Posted by: Johnold Strey | April 2, 2010

Good Friday Sermon (2010)

GOLGOTHA:  A PLACE OF INJUSTICE

Part of a Lent sermon series titled “The Places of the Passion”

Text: Luke 23:39-42

Note:  This sermon was preached at Apostles Lutheran Church in San Jose, CA on Wednesday, March 24, 2010 and again at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Belmont, CA on Good Friday, April 2, 2010.  Click here to watch the video of the sermon preached on March 24 at Apostles.

Introduction

In the American justice system, a criminal sentenced to the death penalty might not see that sentence become reality for quite some time.  When our nation’s constitution was written, the time between death sentence and death penalty was measured in days or weeks.  Today, the time is measured in years and decades.  Earlier this year, the nation’s oldest inmate on death row died of natural causes, some 27 years after he was first sentenced to death.

I do not make this observation to make some sort of political point.  I make this observation because it stands in stark contrast to the death sentence that we consider in tonight’s service.  The time that elapsed between Jesus’ verdict and death penalty was not measured in weeks or days, but in hours.  That death sentence brings us to the conclusion of our Lenten journey.  Tonight, we have come to our final Lenten destination.  We have come to the place called golgotha in Aramaic, kranion in Greek, or the Skull in English.  We have come to the place where the Roman government served up its version of justice in a most violent and graphic fashion.  But tonight, we will see Golgotha as a place not of justice, but injustice.  Listen to our reading from Luke chapter 23; we will especially focus on the last few verses of this account that describe the interaction between Jesus and the other crucified criminals.

32 Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33 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. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.”

36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”

38 There was a written notice above him, which read: This is the king of the Jews.

39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

43 Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

I.

Over the past several weeks, you have heard the entire Passion History read during these midweek services for Lent.  In those lessons, what did we learn about Jesus?  To be sure, we have seen the sinfulness of cowardly disciples, a back-stabbing traitor, corrupt Pharisees and a placating governor.  But what have we learned about Jesus?  Haven’t we seen his complete innocence?  The Jewish religious leaders coach witnesses to perjure themselves in an attempt to condemn Jesus, but even the coached witnesses couldn’t get their stories to agree.  Any justice-seeking court would have released Jesus on the spot.  Later, Pilate cannot wrap his mind around the bogus charges against Jesus.  He knows Jesus is innocent.  He even proclaims it to the crowd with spoken words and symbolic actions.  He sentences Jesus to death not because he has done anything wrong, but because it was a politically savvy move that mollified a crowd on the verge of riot.  Everything to this point says that Jesus is innocent. 

But the scene before us tonight hardly makes Jesus look innocent.  Instead of acquittal, he is given crucifixion.  Instead of freedom and vindication, he is given torment and hell.  He is ridiculed by the passersby who thought that Jesus’ 15 minutes of fame were finished, by the religious leaders who were anything but religious, and by the soldiers for whom this was just another day at the office.  And to add insult to injury, even one of the two criminals crucified with Jesus hurls his insults at him and ridicules his claims.  “Aren’t you the Christ?  Save yourself and us!”

At that point in the story, maybe we would expect a soldier on duty to tell that criminal to keep his mouth shut and remember his crimes that put him on his own cross.  Someone did speak up, but not the person we would expect.  “The other criminal rebuked him.  “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.  But this man has done nothing wrong.”  If the punishment was supposed to get you to think about your crimes, then it worked for the other criminal.  In the midst of his writhing pain, he knew he was about to meet his Maker, and he probably knew that the justice of God was even worse than the justice of Rome.  But in the midst of his pain and punishment, he knew that the man on the cross next to his did not deserve to be there.  He knew that justice was being carried out on himself and the other criminal, but that a terrible injustice was being carried out on the innocent man facing unjust ridicule and unjust punishment.

The Jewish religious leaders did not acknowledge Jesus’ innocence.  They wanted him taken out.  Pilate acknowledged Jesus’ innocence but ignored it.  That was the expedient thing to do to stop a riot.  But I wonder:  Do we also ignore the innocence of Jesus in our own way?

A pastor-colleague once noted how easy it us to preach about Jesus’ “passive obedience”—the way he allowed himself to be condemned and crucified in order to pay the penalty for our sin.  But this fellow pastor went on to note how easy it is to ignore Jesus’ “active obedience,” his life of innocence.  It is not as if we think Jesus is not perfect or righteous.  Yes, we know he kept the law perfectly from cradle to cross.  It’s just that we would rather be “practical” and talk about our righteousness.  Talking about the things we do for God is so much more interesting than talking about an eight-day old baby boy who was named and circumcised according to Old Testament law, or a 12-year old boy who loved his Father’s house and obeyed his parents’ wishes, or the 30-year old Jesus who trampled over the temptations of Satan.

It’s not as if we cannot or should not talk about the way Christians live out their faith.  But at the end of the day, why is that innocent man on the cross?  Isn’t the innocent Lamb of God slain because you and I are anything but innocent?  Isn’t the righteous Son of God killed because you and I are anything but righteous on our best day and with our best efforts?  Do we really want to put the spotlight on us when Isaiah tells us, “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.”  Are we content to forget what we confess each week in worship, that we are “by nature sinful, and that I have sinned against [God] in [our] thoughts, words, and actions”?  Have we conveniently forgotten the message of Jesus’ innocence because it only underscores the reality that we are a spiritual trash heap ready for the incinerator of God’s eternal justice?

II.

The second criminal in Luke’s crucifixion account understood Jesus’ innocence.  He understood the injustice Jesus was enduring.  And not only did he dare to rebuke the first criminal, but he dared to speak to Jesus directly.  “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  He has no delusions about his utter lack of righteousness.  All he can do is cry out with a desperate plea for an ounce of slack in the divine courtroom he must face next.

And Jesus gives him so much more than he could have asked for or imagined.  “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”  No doubt some of you have read or heard medical descriptions of crucifixion’s effects on a person.  Let it suffice to say that it wasn’t a walk in the park!  Jesus’ first bit of unexpected good news was that this repentant man would see an end to his torment that day—and that was good news, given that a crucified person might suffer much longer before finally dying.  But Jesus’ best news for this man was in his promise for the next life.  This repentant criminal hoped perhaps for a slightly cooler corner in hell.  His body was dying but his conscience was more than awake and more than aware of his crimes.  And Jesus gives him so much more than he expected!  He promises him paradise!  He promises him heaven!  He promises him a reverse sort of injustice; the injustice Jesus endured for the world’s sin meant that this man would receive something he certainly did not deserve, and that was forgiveness and eternal life!

Author and theologian Michael Horton released a book in 2008 called Christless Christianity.  Horton deals with the unfortunate trend in many Christian churches today that have taken the “Christ for us” message out of the pulpit and replaced it with an “us for Christ” message.  At one point, Horton relates the following scene from the old television show, E.R.

Lying in a hospital bed while he is dying from cancer, a retired police officer confesses to a chaplain his long-held guilt over allowing an innocent man to be framed and executed.  He asks, “How can I even hope for forgiveness?” and the chaplain replies, “I think sometimes it’s easier to feel guilty than forgiven.”  “Which means what?”  “That maybe your guilt over his death has become your reason for living.  Maybe you need a new reason to go on.”  “I don’t want to ‘go on,’” says the dying man.  “Can’t you see that I’m dying?  The only thing that is holding me back is that I’m afraid—I’m afraid of what comes next.”  “What do you think that is?” the chaplain gently inquires.  Growing impatient, the man answers, “You tell me.  Is atonement possible?  What does God want from me?”  After the chaplain replies, “I think it’s up to each one of us to interpret for ourselves what God wants,” the man stares at her in bewilderment.  “So people can do anything?  They can rape, they can murder, they can steal—all in the name of God and it’s okay?”  Growing intense, the dialogue draws to its climax.  “No that’s not what I’m saying,” the chaplain responds.  “Then what are you saying?  Because all I’m hearing is some New Age, God-is-Love, have it your way [garbage]! … No, I don’t have time for this now.”  “You don’t understand,” the chaplain counters.  “No, you don’t understand! … I want a real chaplain who believes in a real God and a real hell! … I need answers and all of your questions and all your uncertainty are only making things worse.” … “I know you’re upset,” she begins, provoking his final outburst of frustration: “God, I need someone who will look me in the eye and tell me how to find forgiveness, because I am running out of time!”  (Christless Christianity, pages 36-37).

I know that’s fiction, but doesn’t that story frustrate you?  The dying police officer is like the repentant criminal, but the chaplain’s quasi-spiritual message is hardly the good news Jesus spoke to the man on the cross next to him.

Truth be told, you know that feeling.  You know how someone else can say a word or phrase that mentally triggers past memories of your own foolish sins and thoughtless words.  You know how your reeling mind can keep you awake in the dead of night with guilty thoughts that won’t go away.  At times like that, no quasi-religious message from some pseudo-spiritual chaplain can help.  But Jesus’ message can, and Jesus’ message does!  Jesus points you to the injustice that took place on Golgotha.  His innocent life, given on the cross, was given for you!  The holy, precious blood he shed on Golgotha was shed for you!  The peace that Jesus proclaimed to the conscience-stricken criminal is peace that Jesus now proclaims to you in the pages of his Word and the Sacrament of his body and blood.   The torment of hell Jesus endured was on your behalf, and the promise of paradise Jesus proclaimed is a promise for you.  And in those beautiful words that would follow later, the words, “It is finished,” Jesus proclaims that his Father’s justice is satisfied, that his sacrifice for sin is complete, that your forgiveness is won and your redemption is fully accomplished.

Conclusion

We call the day of Jesus’ death, “Good Friday.”  There is a certain irony in that.  The world’s worst injustice took place that day—hardly a day that deserves the adjective, “good.”  But the injustice of Golgotha is, in fact, God’s good, great, and gracious work on your behalf.  In the injustice of Golgotha, we see the grace of God at work, doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves, and giving to us what we could never get for ourselves.  Praise God for his gracious “injustice!”  Amen.

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