A Word of Forgiveness (Luke 23:34)
In the name of Christ Jesus, dear friends:
The date was November 19, 1863. Thousands had gathered for the dedication of the battlefield and cemetery at Gettysburg. The dedication ceremony had been delayed for several months so that the greatest American orator of the day could complete his speech.
After weeks of preparation and anticipation, Edward Everett finally opened his mouth to speak: Standing beneath this serene sky…it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature…” For two whole hours he broke that silence.
And finally he concluded with these words: “That wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country there will be no brighter page than that which relates THE BATTLES OF GETTYSBURG.”
As grand and glorious as that oration was supposed to be, you probably don’t recognize it. And unless you are a Civil War buff, there is a good chance that you have never even heard of it. Instead you and I probably remember another speech that was delivered that day, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Ten sentences. 278 words. Only a couple minutes long. And over one hundred-forty years later, many Americans still know the president’s words by heart.
It is an impossible task to calculate all the words that have been spoken and written about the suffering and death of our Lord. Yet the seven simple statements Jesus uttered from the cross speak louder than them all. Many of us know them by heart, and yet our Savior’s words continue to give us renewed comfort, renewed peace, renewed hope.
Therefore, we will ponder the “Seven Times He Spoke” as the basis for our midweek Lenten devotions this year. On this Ash Wednesday, we will consider the first word Jesus spoke from the cross. When he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing…”
- A word that condemns my unforgiving heart
- A word that comforts my grateful heart
“And take his words and actions in the kindest possible way.” Or maybe you remember it like this: “Put the best construction on everything.” These words come at the very end of Martin Luther’s explanation of the eighth commandment: You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
“And take his words and actions in the kindest possible way.” “Put the best construction on everything.” Perhaps you were required to recite those words at some point in you life. But even if you weren’t, you still recognize that what Luther is asking us to do is much easier said than done.
Every Sunday we gather together in this sanctuary and pray: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” But how difficult it is to make those words travel fifteen inches or so from our lips to our hearts!
Forgive that jerk who just cut me off in traffic? No way! I’ll ride his bumper for a while so that he doesn’t forget what he did to me. And if everything works out the way I want it to, I’ll be able to pull up next to him at the next light and give him a piece of my mind…or at least a cold stare.
Forgive my so-called friend for what she did to me? I don’t think so! She wants me to believe that she didn’t mean it, but she knew exactly what she was doing. Maybe I will forgive her…if she comes groveling to me on her knees. But she has to make the first move.
Forgive my co-worker, the one who does none of the work and takes all of the credit? Forget it! That’s why I keep getting passed over for promotions. Doesn’t it say somewhere in the Bible that God helps those who help themselves (actually it doesn’t)? If I am always forgiving, if I keep letting other people walk all over me, I won’t get anywhere in life.
The situations may change, but the words of Jesus remain the same: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” How could he say that? Considering the circumstances, how was Jesus able to be so forgiving, so caring, so kind?
When Jesus said, “Father, forgive them,” he was talking about the Roman soldiers. They were the ones who had just hammered metal spikes into his hands and feet. They were the ones who dropped his wooden cross into the ground with a bone jarring thud. They were the ones who gambled at the foot of the cross for Jesus’ clothes. Could I be so forgiving? Could you?
When Jesus said, “Father, forgive them,” he was talking about the people who stood watching (23:35). Was this gory spectacle entertainment for some of them? And where were Jesus’ friends? Where were Jesus’ allies? Where were Jesus’ disciples? Could I be so forgiving of those who stood by and did nothing to help me in my time of need? Could you?
When Jesus said, “Father, forgive them,” he was even talking about his enemies. The Jewish leaders didn’t stand and watch. They did something much worse. They mocked Jesus, saying: “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God” (23:35). These men were supposed to be servants of God, and here they were taunting the Son of God himself. Could I mind it in my heart to forgive such bitterness and hatred? Could you?
During his public ministry, Jesus taught: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39) and “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44) and forgive “seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22). But he didn’t stop there. He practiced what he preached. And on the cross, the first words from our Savior’s mouth were “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Jesus’ word of forgiveness condemns my unforgiving heart because I know that I will never be as forgiving as he is. All too often I don’t even want to. Sometimes I don’t even try. It is my unforgiving spirit that made it necessary for Jesus to suffer and die.
But he already knew that, didn’t he? The man who was crucified on that middle cross was much more than a man. Jesus was and is the all-seeing, all-knowing Son of God. And he knew us before we were born. Before we held our first grudge. Before the first vengeful thought ever took root in our hearts.
Jesus knows how unloving and uncaring we can be. But he spoke this word of forgiveness anyway: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And when he did, he was speaking about you and me.
But those words are not just mere words. Jesus lived those words. He had to if he wanted to send our sins packing from the presence of his holy Father. All the money in the world couldn’t plunge our backbiting and bitterness in the depths of the sea. All of our good intentions wouldn’t be able to make satisfaction for a single sin. Forgiveness could come only one way, through the Lamb of God who served as our perfect substitute under God’s holy law.
And so Jesus did the unthinkable. Jesus did what only Jesus can do. He loved his enemies. He forgave his enemies. How many times did the soldiers strike the nails that pierced his hands? Seven times? How many blows did it take to get through his feet? Another seven? But no matter what they did to him, Jesus still prayed: “Father, forgive them…”
How many passers-by stopped and stared and then simply walked away? How many so-called friends failed to offer him so much as a single word of comfort? How many times did the religious leaders taunt him? Seventy-seven times? But no matter what they said to him, Jesus still prayed: “Father, forgive them…”
How many times in the next week or next month or next year will we lapse into our old sinful ways? How many times will we fail to take our neighbor’s words and actions in the kindest possible way? Seventy times seven? No matter how far we fall short, no matter how many times we fall down, our Savior still prayed: “Father, forgive them…”
Because Jesus loves us unconditionally, he allowed himself to be executed like a common criminal. Because Jesus meant those words with all his heart, he didn’t come down from the cross to take revenge on his enemies. Because Jesus knew that it was the only way to rescue us from eternal death, he stayed on the cross until he had paid the full price required to purchase God’s forgiveness.
It wasn’t enough for Jesus to be the perfect example of forgiveness. He had to do something to earn our forgiveness. And he did. He did it on skull-shaped hill outside of Jerusalem two thousand years ago. There he shed his blood for the sins of the world. There he suffered for you and for me. There he gave up his life to back up his words: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
What Jesus has done for us is so unbelievable, so amazing, so beyond compare that we are left speechless. There is nothing left to say. There is nothing we can say, except thank you. Thank you, Jesus. Your word of forgiveness comforts my grateful heart. Amen.