Scripture: Luke 23:32-34
First Sunday of Lent: Father, Forgive Them (1/6)
Other sermons in this series
“The Seven Last Words of Christ”
We’ve all seen movies which include a scene of a dying person whispering their final words to whomever is with them. They’re intended to moments of poignancy, where a final word of advice is passed on, or forgiveness is offered, or a confession is made. These final utterances are intended to be something that the hearers will always remember, maybe even a message that they needed to hear.
One of the more famous is the death of Darth Vader in The Return of the Jedi. In the previous film, Vader revealed the shocking truth to Luke—and to the movie audience as well—that he was Anakin Skywalker, Luke’s father. In The Return of the Jedi, though Luke is fully aware of all the evil that his father has carried out as Darth Vader, he’s nevertheless deeply conflicted about how to respond. He hates Vader and everything he stands for, but he still loves his father, Anakin. Before the evil Emperor, Darth Sidious, is thrown to his own death, he mortally wounds Vader, who falls to the floor. When Luke runs over to his father and pulls him close, Anakin asks him to remove his mask so that he can look upon him with his own eyes. After removing the mask and the breathing apparatus which has kept him alive his entire adult life, he gazes with love upon his son and then tells him to leave while he can. Luke responds, “No, I’ve got to save you.”
Anakin gently responds, “You already have. Luke, you were right about me [meaning, that it was still possible for him to forego the Dark Side]. Tell your sister (Leia) that you were right,” after which he lays back and dies having been reconciled with his son, Luke, as well as the Force. Anakin’s final words were of healing and reconciliation.
Maybe some of you have been in a similar place, where, before a loved one passed away, you were present for some of the last things they said aloud. Maybe a final “I love you” or “I’m going to be OK,” or “I’ll always be with you” or “don’t worry, we’ll be together again someday.” Or maybe it was your final words to them. A final “I love you, too” or “we’re going to be OK” or even “we give you permission to let go.” From whomever they come, they’re words meant to convey a message of love and hope and comfort.
Well, Jesus’s last words, uttered as he was dying on Good Friday, offer us the opportunity to lean in and listen closely for the same thing—messages that are for us today. These statements, collected from the four Gospel writers, have traditionally been called the seven last words of Jesus (or Christ). Though his dying words from the cross are only few, they reflect the same tenderness, the same compassion, the same forgiveness, the same unconditional love, the same giving of himself, the same faith and trust, and the same desire to welcome everyone into his kingdom as his actions exhibited in life. As author Susan Robb puts it:
“In the midst of unimaginable cruelty and taunting, Jesus offers forgiveness to his persecutors and his killers. In the midst of suffering, he offers a human cry that, when followed to its scriptural conclusion, leads to reassurance, hope, life, and joy for all humanity. As he looks upon his mother for the last time, he calls his followers into a new community, a different way of understanding family. And in his final breath as a human, he trustingly gives himself back to the One who breathed life into the first human beings.”
While Jesus lived and while he died, his words were truly words of life. For most of the year, we focus on what he said while living. But for these six weeks of Lent, we’re going to spend time listening to what he said while he was dying. His final words.
Lent isn’t a season most of us look forward to. It’s not a feel-good season like Advent and Christmas. The word “celebration” isn’t one we use to talk about what we do during Lent. At best we observe Lent. But mostly we endure it. However, I think it’s important to keep in mind that while many of us naturally wish to avoid the painful reality of the cross, it’s from there that Jesus speaks and shows his deepest love for us. It’s from the cross that Jesus’s full humanity draws us closest to him. It’s from the cross, as Jesus breathes his last breath and speaks his last words, that his deep trust in the Father and his divine glory are revealed. And it’s in the example of the cross that Jesus calls us into a life where we find God’s kingdom through love that’s willing to give freely of itself to others.
So, let’s be careful not to rush to our Easter celebration. For it’s by walking with Jesus through his lasts days, and taking the time to stand by him and listen to his words from the cross in his final hours, that we’re offered a depth of understanding and spiritual power that we can’t experience by moving only from joy to joy. Remember, friends, it’s impossible to get to the empty tomb without first going past the cross. And here at the cross, Jesus has a word for us. So, let’s open our ears and listen.
(Luke 23:32-34 is read)
The week of Passover had begun with such promise for Jesus and his followers. Jews from all over had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the great feast commemorating God’s deliverance of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. That Sunday, crowds lined the streets as Jesus, mounted on a donkey, made a triumphal entry into the city. This was the sign they’d all been looking for. Jesus was fulfilling the words of Zechariah who foretold of how Messiah would make his victorious entrance: “Look, your king will come to you. He is righteous and victorious. He is humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the offspring of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). They hailed Jesus as the long-awaited Son of David, the king of the Jews, who would deliver them from their great enemy, Rome.
But by Thursday evening, things had taken a terrible turn for the worse. By the next morning, he’d been betrayed by one of his own disciples; vehemently denied by another; arrested by the temple police and put on trial by the religious council and found guilty of blasphemy. He’d been brought before both the governor, Pontius Pilate, and King Herod himself, on trumped up charges, and neither of them found him guilty of anything deserving death. During all of this, he endured terrible beatings. The people, who days earlier hailed his arrival with great fervor, now shouted for his crucifixion and the release of a known murderer. Finally, out of fear and cowardice, Pilate agreed to have Jesus crucified in order to keep the peace.
For those who are so inclined, it’s possible to find on the internet a detailed description of a Roman crucifixion, which includes a lot more torture than being nailed to a cross. The whole process is beyond inhumane. It’s sadistic times 1000. Luke doesn’t include those gory details because he knows his immediate audience is all too familiar with them. But what he does include, and he wants his readers to receive, is the gospel message, and he begins with what Susan Robb calls “a draw-dropping statement about radical forgiveness.” Having been physically tortured beyond anything you and I could possibly fathom, Jesus cries out for mercy—not for himself, but for those who put him there. “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Question: who are they? The soldiers? The crowd? Herod and Pilate? The religious leaders? Judas? Peter? The others disciples who fled? The answer is Yes, all of the above.
But what we often overlook in this story is that “they” is also us. Here’s how Robb so succinctly but accurately describes our role in his crucifixion:
“We help crucify Jesus when we get caught up in crowd mentality and say or condone things that go against what we profess to believe and are called to practice as Jesus’s followers—things we would never say or condone if we were standing alone. We assist in crucifying Jesus when, like Pilate, we fail to stand up for what we know is right and rationalize to ourselves the doing of wrong. We crucify Jesus little by little when we fail to have regard for how our words and deeds harm others, putting our own interests above theirs, and when we don’t grasp the depth of the ways in which we break the hearts of those we love. If we’re honest with ourselves, we need to recognize our own everyday betrayals of Jesus.”
That’s difficult to hear, isn’t it? Maybe we can see ourselves in the disciples who fled, or Peter, who denied, or even the crowd who shouted in anger. But the soldiers? When filming the crucifixion scene for the Passion of the Christ, the director, Mel Gibson, used his own hand to hold the nail driven into Jesus’ hand. Here he is during rehearsal. And here it is the film. He did this as a symbolic act, demonstrating that we’re all, himself included, responsible to some degree for his crucifixion.
So, if this is so, what does our Lord want us to hear in this radical cry for forgiveness? There are a number of things he wants us to hear, but this morning I’m going to focus on only one. Something he wants us to hear is that—if you can believe it—he actually offers his crucifiers an excuse. Don’t hold this against them because they don’t realize what they’re doing. Can you imagine how a judge would respond if a murderer pleaded ignorance? You’re honor, even though I was fully aware of what I was doing at the time, my motivation was honorable according to my personal code of ethic. But I now realize I had no idea what I was really doing. The judge would throw the book at them! But that’s exactly what Jesus the victim did for them and us the perpetrators.
What’s significant about this is that Jesus leaves the door open to repentance. He says that none of us should be forever defined by the worst thing we ever did. That, dear friends, is the power of the gospel. God always leaves open the possibility of us acknowledging our worst sins and asking for his forgiveness—which he readily gives. John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” was the captain of a slave ship. When the Holy Spirit got ahold of his heart and he realized the depth of his own depravity, he confessed it and God gave him a new heart. Out of his own experience of God’s mercy and love even for the wretched, he penned the words which speak of God’s amazing grace which gives sight to the spiritually blind and recovers the spiritually lost.
That’s us, right? No matter our past, no matter our yesterday, and no matter what we do tomorrow, out of his unfathomable grace, God offers forgiveness and healing. God forgives and God heals. The forgiveness and healing we all need, which we all long for, is not hidden away so that we have to go searching for it. We know exactly where to find it. We find forgiveness at the foot of the cross, where Jesus experienced our humanity at its worst; where he offered his life and spoke the world-changing words, “Father, forgive them.” The question isn’t whether we can find forgiveness—it’s whether we’ll accept it. And as a pastor who’s sat with people struggling with the notion that God could possibly forgive them, it’s my observation that accepting and receiving God’s forgiveness can sometimes be a difficult thing to do.
But this is exactly what Jesus wants us to hear in his cry from the cross. That the metaphorical Pilate’s and Herod’s and Romans soldier’s and angry members of the mob, as well as the Judas’s and Peter’s of this world are not beyond God’s willingness to forgive. More aptly, God’s eagerness to forgive.
In our collective lifetime, Hitler is the architype of human evil at its very worst. When it comes to the question of forgiveness, some would argue that he had journeyed to a place in his spiritual life where he was unable to repent. And I’d probably agree. But, for the sake of argument, let’s just say that he hadn’t reached a point of no return and at some point, recognized his depravity and confessed it to God and asked for forgiveness. Would God have forgiven even him, Adolf Hitler, and wiped his slate clean?
If your answer is no, then in your heart you believe that God’s grace is limited and that his forgiveness is ultimately incomplete. Let me ask you: in this world, what action could be ethically, morally, humanly, and spiritually worse than literally murdering the Messiah? There’s not a thing in this world that could bring down the wrath of God Almighty as much as being personally responsible for killing Jesus Christ, God’s Son. And yet, even that sin was forgivable. Jesus said so. Father, forgive them. Why? Because we’re utterly ignorant of what we’re really doing. When Jesus asked that of the Father, do you think he then responded, “No, I won’t.” Nope. Jesus only spoke and lived the Father’s heart. The Father was eager to forgive. And today, God is still eager to forgive.
I may not be talking to many of you when I say this, but if you’ve done something you’re ashamed of, something so bad that you think doing it has made you unforgiveable, let me encourage you to do one thing before the end of this day. Find a quiet place to sit, and with your eyes closed, to the best of your ability, use your imagination to place yourself at the cross Jesus Christ. With the eyes of your heart, see the cross as you imagine it to be. Look up and see Jesus on it. Even if what you see is hazy or without definition, keep going. Try to see Jesus’s face. See him looking at you. See him looking into you. Hold his gaze and don’t look away. See him smile just a bit as he’s looking at you. See the tiniest twinkle in his eyes. And while he’s looking directly at you, with the ears of your heart, hear him say to you, “You are loved deeply. I’ve loved from day one and I love you still. Father, forgive [your name].” Hear it and see it with your heart’s ears and eyes. Let it wash over you. Let us sink into your skin and permeate your heart. Then, looking at him, thank him, and tell him that you love him, too.
No one is outside of God’s forgiving grace.