The text of the sermon preached this morning at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York is below. The sermon is about the real tragedy in the First Century and how that tragedy still exists and how we can respond to it. I’ve tried to add a few lines in the text below to make it closer to the sermon as it was preached this morning. In any case, you can listen to the audio of the sermon as it was preached at this link. Next Sunday will be a new series for the season of Easter, but it will be a continuation of preaching from Luke. We will look at Luke 23:50-24:12 for that Sunday, then Luke 24:13-35 for the second Sunday, and Luke 24:36-53 on the third Sunday of the coming season.
It is not long after the celebration with the palms that we get to the cross. The death of Christ on the cross is something that many people would consider one of the greatest tragedies in all of history. Here was a man who had done nothing deserving of death being killed in the most excruciating way ever invented. And like the movie the Passion of the Christ many Christians will focus on the brutal and bloody scourging of Jesus and dwell on the immense suffering that Jesus experienced on the cross. But this is not what the Gospel of Luke does. Luke does not even mention that Jesus was scourged beforehand, a point that Mark passes over quickly. And Luke does not dwell on the suffering that Jesus experienced at the cross. So Luke is making a different point than the movie, though I could say that of all of the Gospels. But often the key to understanding Luke’s precise point is to see what details Luke mentions that we do not find in the other Gospels. These differences will shed light on Luke’s main point and how to apply the point to our lives. The very first major detail that he includes that is not in the other gospels is the exchange that Jesus has with women who were mourning and lamenting for Him. Jesus says that they should not be weeping for Him. Luke wants to emphasize that there is a greater tragedy than the excruciating experience of suffering and death by Christ. Indeed, Jesus says there is something we should lament much more than His death on the cross. Hear the word of God.
- [Jesus tells the women who were mourning and lamenting for Him to lament Jerusalem instead.]
- The women from Jerusalem at the beginning of our passage no doubt felt for what Jesus was going to experience. It made them full of sorrow. And their culture was one where people expressed this openly. For example, they would loudly wail when someone had died or in situations like this. Now we may not expect many to be weeping for the criminals who will be crucified with Jesus, but we should expect them to weep for Jesus. And they did. But we know that Jesus has a way of turning expectations upside down. And His death is no exception. These women from Jerusalem did not know it, but we know that His death was a good thing. And they did not know what would happen on the third day when Jesus would rise from the dead, but we do. So we can understand why they were crying for Jesus. They thought they were about to see a great tragedy. But Jesus, if you follow what I am saying, basically tells them that they should save their tears for a greater tragedy than the cross.
- In Jesus’ way of thinking, the greater tragedy than the cross was the judgment that would come upon Jerusalem. Jesus once again prophesies the destruction of Jerusalem that would take place around forty years after His death. Jesus was like green wood for He is the blessed man of Psalm 1. The Psalmist begins, “Blessed is the man…” and we come to this metaphor for the man in Psalm 1:3, “He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.” If you have ever tried to burn green brush, then you know what Jesus is talking about. It is not easy to do. Jesus is the green tree planted by water. But Jerusalem is dry wood that will burn up easily. And He argues from the lesser to the greater – if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry? The destruction of Jerusalem was Judgment Day for the city. Because they had rejected Jesus, God was going to send the Roman Army to destroy the Temple and wreak havoc on the city. So Jesus tells them that they should not be weeping for Him but for themselves and their children. He even says that the days are coming when they will say, “Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!” In their culture it was shameful to not be able to have children, but Jesus says that the day of judgment for Jerusalem will turn that upside down. It would be better not to have children when it comes. One reason that we know that Jesus is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem is that in Luke 21:23 Jesus said something very similar about the destruction of Jerusalem. The verse comes in a section that the Good News Bible gives the heading, “Jesus Speaks of the Destruction of Jerusalem.” Those headings are not always right, they aren’t the word of God – they are just there to help you find a passage – but in this case it is precisely right. Luke 21:20 pictures Jerusalem surrounded by armies. And then in the verse in question He said, “Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people.” Notice it has the same pattern from pregnancy to nursing as, “Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!” (Luke 23:29). So the greater tragedy in Jesus’ thinking was not His death at Jerusalem but the much worse destruction of Jerusalem. And so the women of Jerusalem who were mourning and lamenting for Jesus really should be lamenting Jerusalem instead. (But it is not just for the soon-to-be-destroyed-Jerusalem that we should be lamenting more than the death of Jesus. And Luke helps us to see this by including many more details about the two criminals who were crucified with Jesus that are not included in the other Gospels. Matthew and Mark only tell us that the two men reviled Jesus. But we know that one repented because in Luke…)
- The two criminals crucified with Jesus, one on the right side of Jesus and one on the left, show us two ways people respond to the crucifixion of Jesus.
- These two criminals are speaking in the context of the taunting of Jesus by the religious rulers and the soldiers. The religious rulers say, “He saved others, let Him save Himself, if He is the Christ of God, His Chosen One!” The soldiers add a second taunt, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” And then in this context we see a third taunt on the lips of one of the criminals being crucified next to Jesus, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” The three taunts calling for Jesus to save not only show us that they are the seed of Satan because they sound like Satan’s three temptations in the wilderness but they also remind us that Jesus saves on the cross those who belong to Him but not everyone everywhere. This is a real tragedy. The women should lament that their religious leaders, and these soldiers, and the one criminal did not receive Jesus but rejected Him. The most tragic of all is the one criminal who continued to taunt Jesus because he was dying on his own cross. That man would not have another chance to repent and believe in Jesus. There are only two ways to respond to the crucifixion of Christ and that anyone would respond with unbelief is tragic. The destruction of Jerusalem was only a small part of the final judgment. Something far worse than simply the destruction of Jerusalem awaits the unbeliever. That anyone should go to hell is worth lamenting. Weep for him.
- But the taunts to save also miss that Jesus is doing saving work on the cross – including saving the other criminal. Neither the religious rulers, the soldiers, nor the criminal who taunted Jesus understood that Jesus was saving us through His death on the cross. And they all missed that Jesus was saving the other criminal on the cross next to Him. This other criminal actually gave an answer that is not much different than the words of the first except in its attitude. The first criminal asked for Him as the Christ to save them and the second criminal appealed to this idea of salvation by calling Him Jesus, which means the Lord saves, and appealing to the expectation of the kingdom of the Christ. He said, “Jesus, remember me [resurrection language] when you come into your kingdom.” Somehow this criminal knew that there is more than this life and that Jesus’ death on the cross somehow fit in the plan of God to bring in His kingdom. That one is on the right side of Jesus and one on the left invites us to ask, “On which side of Jesus are we?” Are we responding to the crucifixion of Christ by trusting in Jesus or are we responding to the crucifixion of Christ with unbelief. If the latter, that is tragic indeed. (It is worth noting that Luke chose a different word for the criminals than we find in the other Gospels – it is a compound word of evil and doer. Those two men were evildoers or wrongdoers. Read Luke 23:41. They were wrongdoers but Jesus did nothing wrong. Or in the words of the centurion, Jesus was innocent. The centurion who says this was one of the soldiers, which you will remember that the soldiers too were mocking Jesus. This is an important point indeed. For we who have been evildoers but now call upon Jesus for salvation, the innocent Jesus had died in our place.)
- The greater tragedy than the cross is that not everyone responds with faith in Jesus like the repentant criminal and the centurion did.
- There are at least three who became disciples of Jesus in this passage. We’ve already talked about the repentant evildoer who said something very similar to the other evildoer on the other cross, but he said it with faith. Another obvious example is the repentant centurion. The centurion even said something very similar to what Pilate had been saying when the centurion said, “Certainly this man was innocent!” Except the centurion said it in faith when Pilate did not. But the centurion and the repentant criminal were not the only people at the crucifixion who became Christians. It is worth noting that Luke wants us to know that not everyone was in that crowd at the trial of Jesus before Pilate that chanted, “Crucify, crucify Him.” Luke tells us that Simon of Cyrene came in from the country. The reason for that little detail is to clarify that he was not in that crowd and thus not among the people of Jerusalem from whom a judgment day was soon to come. Simon also is thought to be one of the early converts to Christianity. The Gospel of Mark even tells us the names of Simon’s two sons—most likely because they were known believers in the churches for whom Mark wrote that Gospel. And we see in verse 35 where Luke says that the people stood by watching but the rulers scoffed at Jesus that already the crowd at the crucifixion was not on the same page as their religious leaders. This is important because while many people may have made up their minds and hardened themselves to Jesus, which is to be greatly lamented, there were many people at the crucifixion of Christ and many more out in the country who might yet turn to Jesus and be saved.
- But it is a greater tragedy that there are many even today who do not believe in Jesus. None of the unbelievers we know personally were in the crowd that chanted, “Crucify, crucify Him.” None of the unbelievers we know personally were religious leaders in Israel at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion or were soldiers carrying it out and dividing up His garments by lot and taunting Him. Many of them would say therefore that they are not responsible for the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. They would even say that they have never taunted Jesus or cursed His name. Indeed, there are many people we know who do not see the need for them to repent and believe. They think that they are a pretty good person and that pretty good people go to heaven when they die. Everyone of us should be weeping for them. And there are also those who are consciously engaged in a full-scale rebellion against God. They thumb their nose at Him every chance that they get. They are proud of their sins and boast of their many exploits. They are living life as if this is the only one they have to live. Everyone of us should be weeping for them. One of my favorite contemporary Christian bands named Leeland has a song called, “Tears of the Saints.” The song says, “There are many prodigal sons / on our city streets they run / searching for shelter / There are homes broken down / people’s hopes have fallen to the ground / from failures. This is an emergency!” Another verse says, “There are schools full of hatred / even churches have forsaken / love and mercy / may we see this generation / in it’s state of desperation / for your glory. This is an emergency!” But listen to the words of the chorus, “There are tears from the saints / for the lost and unsaved / we’re crying for them come back home / we’re crying for them come back home / And all your children will stretch out their hands / and pick up the crippled man / Father, we will lead them home.” Let me encourage you, God gives you the strength to be able to pick up the crippled man, the wisdom to put them on a stretcher and get help from others to carry it, and the words to lead them home lest a greater tragedy than the cross befall them. Truly, the tears of the saints lead us to plead with the lost and unsaved and those tears lead us to act to carry people home. Thanks be to God. Amen.