Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Sermon -- Lenten Vespers (April 9, 2014)


In the name + of Jesus.

     The centurion had a gruesome, yet simple, job—make sure the prisoners under his charge were properly executed.  Three were sentenced to die by crucifixion.  Under normal circumstances, this job could last for days while the condemned men hung in torment.  But the Jews did not want the bodies of anyone hanging on their crosses during the Sabbath.  So, all things considered, it looked like it would be a short assignment.
     Pontius Pilate had caved to the demands of the Jewish leaders.  He sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion.  St. Matthew wrote, “Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him.” (Matthew 27:27)  It was then that the centurion would have likely first have had contact with Jesus.  Matthew goes on to describe the mockery that Jesus had to endure at the hands of the Roman soldiers.  Following the mockery was the scourging.  Following the grotesque and bloody scourging, the soldiers assigned Jesus the task of carrying his own cross beam outside the city walls.  And there at a hill called the Skull, in Latin calvaria, they nailed Jesus to the cross. 
     The centurion supervised the whole project.  He saw a man accused who did not defend himself.  He saw a man mocked who did not spew out curses at his abusers.  He saw a man scourged who submitted to the brutality.  He saw a man who, while he was being nailed to his cross, finally said something.  “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” (Luke 23:34)  This was no hardened criminal.  This was no vicious thug.  This man was different.
     From the nine o’clock hour until the noon hour, the centurion stood watch.  He heard the priests, the rabbis, and the scribes hurl cruel invectives at Jesus.  It would not haven been unusual for the crucified victims to have abuse heaped on them.  After all, those who were crucified earned their death sentence.  But the taunting must have sounded unusual to the centurion.  It was not, “You murdered my father,” or “You raped my sister!”  It was, “He saved others” (Matthew 27:42), and, “He trusts in God; let God deliver him if he still desires him.  For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” (Matthew 27:43)  The centurion may have thought these insults were stupid.  These are not the insults that should be directed at a violent criminal.  This man was different.
     At about high noon, the sun stopped shining and darkness covered the land.  This was not an eclipse.  Nor was it a storm rolling in.  Those things could be explained.  This was different, and it was eerie.
    Then at about the three o’clock hour, the centurion heard Jesus cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)  No doubt, Jesus looked God-forsaken—stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. (Isaiah 53:4)  And finally came the moment of Jesus’ death.  Rather than offer up the last gasp of a dying man, Jesus uttered a prayer in confidence.  Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, in your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46)  This one who seemed cursed by God still called God, “Father.”  Jesus had been the dutiful Son.  He commended all things into his Father’s care.  And with that, Jesus gave up his life.  This was not a bitter man.  He was not even a defeated man.  This man was different.
     The centurion was there for all of it.  He stood guard over Jesus.  He heard the words of both Jesus and his enemies.  He witnessed Jesus’ demeanor.  He had a front row seat for it all.  And then, when Jesus died, he saw more.  The earth shook, and the rocks were split.  The tombs also were opened.  And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.  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!” (Matthew 27:51-54)
     It is hard to say whether this was an unwitting confession of Christ or if this centurion made a faithful confession of Christ.  Either way, he was right. Truly this was the Son of God.  The Son of God willingly gave himself up for the sins of the world.  For, if he really is the Son of God, then he could have put a stop to this at any time.  He could have called on legions of angels to defend him.  He could have slain all of his enemies merely by the breath of his mouth.  He could have.  He did not.  This man was no criminal.  This man was different.  Truly, this was the Son of God!
     The Son of God, Jesus Christ, willingly went to death for people who accused him, who plotted against him, who mocked him, who denied him, who betrayed him, and who did not care at all. 
     He willingly went to death for people who try to serve him but fail, for people who succumb to temptations again and again, for people who know better but still give in to sinful cravings. 
     He willingly went to death for people who do not pray like they should, who give their eyes to images they should not be looking at, who give their ears to stories they should not be listening to, and who give their mouths to words that should never have been said. 
     He willingly went to death for people who sinned against others, for people who have sinned against him, and for people who daily sin.
     He willingly went and suffered and died—for you.  The Son of God pays the price for you.  As the Son of God, he could have put an end to his sufferings, pain, and death.  He could have.  He did not.  He endured all the curse, the shame, the pain, and the death willingly; for, Jesus Christ is eager for you to be relieved of your guilt.  He wants to cover over all your shame.  He wants to soothe your fears in the face of the grave and the judgment.  “Father, forgive them,” he prayed.  And then he paid the price so that the Father does.
     The centurion had a front row seat for all of it.  He witnessed the earth quaking, as it yearned to be set free from its bondage to sin and decay.  He witnessed saints who were raised from the dead—foreshadowing of the resurrection of all the dead—a resurrection gained by a Savior who goes into death for us to render it powerless.  These things did not happen at other crucifixions.  All of these startling activities did not accompany other criminals.  This man was different.  So, 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!” (Matthew 27:54)
     There is one more thing that the centurion would have witnessed that Matthew does not record.  St. John does.  The soldiers came and broke the legs of the first (criminal), and of the other who had been crucified with him.  But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.  But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. (John 19:32-34)  Since the centurion was accountable to Pilate regarding the execution of the criminals, he is likely the one who pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing forth a sudden flow of blood and water.  It is by these that the Savior gives life to his Church.  It is by the waters of Holy Baptism that Jesus has given you new life and made you clean.  It is by the blood of Christ in Holy Communion that Jesus sustains your new life and holy status.  Jesus was no ordinary criminal.  Jesus was also no ordinary man.  This man was different.  Truly this man was the Son of God.  And if he is the Son of God, then truly Jesus has made you children of the heavenly Father, and truly you are saved.

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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