“The Best Chance for Forgiveness”
Luke 23:34, Psalm 22:14-18
April 14, 2006
And so we have arrived at Calvary. We gather here, at Racine Lutheran High School – in a gymnasium – but we are transported by God’s word to the foot of the cross. And as we do every year, we will hear from our Savior, and over the next few hours, meditate on his final words before death.
This year, we will also be drawing on the Psalms. Connecting each of the 7 words from the cross with an appropriate portion of the Psalms. We take Jesus “last words” to heart, but also when he says of the Old Testament scriptures, “These are they which testify to me.” Indeed, a foundational principle for the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures is this, that all scripture is Christ-centered. Yes, even the Old Testament.
Psalm 22 is striking in its application to Good Friday. You will hear the opening words of this Psalm later, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”. But for now, the almost eerie predictions of verses 14-18:
I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted away within me.
My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.
Dogs have surrounded me;
a band of evil men has encircled me,
they have pierced my hands and my feet.
I can count all my bones;
people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my garments among them
and cast lots for my clothing.
When Jesus was led to the place of execution, his hands and feet were pierced by the large nails which fastened his suffering body to the cross.
A band of evil men. The Romans – brutal soldiers, hardened killers – kept close watch – circled around – those condemned to crucifixion. The Jews had a pejorative nickname for these Gentiles – they called them, “the dogs.”
To pass the time, and as one of the perks of their position, they divided up the garments of their victims. You were crucified naked, you see, to enhance the shame and humiliation of it all. But one such garment was too fine to tear, and one lucky soldier would win Jesus’ cloak in a game of chance.
Some might have said that Jesus’ luck had run out. That, after years of causing trouble to the Jewish religious establishment, that finally they caught up with him. Whether he deserved this punishment or not, chances are, they would get rid of him somehow.
But all this was predicted ahead of time, by the Psalmist. The soldiers, they had no idea the significance. They were participants, you see, in something much larger than they could imagine. A plan for the salvation of the world. They knew not what they did. But Jesus knew all too well what was going on. He knew it was all about forgiveness.
It is striking that his first word from the cross is one… of forgiveness. For us sinners, a reaction beyond comprehension. For when someone attacks us, does violence to us, or even says something we don’t like – our instinct is to return evil for evil. To swing when swung at, to yell when yelled at, to hurt when we are hurt. But Jesus says, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”.
And of course, the soldiers weren’t the only ones Jesus meant to forgive. The Jewish leaders, too, had a hand in this sad scene. Pontius Pilate who washed his hands, but the blood was still on them. Herod, who wanted Jesus to do magic tricks. Even the crowds who turned against the Lord and called out, “Crucify! Crucify!”. “A band of evil men has encircled me.”
But let’s do as Christians always do on Good Friday. Let’s include ourselves in that “band of evil men”. You know the hymn, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Let’s imagine we were. We’d like to think, perhaps, that we would be faithful – that we would be strong – that we would be there for Jesus, that we would have given him a fair trial, that we would have stood by him to the end, that we – if we are delusional like Peter – would even die with him! But what are the chances of that? Not very good. Much more likely that we too would be swept up in the tide calling for his blood.
A true view of ourselves shows that we are a band of evil men and women – in our sin. That we, by our sin, by our own most grievous sin, bear just as much blame for the injustice of the cross as the Romans and Jews. And still Jesus cries, “Father, forgive them…”
What is the chance, that we can stand before God and answer for our misdeeds and offenses? What are the odds that God will overlook our sins, ignore our evil deeds, or that he simply doesn’t care? Scripture says, “Not good”. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. “There is no one that is righteous, not one” “The soul that sins shall perish”.
And yet, many people today would take the gamble, take the risk, on the off chance that their meager works of supposed charity and goodness will pass the test. That I’ve been “pretty good” or “not as bad as the next guy”. That I’ve never killed anyone, or cheated on my wife, or stolen something, or…. And soon the list ends because most other sins we have committed. Still, there seems to be this hope – however ill conceived – that I will be “good enough” somehow, for God. Even though God says that only perfect is “good enough”, some still roll the dice with their eternity.
The only chance for us in Christ. The only chance to be good enough, the only chance that God’s anger will be turned away, the only chance for us to live!
I say chance, but I really don’t mean it like it’s a probability. As if Christ’s forgiveness is like an 80% chance of showers or a 1 winner in every 25 tickets sold. The only opportunity, the only hope, the only way – the 1 in a zillion – is Christ on the cross. But he is the way.
Our God is in the business of small probabilities, you see. What were the chances, that a virgin would conceive and bear a son? (But with God, all things are possible). What were the chances that water would turn to wine, that a man could walk on water, that the deaf would hear, the lame walk, the blind see, that a bag lunch could feed a crowd of hungry people, that a young girl, a widow’s son, and a man named Lazarus would see life after death? But in Christ, all this did happen.
What were the chances that this bloodied and beaten, condemned and dying man was the Son of God, (And yet the centurion confessed it). And what are the chances that one so thoroughly dead (as the spear to his side attested), what are the chances that he would be back, that he would do what he said, that he, himself, would rise from the dead? You know the answer to that.
And so the soldiers competed in their little game of chance, there in the shadow of the cross. And so we go about most of our lives, not knowing what we do, but still in the shadow of the cross. But Jesus knows all, and he knows us. And there, in the One crucified, is our best, our only chance for forgiveness. It’s a sure thing. “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do!” Amen.