When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. (Luke 9:51) These words begin the journey narrative that the Holy Spirit inspired Luke to include in his account of the Gospel. For nearly fourteen chapters, Luke has enabled us to journey along with Jesus as He made His way to Jerusalem. There have been miracles, great teachings, interesting parables, and so forth, but always, in the background, there is the journey … the journey to Jerusalem … the journey to keep that appointment with a cross. In today’s Gospel, we heard how Jesus kept His appointment. Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. (Luke 23:32–33)
These events were no surprise to Jesus. He regularly took His disciples aside and said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. 32For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. 33And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.” (Luke 18:31–33) He also spoke to other people like Nicodemus and said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” (John 3:14) There can be no doubt that Jesus knew exactly what waited for Him in Jerusalem. Never the less, He did not try to avoid it, but he set his face to go to Jerusalem. (Luke 9:51)
The Holy Spirit in His infinite knowledge and perfect wisdom elected to divide the narrative of the crucifixion up between the four accounts of the Gospel. Each of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John add something special to our understanding of the events of that day. This morning, we heard Luke focus on the words of forgiveness that Jesus spoke from the cross.
I am certain that members of the crucifixion squad heard all kinds of words out the mouths of their victims … cursing, begging, cries of anguish and so forth. Even so, I have to imagine that none of the soldiers had ever heard someone pray for them when they crucified him. How strange it must have been to hear one of the victims say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) Forgiveness was probably the last thing they expected from one of their victims.
These words of Jesus have incredible comfort for the sensitive soul who knows that he or she sins more often than they know. Can I really have forgiveness for a sin even if I don’t even notice that it is a sin? Here we see Jesus praying for the forgiveness of executioners who do not know what they are doing.
With the anniversary of the reformation so near, I can’t help but think about the teachings of Martin Luther’s childhood church. The person who went to confession had to confess all his or her sins. If you left out a sin, that was more purgatory for you. Before Luther discovered the Gospel, he drove his father confessor crazy. If he was leaving confession and remembered a sin, he would immediately turn around and go back to confession. He wanted to make sure that he had as few unconfessed sins as possible. What a comfort it would have been to him to know that the very first words of forgiveness that Jesus offered up on the cross were words of forgiveness to men who did not even know that they had sinned.
In his explanation of confession in his Small Catechism, Martin Luther included the question, “What sins should we confess?” His answer was, “Before God we should plead guilty of all sins, even those we are not aware of, as we do in the Lord's Prayer; but before the pastor we should confess only those sins which we know and feel in our hearts.” The Augsburg confession, one of the confessions that are part of the constitution of this congregation also states: Our churches teach that naming every sin is not necessary and that consciences should not be burdened with worry about naming every sin. It is impossible to recount all sins, as Psalm 19:12 testifies: “Who can discern his errors?” 8 Also Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” 9 If only sins that can be named are forgiven, consciences could never find peace. For many sins cannot be seen or remembered. (AC: II, art. xxv, par. 7–9) We can confess and receive forgiveness even for sins that we don’t know about even as Jesus Himself forgave the sins of those soldiers who crucified Him.
This means that when you feel the need to go to your pastor for private confession, you do not need to worry that you must tell every last little detail of every sin. Instead, you can confess the sins that bother you in the anticipation of receiving absolution … that is forgiveness for those sins. This returns both public and private confession and absolution to their original purpose … that the sinner who confesses may receive absolution and return to his or her home justified before God.
The other word of forgiveness that Luke recorded in today’s Gospel went to the criminal who occupied the cross next to Jesus. This was a man who knew about his sin. He confessed for himself and the other criminal and said, “We are receiving the due reward of our deeds.” (Luke 23:41) With these words, he basically confessed that he had earned his place on his cross with his crimes. Jesus assured him of his forgiveness. He said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
The words of Jesus to the criminal have comfort for those who wonder if they are too evil to receive forgiveness. The criminal who admitted that he deserved crucifixion had to have done something terrible. Rome did not crucify people for having overdue library books or unpaid parking tickets. This criminal must have been a murderer or something along those lines. Have you ever heard someone say something like, “I think the roof would cave in if I ever entered a church?” You can give the comfort of Jesus’ words to that person. You can tell them that the God-man who died on the cross also died for them … that there is no sin that is more powerful than God’s forgiveness. The primary purpose for this service is for God to serve us with the forgiveness of sins. In this divine service, God serves us with His forgiveness that is infinitely more powerful than any sin you or may have committed.
So, it is that in these brief few words from the account of Jesus dying on the cross, we already have a demonstration of what it means that the forgiveness of sins is for everyone. This is what the Holy Spirit inspired the Apostle Paul to say in today’s epistle: In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:19–20) These words teach us that the blood of Christ on the cross reconciled all things to God. All things definitely includes all people. It includes the criminal dying on the cross next to Christ and it includes you … no matter what sin burdens you with its guilt.
Here we learn the alternative to the terror of God’s fiery wrath against our sin. When Jesus went to the cross, He endured the wrath of God against our sin. He satisfied God’s justice on our behalf. He adopted us into His family. He made it possible for us to stand before God and see – not the terrifying judge of the law – but a loving Father. Through Jesus we receive – not the eternal punishment we deserve – but life forever in the joy of His presence. He has given us the right to be called the children of God and follow Him in His resurrection to eternal life.
Today is the last Sunday of the church year. During this church year we have focused primarily on the Gospel according to Luke. Yes, we have heard from Matthew, Mark, and John from time to time, but most of the Gospels for this year were taken from Luke. Next Sunday, we will start a new church year that focuses on the Gospel according to Matthew.
During this year, Luke has given an account of Christ that shows us a great journey. The journey is a round trip. It began as the Son of God descended from His throne to take on our human flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. It ended as the same Son of God ascended to the right hand of the Father. During this journey, He redeemed mankind from sin, death, and the power of the devil. He made it possible for us to stand before God without fear. Christ’s journey opened up the way to heaven for all who believe in His name. For those who believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of sin, the way of life leads – not to a day of terror – but to an eternity of heavenly joy. Amen
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