By Paul Koch –
As a father of five, I have become quite good at the using the gift of discernment. For I have learned that discernment is most needed when we are faced with excuses; and none are better at excuses than children. Not that I blame them. In fact, I think it is just part of life, part of growing up, part of the process that we all go through. You see, we begin to learn early on that things don’t always work out the way we imagined they would. We don’t always follow through on what we promised to do, whether it was to clean our room or get the dishes done. We don’t always follow the golden rule and we fail to treat our siblings with the kindness and respect that we believe we deserve. When the failures in life happen, our instinct is to make an excuse as to why we failed. We get pretty good at making excuses and we can even begin to believe them if no one challenges them. But that is where I come in. Part of the gift I give to my children is to check their excuses. I see if they are focusing on the real issue or if they are just trying to find an easy way out.
Now hopefully we grow out of the habit of making excuses. We learn that it is better to just own up to our failures, admit them, and find a way to move on. However, I think we tend to shift from an outright excuse to other diversionary tactics. Perhaps we learn from the skillful pivots our politicians use on a regular basis to not answer tough questions. Instead of making an excuse, they shift the focus onto something else. If it is done really well it is something that everyone else can agree on. And so, what could be better than shifting the focus to a suffering Lord? To weep for Jesus to weep for the one who suffers so much. The One who became sin itself in order to save us is perhaps the greatest of all pivots.
As we pick up the gospel reading today from Luke 23, we find our Lord after he has been arrested, after he has been denied by Peter, after he was beaten and mocked, after he was brought before the council and then Pilate, and then to Herod, and then back to Pilate. We find him on his way to be crucified as the crowd shouts for his death. There, in the midst of the crowd, are these faithful women who would regularly mourn for those who are condemned to die. As they shed their tears and cry out for our Lord he calls them out for pivoting, or for making an excuse of sorts. Now, perhaps they didn’t see it that way. Perhaps they had no idea what they were doing, but Jesus redirects their grief towards the real problem. He shifts their tears away from him and towards themselves.
“Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me,” he says, “but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breast that never nursed! Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” If pain and suffering and crucifixion fall on the Son of man, the innocent and holy Lamb who takes away the sins of the world, why what will it do to the guilty, to the sinner, the unrepentant ones? In other words, Jesus says that their tears are misplaced, they should be weeping for themselves. For their fate will be far worse than his.
Now this is saying a lot. Jesus has been beaten and mocked, unjustly tried and condemned to death by mob rule, and yet he says you are weeping for the wrong person. So perhaps this is a good time to take stock of ourselves. We might look within and ask the big question, how bad is it? How bad, how broken, how sick are you?
I still remember when it hit me, when it sunk in how bad it really is. I think we all experience it differently. For me I was taking a class in college on the Reformation. It was a small elective class where we had a lot of reading to do but that led to incredible conversations in class about the teachings of the church. We were having a discussion about the depravity of mankind and words like St. Paul’s in Romans 3 were swimming through my head, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” Those words sank down deep from my mind into my heart, and I was devastated. They were talking about me; I wasn’t righteous. I didn’t understand. I didn’t seek God. I turned aside. I had become worthless and didn’t do good. This wasn’t an academic exercise or a philosophic discussion. I needed a savior, and without one I was eternally condemned.
I hate to burst your bubble, but you are no better off than I am. To you Jesus says, “Do not weep for me but for yourselves.” For in and of yourselves there is no hope for salvation, no hope for eternal life, no confidence that you have done enough, pure enough, complete enough to walk through those pearly gates. And you might well say, “Oh come on pastor, I mean we’re not perfect but we’re not as bad as all that. There are those who do good things in our midst, those who try hard give it their best shot.” Sure, you have done things that look really good and beautiful and worthy of praise. But God does not demand your best. He doesn’t demand that you just give it your all and never give up. No, He demands perfection. He hates sin, all sin. How bad is it? It’s bad. It’s eternal damnation, total depravity, bad.
This means that you need everything the cross has to give. You don’t just need it when times get tough, only when you feel like you’ve been backsliding. No, every single moment of every single day you need all the gifts secured and delivered by his death and resurrection. To weep for yourself, then, is to repent and confess that your empty hands cannot do it, that you offer only sin and shame. To weep for yourself is to cling to Christ alone, to His broken body and shed blood, to His death and resurrection – for there alone is your salvation. This is exactly what is lived out by that thief crucified next to our Lord.
Our Lord is executed like a common criminal, and so two common criminals were crucified right along side of him. One of those criminals began to mock our Lord, railing against him saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other guy, the other thief crucified along with our Lord, makes and incredible confession. He doesn’t weep for Jesus but for himself. He looks into the face of a beaten, dying man and confesses that this is the great work of God for our salvation. He first silences the other criminal saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And then he says to our Lord, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He despairs of himself and places all his hope in the one who dies alongside of him. His only deliverance is if Jesus would remember him in His kingdom.
The response is famous. We all know it; we’ve heard it before. It is the great response of our Savior, the response of the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. He says, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Today He gives the gifts of Paradise, today He does what you cannot, today He heals the wounded, makes well the sick and sanctifies the sinner. Today Christ comes to you again and again. He comes in the waters of your Baptism. He comes in the Word of Absolution. He comes in the bread and wine to give you the promise of Paradise itself. Salvation does not rest within you. Like the thief on the cross your only hope for deliverance rests in Christ alone – and today He promises you Paradise.
So, no more excuses. No pivoting and focusing on something else. You are sinners and you are given a real living hope in Christ. The good that you want to do, you do not do. The things you know you shouldn’t do, you end up doing anyway. But you have a deliverer, a Lord who dies to give you life. Repent and believe, my friends. Repent and trust in the one who promises you everlasting life in Paradise itself. Repent: despairing in yourself, weeping for yourself, but finding strength and joy and confidence and eternal security in the one who dies and rises for you – the one who opens now to you gates of Paradise. It’s yours, it’s free, and it will never end.