Father, Forgive Them …

Posted: February 26, 2017 in religious, Uncategorized

(This is a summary of today’s sermon, which was based on the book “Final Words From the Cross” by Adam Hamilton).

It is not surprising that the first words spoken by Jesus from the cross were a prayer.  What is surprising is what he prayed: “Father, forgive them.  They do not know what they are doing.”  The nature of this prayer is not only surprising, but also haunting, confusing and even disturbing.  We will begin our examination of this prayer from the cross by asking this question – for whom was Jesus praying?  What did he mean by “them”?  Who was Jesus asking God to forgive?  He was, of course, praying for the soldiers who had beaten and tortured him, who had nailed him to the cross and who were about to gamble for his clothing.  “Father, forgive them.” He was also praying for the crowd who had gathered to watch this spectacle.  Not only were they watching, but they were joining in the verbal abuse … mocking him, accusing him, laughing at him.  For them he prayed, “Father, forgive them.finalwords  Rev. Hamilton says, “This is astounding!  Can you imagine such mercy?  That Jesus would pray for them as he hung on the cross is one of the most powerful images in all of the Gospels.”  Yes, he prayed for his executioners and he prayed for his tormentors.  But there was someone else included in Jesus’ prayer, someone else for whom Jesus was pleading for God’s mercy and forgiveness to be extended.  We are among the “them” Jesus was praying for.  He was praying for us.  There’s a classic hymn which asks the question, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”  The answer to that question is “yes”.  In a profound spiritual sense, you were there, I was there.  The entire human race was there at the crucifixion.  The death of Jesus was an event that transcended time.  This sacrificial act was for those people who had come before and those who would come after just as much as it was for those who heard his words that day.  “Father, forgive them …” This is the power of the words Jesus cried out from the cross.  These words were for all of humanity.

With that in mind, here are three additional truths that these first words from the cross can teach us.  The fact that Jesus devoted one of his last statements to a prayer asking God for our forgiveness tells us something significant – we need forgiveness. It was not just those around the cross who needed forgiveness … we need to be forgiven, too.  Two of the underlying themes of the entire Bible are our need for forgiveness and God’s willingness to give it.  We need forgiveness because of our struggle with sin.  The Greek and Hebrew words most often translated as “sin” in the Bible are words whose literal meaning is “to stray from the path” or “to miss the mark”.  God has a plan for us, a path for us, but we stray away from that path.  We fall, we fail and we make mistakes.  Some people feel that Christians dwell on sin too much and make people feel guilty.  On the other hand, there are churches where you will rarely if ever hear the word “sin” spoken.  Let’s come down somewhere in the middle.  If sin is something we see in everybody else except us, that’s a problem.  Everybody sins, even people who faithfully go to church.  The church is not a hall of fame for the perfect, it’s a hospital for sinners.  We all sin, period.  So, if everybody sins, why bother talking about it?  We need to talk about it because unless we realize that we are broken and lost, we don’t know that we need a savior.  We all sin and our sin has a cost.  The Bible says that the wages of sin is death.  But we don’t have to pay that price … the cost of our sin was paid in full by Jesus Christ on the cross.

A second thing we need to know is that God’s grace is a gift.  Jesus didn’t just point out our sin.  He was asking for God’s mercy toward those who sin.  What is especially amazing is that he prayed for God’s mercy for those who stood at the foot of the cross while they were still tormenting and abusing him.  Jesus prayed “Father, forgive them”, for them and for us, while we were still in the midst of our sin.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul puts it this way, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  He didn’t say “Get your act together first and I’ll see what I can do for you.”  He didn’t say “I know how you’ve messed up and I know you’ll do it again.  You’re a bad risk.”  Before you were born, God knew the sinful things you would do and he forgave you in advance.  Jesus went to the cross for you and for me because we are worth dying for.  Our forgiveness is not a reward for good behavior.  He forgives us because He loves us unconditionally, mistakes and all.  Rev. Hamilton says, “Never have human beings done anything so dark as to condemn, torture, and then crucify the Son of God, and yet Jesus prayed for them even as they were in the midst of their sin, asking that they might receive mercy.  If mercy was available to them, and it was, then I promise you it is available to you.  The gift of salvation has already been given to you.  Your task is to receive it, to trust it, and to accept your forgiveness and salvation.”

Rev. Hamilton says that God’s grace is not only a gift; it is also an example for us.  Jesus could have prayed this prayer in silence, but he chose to pray it aloud.  He wanted us to “overhear” this prayer.  Not only did he want us to know that we are forgiven, but he also wanted to teach us what it means to be his follower.  If we choose to follow Jesus, we are expected to practice forgiveness, just as he did.  Jesus spent a great deal of his ministry teaching about the importance of forgiving others.  In the Sermon on the Mount, he said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”  He taught his followers to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  When his disciples asked him how to pray, he gave them the Lord’s Prayer which says “forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors.”  This is a perplexing verse.  Does it mean that God will not forgive us unless we forgive other people?  Not exactly.  The book explains it this way: “Remember, God has already forgiven us.  The question is whether we will accept the gift of forgiveness that God has offered.  If you are someone who resents other people and refuses to forgive them, then you carry bitterness in your heart toward them.  That makes it very hard for you to accept God’s forgiveness, because in your heart you are unwilling to forgive others … People who regularly forgive others, on the other hand, find it easier to believe and trust in the grace of God because their hearts have been enlarged by grace, and they freely offer it to others.”

Is it easy?  No. Even the twelve disciples struggled with forgiveness.  They asked Jesus, “How many times must we forgive?  Is seven times enough?”  Jesus responded, “Not seven times but seventy seven times.”  We are to keep on forgiving. Forgiveness is hard for us because it is human nature to want justice for those who have hurt us, even as we want mercy for ourselves.  That’s why Jesus showed us how it’s done.  He taught about it and preached about it, then he modeled it for us in the worst of circumstances.  He spoke this prayer out loud to show us how to forgive.  Jesus was saying, “This is what forgiveness looks like.”

Forgiveness is not something we learn early on. It is not intuitive and is not natural. As I have gone through life, I have learned a lot about it.  For example, I have learned that forgiveness is not always fair. There can be a pretty big dose of inequality in forgiveness. I have learned that forgiveness is not easy. In fact it is hard. Another thing I have learned is that forgiveness has little to do with how deserving the person is or whether they have asked to be forgiven. God expects us to forgive even the unforgivable. C.S Lewis summarizes this idea when he said, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” And that means forgiving somebody who has wronged you even if they are not sorry. Forgiveness is an act of faith: trusting God to work in every situation, knowing God has greater plans and knowing God will handle any justice, mercy, or grace that needs to take place. Still another thing I have learned is that forgiveness is a choice; a choice I make. And I have learned that forgiveness is not about “letting go” pretending we can “just get over it” without addressing the heart.  Moving on without addressing the heart accomplishes little.

Forgiveness is not only difficult, it’s complicated.  Just because there is forgiveness doesn’t mean there are no consequences.  We can forgive others and continue to love them, yet not want to be around them much anymore.  There may be legal consequences or financial consequences, but forgiveness can still flow.  Sometimes it is hard to let go of the hurt and we find the anger creeping back in.  This will happen until we can truly forgive.  Lewis Smedes once said, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”

On the cross, the first words of Jesus demonstrate God’s willingness to forgive our sins, and these words call us to become people who follow in his path – people who can pray, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.  Take a moment to think about people who have hurt you or wronged you in any way.  Think of their names.   Are you willing to let go?  Are you willing to forgive?  Would you be willing now to join in the prayer that Jesus prayed for those who crucified him?  Father forgive them … Father you know their heart … and you know my pain … I pray for those who hurt me … Forgive them … and heal me …  Amen.

 

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