Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

Location: Moscow, Idaho

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Lenten Midweek 5

Lenten Midweek V: The Miraculous Faith of the Roman Soldiers[1]

April 13, 2011

Text: Matt. 27:54: “When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” (ESV).

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Can you imagine the impact these words of our crucified Lord had on the Roman centurion and his soldiers? These were hardened men. They were used to blood and killing and death. They had crucified others. Perhaps they had been to war. They did not place a high value on human life. This centurion and these men were probably assigned to Jesus from the time he came before Pontius Pilate for trial. That means that these were the men responsible for His captivity. These were the men who mocked Him, spat on Him, beat Him, scourged Him. These were the men who placed the purple robe on Him and pressed the crown of thorns into His sacred head and scornfully worshiped Him. These were the men who divided His garments among them and cast lots for His seamless robe. They drove the nails into His precious flesh, His hands and His feet. They nailed the charges above His head: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (Matt. 27:37). They lifted our Lord up upon His cross. They were butchers of men! The point is, at no time in all of this did they recognize that they were sinning. They were just doing their gruesome job. They did not apologize to Jesus, much less ask God for forgiveness. They were not Christians. They were not even Jews. They were pagans. If they believed in any sort of deity, they believed in the Roman pantheon of gods and goddesses. They worshiped the Emperor as a god. And they did not believe that they had committed any sort of religious offense. Yet Jesus speaks: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

They witness all the miracles of the Passion: the three hours of darkness, the great earthquake, the splitting rocks. They hear the seven words of Jesus from the cross. They behold the love of the Lord Jesus for His people as the Jews hurl insults at Him and blaspheme His holy Name. They behold the love of the Lord for the criminals to His right and His left who also hurl insults at Him, and they see the change that comes over one of the criminals as he is brought to faith and assured that he will be with Jesus in paradise. And through it all, they behold Jesus’ great love for them, hear His words of love for them ringing in their ears: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” What an amazing and puzzling word this must have been to them. What great compassion Jesus showers upon them as He prays for their forgiveness and dies the death that will make it happen. Jesus speaks with tenderness toward His torturers and executioners. No mere man, no sinner, could utter such words. These were the words of God.

The Holy Spirit calls us by the Gospel. Those who come to faith in Jesus Christ are given that faith through the Word and the Sacraments. Jesus speaks. The centurion and the Roman soldiers hear. They behold the great earthquake and all that takes place. And they come to the conclusion to which only the Holy Spirit could lead them, the conclusion to which even Jesus’ own people, the Jews, could not come: “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matt. 27:54). “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The Word of God brings faith to the centurion and the soldiers and leads to the confession of faith: “This was the Son of God!”

So it goes for us. For Jesus was pierced for our transgressions. Our sins placed Him on the cross. And hardened as we are, we act as if it’s no big deal. We sin so casually, knowing that “after all, God will forgive,” never stopping to think that this was a real death, a real flesh and blood crucifixion that God demanded in payment for our sins. And worse, this was really hell that Jesus suffered in His spirit as He was dying on the tree. Because of us. Because of our sin. Every “little” sin we commit nailed Jesus to the cross. We’re no better than the soldiers. And even though it was the soldiers’ hands that drove the nails into our Lord’s flesh to fasten Him to the cross, it was just as much our sin that held Him there. For He could at any moment have come down from the cross and in a horrifying display of wrath and glory obliterated all His assailants (which, by the way, would include you and me). But He doesn’t come down. He is held there by love for sinners, love for you and me. Because He desires to pay for our sins in His body. He desires to suffer our punishment. He desires to give us His righteousness, His life, His freedom. He desires to restore us to the Father’s favor. He prays for us, for you, for me: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

And the Father forgives. He accepts the payment of His Son in our place. And hearing that Word of forgiveness, the Word in which the Holy Spirit is active and working, we come to faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, just like the centurion and the Roman soldiers. Hearing, we believe. Believing, we confess. This man was the Son of God. This man is the Son of God. For He died, but He is no longer dead. He lives. He is risen, as He said. And He raises us from death and gives us life eternal.

It is a miracle that the centurion and the soldiers are converted. And the same miracle that happened to them happens to you. From start to finish, salvation is all by grace. Not even faith is your work. It is a miraculous and divine gift. For “no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] The theme and many of the thoughts in this sermon are taken from Miracles of Lent (St. Louis: Concordia, 2011).


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