I invite you to open your Bible this morning to Luke 23:32-38. Between now and Easter we are going to linger at the cross and listen to the words of Jesus as he suffered there. It’s important that we do. We far too easily miss the cross.
We don’t miss the image of the cross. It’s everywhere: hanging on necklaces, imprinted on T-shirts, planted over graves, decorating churches. In our culture the image of the cross is everywhere. We don’t miss the image of the cross; we miss the meaning of the cross. We see the image so much it no longer strikes us as anything more than an image. It registers in our consciousness about as much as the Walmart logo or a speed limit sign.
And even more, our faith has become largely cross-less. So much of American Christianity is just another form of self-help therapy. Come to church and we’ll teach you how to have a happier marriage, raise well-behaved kids, master your emotions, manage your money, gain more success in life, and feel better about yourself. Where’s the cross in any of that? You can attend any number of American churches and never hear about the cross.
So as the days march toward Good Friday and Easter, we are going to linger at the cross. We are going to listen to the seven things Jesus said from the cross. Our series title is Cross Words. Let’s listen to Jesus’ first word today … (read the text).
The cross is surprising enough. No one except Jesus saw it coming. Yes, Israel had the prophecies. They knew Psalm 22. They’d read Isaiah 53. But it never (pardon the pun) crossed their minds that when Messiah came he would die on a cross. They didn’t even anticipate he would die, let alone on a cross. Yes, on three separate occasions Jesus told his disciples that they were going to Jerusalem where Jesus would be handed over to the authorities, die a violent death, and rise from the dead on the third day. Three times he told them this. But in their ears, it sounded like adults sound on Charlie Brown cartoons: “Wah, wah … wah, wha, wha.” Just a bunch of mumbo-jumbo to them.
Messiah on a cross came as a huge surprise to everyone. Messiah is supposed to rally the Jews and crush the Roman occupiers. Instead, Jesus was falsely accused by the Jews and crucified by the Romans. It was no heroic death. It was an epic fail. It was on a cross—the cruelest most irreligious way anyone could die. The experience usually included a severe beating, a usually naked victim dragging his crossbeam in a macabre parade through city streets to some very public place for crucifixion, the pounding of nails in hands and feet, the scathing insults of the watching crowd, searing pain, slow blood loss, and slow but sure suffocation. The crucified could only hope a bird wouldn’t roost on the cross and peck at his face. There was no more shameful, humiliating way to die. That’s why Roman law prohibited the crucifixion of a Roman citizen and reserved the cross for lowlifes and scumbags and the least of the least among the occupied peoples of the Roman Empire. It was hardly going out in a blaze of glory. It was a cursed way to die (Deut. 21:23). How could Messiah die on a cross?
That Jesus was crucified on a cross is surprising enough …
But no more so than the first words out of his mouth: “Father, forgive them because they do not know what they are doing.” That word is surprising on any number of levels.
For one thing, these are not the kind of words the crucified said from the cross. The Roman philosopher Seneca tells us that those who were crucified often cursed the day of their birth, cursed their executioners, even cursed their own mothers—sometimes spitting on those who gawked at them. Cicero tells us that at times it was necessary to cut out the tongues of the crucified to stop their terrible blasphemies. “Father, destroy them. Father, send these stiff-necked Jews and Gentile dogs straight to hell.” Those are cross words. This is not: “Father, forgive them.” It’s surprising.
And so is this: nobody asked for forgiveness. The Jewish leaders believed Jesus was the sinner, not them. Pilate admitted he found no fault with Jesus, but he never said, “I’m sorry.” Did the soldiers who beat Jesus, mocked him, and nailed him to the cross ask for forgiveness? Did any in the insulting mob hurl an insult at Jesus only to take it back, “Sorry, Jesus, that was over the top. Please forgive me.” There’s no record of it. There’s no repentance in that whole cast of characters. But here’s Jesus saying, “Father, forgive them.”
You mean Jesus has the authority to forgive people who don’t even ask for it? This isn’t the first time. You remember the story in Mark 2 of the four friends who toted the lame man to Jesus for healing? Do you remember the first words Jesus said to the lame man? “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Talk about getting the Jewish leaders’ tunics in a wad: “Who does this man think he is to forgive sins. Only God can forgive sins. Blasphemer!” And I think Jesus probably confused the lame man’s friends with such words. See them there rubbing their aching backs, saying to one another, “Forgive his sins? That’s not why we lugged him all this way. We want him to walk.” But that lame man got what the crowd got at the cross: grace in his face—what Will Willimon calls “preemptive forgiveness.” Instead of pleading for justice at the cross, Jesus pleads for mercy. “Father, forgive them …”
And Jesus added this: “… because they do not know what they are doing.” And that’s another odd thing for him to say. The people at the cross would have taken issue with that statement. “We don’t need forgiveness. We know exactly what we’re doing.”
- The Jewish leaders say, “We are being faithful to our understanding of the Scriptures and eliminating a threat to Jewish purity. We know what we’re doing.”
- Pilate says, “I was trying to avoid a riot and preserve the peace with these pesky Jews. I know what I’m doing.”
- The soldiers say, “We’re just following orders. We know what we’re doing.”
- The taunting, hissing, insulting bystanders say, “We’re just doing what we’re supposed to do at a crucifixion: rub the victim’s nose in the shame and humiliation of the cross. We know what we’re doing.”
We think we know what we’re doing too. “Trust me, preacher, between my conscience and the Holy Spirit, I know when I sin and when I need forgiveness.” Sometimes, yes. There are times when all of us know where the sin-line is, and we deliberately, defiantly step across it with a snarky smirk on our face. But not always. In 1964, my mother stroked out at church—the culmination of stress from living with a husband who could be verbally and physically abusive. She spent a couple of weeks in the hospital and the rest of her life without use of her right side. Seared in my memory is the image of my dad—and this is the only time I ever saw him cry—gathering us kids in his bedroom, saying to us: “I’m so sorry. I don’t know why I do the things I do.”
“Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing.” They didn’t at the cross. They knew how to do the grisly work of crucifixion, but they had no clue just who they’ve sentenced, scourged, scorned, and secured to the cross with hammer and nails. No clue.
And we don’t always either. You were at the cross too, you know. So was I. It wasn’t just the nails that fastened Jesus to the cross. He was fastened by our sins. Our sin nailed Jesus to the cross every bit as much as the callused hands of a Roman soldier. Do you forget that your sin is against Jesus? You’ve not just sinned against the friend you betrayed, you’ve sinned against Christ. You’ve not just sinned by ignoring the needs of a poor man you could have helped, you’ve sinned against Christ. Rebellious teenager, you’ve not just sinned against your mom and dad, you’ve sinned against your Heavenly Father. We prefer to think of our sins as small and insignificant in the greater scheme of things. The really bad sins are what other people do, right? We forget the cosmic gravity of our own sin. We forget we were at the cross. We forget Jesus suffered for our sins as much as for the sins of the vilest person we know. When Mel Gibson made the film The Passion, the only appearance he made was a cameo one: those were his hands that nailed Jesus to the cross. They were your hands, my hands. For your sins and my sins. We forget that. Jesus wasn’t just praying for the people at the cross. He was praying for us because we don’t know what we’re doing either.
Fleming Rutledge said it this way: “There is a suggestion [in this word of Jesus] that human beings are in the grip of something they do not fully comprehend. The evil that lodges in the human heart is greater than we know.” Yes, it is.
But so is God’s mercy.
Which brings us to another surprising thing about this cross word: forgiveness precedes repentance. Jesus’ word is grace in our face. He is not doing anything here he hadn’t been doing in his ministry. To the lame man: “Son, your sins are forgiven.” To the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and leave your life of sin.” Neither asked for forgiveness. Both received it. Grace in their face.
Does that strike you as odd? It strikes me that way. Our usual way of doing things is to try to convict people of their sin before we tell them of forgiveness. We try to guilt people to Jesus. It’s rarely works, and when it does, it seldom lasts. The longer I live and the more I study the Scriptures I’m inclined to agree with Samuel Terrien who wrote, “Not the man who is lost, but the man who is saved can understand he is a sinner.”
Just this week I did something that offended a younger brother in the faith and had no idea what I had done until he brought it to my attention: “I tell you this because I respect you. But that was insensitive and hurtful.” And he was right. Upon reflection, in the light of his mercy, I could see the hurtfulness of what I did. I’ve got a sensitive conscience. I try to listen to the Holy Spirit. But I missed that one. And I would have kept on missing it had my young friend not approached me like Jesus. Had he attacked me, I’d have hardened my soul and leapt to my defense. But through his mercy, I was open to own the hurt I caused.
Maybe that’s why Jesus declares forgiveness first. If repentance comes first, then I’m liable to start working on a self-salvation project. In stupid ignorance that can’t grasp the depths of my depravity, I’ll think I can somehow save myself if I just do more good deeds than bad. And at the judgment I’ll stand before Jesus and ask, “Have I been good enough? Did I do enough to earn your mercy?” That cheapens the cross. That denies its power and glory.
If full repentance comes before forgiveness, I’ll fail. I’ll lose heart at my inability to fully turn from all my sins. It makes my salvation depend on me. But if forgiveness precedes repentance, as Jesus’ prayer suggests, my salvation depends on God who has the power to pull it off and who did pull it off through the sacrifice of his Son Jesus on the cross. So now, I can own my sin before my Savior. No hiding. No fear of rejection. Full disclosure to the Savior who knows me fully, loves me completely, and paid the price of my forgiveness to the last drop of his blood.
Forgiveness precedes repentance. But this is no cheap forgiveness, no word-deep forgiveness. It’s heart-deep, bone-deep, blood deep. There is nothing cheap about that. Every searing pain that raced through his body, every labored breath, every drop of blood, every insult endured, and the weight of our sins on the soul of a sinless man is as costly as it gets. And Jesus did this of his own free will. No one took his life. He gave it. He gave it to take our sins, our sorrows, our suffering, and our slavery to sin on himself so that he might bear its penalty and kill its power in our lives. And because he did that we can do this: confess our sin, own it, embrace it, repent of it, and walk in the grace that saves us and the grace in which we stand. Forgiveness precedes repentance. The cross is grace in our face.
That grace is available to you today. But it’s not an automatic thing. If you can see the salvation that Jesus has bought for us at the cost of his humiliation, suffering, and death, and then reject it, then it’s on you. You’re on your own. No saving grace for you. Not because Jesus doesn’t want to give it—his prayer is for us all—but because in your arrogance and pride, you reject it. And if you do, you don’t know what you’re doing.
But receive this grace in your face, and it will change your life. One of my favorite stories comes from Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Misérables, which tells the story of the Frenchman Jean Valjean. Sentenced to a nineteen-year term of hard labor for the crime of stealing bread, Valjean gradually hardened into a tough convict. No one could beat him in a fistfight. No one could break his will. At last Valjean earned his release. In those days, convicts had to carry identity cards, and no innkeeper would let a dangerous criminal spend the night. For four days he wandered the village roads seeking shelter against the weather, until finally a kind bishop had mercy on him.
That night Valjean lay still in a comfortable bed. Once the bishop and his sister were asleep, Valjean rose from his bed, rummaged through the cupboard, found the family silver, and slithered off with it into the darkness.
The next morning, three policemen knocked on the bishop’s door. Valjean was with them. They had caught him running away with the bishop’s silver and were ready to throw the scoundrel back in prison for life.
The bishop sized up the situation. “So here you are!” he said to Valjean. “I’m delighted to see you. Had you forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks as well? They’re silver like the rest and worth a good 200 francs. Did you forget to take them?” Valjean’s eyes got as big as saucers. He was now staring at the old man with an expression no words can convey. “He’s no thief,” the bishop assured the cops. “This silver was my gift to him.”
When the police left, the bishop gave the candlesticks to his speechless, trembling guest. “Do not forget,” said the bishop, “that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man.”
Valjean did. He kept the candlesticks as a memento of grace and dedicated himself to helping those in need. Valjean heard the word of forgiveness. He accepted the gift, and his life was never the same.
That’s what happens when we truly hear the word of God’s forgiveness and let it sink into the soul. There is honesty. There is repentance. There is freedom. There is joy. There is born within us the Spirit-filled capacity to forgive those who sin against us as Jesus forgives us and as the priest forgave Valjean. There is brand new life.
Grace in our face. Receive it today from him whose first word on the cross was not for himself but for us: “Father, forgive them because they do not know what they are doing.”
Preached: February 4, 2018
First Baptist Church, Hot Springs, AR
John Scott McCallum II