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A Round Trip

November 24, 2019
By Rev. David French

“When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” These words from Luke 9 begin what’s known as the journey narrative the Holy Spirit inspired Luke to include in his gospel. For nearly fourteen chapters, we have walked with Jesus as He made His way to Jerusalem. There have been miracles, great teachings, and interesting parables, but always in the background there was the journey and His appointment with a cross. In today’s reading we find Jesus keeping that appointment.

Jesus regularly took His disciples aside and said to them, for example in Luke 18, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.” There’s no doubt that Jesus knew exactly what waited for Him in Jerusalem. And yet, “He set His face to go to Jerusalem.”

The Holy Spirit in His infinite wisdom divided the narrative of the crucifixion up between the four gospel writers with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each adding their own unique perspective to our understanding of the events of that day. This morning we heard Luke’s focus on the words of forgiveness that Jesus spoke from the cross.

Now, it’s not hard to imagine that the members of the crucifixion squad heard all kinds of words coming out the mouths of their victims … cursing, begging, cries of anguish …. But I would guess that none of them had ever heard someone pray for their forgiveness as they were being crucified. How strange it must have been to hear the words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

These words of Jesus, however, bring incredible comfort to the soul who understands that he or she sins more often than he or she knows. If you’ve ever wondered, “Can I really have forgiveness for a sin I don’t even know about?” Well, Jesus is praying for the forgiveness of executioners who do not know what they are doing.

In his explanation of confession in his Small Catechism, Luther asked, “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 ….” We also read in Psalm 19, “Who can discern his errors?” So yes, Jesus still forgives us even for the sins we don’t know about, just like He forgave the sins of those soldiers who crucified Him. That also means that if or when you feel the need to speak with a pastor for private confession, you don’t have to worry about sharing every little detail of your sin. Honestly, I don’t want to know every little detail, only the beast, if you will, that you’re wrestling with, that you might be forgiven. But understand, forgiveness removes the sin and its spiritual consequences, but not necessarily the earthly consequences of the sin. That is, if you rob a bank, you can be forgiven, but you will still go to jail.

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 when he said, “We are receiving the due reward of our deeds.” That is, he confesses that he had earned his place on his cross with his crimes. Jesus looks at him and says, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” That is, you are forgiven.

The words of Jesus to the criminal are a comfort for those who wonder if they are too far gone, to evil to receive forgiveness, or if it’s just too late? The criminal who confessed that he deserved to die had to have done some really bad things. I mean, Rome didn’t crucify people for having overdue library books or unpaid parking tickets. Only the worst criminals died on the cross. No, this guy did something big, like murder or something along those lines.

Let me ask you, have you ever heard someone say something like, “I think the roof would cave in if I ever walked into a church”? I’ve heard that a lot, especially at wedding rehearsals. If you have, you can gently or even light-heartedly remind them that, like the thief on the cross, even they are offered forgiveness by Jesus.

Remember, the primary purpose for this service today and every week is for God to serve you the forgiveness of your sins. In the divine service, where two or more are gathered in His Name, God comes to His children, to us. And with His Word and Sacraments, He serves us the forgiveness His Son earned for us all. As Jesus said, “I did not come to be served but to serve.”

So, with these few words spoken by Jesus as He hung on the cross, we’re given a very broad definition of what “forgiveness of sins is for everyone” means. Paul said it this way in our epistle lesson, “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”

Clearly, it is the blood of Christ shed on the cross that reconciled, or made peace between, God and all things. And, all things certainly includes all of humanity. It includes the criminal on the cross next to Jesus, and it includes you … no matter what sin attacks your conscience with its guilt, in Christ you and all who trust in Him are forgiven.

We also learn of the alternative to the terrors of God’s wrath against our sin. When Jesus went to the cross, He took our punishment. That is, He endured God’s wrath against our sin. Jesus has satisfied God’s justice for us.

Why? So that we might be adopted by grace and restored into His family through the waters of Holy Baptism. Jesus made it possible for you and me to stand before God not seeing – a terrifying judge – but a loving Father. In Christ we receive – not the eternal punishment we deserve – but life forever in the indescribable joy of living in the fullness of His presence. That, my friends, is truly good news.

Today’s the last Sunday of the church year. During this church year we’ve focused primarily on the Gospel according to Luke. Yes, we’ve heard from Matthew, Mark, and John from time to time, but for the most part, we’ve heard from Luke. And, the good doctor Luke has given us an account of Christ that includes a great journey. That journey, however, is a round trip. It began as the Son of God descended from His throne to take on human flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. It ended as that same Son of God, in human flesh, ascended into heaven and now sits at the right hand of the Father.

During this journey, Jesus paid for the sins, or redeemed, all of mankind from sin, death, and the power of the devil. He cleared the way for all to stand before Almighty God without fear. Christ’s journey, by grace thorough faith, is also our journey, a journey we travel knowing that for all who hold to His promise of forgiveness, the day of His coming leads – not to a day of terror – but to a day we pray for, an eternity day of heavenly joy and peace.

In His name, Amen