Sermon for Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion based on Luke 23:1-56
Dear sinners for whom Jesus died: Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The Roman soldiers did not know that they were crucifying the Son of God. As they pounded the nails through the flesh of Jesus and mocked Him, they did not know who He was or understand what it was that they were doing. Jesus prayed to the Father that He would forgive them.
The chief priests, scribes, and leaders of the temple did not know what they were doing. When they gathered a band of soldiers to arrest Jesus, they did not believe that He was God. When they dragged Him to Pilate with false accusations against Him and when they urgently demanded with loud cries that He be crucified, they did not understand what it was that they were doing. Jesus prayed to the Father that He would forgive them.
Pontius Pilate did not know what he was doing. He found no guilt in Jesus. None of the accusations was proven and the witnesses conflicted each other with their false testimony. When Pilate allowed himself to be pressured into doing what he knew was wrong and unjust, he did not know what he was doing. He did not know who it was that he sentenced to death. Jesus prayed to the Father that He would forgive him.
The disciples of Jesus did not understand what they were doing either. Even during Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, John writes that the disciples did not understand what was happening. That’s why the disciples slept instead of praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. That’s why Peter started swinging with his sword during Jesus’ arrest. That’s why all the disciples fled and abandoned Jesus. That’s why Peter denied even knowing Jesus three times. The disciples did not know what they were doing. Jesus prayed to the Father that He would forgive them.
Do you know what you are doing? Do you understand what you are doing with your love for the vain things of this world? Do you know what you are doing when you are lured by the enticements of the world? Do you know what you are doing when you allow your mind to be fascinated by the lusts and sharp temptations of the world? Do you know what you are doing when you fall yet again into your favourite sin and think it’s not a big deal?
Sometimes we think we know what we’re doing. We think we know how good we are and how insignificant our sins are. But in reality, we are so busy accusing others and excusing ourselves that we don’t know. We can easily see the sins of others against us and are quick to accuse them and even use their sins against us as an excuse to justify what we do. We do not know what we do.
Psalm 19 confesses, “Who can discern his errors?” and prays, “Declare me innocent from hidden faults.” (v. 12) Scripture confirms that we do not know what we do.
We have to take our place along with the Roman soldiers, the chief priests, Pilate, and the disciples. We do not know what we do. We barely even consider our sins to be all that bad even though Jesus died because of our sins. We are quick to fall into one sin or another because we do not know what we do.
As we sing in the hymn:
What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered Was all for sinners gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression, But thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Saviour! ‘Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favour, And grant to me Thy grace. (LSB 450 st. 3)
Our sins are the reason Jesus died – the sins we know and the sins we do not know. We do not know what we do, yet Jesus prays for us, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus prayed this prayer right at the moment when He was paying the price of our sins; right at the moment when He made it possible for God the Father to forgive us our sins.
Sins do not just disappear. Sins cannot just be swept under some carpet somewhere. The price of our sins had to be paid. Jesus’ death makes it possible for God to forgive us because He paid the price of our sins. Jesus took our punishment. He took the full wrath of God for all the sins of the whole world. Jesus was charged with every point of God’s Law that we have failed to keep and was found guilty. He redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us (Gal. 3:13). He was forsaken by God the Father so that we will not be forsaken by Him.
One of the criminals crucified with Jesus understood this. He confessed that he was receiving a just punishment; the due reward of his deeds. He recognized that he did not know what he had done and was now judged on earth and the judgment of heaven was imminent. What could he do to undo the evil he had done? How could he repay those from whom he had stolen? How could he unhurt those he had hurt? There was nothing he could do. His life of crime resulted in the Roman authorities executing him on a cross as an example to others. His life of sin deserved an eternal judgment from God. There was nothing he could do to turn his life around. There was nothing he could do to save himself.
Yet Jesus said to this criminal, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” The Holy Spirit included this conversation in Scripture for a reason. It teaches us that we are not saved by anything we do. We are not saved because we do more good than bad in this life. We are not saved because we manage to undo the bad things we have done. We are saved even though we do not know what we do. Jesus’ conversation with this criminal also teaches us that there is nothing left to be done. Jesus’ death completes the payment for our sins.
There’s no such place as purgatory where we have to go to suffer for the temporal punishment of our sins. If there was such a place, Jesus would not have told the criminal that he would be with Jesus in Paradise today. If there was such a place as purgatory, this criminal would have had millions of years to spend there. He spent his life doing evil. If his family spent all they had to light candles for his soul and buying indulgences and going on pilgrimages even to this day, they would not even have put a dent in his time in purgatory. Yet Jesus told him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
On the day of your death, you can rest assured that this promise of Jesus is also for you. Not because of what you’ve done or left undone. Not because you have done more good than bad. Not because you know what you do, but because you know what Jesus did for you. You know that He paid the price of your sins. You know that His death is your death and His life is your life. Baptized into Christ you have the promise that just as He rose from the dead, so you too will rise from the dead. On the day of your death, you have the promise from Jesus, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
We do not know what we do. We do not understand the enormous price of our sins. But we do know that Jesus paid the enormous price of our sins. We do know that Jesus has taken all our guilt away. We do know that Jesus gives us His body and blood to eat and to drink so that we can be certain that the promise of the forgiveness of sins is for us. We can be certain that on the day we die, we have Jesus promise: today, you will be with me in Paradise. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.