Jesus’ Glory Hidden in His Powerful Word: Luke 23:32-43

We have finally followed Jesus up to the hill called Golgotha, the place of the skull.  At the beginning of Lent, Jesus called us to follow Him there, not so we could help Him, but that He would show us His true glory hidden in the cross.  

But, oh, how deep is the humiliation that covers Jesus’ glory and hides it from our eyes!  Jesus looks like the worst of criminals, for that’s whom the Romans crucified–the worst of criminals.  Even the Law of Moses proclaimed: “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” (as quoted in Galatians 3:13).  Jesus looks like the most despised of men just as Isaiah had prophesied.  There is no one to help.  He looks like the weakest of all men.  He does not even seem able to help Himself.

Where then is the glory?  How will we find it in this deplorable vision that St. Luke has painted for us?  The glory is hidden in that Jesus spoke.  They are words with a glory that outshines the splendor of the noonday sun.  The glory of Jesus’ words shine all the more brightly when we contrast them with the words of others during His crucifixion.  

Did you hear the others?  There are the rulers, the holy men of Israel.  Why couldn’t they simply let Jesus be in His agony?  They had gotten their way.  They fully expect to be rid of Him soon.  Yet, they have to show up at the execution to rub salt into the wounds.  

They preach to the crowd gathered there, some of whom had wondered if Jesus might be the promised Messiah.  They preach to the soldiers who are carrying out Christ’s execution.  They preach to anyone who happened to be nearby, as they gawk at this gruesome scene.  With scorn, loathing, and contempt, they stand there and proclaim: “Look at Him!  This is no Savior!  He is a fraud and cheat.  Prove us wrong, Jesus!  If you are the Son of God, come down, come down from the cross!”  

When they even admit that Jesus was, at the least, a good man, they bring out all the more the cruelty and injustice of their words.  They say, “He helped others.”  Well, the obvious question is, if Jesus helped others, then why are you killing him?  If He helped others, then why do you have no compassion when He is wrongly being killed in such a cruel way?  The rulers’ words are wicked–and they show the wickedness deep within those who speak them.

The soldiers heard the sermon of the rulers.  They shout their final words by joining in the mockery.  Here, these soldiers continue what they had begun earlier in the hall of Pontius Pilate.  There, they had given Jesus the crown of thorns and put a reed in his hand.  There, they had fallen down before Him, mocking Him in derisive laughter and pummeling Him with blows.  They mocked, “Hail, King of the Jews!”  And now to pass the time, they keep mocking Him.  Where is their compassion?  Can a shred of human decency be found in their words?

Then there are the words of one of the two men crucified with Jesus.  They are both criminals whose punishment is deserved.  If they say anything at all, we might at least expect a shred of sympathy and understanding from them.  For evil though they are, they are suffering outwardly the same torment that He is.  But no, instead, one of them joins in the chorus of ridicule.

So the picture of human depravity is now complete.  Friends have failed Jesus.  Family is of no use to Him.  The official church, Christ’s Church, has handed Him over to heathens for judgment.  The state has failed to do justice and, instead, has committed the greatest injustice ever seen.  And now every shred of what should be common human decency has been stripped away in the words of those who surround the cross on that day.

So, what will Jesus say?  Will He at last call down curses from heaven on His tormenters?  Will He fill His mouth with abusive words to match those of His mockers?  After all, what more can they do to Jesus than they have already done?  It is not as if their cruelty could get much worse.  

So, what will Jesus say?  This is what He says–not to them–but to God: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  But didn’t they know what they were doing?  How could Jesus say that they don’t know what they are doing?  And then to ask God to have compassion on His tormentors and forgive them!  Have you ever heard anything like that before?  

Then there are Jesus’ words to the thief on His right.  In Jesus dying hours, that criminal was the only one, apart from Jesus, who spoke the truth.  That criminal knew he was guilty.  And he heard Jesus’ words and saw His behavior in contrast to those around him.  And so, despite his torment, he cries out these words of faith: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Now, listen to Jesus’ reply to this prayer from the criminal on His right: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”  Given His own pain and sorrow, it would not surprise us if Jesus had said nothing.  Had Jesus anything to say at all–if we were writing the script–it may have been something like this.  “You are getting what you deserve.  And now you have the gall to ask for a favor?  You will rot in hell forever with all of these people around me, just as you deserve and just as they deserve.”

But no!  Nothing like that comes from Jesus’ mouth.  Instead, Jesus promises the criminal a gift, a gift so obviously undeserved, a gift for which the thief can never repay Jesus, even in the least.  Jesus promises him heaven, that heaven would be his that day!

Oh, what glory is in Jesus’ words during His deepest humiliation!  They are words more beautiful than anyone has ever spoken, made more beautiful by the contrast of the words by others around Him.  But the glory of those words is much, much more than beauty.  Those words that Jesus spoke that day were filled with power, unequaled and unimaginable.

Think about that for a moment.  The words of the rulers, of the soldiers, and of the one thief who mocked could inflict pain.  But those words had no lasting power.  Jesus’ suffering would end when He breathed His last breath.  Ah, but the words of Jesus on that day were filled with power.  

Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them.”  No one else has ever spoken more powerful words!  And the Father, who heard that prayer, answered it.  He heard and answered not just for those surrounding the cross that day.  No, He heard and answered it for the whole world, for every one of us!  

Yes, the answer to Jesus’ prayer will wait until Easter Sunday.  But here in the depths of His suffering, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them.”  And then He finishes paying the price of that forgiveness in the suffering He is completing on the cross.  “Father, forgive them,” Jesus prays, and the Father accepts the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.

It is just as the Apostle Paul was to say later in 2 Corinthians: “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19).  That is what Jesus had promised Nicodemus when He told him that God loved the world so He gave His one-and-only Son for its salvation.  That’s the message of the whole Bible.  That’s the pulsing heart of Christianity.  

Christ was praying for our forgiveness there on the cross.  And God the Father answered Jesus’ prayer.  The whole world was redeemed in those sacred hours of His sacrifice.  Only those who reject what Jesus did, who throw it away in unbelief, miss its saving benefit.  They perish, not because God wants them to perish, not because Jesus didn’t pay for their sins on the cross.  They perish, not because God refused Christ’s prayer for them.  They perish solely because of their own rejection of the gift, the redemption won for them.

The thief on the cross hears words equally beautiful and equally powerful.  Jesus gave the thief what He won for the world.  Jesus gave the thief the paradise of the saints and angels.  He gave him heaven at the moment of the thief’s death to show to the rest of us that heaven was won for all of us, as well.  And that gift is also ours in Christ Jesus.

Indeed, great is glory hidden in those words.  And that glory has not yet ended.  So powerful are those words of Jesus that they give even to this day what Jesus prayed for on that day.  You hear it in the liturgy week in and week out, as millions have heard it for two thousand years.  

Today, you hear the words of Jesus’ forgiveness through the mouth of your pastor.  Jesus told the New Testament’s first pastors, the Apostles, that whatever sins they forgave, those sins are forgiven.  And so still today you hear these words: “As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by His authority, I therefore forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

That majestic moment in the liturgy was made real by Christ on the cross.  That powerful moment in the liturgy is still–to this day and as long as the world will last–the Father’s answer to Jesus’ prayer that day.  Jesus still prays it.  Jesus still holds before His Father the sacrifice for sin He made.  And the Father still accepts that sacrifice for all our sins.

Oh, what glory shines there in those words most beautiful and most powerful but still hidden beneath the shame of the cross.  As our journey to the cross during Lent draws to its close, fix your eyes on Jesus alone.  As our Lenten vigil reaches its holy goal, may Jesus’ words open your ears, heart, mind, and soul.  

For we have not come to the cross to help Jesus.  The role of Redeemer is His and His alone.  By faith, your entrance into heaven is as assured as was that of the thief.  That is the glory hidden on the cross.  That’s the glory hidden in these words of Jesus our Savior and Redeemer, Jesus our light and life, Jesus our joy, and Jesus our resurrection!  Amen.