How Could This Have Happened… and Other Questions at the Cross
Have you ever wondered where the scripture readings come from? For the past year we have followed a series of readings that are carefully chosen to take us through the life and the teachings of Jesus. This is a practice that began a long time ago so that believers would hear "the whole counsel of God." Imagine what could happen if one individual – even the pastor – chose all the readings himself. It is possible that he would select the readings that reflected his own interests rather than what God really wants His people to hear. It would be similar to a person who visited a large city like St. Louis and only saw one small part of it – say, Soulard Market – and then began to explain to everyone that this city is a quaint place where people come to buy and sell vegetables and fruits. Misinterpretation begins when people miss the bigger picture. The Scripture readings that we use are designed to keep the bigger picture of God’s plan of salvation in mind. Today we come to the end of those readings. This is called "The Sunday of the Fulfillment" or "Christ the King Sunday." Of all the things we know about God and His plan of salvation, everything centers around the cross. As we think about Jesus and His death on the cross, I’d like to ask some very important questions. The answers to these questions are the basic truths of life. They are like the foundation, the walls, and the roof of our "house of faith." They give us a sturdy abode in which we can weather the efforts of evil around us and from which we can send out the saving grace of God in word and deed.
1. How Could This Have Happened? (vv. 27-31 Please Read!)
The first question is: "How Could This Have Happened?" Really! How could God come into our world as an infant and eventually subject Himself to the humiliation of death on one of the world’s most hideous instruments of torture – the cross! This could well have been the question the women were asking themselves as they mourned and lamented for Jesus as He was being led to Calvary, "the skull place." Notice the word "lament." This is no soft, quiet whimpering. These are the gut-heaving sobs of total confusion and dismay. The one they believed in, the one in whom they thought all hope rested, was being taken away.
Jesus’ answer is very cryptic – "Weep for yourselves and for your children… If they do this in the green wood, what will they do in the dry?" That is Jesus’ way of saying, "If you think this is bad, wait until this world grows old with wickedness, and then don’t be surprised by the cruelty this world will inflict on you and your descendents."
How could this have happened? It happened because this world is incredibly evil. On the surface it might seem a bit decent, but that façade makes it all the more insidious. Deep down this world hates and despises all that is good and holy. That’s not a popular message is it? When did you last hear that message spoken by the popular media personalities like Opra? Or O’Reilly? Those two and all their companions are deeply deceived either because they haven’t read the Bible or they refuse to believe what the Bible teaches. Instead they tell us that people are basically good and that if you just "read my book" you’ll understand how to fix yourself and the world – without Jesus! Again Jesus tells us why this happened, "And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil" (John 3.19).
The answer to this first question warns us not to fall in love with this world.
2. Who Cares What Happened? (vv. 32-38 Please Read!)
The second question is the one that it seems the leaders, the soldiers, and the one thief must have asked themselves: "Who Cares What Happened?" Three times Luke records their mockery: "He saved others, let Him save Himself." Isn’t it interesting that although this question is raised three times by three different groups, Jesus never responds. Why? The reason is because there is no answer than can help the person who doesn’t care. There is no education that can help the person who doesn’t want to learn. There is no medicine that can cure a person who refuses to take it. There is no light that can help a person who refuses to see.
Cain, the first son of Adam and Eve, was a sad example of this. He just didn’t care. He wouldn’t listen to God. He went through the motions of worship but didn’t fear, love and trust in God. When God showed him His disapproval by rejecting one of his sacrifices, Cain became angry. I meet so many people are are angry with God. Things don’t go quite right in their lives, and the first one to get the blame is God. They are almost always the people who were somewhat indifferent to God’s word – hit and miss in worship, fast and loose with doctrine, always concerned about everyone else’s problems – never their own.
The second question – the one Jesus refuses to answer – reminds me that God is patient, but that I shouldn’t try His patience. If I start mocking Jesus with my indifference, if I keep turning down the opportunities for Christ to come into my life, eventually He will stop trying. And all I’ll be able to hear is the echo of my own self-satisfied foolishness.
3. What Will Happen Next? (vv. 38-43 Please Read!)
The third question is the most important. This is the question that the one repentant thief was asking himself. This man was very spiritually awake. He was honest with himself and with his situation. He knew that he was guilty of his crimes and that he deserved this punishment. He offered no excuses. He refused to shift the blame. What is next for a person who realizes the evil of this world and can look back on many years of spiritual indifference? What is next for a person who realizes there is nothing they can do to fix themselves or this world? What is next for a man who could see beyond the battered, bloodied body of a poor Jewish carpenter to the only one of whom it has ever been said in all truth: "He has done nothing wrong." What is next is a promise – "Today you will be with me in paradise."
At this point we see how God turns everything around. Writers call this irony. That’s when a story has a twist. Everything seems to be going badly, and then suddenly, surprisingly, everything turns around. The philosopher Socrates used to pretend he was ignorant. He would ask all sorts of innocent questions in his debates. And then he would eironeo, or "disassemble" his opponents arguments. But this is the real thing. This is how God deals with sin and evil – He comes in innocently in all His goodness, and then destroys it’s power completely. In the Bible we are told: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Romans 12.21). This is His pattern. This is His way of doing things. As God comes into our lives in all His goodness, He first destroys the sin within – This is shown by our repentance. It isn’t an easy thing, this repentance. It isn’t easy to admit the punishment we deserve as the thief did. In fact it is a spiritual death. But out of that death God raises a new life. In another place the Bible says, "And you He made alive who were dead in trespasses and sins" (Ephesians 2.1).
Now come three great promises in lightning speed to the dying thief: Today – when he dies… Not tomorrow, not after a thousand years of purgatory, but immediately, on this day – You will be with Me – As Jesus overcomes death so do all those who believe in Him. This isn’t a fairytale. This isn’t a wish made upon a star. This is a promise made by God in the flesh – "Whoever believes in me, though he may die, yet shall he live…" (John 11.25). And last of all – In paradise. God once made the world in perfection. He called it "very good." There was no sin. There was no death. Jesus promises to bring His people back to that place of eternal goodness.
I love to read biographies – the life stories of great people. I like to read about the things they did and how they handled themselves in difficult situations. I’ve read the life stories of a lot of famous people. But one thing I’ve noticed about all of them is that very little is said about their death. What can we say, "He did a lot of great things in his life, but in the end he grew tired and sick and finally died just like everyone else." That’s about the way it goes. But do you realize that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John devote a full one third of their pages to the death of Jesus? It’s natural to have questions at the cross. I remember the story of a Russian teenager who had never heard the Gospel message. But he had seen images of the cross and the crucifixion. The images really troubled him and left him with a very serious question: "This man on the cross must have been really bad. And I just can’t understand why people want to remember him?" He was amazed to later hear the whole story – and especially the confession of the thief: "This man has done nothing wrong." Jesus’ good life isn’t just another biography of "the greatest men who ever lived." Jesus’ life and His death and His resurrection are the truths that transform. Amen.
Pastor Michael P. Walther
Last Sunday of the Church Year, November 25, 2007
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, 1300 Belt Line Road, Collinsville, Illinois, 62234
618-344-3151 / fax 618-344-3378
The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod
Michael P. Walther, Copyright, 2007
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