This morning, and for the next five weeks, we are going to be at the cross on Golgatha’s hillside. We are going to immerse ourselves in a moment that has changed the world and continues to change it today. We are going to experience Jesus’ final moments before his death.
The way we are going to do it is by looking at the seven phrases that were said by Jesus in the hours that he was on the cross. Each of these phrases are powerful and express what was on Jesus’ heart and soul in those final moments. They are also words that would have been extremely difficult for Jesus to say.
Our image of Jesus’ crucifixion is what we see through the movies Hollywood has given us or through famous paintings. While they are attempting to interpret what took place, they cannot fully express the rawness of that moment. These words are spoken as Jesus is nailed to a cross with his feet about three-feet off the ground. They came after Jesus had been tortured and flogged by the Roman soldiers and after he had to carry his cross about 3/4 mile (about the distance from our church to the end of the Claylick Church Road). For Jesus to speak, he would have had to pull himself up by the nails in order to get enough air into his lugs to express his thoughts. Thus, anything Jesus said was not only powerful because it were said by our Lord, but also because of the effort Jesus went through in order to say these phrases. It was out of Jesus’ deep love for all people that he went through this difficult effort to say a few words from the cross.
As we hear the first of the seven phrases, I invite you to find yourself among the assembled crowd who saw Jesus go through this effort to speak and who heard what he said. Picture that moment in your mind and try to imagine Jesus as he says these words. While Jesus looks upon the crowd, with the pain undoubtedly more than we could imagine, Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
Those are some of the most powerful words recorded in the Four Gospels, especially when considering what was taking place in the crowd as Jesus says “forgive them.” Gathered at the foot of the cross was an eclectic group of onlookers wondering what was going to happen. There were likely some who had heard Jesus speak, some who had been touched by his ministry, and, yes, even some who wanted nothing to do with Jesus. Among those were the religious and political authorities who worked together to bring up charges that labeled Jesus, truly the world’s most innocent person, a criminal much like the other two who were crucified with him. These same leaders mocked Jesus by saying that he should just save himself.
With all of this going on, and in deep pain, Jesus looks out upon the crowd and says these words of true grace, mercy, and hope. In doing so, what we see is Jesus giving word and thought to what is taking place before the crowd’s very eyes. Jesus is on the cross, not as a criminal, but as the One who provides forgiveness and grace for every person.
It is a word that is essentially a prayer to the Father. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to us. Jesus’ entire three-year ministry was surrounded in a deep and on-going prayer between himself and the Father. He was in constant communication with the Father, seeking the Father’s will, and desiring the Father’s grace upon the people Jesus interacted with. Jesus continually showed what prayer should truly look like and what we all strive for in our prayer life. Prayer that is a personal and deep act of communication with the Father.
At its basic core, this prayer is about Jesus’ seeking the Father’s grace for others. While looking upon the crowd, Jesus essentially prays, “Father, I know you have every reason to be angry, but please don’t hold it against them. They don’t know what they are doing.” Jesus looks at the crowd, the very crowd that is mocking him, and offers compassion. He wants the Father to ignore what is taking place and not to remember it when thinking about the very people surrounding the cross. That is what forgiveness is about. It is making the choice to no longer allow an event or situation to define how we view the other person. It is an act of grace and love that is freely expressed, even when the other person does not deserve it.
Grace and love are likely not the emotions we would express if we were in Jesus’ situation. If this was you or I, and we were wrongly accused and abused by others, our prayer likely would have not been for the Father to express grace and compassion upon the perpetrators. We would want the Father to rain down every element of wrath, smiting, and a whole long list of some other not-too-pleasant things in order to “get even” with the other person.
Thankfully, that is not the witness Jesus expresses here in these moments on the cross. What Jesus does is offer a living representation of one of the most challenging aspects of the life he calls us to claim for ourselves. In Luke 6:35, Jesus calls those who would follow him to love their enemies and do good to them. It is not an easy call for those would desire to walk in Jesus’ footsteps, yet here at this place known as “The Skull,” Jesus shows us one way to express love upon those who would harm us. That is by seeking the Father’s grace and pardon to be expressed to even the most undeserving.
So, here on the cross, ignoring his pain, Jesus offers a word of grace for those who had crucified him. That is the immediate connection to the word “them” in Jesus’ prayer. Jesus seeks compassion to fall upon the soldiers who were following orders to lead Jesus to this place and nail him to the cross. He offers grace for the political authorities who allowed fear of revolution to lead them to agree to crucifying Jesus. He offers pardon for the religious authorities who refused to see him for who he truly is as the Son of God. There on the cross, Jesus expresses grace for the mockers and the crucifiers.
He also offers grace to us, because we were there among the crowd and on Jesus’ heart at his crucifixion. We had a role in placing Jesus on the cross. Our sin led Jesus to the cross and placed him there. Sin is the known violation of God’s desire. It is the things we do and do not do, which run counter to what God truly wants for our lives. Sin creates brokenness and distance in our relationship with God. Jesus goes to the cross to offer a means of healing the brokenness that our sin has caused between us and God.
As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1, God uses the world’s foolishness in the cross to provide grace for all people. The cross is the means that provides forgiveness for our sin. When Jesus prays those words of “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” he is expressing what the cross will accomplish. It will serve as the means of pardon – justification – where Jesus will offer himself as an act of grace for all humanity because of all of our sin.
The cross and these words from Jesus become a moment of promise for us today. A promise that there is nothing in our life that God cannot or will not forgive. God, through Jesus, has offered grace for all of our sin. Forgiveness is all about God looking at us and not seeing the mistakes that we have made. The Lord sees us for who we truly are – people whom the Lord loves, values, and calls his very own children.
Sometimes that can be a difficult word to receive. One of the things that often holds us back in our faith is our belief that God will refuse to forgive us, or that there is something in our life that God can’t or isn’t willing to look past. Yet, the cross tells us a different story. The cross tells us that there is nothing too big for God to forgive. The Father is willing and able to forgive the soldiers, political leaders and the religious authorities who stood around the cross, and the Father is willing and able to forgive us of the big and little mistakes of our life.
Growing in our faith in the Lord calls us to hear that truth and to hear the words Jesus prays on the cross being spoken about us. We need to hear Jesus praying for the Father to forgive us for our mistakes and wrongs. We need to feel the release of the chains of our sin and the freedom that comes through God’s grace.
That is why this season of Lent is so important. It is in this six-week period that we have the opportunity to examine our heart and find those places where we have not sought God’s grace or heard Jesus pray the words of “forgive them.” No one is without need of God’s grace and forgiveness. We all make mistakes. We all have things in our life that we are not proud of. This season gives us an opportunity to search our hearts and discover what those things are.
As we do, we have the opportunity to experience God’s grace and love in our lives. To take these mistakes and things we are not proud of and to lay them at the foot of the cross. To give these things over to God and to hear the Lord speaking into these things with the most powerful and compassionate words we could ever hear: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”