Lord God, speak to us now through your Word in the Scriptures. Help us to see Jesus, and all that he has done for us, with fresh eyes. Help us to learn more of what Good Friday and Easter Day are really all about. In Jesus name. Amen.
My title this evening is 'At The Foot Of The Cross'. And the Bible passage that I'd like us to reflect on is Luke 23.32-49. We heard it earlier. It's on page 884 in the Bibles in the pews. It would be good if you can have that open in front of you.
I sometimes get asked why we have 'Easter Music' as we call this service, when Easter Day is still four weeks away! All kinds of reasons.
Pancake day is behind us (though I forgot to have any), the chocolate eggs are in the shops, and Easter is, after all, on the way. If you're a student we value your participation in our life together and a lot of you will shortly disappear for your Easter break, well earned – or not. Above all, Good Friday and Easter Day are in any case not just for once a year. They are to be lived every day of the year. Why? Well that's what I want us to think about.
The other day I read an article by a woman who had interviewed a man awaiting execution for a his part in a brutal and bloody assault and killing of a young woman on a bus. He denied that he had done more than look on, approving, from his driver's seat. He seemed almost bemused about why he was being held responsible. He and his associates in the attack were, she wrote …
… ordinary, apparently normal and certainly unremarkable men.
And she said:
… the real problem … is that these men are not the disease, they are the symptoms… My encounter left me feeling that my soul had been dipped in tar, and there were no cleaning agents in the world that could remove the indelible stain… When you look into the blackest recesses of the human heart, you cannot but be depressed and deeply disappointed.
Perhaps the most shocking thing of all is that it's not just their hearts that are dark in their deepest recesses. It's ours too. Mankind has paid a heavy, heavy price for turning its back on God and his ways of love. But that hellish, pitch-black stain is not indelible. The wonderful, joyous message of Good Friday and Easter is that there is a way out. But if we're going to find it, we have to remember continually another brutal and bloody death – the death of Jesus.
So we're looking at Luke 23.32-49, and what this passage makes very clear is that, though mankind has turned its back on God, God has not turned his back on mankind.
I want us to focus particularly on the three prayers that are recorded here. We'll look at them under the three headings that are there on the back of the service sheet. First, the prayer on which we depend; secondly, the prayer we need to pray; and thirdly, the prayer of a Son whose work is done.
First, The Prayer On Which We Depend: 'Father, Forgive Them'
The prayer is in verse 34, but let me read from v 32 to set the scene. Luke has just described how Jesus has been led to the execution site:
Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." And they cast lots to divide his garments.
Here is Jesus, the Son of God, asking God his heavenly Father to forgive those who are responsible for crucifying him. Who precisely does he have in mind? When Jesus says 'forgive them', who does he mean by 'them'? The obvious answer to that is that he doesn't say, and therefore we don't know.
Most immediately, presumably, he's speaking of the Roman soldiers who have just hammered the nails into his hands and feet and who are about to throw lots for his clothes, as if this was to them just another day at the office, which in a way no doubt it was – for them crucifying someone was a fairly routine matter, just a question of obeying orders. And yet they were crucifying the one who created them and the universe in which they lived.
But the responsibility for the death of Jesus did not lie only with those soldiers, nor even with Pontius Pilate the Roman governor, or the Jewish leaders who urged his killing. As the apostle Peter put it to the crowds a few weeks later on the Day of Pentecost, most of whom would not have had anything directly to do with the crucifixion:
Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know – this Jesus … you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up …
That's Acts 2.22-24. Mankind – all of us – have a corporate and individual responsibility for killing Jesus, because we all share in the sin for which he died.
Likewise, all of us can claim that we did not know what we were doing. Our sin was not a deliberate attempt to crucify the Son of God. And Jesus is clear, if you like, that all the circumstances are taken into account: "for they know not what they do", he prayed. All the extenuating circumstances are allowed for.
But that still leaves us guilty. Jesus is not saying, "They don't know what they're doing, so there's nothing to forgive; they've done nothing wrong." No. He says, "forgive them". The need for forgiveness for the death of Jesus means the guilt is real. After all the excuses are taken into account, still God rightly holds us responsible for killing Jesus.
What, then, should be our reaction? For a start, we should react in the same way as Peter's hearers as they realised their guilt. Acts 2.37:
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" And Peter said to them, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."
We should be cut to the heart. But then, like them, we should look to the mercy of God. What is the simple lesson for us to learn as we listen again to this prayer of Jesus: "Father, forgive them…"? It is, so wonderfully, that God is a God of mercy. Jesus and his Father are one, and they are at one in their attitude. Jesus looks at his enemies, who are putting him to death, and he looks at all mankind, who reject him and wish him dead, and he is merciful.
What does that mean? It means that he doesn't want us to suffer the just consequences of our sin. We owe this great unpayable debt to God because of what we've done to his Son, who came among us and loved us. And Jesus wants us to be set free of that debt. When we see Jesus dying because of us, we should be cut to the heart. When we hear Jesus praying for us, we should be humbled and overwhelmed with gratitude that this is what God is like. He is a merciful God.
God watches all our conflicts – whether between great nations or family or friends – and it wouldn't be surprising if he decided to draw a line under mankind and wipe us all from the disfigured face of the earth. But he doesn't. He is a merciful God. As Peter later put it in his Second Letter, 3.9:
[The Lord] is patient towards you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
If God were not merciful, we would have no hope. Humanity, would, quite literally, be doomed. But God is merciful. Listen to this prayer of Jesus, and rejoice. This is the prayer on which we depend: "Father, forgive them…"
Secondly, The Prayer We Need To Pray: 'Jesus, Remember Me'
This is the prayer of the penitent thief. It's there in verse 42, but once again let's put this in context. Let me read from verse 39:
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "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." And he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
It's not enough simply to overhear Jesus praying. It's not enough even to know that God is merciful. The forgiveness that Jesus has made possible has to become real in our lives. And that can only happen when we ask for the forgiveness without which we are lost eternally. To use the Bible word, we need to repent. And that's what this dying thief does here.
I wonder whether, when the time comes, we'll know that we're dying? And if we do know, I wonder how we'll pray?
It is wonderfully true that the example of this dying thief who had a change of heart reassures us that no one is too bad, nor, up until the moment of death, is it ever too late to repent and to ask for forgiveness. But that doesn't give us any room for delay or complacency whatsoever. And that's for three reasons.
First, we don't know when we'll die. You may remember the rich fool in Jesus' parable, who was settling down for a long, wealthy and pampered retirement, and who died that very night. I remember talking with a young mother, about 30 years old and with young children, whose husband had gone out for a game of rugby and never returned. He dropped dead on the sports field. We don't know when we'll die.
Secondly, even if our death is decades away, we don't know that when the time comes we'll get any notice of it. It might happen suddenly and without warning. We can't afford to say to ourselves, "I'll get sorted out with God when I know that my time is up and I'm soon going to be face to face with him." We may not get such an opportunity.
Thirdly, even if we do get some warning, we don't know that we'll be inclined to repent then, if we're not willing to repent now. Most likely, we won't be. Most likely, what we are now, we will be then.
When I did a bit of research into peoples' last words before death, the most striking thing I found was this: the attitudes that people adopt as death draws near reflect the attitudes with which they've lived. That's not rocket science. It's pretty obvious that's going to be the case – except that we tend not to live by that obvious fact. We tend to assume that when we know death is approaching, we'll do things differently. But the only safe assumption is that we won't.
People of earlier generations used to put quite a lot of thought into dying well, and into preparation for death. To be sure, we aren't to be morbid. But they were on to something. The key thing to recognise, though, is that we prepare to die well by living well. We prepare to be right with God then, by getting right and staying right with God now.
The fact is, of course, that every one of us already knows that our death is approaching, in a few short years. What we're not prepared to do now, we'll almost certainly not be prepared to do then. So the time to learn from the example of this dying thief is today.
What does this dying thief do?
First, he worries about wickedness. "Do you not fear God…?" he says to his partner in crime.
Secondly, he freely acknowledges his own guilt and accepts its consequences: "we are receiving the due rewards of our deeds …"
Thirdly, he accepts the sinlessness of Jesus: "but this man has done nothing wrong."
Fourthly, he has faith both in the power of Jesus to save him and in the desire of Jesus to save him. In other words, he trusts in Jesus both as Lord and as Saviour.
Fifthly, he expresses that trust in prayer to his new King: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
Sixthly, he hears Jesus' word of forgiveness, acceptance, and certain hope for his eternal future: '[Jesus] said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."'
That's not a bad model of what repentance means. That's not a bad model of the attitude we need to have and the prayer we need to pray as we prepare now and every day for the day of our own death.
For the dying thief it was pretty obvious that it was all or nothing. He knew that his only hope was to throw himself completely and totally on the mercy of God in Jesus. He had heard the prayer of Jesus: "Father, forgive them…" Perhaps that awakened hope in his pain-wracked heart. Perhaps we should see him as the beginning of God's answer to that prayer of Jesus – the first one to find that forgiveness. Perhaps you are the next in line. What is clear is that his prayer is the prayer every one of us needs to pray: "Jesus, remember me… "
Thirdly, The Prayer Of A Son Whose Work Is Done: 'Father, Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit!'
God is merciful. But there is a problem. How can God forgive our sin without abandoning justice? Sin and evil cannot simply be swept under the carpet. God cannot give up his holiness for the sake of his love. A world with no justice, where holiness no longer matters, where evil is simply ignored, is a world in which God is not God and evil triumphs by the back door. So how can God's justice and God's mercy co-exist?
The answer lies in what God accomplished in Christ on the cross. As he dies on the cross, Jesus is both our representative and our substitute. He is God become man. He is one of us, identifying himself with us. And he substitutes himself for us, dying the death that we deserve as the wages of our sin, satisfying the demands of God's holy justice, paying the ransom price that sets us free, clearing the debt that we owe to God.
At the cross Jesus does these things once and for all. No further sacrifice is necessary or possible for our sins or for the sins of the world, past, present or future. That is why Jesus can pray, 'Father, forgive them'. God has done what needs to be done to make forgiveness possible in the person of his Son. That is why Jesus dies as he does, not in despair but at peace. Verse 46:
Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!" And having said this he breathed his last.
His task is completed. It is finished. This is the prayer of a Son whose work is done; who on the third day, that first Easter Day, will be vindicated and raised bodily from the grave to reign at his Father's side in glory for all eternity.
So, what have we seen as we've stood at the foot of the cross, watching?
As we watch Jesus die, and as we hear him pray, we can be sure that God is a merciful God. Our offence against him is very great. Above all, we have scorned his love, rejected his loving commands and killed his Son. But such is the mercy of God that he's ready to forgive us. "Father, forgive them …"
As we watch those dying thieves, we learn that forgiveness is not automatic. We have to ask for it. "Jesus, remember me …"
And as we hear Jesus' final words, we can be assured that everything that needs to be done for our forgiveness and our eternal freedom has been done once and for all. "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!"
We live in a world that seems continually to be tearing itself apart limb from limb. If all we could do was to watch the news or look into our own hearts, then we would only be left with despair for humanity. As that journalist wrote:
My encounter left me feeling that my soul had been dipped in tar, and there were no cleaning agents in the world that could remove the indelible stain…
But thank God, we have Good Friday, and Easter Day. We can look at Jesus. We can look at the cross. And there we find hope. And forgiveness. And joy.
Let's bow our heads to pray:
Heavenly Father, help us to live by the wonderful truths of Good Friday and Easter Day not just on one weekend in the year, but every day. Thank you for Jesus, your beloved Son. Thank you for his death for our sin, and his resurrection. Teach us, heavenly Father, to trust him as our Saviour who died for our sin and as our Lord who was raised to rule our lives. By your grace and mercy, may we not turn aside and walk away from him, but instead learn to love him and follow him all the days of our lives until we meet him face to face. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.