The Holiest of Days, for Not-So-Holy People (Luke 23:26-43)
Today, on this holiest of days, it’s easy to wonder if there’s room for us. It’s easy to think that holy days are for holy people. The problem is, not many of us feel too holy. We know ourselves all too well. Is there room for us on this day?
The girl in her twenties, whose parents were divorced when she was a child, and who’s never really experienced a family as she would have liked – is there room for her? She feels like for part of her life, God has turned his back on her. If Good Friday is for holy people, she sure doesn’t make the cut.
The skeptic who isn’t even sure the Bible is true – what about him? He grew up hearing the Bible, but it’s just hard for him to believe the Bible is true. He goes to church occasionally, but as little as possible. If Good Friday is for holy people, he’s all out of luck, because he’s not holy by a long shot.
Then there’s the woman who grew up in church and would still consider herself a Christian. The only problem is that things seem hollow inside. She can barely bring herself to sing any of the songs. She looks around and wonders if she will ever feel the way she once did about God. What has Good Friday got to do with her?
If this holy day is for holy people, there are a lot of us who are in trouble. You see, a lot of us look inside and see what nobody else does, and we know we’re not holy. If today is for holy people only, a lot of us are out of luck.
That’s why I’m glad that Jesus made time for unholy people on this most holy of days. Jesus was on his way to be crucified. He hadn’t slept the night before. He had been unjustly tried and convicted, and beaten to within an inch of death. He was on his way to be crucified. On the way, and when he arrived, he encountered some people who were anything but holy. These encounters were anything but chance encounters. They give me hope that there might be room for unholy people on this holiest of days.
Let’s read what happened in Luke 23, starting in verse 26:
As they led Jesus away, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country just then, was forced to follow Jesus and carry his cross. Great crowds trailed along behind, including many grief-stricken women. But Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, don’t weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are coming when they will say, `Fortunate indeed are the women who are childless, the wombs that have not borne a child and the breasts that have never nursed.’ People will beg the mountains to fall on them and the hills to bury them. For if these things are done when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:26-31)
The first group that Jesus encountered was a group of women. Picture Jesus as he’s walking. He’s beaten and so exhausted that he can’t even carry his cross. There are huge crowds around. Out of everybody, he notices a group of women.
I wish we knew more about these women. I’d love to know who they were. What we do know is that they had two strikes against them. First, they were women in a very sexist society. This was a time when males considered females to be much lower than they were. I find it interesting that Jesus looks into the crowd and speaks to those that society overlooked.
They had another strike against them: they were mourning Jesus. We don’t know if they were his followers, ritual mourners, or just compassionate women who came to give narcotics to the condemned. We do know that mourning for Jesus wouldn’t have been a very popular thing to do. It wouldn’t have won them any contests.
Jesus is about to be killed, but he looks at them and shows compassion to this group that everyone else overlooked. He looked into their future. He knew that less than forty years later, in 66 A.D., the Romans would lay siege to Jerusalem. The siege was so bad that the Jewish historian Josephus reported that some women were reduced to eating their own children. Eventually, Jerusalem was captured and destroyed. The Romans destroyed everything. They killed men, women, and children. They tore down the Temple. Jesus looked into their future, and he knew that some of these women and their children would face hardship.
Nobody could blame Jesus for ignoring these women or focusing on his own suffering. Instead, he turned to these women and mourned what they would have to go through. He cared for them and their future when everyone else overlooked them.
There’s this song that Michael W. Smith sings, Above All. It’s always bothered me, because it has a line about Jesus’ death that goes, “He took the fall and thought of me above all.” I’ve always found it a bit presumptuous to think that while Jesus was taking the fall, he thought of me at all. There’s a sense, though, in which he did. Even as he was being led to his death, he thought of what these women would go through in the future.
There are some of us who feel overlooked. We feel like if we disappeared from our churches, nobody would notice and nobody would call. We have gone through things that nobody else understands, and we feel alone.
Jesus has time for those who are overlooked. He has time for the people that nobody else has time for.
Jesus encounters another group of people. These aren’t the people who are overlooked. These are the people who are putting him to death.
Two others, both criminals, were led out to be executed with him. Finally, they came to a place called The Skull. All three were crucified there–Jesus on the center cross, and the two criminals on either side.
Jesus said, “Father, forgive these people, because they don’t know what they are doing.” And the soldiers gambled for his clothes by throwing dice.
The crowd watched, and the leaders laughed and scoffed. “He saved others,” they said, “let him save himself if he is really God’s Chosen One, the Messiah.” The soldiers mocked him, too, by offering him a drink of sour wine. They called out to him, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” A signboard was nailed to the cross above him with these words: “This is the King of the Jews.” (Luke 23:32-38)
You don’t get more unholy than this group. Jesus looked at the soldiers and the crowd. It was customary for a martyr to condemn those who were killing him. Jesus chose instead to do what he had taught his followers to do: to love those who hate you, to pray for those who persecute you. Instead of condemning them, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive these people, because they don’t know what they are doing.”
Talk about caught in the act. There are some of us here today who aren’t so much overlooked. We’re just flat-out not on good terms with God.
Jesus doesn’t wait until we get our acts together. Even as the soldiers crucified him, he prayed, “Father, forgive them.” God didn’t wait until we got our acts together before he lavished his love on us. “God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8).
It’s not, “Get your act together and then I’ll love you.” It’s, “Even in your deepest mess, even at your lowest point, I’m going to show you my love.”
Jesus told that story about the son who ran away and made a mess of his life. The son eventually ran out of options and decided to go home. What I love about the story is that the father saw the son while he was still a long way off. All along, even as the son rebelled, the father never stopped loving him. The father looked out his window, waiting for the day that his son would return. When the son came out, the father didn’t wait for the son to apologize before he went running out to embrace him.
I’m glad that God didn’t wait for us to get our acts together before he lavished his love on us. Even at the cross, with Jesus drawing his dying gasps, he prayed for those who were his enemies. He made room on this holiest of days for those who are rebelling, right now, against him.
Those with a Past
One more encounter, one more type of person.
One of the criminals hanging beside him scoffed, “So you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself–and us, too, while you’re at it!”
But the other criminal protested, “Don’t you fear God even when you are dying? We deserve to die for our evil deeds, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”
And Jesus replied, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)
The Romans reserved crucifixion for their most serious criminals. These men, crucified with Jesus, weren’t just petty criminals. They were the real deal. We don’t know what they did; we don’t need to know. They had a past.
Out of all the people in the Bible, there is only one that received the direct promise of heaven: a criminal. Jesus made room on this most holiest of days for those with a past. He let this guy in, no questions asked, no merit earned.
There are some of us who have a past. There are things we’re embarrassed about that we did. We wouldn’t want it all known. We wouldn’t want our kids to make the same mistakes. Some of us are living with the consequences. Jesus made room at the cross for us.
It’s like this: sometimes, we wonder whether we’re going to make the cut. Ever apply for credit? I’ll tell you, they promise you a decision within 30 seconds. Sometimes it seems like the longest 30 seconds, even when your credit is good. It feels like you’re going to be told, “Sorry, you’re rejected. We don’t want to do business with you.”
Sometimes we wonder that with God. We aren’t the most holy of people. We expect, on this holiest of days, that God’s going to look at us and say, “Sorry, nice try but you don’t make the cut. Today is for holy people only.”
I’m glad on this holiest of days, God made room for those of us who are overlooked. He made room for the guilty, those of us who are currently rebelling against him. He threw open the doors to those of us with a past.
There’s room for the unholy on this most holy of days. There’s room for you and me.