Ash Wednesday Sermon – March 6
Forgiveness Given, Forgiveness Received
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our text is from the Gospel reading. The words of Jesus from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Here ends our text.
You can find out quite a bit about a man from the epitaph on his grave stone. At least you can pick up a little of what others thought of him. It’s usually the family that decides on a fitting epitaph to sum up the life of their dearly departed. My dad, though, took the opportunity to write his own epitaph. When mom died, he set their grave stone and had his epitaph pre-engraved. It says a little about what he believed and how he lived. Dad’s epitaph reads, “Gone to another meeting.” Now, if anybody knew Dad, he’d have to chuckle at the double meaning. As a faithful layman, Dad attended more than his share of church meetings. His epitaph is his last stab from the grave of what he thought about the length and frequency of those meetings. Dad had always been more of a doer than a talker. But his epitaph shows why he attended all those meetings. He believed his Lord Jesus Christ died and rose for him and prepared a place for him in heaven. And through faith in Christ, he went to one last church meeting with the saints in heaven. From his epitaph, you can figure out what he believed, why he did what he did, and even that he had a sense of humor about it.
But though Dad’s epitaph might remain etched in granite until Jesus comes again, we really have no epitaph for our Lord himself, who died and was buried. His burial was kind of a rush job. No one took the time to engrave his tombstone with a fitting epitaph. And for the obvious reason of Christ’s resurrection, there really wasn’t a need to. But instead of an epitaph of what others thought of him, we have something better yet. We have Christ’s own words from the cross, his last words that tell us what he believed, why he did what he did, and how he felt about it – words that will be remembered until the end of time.
One of those words of Jesus from the cross is our text for this evening. The Roman soldiers brought Jesus to the place of the skull, a hill outside of Jerusalem along the main road. And there they crucified Jesus along with two criminals. They stretched Jesus out and pounded the spikes into his hands and feet. Then they lifted him up and secured the cross in the ground. As he was in agony, he watched the soldiers cast lots for his clothing. During that time Jesus uttered the words, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
But just whom is Jesus speaking about? He’s certainly speaking about the Roman soldiers who crucified him. Jesus is practicing exactly what he preached. He’s loving his enemies. He’s forgiving those who trespassed against him. He’s acting as a priest. He’s interceding for these soldiers. He’s interceding between these men and his Church. After Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, the Church might blame and scorn these men for crucifying the very Son of God. But Jesus shows his Church that he’s forgiven these soldiers. But Jesus is also interceding between these soldiers and God the Father. What father wouldn’t curse and seek justice against those who had killed his only son? But Jesus prays on behalf of these soldiers, “Father, forgive them.”
What’s the reason for Christ’s plea for their forgiveness? “For they do not know what they are doing?” And this is true. The soldiers are just doing their job. They’re the executioners of the state, carrying out court orders. As far as they know, Jesus is a criminal deserving capital punishment like those on his right and left. And as far as casting lots for his clothing? This was just a perk of the job, like a hangman earning another set of boots. These soldiers don’t know what they’re doing, that they’re crucifying the Son of God, so they’re forgiven.
But is that why Jesus intercedes for sinners? Because they don’t know what they’re doing? Is the ignorance of sin God’s cause of forgiveness? If that were the case, then what about all the sins that people are conscious of? What happens when they do know what they’re doing?
The soldiers may not have known what they were doing when they crucified Jesus, but they did know what they were doing when they mocked him. They hated the Jews and their religious fanaticism. Here was one, the supposed king of the Jews, upon whom they could spew their anger. They knew what they were doing when they insulted him. The same was true of the two criminals on his right and left. They mocked Jesus, “If you are the Christ, save yourself and us.” They knew what they were doing as well. What about Pontius Pilate? “I find no fault with this man. He’s done nothing deserving death. But I wash my hands of administering proper justice. Take him and crucify him.” Pilate knew what he was doing when he passed the buck. How about the Jewish crowds who shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him! His blood be upon us and on our children.” They knew what they were doing when they called down a curse upon themselves. And the Pharisees and Sadducees who tried Jesus illegally by night? They were saving their own positions and places of power in the Jewish nation. “It is expedient that one man should die for the people.” They knew what they were doing. What about Peter? Jesus even warned him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” But when Peter had to save his own hide and cover his tracks, he cursed and said, “I don’t know the man.” Peter knew what he was doing when he denied Jesus. And finally, there’s Judas, the keeper of the money box, who used to help himself to what was inside. He bargained with the Pharisees, “What will you give me, if I hand him over to you?” Judas knew exactly what he was doing when he betrayed his Lord for thirty pieces of silver.
And we know what we’re doing when we sin. We know the Commandments. We know when we mock God by living the life unfitting of a Christian. We know how we insult God when we hate those of a different culture who were made in his image. We know when we’ve been unjust towards others. We know when we’ve denied Jesus in the workplace and neighborhood. We know when we’ve betrayed Jesus by loving mammon more than God. Even if we didn’t know the Commandments, our conscience, the law written on our hearts, accuses us. We know exactly what we’re doing when we sin. Ignorance won’t get us off the hook. There are no excuses.
But yet, there’s still forgiveness. There’s forgiveness from God for both those who don’t know their sin and those who do. You see, though the soldiers didn’t know what they were doing, Jesus knew what he was doing. He was suffering, he was bleeding, he was dying for the sins of the world, known and unknown. God doesn’t forgive sins because people know or don’t know what they do. God forgives sins because he is merciful and because of Christ’s atoning sacrifice for sinners. By his death on the cross, Jesus won forgiveness for the whole world. He offers that forgiveness to all.
But though Jesus gives to all, forgiveness is only received by a repentant heart. A repentant heart knows what it has done, confesses its sin, and believes in Christ as Savior. The Pharisees knew what they were doing, but they hardened their hearts and rejected Jesus as the Son of God. But one Pharisee, Nicodemus, repented and was there to take Jesus body down from the cross. One of the criminals continued to mock Jesus. But the other confessed, “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.” Then he turned to Jesus in faith and said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The soldiers mocked Jesus, but when the centurion saw the way he died, he confessed, “Surely this man was the Son of God.” Judas knew what he had done, but despaired that he could be forgiven. Peter, too, wept over his sin, but he received Christ’s forgiveness after his resurrection. Through Christ’s suffering and death upon the cross, forgiveness is freely given to all, but it’s only received by a repentant heart.
And that’s what we remember especially in this Lenten season. We repent. We confess and believe. We don’t go to the cross, but we come to the means Jesus has given us to receive forgiveness. We come to confession and absolution. We come to the Lord’s Supper. We confess, “Lord, we know who we are. We’re sinners. We know what we have done. But we also know who you are, the Son of God. And we know what you have done for us.” And then in his Word and in his Sacrament, we receive Christ’s absolution. “I forgive you all your sins. Those you know and those you don’t. Depart in peace.” Forgiveness given. Forgiveness received. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.