Summary: Christians need to realize that they are forgiven to an extent beyond what they can imagine, a realization that is a bit frightening but which also overwhelms us once again with grace.
Forgiveness Makes Me Shudder . . . Then I Smile / Luke 23:33-43
Proper 29, Year C; Downsville Baptist Church; 25 November 2001
November 25th 2001, the last day of the church year. Next Sunday we begin a new year. Once again we begin anticipating the reception of God’s promise of Immanuel, that God will come to us and be with us. However, before we begin again, the final Sunday of this church year calls upon us to recognize Jesus Christ as our King. The irony of this morning’s passage is that it presents our king in a position we never expect to find a king.
Jesus Christ, our king, has been taken to the outskirts of Jerusalem. The valley of Gehenna is nearby where one can smell the stench of burning refuse and the nauseating human waste that the breeze from the Mediterranean brings to a nearby hill called Golgotha. This is the place of execution, the place where crosses are erected and criminals are put to death. There are shredded clothes and pieces of bone scattered about the hill, tossed to and fro by ravaging dogs that typically tore the bodies off of the crosses at Golgotha. Our king has been sentenced as a criminal and he hangs on a cross centered between two other crucifixes where other criminals are about to meet the end of their lives. At this point Jesus looks like a pitiful king, a defeated monarch who has seemingly lost his kingdom. Those who loved him are simply hoping he will die soon so that his misery and humiliation will be over. The king has no more loyal subjects. His enemies mock him. His cross timbered death chamber is surrounded by Roman soldiers who are throwing dice to decide who gets his clothes. Gentiles and Jews alike are attempting to outdo one another with their merciless jeers. One Pharisee elbows another and whispers, “He saved others. Why doesn’t he save himself if he is God’s anointed one?” The one who utters this remark is simply saying aloud what everybody else is thinking, “What good is a king who can heal leprosy and blindness, cast out demons, and raise people from the dead if he can’t even rescue himself from a cross and bring down his enemies once and for all?”
Jesus is not really a king in these people’s eyes, and we need to be honest with ourselves. If we had been present at that gruesome scene at Golgotha, we wouldn’t consider Jesus much of a king either. One of the favorite pranks of the soldiers was to take a stick with a sponge at the end supposedly soaked in good wine and offer it up as some relief to the suffering crucified ones. The funny part of the prank, or so they thought, was that when the dying man drank from the sponge, he would discover that his captors had given him distasteful, stomach-turning, vinegar wine. John’s gospel shares with us that Jesus requested something to drink, and so the soldiers decided to play their prank on failing Messiah. As they extend the sponge to his lips, the mock him once more. “Hey Jew King, save yourself!” The Jews present really didn’t care for this much. They were glad to be rid of Jesus, but Pilate had the audacity to hang a sign above Jesus’ cross that declared him as King of the Jews. The Pharisees and Sadducees had complained to Pilate that Jesus was not their king, but Pilate wouldn’t listen to them. They wanted Jesus killed on grounds of sedition, that he was claiming to be the Christ and that he had authority from God. Therefore, Pilate thought the sign on the cross was a fitting way to make it clear why Jesus was being killed.
Amidst all the arguing over whether or not Jesus should have a sign over his cross, amidst all the jeering and mocking of this poor Nazarean carpenter and countryside prophet, amidst all of Jesus agony with thorns in his brow, spikes of metal driven through his limbs, splinters slicing into his back which had already been ripped open by the cat of nine tails, this suffocating laughing stock of a King utters something that makes absolutely no sense . . . or does it? “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”
Oh, Jesus was a King alright, a King like the world had never seen before, like the world hasn’t seen since, and like the world will not see until his return. Kings are supposed to command powers that protect them and when others attack them, kings are supposed to seek vengeance. Kings aren’t supposed to suffer. They are supposed to inflict suffering upon others. Yet this king suffers immensely, and instead of calling out for revenge against his enemies, he asks God to forgive them. Not only does Jesus asks God to forgive his torturers, but he asks this forgiveness for them on the grounds that they don’t know what they are doing! Has Jesus gone insane? Prussian king Frederick the Great was once touring a Berlin prison. The prisoners fell on their knees before him to proclaim their innocence-except for one man, who remained silent. Frederick called to him, "Why are you here?" “Armed robbery, Your Majesty,” was the reply. “And are you guilty?” “Yes indeed, Your Majesty, I deserve my punishment.” Frederick then summoned the jailer and ordered him, “Release this guilty wretch at once. I will not have him kept in this prison where he will corrupt all the fine innocent people who occupy it.” Now this is the kind of forgiveness that we can admire, the kind of forgiveness we think is descriptive of how God forgives us. When we finally quit making excuses for what we’ve done, when we finally quit pretending to be innocence, when we finally repent, God will forgive us just like Frederick the Great forgave and released the prisoner who admitted his guilt. However, Jesus requests that God forgive those who are sinning against him not because they are sorry, not even because they are pretending to be innocent, but in spite of the fact that they really don’t see the wrong in what they are doing. We read this text and we think that these Roman soldiers and Pharisees know exactly what they are doing. The Roman soldier who drove spikes into the wrists and ankles of Christ knew what he was doing. Pilate knew he was sentencing a man to death. The crowd surrounding the cross knew they were acting hatefully when they spat upon this one who had healed their sons and daughters.