Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Good Friday message: "Radical Forgiveness" (Luke 23)

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (v.34).

Forgiveness is what the cross is all about.

Humanity was given life and a beautiful environment in which to live, and both of these gifts – life and creation – have largely been abused. Yet God’s love is such that he desired that no one would be lost. When God observed the brokenness and frailty that often affects human beings, Jesus came into the world; and despite the heavy cost, he acted on our behalf. This redeeming love has always been God’s heart attitude. We read in the prophet Ezekiel (34:16a), “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak”.

God desires to establish relationships with all people. And, it is as people reconcile with God, that lives, communities and creation itself can be redeemed, transformed and set free.

This was not what most people expected. We recently read about how his disciples did not understand this way of acting. However Jesus would indeed confirm that he was Son of God through his Saviour role on a cross.

So we can bring our sin to this cross and find forgiveness there. Jesus takes upon himself our burden of guilt and deals with it. Jesus, despite the weight and pain of this, did so willingly. And soon we will also experience the full potential of all this as we are drawn into new life.

We see forgiveness play out in our bible text from Luke in two main ways: a radical forgiveness that even comes within the grasp of those who were responsible for torturing and crucifying Jesus; and also a radical forgiveness that sees a criminal under a death sentence reach “paradise”.

Some people might say that they are beyond forgiveness – what they have done is just too bad and could never be forgiven. Well, who was Jesus forgiving from the cross? Firstly, there were the Jews who conspired to destroy Jesus because he didn’t meet their expectations as a ‘messiah’. They preferred their own way of doing things to the way Jesus was directing them toward – they just couldn’t see things any other way than their own comfortable pursuits and their power over others, and they simply refused to change. Their leaders “sneered” at Jesus, and spoke to him like the ‘devil’ had earlier (in terms of diverting from God’s plan) – v.35b. Jesus could have saved himself, but he wouldn’t – he would give of himself to all humanity.

Who was Jesus forgiving? Secondly, there were the Romans, who were responsible for carrying out the crucifixion. For them … anything to keep the peace! They were happy to execute an innocent man just to silence the noise. Roman soldiers also mocked Jesus (v.36) and gambled over his clothing, perhaps wanting souvenirs to show their friends (v.34b). Then previously there was the crowd – they were given an alternative, but kept yelling out “Crucify him, crucify him” (23:21). Some of these may have called out “Hosanna” a week before (19:37-8), but quickly had changed their minds. No, if all these ones can be forgiven, then there is no limits to forgiveness; surely we can be forgiven.

I reckon even Judas, a friend turned betrayer, could have been forgiven, if he had stayed around long enough.

No doubt Jesus was laden with disappointment and frustration, at what was being said and done around him. But ultimately he only acted out of love. How huge is this! Treated so badly, yet so ready to love and forgive. Such understanding of the human condition and the negative cultural influences around us. Sometimes we simply succumb to sin despite our best intentions. Yet there is such understanding displayed here: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (v.34).

Where Jesus had earlier taught his disciples to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors, Jesus did precisely this.

In Cambodia, during Pol Pot’s four years in power through the 1970’s, approximately 2-3 million people died of starvation, overwork, or executions. Mass graves discovered in the 1980’s introduced the world to Cambodia’s horrors; eventually, the phrase “killing field” was coined to describe the immensity of Pol Pot’s genocide. One Khmer Rouge general under Pol Pot’s command, who was at the helm of this killing spree, has been redeemed through the cross of Jesus. It is hard to imagine a bigger sinner than this, being forgiven. He used to kill many people before he came to know the Lord Jesus as Saviour. Now, he has planted about 100 churches along the border of Cambodia and Thailand. God is using him powerfully to make disciples for His Kingdom.
Other people may say that they don’t need forgiveness. But who hasn’t hurt another person at least once … either physically or emotionally. Who hasn’t acted in a negative way causing a troubling outcome at least once. Who hasn’t ever looked into the eye of injustice and baulked rather than acted. As we have seen, some gambled over Jesus’ clothing, some so called “leaders” sneered at Jesus, but we also read that other people “stood by watching” (v.35a). They were watching, but what would be their conclusion? Was this just another Roman crucifixion, or was this something a whole lot more significant. There was a greater level of interest than normal in this event, with quite a variety of responses. Is there something here for me?

Who is it that has never slipped up with their tongue. Has there ever been a person who has not been selfish at least once? I think that anyone who claims no need for forgiveness, has not truly accepted the communal nature of life … they are too wrapped up in themselves. We might call them ‘proud’ … the Bible certainly does. Yet, nonetheless, here from the cross there is forgiveness for them too.

It is as we view the cross and open ourselves to our possible need for forgiveness, that we are humbled and actually realise that forgiveness is exactly what we need. There is a hole that only God can fill. And there is a burden, that only Jesus can lift; for we will never be able to fix it ourselves.

This leads us to the second way forgiveness plays out in this text. In the face of one of the criminals on a nearby cross joining in with the mockery toward Jesus, the other nearby “criminal” has come to see all this in a completely different way (v.40-42). There is an accounting to be made … there have been offences committed against God and other people – “Don’t you fear God?” – “We are [being] punished justly … getting what our deeds deserve”. Here is the necessary humility and openness required for forgiveness to kick in. Here is the beginning of confession and repentance. “This man [Jesus] has done nothing wrong” … not one comment thrown at him will stick, for he is guilty of nothing – he must be here for us!

He will “save us”, and this will happen via sacrifice on his part, and humility on ours. Jesus was here to offer this very man ‘mercy’.

What a sincere statement of faith we now read: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (v.42). This man has come to see that this Jesus will conquer death and return to lead a kingdom. Through this man’s own agony, he reaches out to Jesus, knowing that he needs more than help, he needs forgiveness. He opens his heart, he believes, and speaks … “Jesus, remember me”. And, of course, this man was not going to be disappointed. Jesus grants this desire; and not just at any time in the future, but “today”! “Today, you will be with me in paradise” (v.43). Forgiveness takes immediate affect!! What a turnaround!

Two men met that day. Both were pain-ridden, gasping for breath and dying. But was One was dying as a gift to the other. A connection was made. A relationship began.

Ultimately forgiveness leads to an experience of “paradise”. Perhaps this is like the “paradise” of the ‘Garden of Eden’ where the inhabitants had intimate, natural, unspoiled relationships with God – until sin got in the way. Such ‘sin’ began with a desire to do things our own way. Paradise lost! But this “paradise” would also indicate the road we are on (as forgiven people) – an eternal road heading toward God’s beautiful presence and ultimate peace. This is a new reality to be experienced straight away, from the very moment we say, “Jesus remember me (when you come into your kingdom)”. ‘Jesus, accept me’; ‘Jesus receive me’.

Do you believe that you are really forgiven? The story is told of the office manager who kept every piece of paper that ever arrived on his desk. When another staff member suggested a bit of a clear-out, the manager reluctantly said that this would be alright as long as they photocopied everything first. Some people seek forgiveness, but having received it, don’t really think or act as if they have been forgiven. They remain limited and constrained by feelings of guilt, failure or shame. But what Jesus did on the cross is complete – Jesus said, “It is finished”! And we should sense this “paradise”, a place where we have been liberated, set free, and given another chance … free of past mistakes. This is like arriving at the footy before the players run out and seeing that the scoreboard says 0-0. If we continue to dwell on past sin, we compromise (and almost waste) what Jesus has done for us (in terms of where this should lead us). Psalm 103:12 says, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us”.

The curtain in the temple has been torn apart, representing open access to God through Jesus. Here is forgiveness … receive … take this gift.

Would anyone like to experience such forgiveness today??

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