Well, I did it again. I got a little teary during the midweek Lenten preaching last week.
Trust me, I do my level best each and every time I get into the pulpit to keep my emotion in check, or at least in appropriate support of whatever is being preached. But sometimes it truly hits home that even though I’m the one speaking, I’m still on the receiving end of what the Holy Spirit is doing through the preaching. Of course I know this before I go into the pulpit. But again, sometimes what I’m saying is piercing enough to my own soul that it gets me right where I’m standing. That happened during the sermon.
Over the course of our midweek Lenten services, we’re pondering the seven last words of Jesus on the cross. The text appointed for this past Wednesday, which I read at the beginning of the sermon, was the first of the seven, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Jesus forgiving His enemies while they torture and kill Him is an extraordinarily moving image, but in all honesty, I was feeling the hand of emotion on my shoulder before the sermon even started. It came while I was reading to you the first section of the Lord’s Passion drawn from the four Gospels. The particular gathering of texts in that first portion paints the portrait of the events of Maundy Thursday, and as we were carried along by it, at its midpoint we hear the words, “Jesus knew that His hour was come to depart from the world and go to the Father. Having loved His own who are in the world, He loved them to the end.”
He loved them to the end.
This, too, is a heartrending phrase. How can it not be? Jesus knows He’s about to die, and as He does, we are to know that He will love us in and through to the very end. He will display and accomplish the truest expanse of love in the midst of the darkest night ever known to the cosmos. The depth of this statement is unfathomable, and already being aware of what I planned to preach, it added another dimension of cutting emotion as I read it.
Now the preaching.
Before getting to Jesus’ first words on the cross, I spent a good deal of time describing the contours of Good Friday. I had to. Before any of us can attempt to grasp the weight of the Lord’s words, before we can come to the realization that our seats in the pews before the Lord’s altar aren’t cheap, we have to at least try to understand the measure of the event itself, asking ourselves, “What’s really going on here?”
Crucifixions were dreadful, but also fairly common during the time period, which is probably why the Gospel writers don’t really share the details too fully. But still, they were as terrible as terrible can be, and so, what does it mean then, that God—Jesus Christ—gave Himself over to enduring an unjust trial marked by incredible brutality, a pre-sentence flogging that would malfigure any human who experienced it, a crown of thorns knocked into place on His head with a staff, tortuous mocking and slapping and spitting, and then, finally, being nailed to cross beams with railroad spike-sized nails?
And then came the moment when the awareness that Jesus loved us to the end met with what the Holy Spirit gave us through the preaching.
Contextually, when you think about who it was that Jesus was pleading for by those first words, when you realize that He’s begging the Father to forgive everyone perpetrating the unholy massacre, there is the moment of pristine Gospel that beams through and reminds that none of us are beyond the borders of the Lord’s first words from the cross.
No matter who you are or what you have done, the forgiveness for which He pleads is the same forgiveness He is winning for all—even for the worst of the worst—even for you and me. No one’s sins are left unpaid by this sacrifice.
We all fit into this little prayer of Jesus that’s slurring from His exhausted lips on our behalf.
Indeed, He loved all of us to the end.
That hit me hard. And it took an extra bit of control to hold back what could have easily become a weeping mess. The combination of these words highlighted the grand nature of faith in Jesus’ sacrifice as the wonderful blessing that it is. The price for our Sin has been paid. It wasn’t cheap. It was incredibly costly. But Jesus paid it. Faith in Him receives the merits of what He has accomplished.
I know all of this. But every now and then, I feel it, too. And sometimes when I’m preaching, I hope so badly that the people listening in the pews are hearing it as I’m hearing it, that they’re seeing what I’m seeing, that they’re being moved to experience the same comfort that I’m experiencing. It’s a strange mixture of penitent joy that brings me to the edge of my abilities to control my own enthusiasm.
So, I guess what I’m saying is that such a thing happened this past Wednesday.
Anyway, I pray you’ll read what I’ve written here and you’ll understand why I got a little choked up. Also, if you aren’t already, I hope you’ll consider attending midweek services during Lent. There’s so much more to come with the last six phrases of our Lord in the midst of loving us to the end.