Monday, March 25, 2013

Sermon on Luke 23, for Palm Sunday, "Calm our deep distress"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. It’s a short trip from the gates of Jerusalem and the palm-strewn roads, to the agony of the cross. As we arrive at Holy Week, we’re pulled into a roiling mix of emotions and clashing events. No wonder the cross makes us so uncomfortable. Side by side there’s cruel laughter, mockery, and scorn, and heart-wrenching love and sorrow. Everything gets turned inside out, including us. Ruthless men are turned from laughing to mute astonishment and fear. Bold and loyal disciples are turned into cowards in hiding. Meek and trusting women cast away fear and stand in grieving shock and hopeless adoration before the cross. Proud and callous rulers hesitate at innocence, but commit themselves to wicked injustice at the bloodthirsty demands of a crowd. The mob which gathers in furious glee—by the end dispels in mirthless lamentation.
Things had not gone down as planned. Had Jesus “played the part” and answered back with hatred and contempt—they would’ve had their grim satisfaction. Had He scorned them in return, it would’ve fueled their miserable rage. But instead He went humbly, silently, without protest. Pity and compassion and love showed down from His face instead. THAT, they were not prepared for. Know that when we draw near to the cross of Jesus, it will turn us inside out too. But stand there, with Jesus, and hear His voice—the few meager words He can manage, and let Him transform you.
The sins and hypocrisy of the mob and the mockers, are plain enough for us to see. But do we allow the crucifixion of Jesus to likewise expose who we are, with our sins? Do we hide from that “moment of truth”? At the cross our excuses and defenses for sin become paper thin and transparent. The old hymn asks, “do we pass that cross unheeding, breathing no repentant vow? Though we see you wounded, bleeding, see your thorn-encircled brow? Yet your sinless death has brought us life eternal peace and rest; only what your grace has taught us calms the sinner’s deep distress.” The hymn tells us not to ignore or avoid the cross—but to face the cross and be moved to repentance. To confess to God what we’ve done wrong. Jesus’ sinless death brings us eternal peace and rest, and only His grace calms our deep distress. However painful to watch, to bear, to be pulled into the gravity of Jesus’ cross, it is here that Jesus calms our deep distress. The cross is the gravitational center of the Biblical worldview. We would run from the cure, but here He is.
We don’t want to see that it was our sin that He suffered for. Do we measure the sins of others with a longer measuring stick then we measure our own, or do we take the painfully true view of the Bible, that “Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost”? It’s a trustworthy saying, worthy of full acceptance. The realization that somebody else’s sins don’t matter in my relation to God. I’m not being compared to how sinful they are. Their sins matter in their relation to God. And I am of no use to help them unless I first deal with my own sins, rightly and humbly. It’s my sins, my pride, my defenses that Jesus topples down. The thief on the cross anticipated Paul’s words: “Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” with his own rebuke and confession: “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” He assumed the responsibility of his own guilt, reminding his fellow that their penalty was justly deserved. Even the onlookers are called to account, when in the fear of God he looked to his own guilt, and Jesus’ innocence.
From Matthew and Mark we learn that earlier, this thief also mocked. But something changed him. Jesus changed him, turning his laughter and cruelty into dismay over his own sin, and the injustice of what was unfolding before his eyes. The Holy Spirit changed him, because of what he saw happening in Jesus’ sufferings.
We all need to ask ourselves how we would endure such vehement false accusations, mockery, and contempt. None of us have ever experienced such scorn and aggressive hatred as Jesus did in those awful hours. We might lash back in anger, with choice words of our own (if not with violence also)—or we might wither under the cruel words, and wish we could crawl into a hole and die. But Jesus did neither. Instead, He felt great sorrow—not for Himself(!)—but for those cruel and abusive mockers! And He forgave them! “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus’ answers to hell’s fury was forgiveness to His persecutors. And this is nothing else than divine love.
And I believe these very words of Jesus sunk into the thief’s heart and produced his repentance. It was a straight shot to a dying, sin-darkened heart, that brought death to his sin (I deserve this), but spiritual life to a man whose eyes were now open. It was the work of God to kill and make alive, to wound and to heal this very sinner. But it was not the wound of an enemy, but of an unexpected friend as the proverb says: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of the enemy” (Prov. 27:6). The shame he now felt over his sin was a faithful wound from Jesus, a friend. But why would He love me, when I have been so mercilessly wounding Him? Why would He forgive us and feel sorry for us, when He bears intolerable abuse and mockery? Because of who He is. What is this strange wound I feel, from one who would be my friend? From One whose hands are helpless?
A wound like the incision of a surgeon, aimed to bring healing. The conviction of my guilt to bring me forgiveness. The repentant thief now finally saw the matter aright. And may we see it with him. He saw with new clarity, what countless others refuse to see. That Jesus, the innocent Son of God, was dying and forgiving the world’s sins—and not just the world’s sins—my own sins, as the chief of sinners. That I too could be forgiven—need to be forgiven. He saw this grave injustice, but that God was working through it for our salvation.
But the dismay over his sins and this unjust scene did not envelope him in despair. Rather, the repentant thief’s heart pounded with new spiritual life as he now spoke faith-filled dying words: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The Holy Spirit’s work in this man’s life was just begun—even as he was dying. Because this new birth now meant eternal life for him! He received the very forgiveness Jesus had spoken: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And in that forgiveness and the Spirit’s gift of faith, he was finally a new man. He saw Jesus for who He was—truly the King of the Jews—truly the King of God’s heavenly kingdom, and the Door to everlasting life. He saw in the bloodied and dying person of Jesus, the unmistakable power of God alone, to forgive. He saw Divine Love on full display, with Jesus harboring no ill will or hatred toward the cruelest enemies, but only pure, redeeming love. He heard Jesus welcoming him into His kingdom: “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that the profound, dying conversation between Jesus and this repentant thief; how he rebuked the crowd and confessed Jesus’ innocence and Lordship, caused all the hideous mockery to die down and disappear. The words of this repentant thief mark a dramatic shift in the account, from the glee of circling bands of mockers, to dumbfounded silence and awe. From here forward, no one mocks. Darkness falls over the land, the light of the sun fails, telling of the greater spiritual darkness at hand. A fearful thing happens in the Temple--as the curtain to the Most Holy Place is torn in two. Jesus speaks His last words: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And death. The Greatest Injustice was done. The only perfectly innocent man, and Son of God, was dead.
Had any of the mockers found satisfaction in His death? Faith crops up in another unlikely suspect, a Roman centurion, who stood watch over Jesus’ death, also proclaims Jesus’ innocence, and praises God! And the mourning and grieving intensifies, and crowds who had come to see a grand spectacle, left shocked and ashamed at this Greatest Injustice. The question is, will that shame—caused by the faithful wounds of Jesus, the friend—will it stir repentance, and then faith in our hearts too? As it did for the thief and the centurion? God demonstrates that He alone is God as He kills and makes alive; wounds and heals. No one else holds this awesome power over life and death, over injury and healing. No one else can raise the dead as God did for Jesus Christ! And no one else can create faith in hearts that seemed so calloused and deadened in sin to God, as God did for the thief and centurion.
We can hardly remain unmoved by Jesus on the cross. But our distress, our sinner’s deep distress at the cross, is nothing in comparison to what Jesus endured. But as Hebrews reminds us: “[Look] to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. 4 In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Heb. 12:2-4). Speaking of strange contrasts and emotions at the cross, who would expect that amidst such suffering and sorrow, Jesus would at the same time be enveloped with Divine peace and even joy—the joy that carried Him through the shame of the cross so He could accomplish our redemption. So come, watch with Him one bitter hour, confess your sins before you, and kneel in reverent awe before His love and His sacrifice. And hear those words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And know the calm that your sins are forgiven, and that Jesus will remember you and not your sins, when He comes into His kingdom. In the holiest name of Jesus, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Palm Sunday (Sunday of the Passion) begins Holy Week, and a strange tension or mix of attitudes and emotions. How did Jesus respond to these various forces that pushed or pulled on Him? How does His suffering on the cross have a unique gravity or magnetism that moves us to respond?

  1. Read verse 2 of “Jesus, Refuge of the Weary” (LSB 423). When have you passed by the cross of Jesus, without repentance? What sin still clings to you that you are reluctant to give up in confession? How does Jesus silently plead with us to lay it down?

  1. Why is it a harmful reaction to simply condemn the mob, but not see our sin at the cross? 1 Timothy 1:15-16; Matthew 7:1-5. What parallel is there from the thief on the cross’ confession, to Paul’s words in 1 Tim. 1:15? How does the cross of Jesus expose our sin?

  1. What about Jesus’ words and actions changed the thief? How did Jesus’ words cut right to his heart? Prov. 27:6. Why was Jesus’ friendship and love so unexpected? What would have fed the mockers’ fury instead?

  1. How does God “kill and make alive”; “wound and heal”? Deuteronomy 32:39; Galatians 5:24-25.

  1. How does Hebrews 12:2-4 remind us that Jesus has endured everything for us? What moved Him to do so?

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