(from our mid-week Lenten series)
The two stare each other down— until the cornered man, in one last bout of desperation, darts to flee. A muscle flinches. A finger presses the trigger. The hammer strikes. The bullet shoots from the barrel. A criminal slumps to the ground.
Whether you are watching James Bond take down a super-villain or your favorite television crime show, you see a tense scene like this and the first thought that floods your mind is?… “He got what he deserved!” If someone breaks the law, then consequences follow.
Maybe that’s what keeps you from wincing too much at our reading. The gospel-writer Luke says: Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. Criminals— these are people who do something evil. In this case, the court system determined these men did not live within the boundaries of Roman law; they acted outside of it. These two men did not respect personal property; they illegally entered into a house that did not belong to them. They were not content someone else owned what they did not; they took what was not theirs. They did not obey the law; they broke the law. They did evil. They got caught. Now come the consequences.
The consequence in this particular case? Execution. That’s what Roman Law prescribes. The final hours of their life would not be spent at home in their bed or hidden away in a deep, damp dungeon. These two men would be stretched out on a piece of wood until their muscles cramped up and their lungs could no longer breathe in air. Crowds would walk by, watching, observing, understanding that these men had committed acts so heinous that their life had to be extinguished now. “Those criminals get what they deserved!”
Which is really the reason our reading can make you feel a little squeamish. The gospel-writer Luke says: Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 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. The “him” is Jesus. Yes, the One who spent his personal time welcoming crowds of sick, diseased, demon-possessed, and crippled. This is the One who instantly heals with just a touch— and without filing any insurance claim or charging them for services rendered. This is the One who, as Scripture says, sees the crowds and has compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36). His heart goes out; you literally see a pained look of sheer compassion spread across his face. That is why Jesus did not hide God’s will. Rather, he stands tall and says: “I am the Way, the truth, and the Life (John 14:6). God loved the world that he sent [me] so that whoever believes will have eternal life” (John 3:16).
This is the man crucified! Sentenced to have his life extinguished now! Treated as a national traitor! Accused of lying because he claims to be God! Dragged away to death! Hung to be made an example of! Dying so that people may not imitate him! It really does not take much to recognize that Jesus deserves none of this.
Which then leaves you wondering: Why is he crucified? Understand what is not the reason. Yes, corrupt courtrooms number him among the criminals. Yet, more than twelve legions of angels could have fought for Jesus’ escape (Matthew 26:53). Soldiers drop a cross on his back and prod him up a hill. When they reach the top, they pound nails through his hands and crucify him. Still, the Son of God has the miraculous capability to descend from the cross. The reason he is crucified? Well, the answer is found in his first words from the cross. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
“Forgive.” That is his reason. Do you know what means to “forgive?”… the definition? … or a picture of the action? To “forgive” means: to release from a legal or moral action or consequence. To seek no revenge. To cancel out a debt in full. To set free from a requirement or obligation. Or picture it this way. You stand on trial in full guilt for speeding. The law states McEwan Street is a 35 miles per hour zone. You went 45 miles per hour. An officer pulled you over. He compared your speed to the commanded speed. You did not meet the requirements. You broke the law. The consequences involve using your money to pay a ticket.
Except on the cross, Jesus is concerned about something more than a speeding ticket. He sees how you stand before God, the Just Judge and Maker of all! God makes his law clear. He chisels it into two tablets of stone. He inscribes it into your heart (Romans 2:14-15). You have a Bible that contains his Commandments (Exodus 20). Your worship space have artwork of the Commandments! You see them. You read them. How do you match up to them?
The One who searches the very hidden depths of your heart commands you to have no other gods. Do not love your personal status/fame. Do not cling to your money so much that you cannot bear to part with it in the offering plate. Never consider God’s commands “boring” or “unfair.” The One who is present everywhere— even when you sit in a room alone has said: You shall honor your authorities. Yes, you may disagree with them, but you must still respect your President and governor. That means watching the words you use to describe their work. That means following the speed limits— no matter how slow you think they might be. That means listening to your teacher, your state inspector, your Pastors. His list goes on: You shall not hate. You shall not dream up fantasies. You shall not steal or cheat your neighbor or swindle from them. You shall not destroy the reputation of your friends even when they really irritate you— even when you know an embarrassing story that will humiliate them. You shall strive to protect their reputation. You shall not be greedy and want things that I have not given you.
Every single transgression, every failure and crime and rebellion heaps more and more time to our sentence. Yes, even our selfish pride yesterday, even our greed for more stuff today are is the opposite of what God expects. Break his law and consequences follow: Death.
Before God’s holy gavel strikes the podium, Jesus enters the courtroom. With one great breath he pleads: “Forgive. Hold them not accountable. Set them free from their consequences. Put what they deserve on me instead.”
So he does. Jesus is crucified because of our crimes against God. Pain rips through his body because fiery pain should rip through ours. He is humiliated because our sins deserve eternal humiliation. God, the Just Judge, separates Jesus from his presence. Since Jesus suffers your penalty, you are forgiven your offenses, your crimes, your eternal consequence. You are forgiven.
This word gives you life— literally. Today is “Ash” “Wednesday.” Yes, “Wednesday” because today is Wednesday, but more importantly, we are 40 days away from Jesus’ Palm Sunday ride into Jerusalem. And “Ash” because that is what we are: ashes— bodies made up of dust and earth and ash. Here’s the cold hard truth Ash Wednesday preaches: “The wages of sin is death.” But—but, you hear something more tonight. “The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23). God sees no guilt on you. You are set free for eternal life!
“Forgiven” is how you now live life. That means you understand how you can stand before God. When guilt crushes you, turn to the One whose life unlocked sin’s shackles. Lift up your head in joy and thank your God who gives Jesus to you as a free gift! By faith trust in the word Jesus breathes: “Forgiven!”
It also means that we take up the fight against sin. If our sins drove Jesus to the cross in the first place, then why continue dabbling in words or thoughts or actions that he died to remove? The battle against temptation is fierce. The strength to turn away from habits pleasing to the body or sensible to the mind is tough. Yet, look to the cross and see the love which empowers you to say “No” to sin and “Yes” to the things pleasing to God. You live and behave under this status of “forgiven.”
To be honest with you, I get squeamish whenever I hear “He got what he deserved.” I understand, we crave for good to triumph over evil. It feels right when a cold-hearted criminal is brought to justice (and yes, in some cases, television shows display a criminal receiving what he deserved). Yet, when I hear: “He got what he deserved,” I wonder: What do I deserve for my sins?
Looking at the cross, I see what I deserve. I deserve to lose my possessions, my dignity, my life. Yet, thanks be to God who does not give what we deserve! He gives Jesus what he does not deserve so that we can receive forgiveness that we do not deserve!
This is the reason you have life. This is the reason you are motivated to take up your fight against sin and temptation. This is the reason you sleep with a unburdened conscience. You get to hear: The Father Forgives You.