Sermon: Father, Forgive Them

I invite you to open your Bibles with me to the gospel of Luke. Luke 23:34. If you don’t have a bible with you this morning, please feel free to grab one from the pew in front of you and leave it open as we read and study God’s word together. Luke is in the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Luke 23:34

This Lenten season we are listening together to Jesus’ last words from the cross. We are listening for the wonder of the cross, but also so that we might walk more faithfully in the way of Jesus. So let us turn our ears to hear what God is saying in his word. But before we do that, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, may your Word be our rule, your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

These are the very words of God from the book that we love:

Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Last August, Pastor Olga and I had the opportunity to participate in the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit, basically a top-notch leadership conference. One of the speakers, Pastor Bill Hybels, talked about the not-so-secret vices of a leader.

He said that he believed that he was always good at hiding his anger and frustration. He thought he was cool, calm, and collected. That is, until he actually asked the staff that worked with him. Everyone knew when he was hurting. If Pastor Bill was over-worked and miserable, he would make sure everyone else felt the same way. He thought he could hide his hurt, make sure it wasn’t destructive, but everyone knew.

This isn’t only true for Bill Hybels or for high-powered leaders. There is something about suffering, something about being in pain, that is so difficult to mask. We try, but the pain often leaks out in different ways.

The teenager who comes home snarling and snapping at her parents is hurting. The Dad that comes home and hides out in the garage, hides in front of the TV, or simply doesn’t come home until everyone is in bed is hurting. For some of the pain and suffering we experience comes out as anger – we blame. We blame the government, we blame the circumstance, we blame other people, and we blame ourselves. There is often enough blame to go around.

There is something about suffering, those ‘quiet lives of desperation’ that Thoreau spoke about, that cannot be hidden forever. And for many of us, most of the time, the pain and suffering we feel shows itself in pretty ugly ways, ways that only feed our shame and our pain. Suffering feeds anger, it feeds loneliness, it feeds despair. It feeds addiction.

Even if we have never been able to see this fact in ourselves, we have most likely seen it in others. We can often tell when someone is hurting, because the pain leaks out. And it often is not pretty.

This is what we know, what we see in our politicians and community leaders, what we see in our pastors and our parents. Most of us are hurting more deeply and more often than we can admit to ourselves, but it shows.

But we see something different with Jesus. He experienced immense suffering – abandonment, betrayal, falsely condemned. He finally suffered physical violence, and crucifixion. And it showed. Jesus’ suffering leaked out as well, but not as bitterness or anger. Jesus’ suffering showed itself as compassion. This is what we see in Luke 23:34,

Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

We see something different with Jesus. Something different than the short tempers or hasty bandages we often use to mask our pain. Instead, Jesus prays. He prays out of his suffering for the very people who made him suffer. Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. In the heart of Jesus, suffering was transformed into compassion.

This compassion of Jesus was not a naive ‘put on a happy face’ in the midst of suffering. This compassion of Jesus was love and grace for others, even those who hurt him.

On the cross, we see something different from Jesus. We see him pray for his enemies. We see that Jesus practiced what he preached, when he said in Matthew 5:

You have heard that it was said, “you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” but I tell you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward to do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

In the heart of Jesus, suffering was transformed into compassion. Jesus prayed for his enemies. He prayed for the very people who put him on the cross. He prayed not for their judgment or destruction. He didn’t call down fire from heaven to destroy them. Instead, he prayed, Father, forgive them.

Jesus prays for the forgiveness of those who put him on the cross. The Jewish leadership who spear-headed the crusade. The crowds that cheered along. Pilate who ultimately convicted him, and the Roman soldiers who carried out the deed. Jesus prayed that they would be forgiven, because they simply did not understand the gravity of what they were doing.

Forgive them. Let this sin not be counted against them. Forgive them. Let this never be spoken of again. Forgive them. If they only knew they were crucifying the Son of God, they would not have done it. Forgive them.

Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

Your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts,

as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And do not bring us to the time of trial,

but rescue us from the evil one.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Forgiveness – hard, difficult, edgy forgiveness is what Jesus prays for on the cross. Praying for justice, for vindication, for just deserts would have been well within his rights, but Jesus prays for forgiveness.

The Christian faith never promises that our lives will be free from suffering. It has no allusions that there will not be troubles along the journey. But the promise is that God will sustain us through them, that he will prevent the evil and the bitterness from ruling in our hearts. It is not the story of trials and tribulations, but the story of God who preserves us, accompanies us, and rules us through them all.

My prayer for myself, for you, is that today I might have more of the Spirit of Jesus in me than the spirit of bitterness. Last week, we acknowledged the truth that the way of the cross, which is the only way to follow Jesus, is a way marked with suffering. But we acknowledged today that more often than not, our suffering can turn us ugly and bitter.

So my prayer for myself and for you, is that we would be filled with the Spirit of Jesus. When we hurt, may the Spirit of Jesus turn that into compassion for others. May we see them and be filled with love and pray for forgiveness. May our own journey with Christ, our own joining in with his suffering, lead us to respond as he did, praying, Father, forgive them.

This is not a soft, anything-goes, kind of grace. It is hard. It is the praying-for-your-enemies kind of grace. And if you have ever tried to forgive those who have wronged you, to pray for God to bless them, it is one of the most challenging parts of our faith.

Following Jesus here, in his prayer in Luke 23:34 is one of the most difficult parts of the Christian life. You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” but I say to you, “Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your father in heaven.”

My heart wants to keep the enemy an enemy. It wants to nurse my hurt. But Jesus transforms that into compassion. He says from the cross, Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

Then as now, we are called to pray for forgiveness. Then as now, we should, as Calvin admonishes, remember the ignorance of those who fight against God in our persons. Then as now, we should desire the salvation of our persecutors, even as we rest assured that our lives are under God’s protection.

That is why it is my prayer for you and for me that we would have more of the Spirit of Jesus in us and less the spirit of bitterness. Anyone can pray for the destruction of their enemies. Anyone can call for ‘the bad guys’ to get what is coming to them. But it takes a Christian to pray, Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

Or as Jesus said, If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?

Anyone can love those who love them, but it takes a Christian to love one’s enemies.

It takes the Holy Spirit working in us to enable us to pray along with Jesus. And it is Jesus who prays along with us as we pray. It is the Spirit of Jesus that enabled my namesake, Stephen, to do this:

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

It was the Spirit of Jesus working in him that caused his dying breath to be a word of forgiveness.

It was the Holy Spirit at work in Peter that caused him to pray while in prison. It was the Spirit of Jesus that allowed Paul to rejoice in his sufferings. It was as he was caught up in the Holy Spirit that John received a revelation from Jesus on the island of Patmos – a revelation of justice, grace, forgiveness, and the culmination of the work of God.

And the Spirit of Jesus was at work in Archbishop Oscar Romero. As he faced the corruption and violence of government of El Salvador, the Archbishop proclaimed the love and justice of God, calling for a renewal of the mission of the church. As priests were killed and Christians suffered, The Archbishop continued to speak out. On January 15, 1978, Romero said this in a sermon,

I ask you faithful people who listen to me with love and devotion to pardon me for saying this, but it gives me more pleasure that my enemies listen to me.

I know the reason they listen to me is that I bear them a message of love. I don’t hate them. I don’t want revenge. I wish them no harm.

I beg them to be converted, to come to be happy with the happiness that you have. Like the son in the parable who was always with his father, you possess the joy of your faith.

A little over two years later, Oscar Romero would be gunned down while presiding at the Lord’s Table.

Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” It is only in the Spirit of Jesus that we are able to pray along with him.

When we hurt, it shows. But my prayer for you and for me, is that it would show up in us as compassion. My prayer is that the Holy Spirit will work in us so that we can pray along with Jesus, Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

May the Spirit of Christ fill each and every one of us, that we may walk as Jesus walked. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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