Sermon for 03-13-11: “Seven Last Words, Part 1”

March 17, 2011

This is the first sermon in Vinebranch’s new Lenten series, “Seven Last Words.” Sadly, due to technical difficulties (the camcorder battery died), we don’t have video this week. The manuscript below does include the short video we looped during the service showing the House of Caiaphas, taken during my recent trip to the Holy Land. (See, the church is getting a nice return on its investment!) 😉 Our series continues this Sunday with Luke 23:39-43 and Jesus’ words, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Sermon Text: Luke 23:32-38

The following is my original manuscript.

We Americans are facing a grave crisis, which could have dire consequences for our nation’s future. Did you know that? It’s not any of the usual suspects: the recession or the deficit or terrorism or the environment or the rising cost of health care. The problem is our rising self-esteem. It’s getting out of control—at least according to David Brooks, in a column published this week in the New York Times. In decades past, research shows, Americans had an egalitarian attitude about themselves: They tended to think, “I’m not better than anyone else, but no one else is better than me.” But not anymore: Today, we Americans tend to think that we’re pretty amazing; we’re gifted; we’re exceptional.

If you’re a fan of A Prairie Home Companion, you might say that we’re all from Lake Wobegon now, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” Brooks cites some specific examples of our inflated self-esteem. My favorite was this. He writes, “American students no longer perform particularly well in global math tests. But Americans are among the world leaders when it comes to thinking that we are really good at math.”

Or how about this: In the 1950s, only 12 percent of high school students thought that they were a “very important person.” By the ’90s, a full 80 percent of us thought that we were “very important people.” Brooks speculates that our inflated self-esteem is one reason we are often up to our eyeballs in debt: We feel entitled to have the things that befit our station in life, even though we can’t afford them.”1

Well, if it’s true that we have a hard time getting over ourselves, then what do we make of these first words that Jesus speaks from the cross? “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.” We may be very important people, but we’re also deeply flawed people, sinners, people who have fallen short of God’s glory, people who have damaged and distorted the good image of God within us, people who stand in need of forgiveness. As one Christian writer said, “Forgiveness is what it costs God to be with people like us who, every time God reaches out to us in love, beat God away.”2

When we were in Jerusalem a few weeks ago, one of my favorite places we visited was the House of Caiaphas. Caiaphas was the high priest who was responsible for putting Jesus on trial, charging him with blasphemy, and handing him over to the Romans. This was the place where witnesses gave false testimony about Jesus. This is where the temple guards beat, mocked, and spit upon Jesus. This is also the place—outside in the courtyard—where Peter denied knowing Jesus and being his disciple.

And this is the place, after the trial and the beating and mocking were finished, where Jesus likely spent the rest of that fateful night. In the basement of that house is a cave, which served as a dungeon for prisoners who were taken to Caiaphas. Today there are steps leading down to the dungeon, but at the time of Jesus the only entrance was a hole chiseled in the top of the cave.

Jesus was lowered through this hole down into the dungeon by a rope harness. An ancient church sits on the site of Caiaphas’s house. On the wall of the church is a mosaic [show picture], which depicts Jesus in this harness. Our bishop led us down into that dungeon. And while we were down there, after we read scripture about Jesus’ trial, the bishop had our tour guide turn out the lights. We were, for a few moments, in total darkness—just as Jesus would have been while he was waiting to be handed over to the Romans at daybreak. The bishop asked us to imagine what it must have been like for Jesus—how he must have felt being in this place on that lonely night.

Here we were, being asked to identify with Jesus, who spent the night down there in total darkness—and that was a powerful and chilling and good experience. But there’s also an important sense in which we had no business being down there—with Jesus. We belong up above… Those are our people

We belong up above with Caiaphas, the high priest who wrongly sentenced Jesus to death and handed him over to the Romans. After all, we’re the ones who are so lightly committed to truth and justice. We’re the ones who desperately want to be liked and cave into peer pressure. We’re the ones who, when faced with a choice between doing the right thing and doing the easy thing, settle for the easy thing. We belong up there with Caiaphas!

We belong up above with the witnesses who testified falsely against Jesus or out in the courtyard, where his disciple Peter failed to be a truthful witness. After all, we’re the ones who say that our relationship with Jesus is the most important thing in the world to us, yet often live our lives as if we don’t even know him. We’re the ones who lie about or deny Jesus through our actions and words. We’re the ones who are called upon to tell the truth about Jesus to people whom the Spirit has sent our way, yet we say nothing.

Twenty years ago, I took a philosophy class at Georgia Tech. The subject of Christianity came up often in this class. And it wasn’t exactly Sunday school, you know? It was a very skeptical, even hostile, environment for Christian faith. At the end of the term, as the professor was handing out the class evaluation forms, he said, “I often get negative reviews from students who complain that I’m anti-Christian. I don’t understand this at all. I’m very sympathetic with Christianity. I mean, I don’t believe it’s true—any more true than Buddhism or any other religion—but, after all, how many of you believe it’s true? How many of you literally believe Jesus was resurrected.”

And I’m sitting there, looking around this class of about 30 or 40 students—and I’m sure I’m not the only Christian in the room. And no one says anything. And I would like to say that I spoke up and boldly defended the faith… “I believe it, and here’s why.” But please! I felt too much pressure to not say anything! Have you ever been there? In what ways do we deny Jesus through our actions, our words, or our lack of words?

No, I belong out in that courtyard with Peter! I belong with those false witnesses. I belong with Caiaphas.

But I certainly don’t belong down there, in that dark dungeon with the Lord. I can’t suffer alongside him through his trial. I can’t suffer the insults and the beating and the betrayal. And I can’t hang with him on that cross. If I’m going to be saved, Jesus has got to do that for me, because I can’t. Only Jesus, God’s Son, Israel’s faithful Messiah, could bear the cross for me—in my place, on my behalf. For my sin, for my evil, for my failures. Only Jesus, through the atoning work of the cross, could reconcile me to God. Only Jesus could pray, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

What does it mean that Jesus’ first words from the cross are words of forgiveness? How can Jesus possibly forgive all the people who put him there. Only one of them, as far as we know, placed his faith in Jesus—and that was a Roman soldier at the foot of the cross. Does this mean that everyone is just forgiven, regardless how they respond to Jesus?

In one sense, yes… Think about the parable of the Prodigal Son. The younger son asks for his share of his father’s inheritance early, goes off to a foreign land, and squanders all of it. His actions are reckless, shameful, and unloving—and they financially harm his father and older brother, who have to live on less. And yet the loving father waits and watches for the younger son to come home. And when he does, he runs to him, embraces him, and throws the biggest party for him imaginable. Do you think that while the son was gone the father stood with his arms crossed, thinking to himself, “If only my son will return home, then and only then I’ll think about forgiving him”? No! He forgave him!

When we talk about the gift of forgiveness, grace, mercy, and eternal life, the problem is never on God’s end; it’s on our end. wasn’t on the father’s end… From the father’s perspective, forgiveness was there from the start, freely available without cost. The problem was on the son’s end. The father can offer forgiveness, but the son still has to accept it. And in order to accept it, the son has to see that he has done something that needs forgiveness. The son has to come to grips with his own sin. The father can’t do that for him—he can’t force his forgiveness on the son. The son has to receive it.

You Ohio State fans are painfully aware of the controversy last week involving your head football coach, Jim Tressel. It came to light this week that Tressel knew last spring that some of his star players had sold football memorabilia, including jerseys and rings, in order to get free tattoos. As UGA fans are well aware, this is a serious violation of N.C.A.A. rules. It’s also a serious violation for a coach who has incriminating information not to pass it along immediately. Tressel knew the rules, but he didn’t follow them. But surely we know how easy it was for Tressel to not pass that information along. After all, Georgia star wide receiver A.J. Greene missed the first four games of last season for selling a jersey—and there were several players involved with Ohio State. So the coach wanted to win instead of doing the right thing and risk losing. Tressel explained himself in his press conference, “I was scared.”

Of course he was! Can’t we all relate to that? And maybe when it comes to owning up to our sin, repenting, and accepting the forgiveness that God offers us, we’re scared too?

We don’t have to be! Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” This was preemptive forgiveness. God knew in advance from all eternity every sin that we would commit—and every one of our sins was accounted for; every one of our sins was nailed to the cross; every one of our sins was forgiven—if only we’ll receive the forgiveness.

It’s helpful for me to imagine my Lord on the cross praying, “Father, forgive Brent for he knows not what he does.”

Do you dare to believe, when Jesus was on the cross, that he prayed this beautiful prayer of forgiveness on your behalf? I hope so. What’s the very worst thing you’ve done in your life? Jesus prayed that his Father would forgive even that. What have you done that you are most ashamed of? Jesus prayed that his Father would forgive even that. What have you done to hurt other people and yourself? Jesus prayed that his Father would forgive even that. What is it that you feel most guilty about? Jesus prayed that his Father would forgive even that. Listen: Jesus knew how to pray; when he prayed, he meant it; when he prayed, his prayers were answered. Remember, Jesus said, “The Father and I are one”—they are of one accord. If God the Son wants to forgive us, God the Father wants to forgive us! And so we will be forgiven—if we accept the gift of forgiveness!

In spite of your fears, are you willing to own up to your sins? Are you willing to make a new start, even this morning, and entrust your life to Jesus? Are willing to accept the forgiveness that God offers through Christ?

If so, hear this good news. On the cross, God the Son asked God the Father to forgive you, and God the Father said, “I do.” Amen?

1. David Brooks, “The Modesty Manifesto,” The New York Times, A27, 11 March 2011.

2. William Willimon, Thank God It’s Friday: Encountering the Seven Last Words from the Cross (Nashville: Abingdon, 2006), 6.

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