The Miraculous Faith of the Soldiers
A sermon based on Matthew 27:54
Wednesday, March 25, 2015 – Midweek Lent 6
It's been said that by the time our children reach graduation from high school, they will have already witnessed thousands of deaths and murders. Okay, so maybe not in real life, but they will have seen thousands of portrayals of death and murder in movies and TV shows, in comics and in art, and without filters on the internet and lots of parental supervision, they will see all kinds of grisly and gruesome scenes on the computer, tablet or phone.
And after seeing so much death by high school, can anything shock them anymore? Or will they be so desensitized to such violence that it will seem normal and common place? Our shifting culture sometimes makes me nervous for the next generation.
But of course, gruesome scenes of death are nothing new. They may be more accessible to us today, but murder and death have been around since Cain and Abel.
And can you imagine all the things that the centurion at Jesus' crucifixion must have witnessed in his day? I imagine that Jesus' death was not the first he'd ever seen. And he didn't just witness these cruel, tortuous executions, but performed them on a regular basis, pounding the nails in the hands and the feet amid the screams of the condemned, hoisting those men into place and then watching while the hours or even days slowly took their lives while they stood guard to make sure no family member or friend came to the rescue, shattering their legs with a club, and tossing the bodies on a heap and watching the scavengers feast on their remains.
After watching all of that—after doing all of that—could anything shock these men? It would have to be a lot.
It was a lot.
This evening we hear of one more miracle of Lent. And really, it's the biggest miracle that we've looked at so far: It's the miracle of the faith of the soldiers who crucified Jesus that Good Friday. Our text is from Matthew 27:54, but we again add verse 50 for the context…
50 When Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit… 54 When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, "Surely he was the Son of God!"
How odd this crucifixion must have been to those soldiers. Even if they'd executed 1,000 other men, how different this particular crucifixion was! A huge following came to watch the execution. That wasn't normal. The Jewish leaders were making a huge deal of it. That was odd. And the man on the cross in the middle was completely different. They'd never seen anyone like him before.
Even as he was being tortured to death, he did not curse them, but prayed for their forgiveness. He promised another dying man that he had the power to take him to paradise that very day. He cried out that God had forsaken him—that part mabe seemed normal enough as many of the condemned must have had that same thought. But what happened next was totally bizarre: The sun stopped shining. It wasn't an eclipse. It wasn't just dark clouds that rolled in. The sun simply quit.
For three dark hours they must have wondered what was going on. Then the man in the middle shouted with a loud cry—the shout of a victor, not the whimper of a dying man—"It is finished!" (John 19:30) And with bold confidence, he cried, "Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit." (Luke 23:46)
And the earth shook. The rocks split open. The dead came to life. And these hardened, desensitized soldiers stood in awe. And they made their clear confession: "Surely he was the Son of God!" Can you imagine the terror they must have felt? Desensitized no more. They were very sensitive to what they had just done! We killed the divine!
And I believe this was more than just a confession that the man in the middle was like Hercules. I believe it was more than a confession that he was God. Luke tells us that the centurion also confessed, "Surely this was a righteous man." (Luke 23:47) He may not have fully understood God's full plan of salvation at that point. But he understood that Jesus was true God. He understood that Jesus was true man. He understood that Jesus was the innocent and righteous God-man who died for no sin he'd ever committed.
And perhaps he even understood why Jesus had to die: to win the very forgiveness of sins he had so recently prayed that the Father give to him—to this very centurion who had just killed the God-man—that he too might join Jesus in paradise someday.
Whatever he understood, the Spirit led him to believe. And for a hardened soldier in the Roman army, well, let's face it, for anyone born dead in sin, and hard in heart, this was a great miracle! Greater than an earthquake or some darkness, God changed the minds of these soldiers and he changed their hearts.
And thank God, that he's worked the same miracle in you. You see, you and I are pretty desensitized too. I don't know what kind of movies you all watch, and I don't know if they've led you to be desensitized to violence, murder, and gore. But I do know that every one of us gets desensitized to our sin. Like callouses form on the hands with a lot of yardwork, so all of us have callouses on our hearts that downplay sin—especially our own sins.
We think, "Well, there were no major consequences for committing that sin—that unkind thing I said to my spouse, that unloving gossip I shared with my coworker, that impure thought that no one knows about but me—so no big deal!" Instead of "no harm, no foul," we tend to think, "no foul, no harm."
But a wise pastor once said that the biggest sins are those that are thought of as little. You see, when we commit "big" sins, it's obvious to us and to everyone around that we messed up. We have no choice but to confess. But the so-called "little" sins are the most deadly. Hiding beneath the surface, we learn to live with them, even welcome them. We function with them, so we feel no need to repent. And we get desensitized.
But stand at the foot of the cross again tonight and see what a big deal your sin is. For those "little" sins the Son of God had to die. For your sins God forsook God, the Son endured hell, the sun stopped shining, the earth shook, the rocks split open, as the Father poured out his damning wrath against his Son!
There are no "little" sins. For any single sin we deserve to be crushed, for we are no less responsible for killing Jesus than that centurion and those soldiers were.
But God has worked a miracle in us. He has changed our minds. He has changed our hearts. He has worked in us a true repentance over all our sins—big and little, known and unknown. We grieve over our sin that put Jesus on that cross.
God has worked a miracle in us. He has changed our minds. He has changed our hearts. We now rejoice in what Jesus accomplished for us on that cross. Because we too know that Jesus is the Son of God. We know that he is a righteous, sinless man. We know that he didn't just pray for forgiveness for those who were killing him, but earned it for them and for all who have ever sinned when he gave his perfect, sinless, divine life on that cross!
And when he cried, "It is finished," he didn't just mean his life was finished. He meant that your sin is! It's done for, paid for, once and for all, destroyed, sent away, never to return again. We know that he can and will take us to be with him in paradise forever too. You believe it and you rejoice.
And you know that this faith is not our work, but God's. He has worked this miracle in us.
"But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved." (Ephesians 2:4-5)
"But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior…" (Titus 3:4-6)
Rejoice in what God has done for you: He's brought about the miracle of faith in your heart just like he did to for those Roman soldiers.
Now don't take that gift for granted. But grow in that faith that he gives. Don't be desensitized to sin, especially to your own. But ruthlessly hunt it down and wipe it out.
I walked in to my college dorm room and saw my roommate acting strangely. He going through his CD collection. But he wasn't organizing it. He was pulling out almost every other CD and wasn't just throwing them away, but was breaking disk after disk, snapping them in half. Naturally, I asked him what was going on (while slowly backing out of the room).
"A lot of this music," he said, "isn't fitting for a Christian to listen to. The lyrics certainly don't bring glory to God. I never should have bought them in the first place. I considered trying to sell them, but figured if it's not fitting for me, it's not fitting for anyone. So I'm getting rid of them once and for all."
He was tired of being desensitized and would do it no more. So I joined him and helped him destroy his CDs.
Find your CDs, dear friends—those pet sins of yours that you may have become desensitized to, the way you treat your spouse, the impatience you give your kids, the websites you visit, the time you waste… Whatever they are, find them—and snap them in half! Ruthlessly hunt them down and destroy them.
And do this, not to earn God's favor, but because you already have his favor through Christ and because you long to thank him for that miracle.
Look at the one who died for you. Look at the miracle of faith he's worked in you. And recommit to living for him and to growing in your faith in thanks. In Jesus' name, dear friends, amen.