As I began to prepare for our message this morning as a pinch hitter, I found the title to be ironic. It has certainly been a day – or week – of surprises. I know Pastor Mark and his family have appreciated your prayers and support during his unexpected hospital stay. Our amazing pastor, Mark Adams, had every intention of delivering this sermon. He even had the manuscript ready to go, which I was tempted to use myself. However, since it began with, “I remember the day John F. Kennedy died,” I thought it might not have the same effect as Pastor Mark intended. The good news here is that God’s Word never changes, so the central message will remain the same. The famed preacher of the early twentieth century, Robert Brookes, memorably defined preaching as speaking “truth through personality.” With that in mind, you get to hear the same truth this morning, spoken through a different personality. Even so, I am indebted to our pastor for his mining of the Scripture here, along with sources he relied on, like the work of R. Kent Hughes. I pray that the result is that several minds steeped with God’s Word serve to draw us all to the message God has for us today.
I may not remember the day John F. Kennedy died, but I do remember a particular routine I had starting sometime around fourth or fifth grade. Every weekday I came home from school and immediately went to the kitchen to make myself a snack. It was probably then that I developed a habit that I still have: opening the fridge door a few times a day just to see what’s inside. But my snack wasn’t in the refrigerator but rather to the left of it, in the cabinet above the stove. Each day I reached for a package of ramen noodles, or “Oodles of Noodles” as I was fond of calling it. I would prepare the noodles – it was great when I graduated from microwave to stovetop use – stir in the seasoning, and put it into a bowl. While the noodles were cooking, or at least softening, I would get out a woven, wicker-like tray, set a spoon on it, put a neatly folded napkin under it, pour a cold glass of Coke and have it ready to go. That way, I would have enough time to set the bowl of noodles in the center and carry it all downstairs, just in time to turn the TV on and watch Animaniacs.
I’m not sure why I had to have everything “just so” when I did all this. I mean, I was still a normal kid who left his coat laying around and his bookbag right in front of the door and socks on the ceiling fan blades, and I’m sure my parents could go on and on with those sorts of examples. For some reason, though, I worked to have everything in order for this routine and couldn’t put my mind at ease unless it was all in order. I didn’t relax – couldn’t relax – in front of the TV until everything in my pre-adolescent mind had been checked off. I’m the same way still, and I’m sure you can identify. One of my self-proclaimed titles at home is “Chief Light Turner-Offer.” I regularly sit down to relax but can’t because I see a light on in the other room and have to turn it off. Most of us have little ticks like this, and I believe they are actually a gift from God. They help us to experience and enjoy rest, something God talks about frequently in the Old Testament. The best rest we experience comes after the work is finished, even if that work is difficult or takes a long time. That’s why even after a long day we finish those little tasks before relaxing. It allows the relaxation to be felt more.
We see something similar in the life of Christ. Although His ministry was frequently busy beyond belief, we see that those final hours were filled with more work than ever. We find this in Luke 23:26-47. Just when you might think that Jesus was simply carried along by the whims of the mob and had no choice but to submit to their decisions, we find several instances of him putting in extra effort. A close look at His trials reveals He even had to help the prosecution come up with their guilty verdict. Our Savior went willingly to the cross. As He did, he continued to make special effort along the way, as we will see in a moment. Then, just before His death on the cross, our Savior cried out, “It is finished!” The Lamb of God indeed took away the sin of the world. His effort was not for His relaxation but rather for our redemption. It also set for us an example to follow: It is finished, but we are not. We are here on Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week – a week that Pastor Mark shares, “is set apart from all others precisely because it contains two days that have changed all of history: the day Jesus Christ died on that old rugged cross…and the day He rose triumphantly from the tomb He had borrowed from Joseph of Arimathea.” This morning we look at the first day, and on Easter Sunday we explore that second day and all it means. It is indeed finished – the sin debt has been paid – but we are not – we have a mission and an example in our Lord. Let’s read Luke 23:26-47:
26 As the soldiers led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus. 27 A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. 28 Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ 30 Then ” ‘they will say to the mountains, “Fall on us!” and to the hills, “Cover us!” ‘ 31 For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” 32 Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals–one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. 35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” 36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” 38 There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews. 39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” 44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45 for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
The One who carried His cross calls me to carry mine
Following a sleepless and anxious night in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus had been arrested by a mob, subjected to six trials – none of which were legal – and suffered what we would easily call cruel and unusual punishment. Crucified criminals certainly received rough treatment and beatings, but Pontius Pilate, in an effort to not put Jesus to death, subjected Jesus to additional torture, hoping to pacify the blood-thirsty crowd. Pastor Mark said he was “beaten literally within an inch of His life.” When the crucifixion verdict finally did come down, and Jesus was paraded along the crowded streets toward Golgotha, it is easy to see why He would collapse under the weight of the cross.
That’s where a man named Simon comes into the picture. He was from Cyrene, which nowadays is in Libya, North Africa. This could mean that he either moved from Cyrene to Jerusalem, or that this was a once-in-a-lifetime trip for him to be present in the City of David for the Passover celebration. What we can gather, however, is that Simon was not with the rest of the crowd. He was apparently coming into the city gate as Jesus and the two other criminals were being led out in ghastly procession. Matthew’s gospel records that they were “going out,” presumably meaning that they had just gone through the gate to Golgotha, which was outside the city. Simon of Cyrene was waiting for them all to pass when Jesus broke down under the weight of the cross, and here he became a picture for the rest of us, because the One who carried His cross calls me to carry mine.
Simon was forced to be this example for the rest of us. The Roman soldiers who had the right to compel others to perform tasks took the rough, heavy cross from the deeply lacerated back of our Savior and pressed it – complete with blood, sweat, and splinters – onto the shoulders of Simon, who was invited by sword point to journey to the hill. The humiliation that Christ endured while being paraded through the city was the same humiliation Simon endured outside the city. Newcomers saw him carrying the cross and assumed he was the condemned. He was put behind Christ, following in His footsteps, and as he did he was forced to contemplate every laceration on His back, the mockery crown of thorns pressed into His scalp, and the dirt clinging to his legs from multiple blows that had knocked him to the ground. And he was never the same.
I love what Pastor Mark wrote about this, and I want to share it with you:
I’m sure [Simon] would tell you that his “chance” encounter with Jesus was the best thing that ever happened to him! Think with me–Simon came to Jerusalem out of religious duty, but met and decided to follow Jesus Christ. And you know, maybe that’s your perspective this morning. Maybe you’re here on this Palm Sunday out of religious duty to make your wife or your parents or even God happy. Maybe someone said, “Hey, it’s Palm Sunday. You should go to church.” And you came, reluctantly, but you came. Well, that’s okay. The point is you’re here. So hear this: you can never tell what might happen to you as you’re worshiping here this morning. You might run into Jesus. I mean, this could be a turning point in your life. It certainly was for Simon! So, even if you’re here this morning against your will, even if you’d rather be sleeping in or reading the Sunday paper, open your eyes and ears, open your heart, because something surprising could happen to you—something life changing, eternity impacting!
Four weeks ago we heard a sermon about becoming Christ’s disciple, a passage from Luke 14, where Jesus tells the crowd that in order to follow Him, we must carry our cross. Today we are reminded that this command is often less figurative than we often assume – perhaps not as literal as in Simon’s case, but a real command nonetheless.
If you have ever looked down at a river from high altitude – whether you were on a plane or looking at an online map – you’ve noticed that a river does not flow in a straight line. Instead it flows crookedly and serpentine. This is because in its formation the river followed the path of least resistance. Herschel Hobbs distinguishes rivers from canals. A canal is straight and requires a tremendous amount of work and struggle and money and planning to be successfully built.
The Panama Canal is an example of this truth. It took 9 years, the loss of 20,000 lives to malaria, and eventual project bankruptcy for the French project to be aborted. When the United States stepped in, the cost of time, lives, and money continued to climb. When taking all of this in, the cost is staggering, astronomical. But what were the results of the canal effort?
- An affordable trading passage was established, saving time, money, and lives, and promoting good trade and human flourishing.
- Panama was able to declare its independence as a nation in 1903.
- Yellow fever was eliminated.
- The deadly malaria disease was controlled. In 1906 21,000 of 26,000 workers had been hospitalized for malaria. By 1912, only 5,600 of 50,000 workers were hospitalized.
Following Christ is very similar. The cost is indeed high and might lead one to instead follow the path of least resistance. But lasting benefit comes from following Christ. Like those who dig a straight canal, the righteous determine their goal and pay the price necessary to achieve it. That is why we are called to carry the cross of Christ.
For Simon of Cyrene, the same is true. The gospel of Mark notes that he was the father of Alex and Rufus. That may seem like an unnecessary detail, but think. Why would this detail be included? People in the Bible are listed as who they are the son of, not the father of. Exceptions were made for people of prominence. Tradition holds that both Alex and Rufus went on to become important church leaders. We can understand that when Simon carried the cross it really was life changing, that he and his family became Christ followers, and that a legacy flowed out of his cross-bearing act. Imagine what will come from your act to bear the cross of our Savior!
The One who suffered calls me to mourn my sin
As Jesus was led with the other criminals, He had every right to be consumed by the struggles of his predicament. His sufferings were immense. The second surprise came when He paused to address a certain group within the crowd following Him. Most of the people were part of the mob that demanded His crucifixion. Yet as they traveled, others joined in the fray. One was a group of mourners, whom Jesus calls “Daughters of Jerusalem.” R. Kent Hughes writes, “Jesus, faint and reeling, and Simon, stooped and steady, trudged along amidst a steady din of loud female wails.”
But before you think of the women who were touched by Jesus’ ministry and were in the throes of despair, you need to know that it was customary for strangers to lament someone in this instance. R. C. H. Lenski notes that “beating themselves…and bewailing him means that they were raising the Jewish death wail for him as being one who was as good as dead.” There was nothing wrong-spirited in their actions, which were surely sympathetic, but their mourning was a ritual, something done without knowledge of Jesus’ true nature. So when Jesus turned to them they received a shock. And through it we learn that the One who suffered calls me to mourn my sin and its consequences.
In the midst of His suffering, Jesus told them they should be mourning themselves and not Him! That is something that had never happened to them before! The word spoken to them was simultaneously one of comfort and of warning. Judgment was coming to Jerusalem, and their plight was much worse than His own. Four chapters earlier in Luke we see a similar pronouncement from Jesus:
As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace–but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”
The sin of Jerusalem was directly tied to the mourning of these women. They did not recognize God when He came to them. He quotes the prophecy of Hoseah 10:8, where the misery is so great that people are pleading for the mountains to fall on them – whether by earthquake or landslide – to put them out of their misery. Jesus’ warning references the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem, a time when, ironically, many Christians were spared because they had previously been driven from the city by those rejecting Christ. They did not recognize God when He came to them.
When we hear about the sufferings of Christ, it is possible to do what we do when we hear about any other tragedy that befalls someone. “Oh, that’s terrible!” “No one should have to go through that.” “You poor thing!” Jesus’ suffering on the cross wasn’t merely a tragedy. It was a sacrifice, a death blow to sin, a triumph. That is why we call the day of the crucifixion “GOOD FRIDAY.” The victory belongs to the good side, the God side. When we mourn the death of Christ as we rightly should, we mourn the tragedy of what was done to our Savior, what we did to Him. Proper mourning puts us face to face with our own sin, helping us see our dire need for the victory He secured. That victory is passed on to those who understand and repent of their sin.
You may remember hearing that in the movie, The Passion, director Mel Gibson held the spike that went into Jesus’ hand as a way of showing it was his sin that put Him on the cross. The act touches us and helps us to realize that the same is true for us. Mel Gibson wasn’t the first person to make this sort of statement, either. In one famous painting of the crucifixion the Savior on the cross captures the central attention. The scene is filled with others whose impressive expressions show their various attitudes toward Jesus’ death. But there is one figure toward the edge of the picture who is tucked away in the shadows. His expression is largely indifferent, and his clothes aren’t what would have been worn in Jesus’ day. He represents the artist himself, Rembrandt, who realized that his sins had helped nail Jesus to the cross!
When we come to the cross we come face to face with our own sin. Jesus’ doesn’t want to rub our noses in it. He wants to call us to repentance that leads to salvation. When was the last time you really contemplated the sacrifice on the cross and came away overwhelmed by your own sin that put Jesus there? The goal isn’t to push guilt on you but rather to free you from it. In his book, He Chose the Nails, Max Lucado writes,
Between Jesus’ hand and the wood of the cross there was a list, long list, list of our mistakes: our lusts and lies and greedy moments and prodigal years, list of our specific sins. Dangling from the cross was an itemized catalog of your sins, the bad decisions from last year, the bad attitudes from last week. There in broad daylight for all of Heaven to see, was a list of your mistakes. Jesus knew the price of those sins was His death…The force behind the hammer was not an angry mob. The verdict behind the death was not decided by jealous Jews. Jesus Himself chose the nails.
The surprise is that Jesus’ focus was on you and on me that day, as represented by those “Daughters of Jerusalem.”
The One who was wronged showed me how to forgive
As Jesus made it to the top of the hill, Simon was relieved of his gruesome task, and our Savior was nailed to the wood. The Roman soldiers put Him on the cross, along with two other criminals on either side of Him. Then Jesus opened His mouth to make a surprising request that still sends shock waves to rock our souls: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The One who was wronged showed me how to forgive. Here He fulfills, as Hughes notes, the final verse of Isaiah 53. “Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” R. Kent Hughes writes:
The cosmic trauma had begun. There never had been such pain as physical and spiritual evil now came against Jesus in terrible conjunction. Body and soul recoiled. The initial shock of crucifixion had rendered him paralyzed and quivering. Physical disbelief screamed from severed nerves. And even greater spiritual horror closed in—he would soon become sin. But then came a startling surprise! Jesus, gazing upon the blood-spattered soldiers, said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
People debate who the “them” was that Jesus was forgiving. Some say it was specifically the Roman soldiers. Certainly the grammar points back to the soldiers, who were just mentioned. But let’s not limit the forgiving spirit of Christ. The Daughters of Jerusalem didn’t know what they were doing. Acts 3:17 includes the rest of the people and even the leaders who acted in ignorance. To be clear, all were under God’s judgment for their sin, just like all people are. We see Jesus granting forgiveness to those who had demonstrated faith during His earthly ministry, but in this case He intercedes for those who have not placed faith in Him. Forgiveness would be granted upon later repentance, as many of them did in the book of Acts. Even one of the soldiers was touched by the time Jesus breathed His last.
Just as Jesus prayed forgiveness from the Father for those who acted in ignorance, we have the challenge to do the same. Isn’t it amazing how easy it is to hang on to the things people do against us? We want “an eye for an eye” when we should “turn the other cheek.” It could be a family fallout that involves something inexcusable, or maybe it involves the politics of the workplace that someone has exploited for their gain at your expense. Sometimes it’s simply a comment that gets under your skin so much that you unwittingly hold a grudge or a selfish lane change that makes your only interaction with someone one of judgment. When we come to the cross we find that the offense against us pales in comparison to the offense against him. We have been forgiven much, so we also must forgive others.
In the old West it wasn’t uncommon for trains passing through the dry heat to throw sparks from the wheels. This often caused fires to the surrounding area, which were especially devastating to local farms along the tracks. One day after a fire, a farmer surveyed the destruction on his property. It had been a bad one. As he looked around he saw one of his hens burned and lying on the ground with its wings spread wide. Overcome with hurt and anger, the farmer kicked the dead hen out of frustration. To his surprise, several chicks scurried out from under the bird. Her last act had been to spread her wings wide to shelter her chicks.
Jesus did the same for us and showed us the nature of forgiveness.
The One forsaken by God has given me access to God
His death did more than that. As He suffered on the cross, He cried out to God. “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” It was at that time that the One who knew no sin was becoming sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:17). That was the goal. All of it was for us. The one forsaken by God has given me access to God. This last surprise happened at the cross but was realized within the temple. Worship, you may remember, was very exclusive in the Jewish system. At the temple there was an outer court where everyone could be, an inner court where only Jews could be. Then it was men only, and then Levites, and priests, and on until you got to the Most Holy Place – well, YOU didn’t get there at all. It was reserved only for the High Priest, and it was so exclusive that he could only go in there once each year. It was where God dwelt. So access to God was limited to one man, once a year. In case he displeased God and was struck dead while in there, he had to tie a rope around his ankle, so the others could drag him back through. What separated the Most Holy Place from the Holy Place in the temple? A curtain of massive proportions: 60 feet tall, 30 feet wide, and several inches thick. It was this curtain that, at the moment of Jesus’ death, was ripped in two from top to bottom.
Pastor Mark, who mentioned much of this, wrote the following:
This curtain surrounding the Holy of Holies was torn in two from top to bottom…and opened wide so [the priests] could all see into where they never thought they would see. These priests realized that something amazing had happened. God had opened up His presence to everyone. Never again would there be a curtain that would keep God at a distance. Never again would a priest who would represent everyone else be necessary. Now all of us have direct access to our Holy God.
We, too, have been given access to a holy God. It was purchased at a steep price, and it is perhaps the greatest surprise of the cross. It is finished, but we are not. We are being called to take hold of the abundant life offered by our Savior, but the decision is ours to make. In Pilgrim’s Progress, Christiana and her companion, Mercy, are shown a man in a room who continually looked down toward the floor. He had a muck rake and spent his time raking up the small sticks and dirt on the floor. Above him was a man wearing a “celestial crown” who offered this man a crown of his own in exchange for the rake. But the man did not listen at all. Instead, he continually kept at his raking, considering it more important than his offer. After Christiana asked about this scene, she was told, “Straws and sticks and dust with most are the things now looked after.” What do YOU look after? Sometimes it takes a surprise to shock us out of our current way of life. For some this may be finally understanding the forgiveness available to those who trust in Jesus as their Savior; maybe that describes you. You might also be a believer who has been challenged with truly carrying your cross to follow Christ, or you have today come face to face with our own sin that you need to confess to God today. The good news is this: you have access to God to make this decision! What holds your attention more than the eternal calling of our great King?
 Hughes, R. Kent. Luke: That You May Know the Truth. Preaching the Word. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998. 379.
 (Hughes 1998, 376)
 Lenski, R. H. C. The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House. 1946. 1126.
 (Hughes 1998, 378)