness 'thing' works. Jesus isn't asking God to just step into the lives of some unfortunately stupid and ignorant people and just forgive all their sins without their knowing that they have sinned or even that they have been forgiven. If that was the case, then Jesus could just quickly forgive everybody in the world and be done with it. But what we must understand is that the issue is not simply forgiveness of sins. It's reconciliation with God; being made right with God. This is all about building a relationship with God, because that is what God wants.
That's why Jesus prays that God will initiate in these people the process that leads to repentance, and so will lead to forgiveness, because that's the process that will lead them to God. That's what Jesus is asking for these people who have nailed his body on this tree.
III. The implications
And the implications of this — that's the third point — are pretty significant.
First of all, it's important because what lies behind Jesus' prayer is the very reason that you or I have any hope. If Jesus could pray this hanging on the cross under that curse for these very people who put him up there, and if that's the kind of love and care he has, then you and I can know that no one is beyond his touch. Whatever is a part of your past or your present, God's love in Jesus can start to work right there.
Now God won't just waltz in your life, forgive your sins and move on without you even knowing there was a problem. No, God intends to change the hearts of people, and turn them toward him. So if you and I will listen, then God will lead us to repentance so that we can find forgiveness and move on, no matter how old or young we may be. It helps to keep in mind what God says in Romans 2:4. There God tells us that it is his kindness that leads us to repentance; God has something good in mind.
The good news is that as long as there is life, there is a time for God's grace. This morning you and I hear the call to repentance, to deal with the sin of life, so that we can deal with God and his love when we hear the prayer of Jesus on the cross and what it means.
But then we also have to consider what it means to be followers of Jesus, what it means to be disciples. Ephesians 4:32 says: "Be kind to one and other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." Christianity isn't just about Jesus forgiving us; it's also about us living in relationship with others.
Think about it a little. When we are wronged, we don't always react immediately. We can kind of let it 'stew' and the anger builds up. Each little thing is another drop in the stew. An irritant. A frustration. Not necessarily big things, just an aggravation. Someone gets in your parking place. Someone pulls in front of you on the freeway. A spouse’s annoying habit annoys you again. The toast gets burned. Someone makes fun of you at school. Drip...Drip...Drip...
And before long there's a bucket full of anger, revenge, bitterness, even hate. People can become walking bombs that some days are close to exploding, and sometimes actually do. And that's the way many live.
But that's not Jesus' way. Jesus isn't here to get even with sinners or simply hand out judgments. Nor is he here just to 'pooh-pooh' the bad things and wipe them quietly all away. He prays, and died, and works for people, or rather for the hearts of people so that by the power of the Holy Spirit something will change and lead to their walking with God in forgiveness. Jesus Christ is about changing people's lives. And that's how he wants us to be with each other too.
So you and I have to ask ourselves: if we belong to him, what are we, what am I doing about the people who I have anger about? A mom or Dad. A friend or peer at school. A spouse, employer, church leader; you name him or her. Have I prayed, not simply that they will apologize to me, nor that God will give them what they deserve, nor that God will help me just to forget it, but rather that God will work his grace in their lives to bring them to a point to where they will find true forgiveness and renewed relationship?
That trucker may have damaged the bikes, taught a lesson, and made us feel that at least someone was vindicated. But that trucker didn't imitate Jesus and at least in that instance didn't understand Jesus' prayer for him. God cares about the souls of people; God calls us to care about them too. That is the call of God to us again this day when we listen to the words of our Lord on the cross.
Let me tell you another story. It's a true story that happened in the early 1900's during the Turkish-led genocide that destroyed many of the people of Armenia. A Turkish officer raided and looted an Armenian home. He killed the parents and gave the daughters to his troops. He kept the oldest daughter for himself.
Eventually this woman managed to escape. She trained to become a nurse. Sometime later she found herself working in a ward for Turkish officers. One night, by the light of a lantern, she saw the face of that evil officer. The man was terribly sick. Without exceptional nursing he would soon die. How did the nurse respond? She did all she could to help him. She worked and worked to restore him to health. Eventually he began to recover.
One day the doctor and nurse stood by the officer's bed. The doctor remarked, "Without this woman's devotion to you, you would be dead." The officer looked at her and said, "We have met before, haven't we?" "Yes," she said. "We have met before." There was silence. Then he asked, "Why didn't you kill me?" She replied, "I am a follower of him who said, ‘Love your enemies’."
That's exactly what Christ did.
And that's why there is hope in Christ for any of us.
So, is there something going on in your life now, your past for which you need forgiveness? Pray about it while there is time. If it has involved someone else, go to them and ask forgiveness. You have life now, but you don't know when the time of grace will end. God's desire is that you deal with that as a follower of Jesus.
Is there someone in your life now, or in the past who has grieved you, and against whom you hold bitterness? Someone you have been stewing about, or whom you resent? Have you prayed for God to work his grace in him or her? They have life now, but you don't know when their time of grace will end either.
Anger is easy and resentment is cheap, but they don't accomplish very much. Jesus came to heal and restore people and their broken relationships. He intends to do that in us and through us. That's the message of the cross and these words of Jesus while on it. Pray about it, here this morning, with a friend later today, or at home. But deal with it. And ask God to give you grace to follow Jesus, the master of grace.
Proposed Order of Service
Pre-service songs: "We Have Come Into This House"
"Lamb of God"
Welcome and Announcements
We Gather Before God
Call to Worship: Revelation 19:5-7
Opening Hymn: #249
God's Cleansing and our Response
Call to confession: Matthew 22:37-40
Prayer of confession
Responsive reading of the Law: PH pg. 1015
Song of Dedication: 264
God Speaks His Word
Prayer for the Guidance of the Holy Spirit
Scripture: Luke 23:32-38
Sermon: "Father, forgive them"
In song: #267:1,2,4
In Congregational Prayer
"We Have Come Into This House'
God Sends us into the World
God's Parting Blessing: Hebrews 13: 20-21