The Pardoning Word
A sermon based on Luke 23:34
Sunday, February 18th, 2018 – Lent 1
What are the most powerful, life changing words in the world? "Ready. Aim. Fire!" or "Do it. Drop the bomb."? Maybe "You're hired!" or "You're fired!" Or maybe, "I love you" or "Will you marry me?" or "I do." Maybe the most life changing words are, "Congratulations. It's a boy!" or "It's a girl!" Or "I'm sorry to give you these results," from the doctor. Those are all powerful, life-changing words. But I would argue that there are words even more powerful and even more life changing: "I forgive you." What power those words carry, especially when they're spoken by God.
On Sunday mornings of this Lenten season we're going to examine the seven powerful, life-changing phrases that Jesus spoke from the cross. The first phrase heard from Jesus' dying lips is a pardoning word in the form of a prayer to God, recorded for us in Luke 23:34. Here's verse 33 too for the immediate context:
33 When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
What's the hardest thing you've ever had to forgive? Some harsh words spoken against you by a parent or spouse in a moment of frustration? Some thoughtless action that left you with a greater burden to carry? Some cruel joke that hurt your feelings and left you feeling wounded? Some public humiliation that ruined your reputation and left you feeling ashamed and alone? Some betrayal of trust, a broken vow, an illicit affair? The death of one you loved, the murder of someone you would have gladly given your life for? (This week as I heard of another mass shooting in a school in Florida, I wondered if I could ever forgive someone if they came into our school and shot and killed one of my sons.)
But no matter what you've been asked to forgive someone else of, I can promise you that it's nothing compared to what Jesus forgave…
As the nails were jutting out of his wrists and his feet, as his back, shredded from the scourging that he already endured, was rubbing against the rough wood of the cross, as the agonizing pain—the excruciating pain—was hitting every nerve of his body, what was Jesus thinking?
"Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
What is the antecedent of the pronoun, "them"? Was it the Roman soldiers who were executing him? "Father, forgive them for the scourging, for the torture, for the agonizing pain they're inflicting in this crucifixion!"
Was it the Jewish leaders – those Pharisees and teachers of the law who worked so hard to have him sentenced to death? "Father, forgive them for the ridicule, for the mockery, for the rejection, for their misunderstanding and ignorance that caused it all!"
Was it the disciples who abandoned him in his hour of greatest need? "Father, forgive them for their cowardice, for their betrayal, for their betrayal when I needed them the most!"
Nevertheless, when he was in the greatest pain a human could ever suffer, when he was absolutely alone, abandoned by his family, his friends, his own Father, when he was about to endure the agony of hell itself… it wasn't himself he was thinking about. It was them: the Roman soldiers, the Jewish leaders, his own disciples.
"Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
And he went on to give his life—and his very soul—as the once-for-all sacrifice that won forgiveness for every sin.
What's the hardest thing you've ever had to forgive? I know what it is for some of you. And I know it's something much bigger than anything I've ever had to forgive. I don't have a clue what it is for others of you. I can only imagine the sins and hurts that God asks you to forgive. And those aren't small things. I get that. At least, sort of, even though I haven't experience all that you have. But… how well do you forgive?
Peter once asked Jesus, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?" (Matthew 18:21) (And he thought he was probably being pretty generous in forgiving someone not just "three strikes and you're out," but seven times!) But Peter wanted to set a limit to forgiveness.
And don't we sometimes want to do the same? "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." Don't we sometimes want to say "three strikes and you're out," not just in the legal process of our justice system, but in our personal lives? Don't we sometimes want to hold a grudge, keep a record, make the other person hurt the same way that they made us hurt?
But Jesus upped the ante for Peter. Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times." (Matthew 18:22) You see, Jesus wanted Peter to realize that placing a limit on forgiveness was a failure to see one's own need for forgiveness from God.
I know that some of you have experience much bigger hurts that need to be forgiven than I ever have. But, still, as a faithful pastor I need to blunt with you: To say that the sins that others have committed against you (no matter how big that they are) should not be forgiven, is, in essence, to say "They don't deserve forgiveness the way I do," which is to say, "I don't need forgiveness the way they do," which is to say, "I don't really want your forgiveness, Jesus." Our failure to forgive others is really a plea to God that he should not forgive us. After all, don't we daily pray, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us."?
We don't deserve God's forgiveness any more than those who have sinned against us deserve ours. We don't deserve God's forgiveness for the countless ways that we have sinned against him. We don't deserve God's forgiveness for the way we've failed to forgive those who have sinned against us. But what we do deserve, is God's wrath, God's punishment, God's banishment to an eternity without him forever in hell…
What is the antecedent of the pronoun, "them"? Is it the Roman soldiers who crucified him? Is it the Jewish leaders who rejected him? Is it the disciples who abandoned him? I think it's all of those… and more. I think the "them" of Jesus' prayer, "Father, forgive them," is all of mankind.
We don't know what we're doing as we sin against God again and again, as we knowingly rebel against his will, as we refuse to forgive others who have sinned against us. But nevertheless, Jesus said of us, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
And unlike our prayers, "Father, take away mom's cancer." "Father, heal my broken relationship." "Father, help me keep my job so I can provide for my family…" where God might answer, "No, that wouldn't be for the eternal good of souls," when Jesus—God's own son!—prays to his Father, we know that what he prays is in perfect accord with the Father's will. And so God will hear and he will answer—in the affirmative!—whatever Jesus prays! So you know, without any doubt, that you are forgiven; for your rebellion against God, for your selfish thoughts, words, and actions, for your failure to forgive those who have sinned against you, for your every sin!
You are perfect, sinless, and holy, because Jesus not only prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing," but he also lived a perfect, sinless life in your place to give you credit for his moral perfection. He willingly chose the cross, the nails, the injustice, the agonizing pain, the separation from his Father, the hell that he endured… He went on to give his life—and his very soul—as the once-for-all sacrifice that won forgiveness for every sin—for yours; for mine.
The Father has forgiven us for the sins we committed when we didn't know what we were doing… and for those we committed when we did know better. He has forgiven us for every sin for the sake of Jesus, who lived for us, who died for us, who prayed for us, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
So what's our response? There is no other response than to say, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." Or as Luther put it in his explanation to the 5th Petition of the Lord's Prayer, "So we too will forgive from the heart and gladly do good to those who sin against us."
I don't know what the hardest thing is that you've ever had to forgive. I may know what it is for some of you. And for most of you, it's probably something much bigger than anything I've ever had to forgive. I can only imagine the sins and hurts that God asks you to forgive. But I do know that in Christ, who prayed from the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing," who on the cross won that forgiveness for you, who says to you, those most powerful, life changing words, "I forgive you." …through him you can do the very thing that you so often pray to God for help doing and forgive those who sin against you, just as God has forgiven you. And what powerful, life-changing words those will be, when you say to others, "I forgive you." In Jesus' name, by his forgiveness, and for his sake, dear friends, amen.