Four Verbs and a Goat are the Path Away from Guilt
This Good Friday we begin a seven year sermon series on the 7 last words from the cross. Crassus Orator was said to be Rome's greatest orator in his day. A historical novel has him saying, "I'd die a happy man to think I gave my greatest speech on the very threshold of death" (First Man, 649). He didn't; Jesus did. Listen to the first of His last seven words. "Jesus said, Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.'" Our text gives us 4 verbs which if we couple them with a goat get us on the path that leads away from the guilts that plague us.
This last word from the cross is an ongoing word. The word "said" tells us that. It's actually an imperfect and should be translated "was saying." Jesus didn't just say this one time. No again and again: while being thrown on His back, while His right hand was nailed, while His left, while His feet, while the cross bar was lifted, while they ridiculed Him, Jesus was repeatedly saying, "Father forgive them." And Jesus still says that today because it's not just imperfect it's active. That word forgive still lives.
The word of forgiveness hasn't expired. Neither has the word about not knowing. This word for "know" means they don't know without being told. It's a perfect which means they never have and they never will know without being told what they are doing. And make no mistakes. Jesus isn't just talking about the Romans pounding the nails into Him or the Jews cheering as they do. No, you don't know without being told the true extent of your sins and you never will. In 1544 Luther revised the hymn, "O, You Poor Judas, What Did You Do" to read, "'T'was our great sins and misdeeds gross/ Nailed Jesus, God's true Son, to the cross/ Thus you, poor Judas, we dare not blame,/ Nor the band of Jews; ours is the shame'" (Brecht, Luther, III, 349).
Yes Jesus is talking about us when He says they'll never know what they do. And "do" isn't a participle. It's not "what they are doing" but what they do. We only think we know what we do that should be punished. The fact of the matter is we hide from ourselves, with the Devil's help, our real sins. Very often what we feel the guiltiest about is not our most serious sin and sometimes isn't even a sin. So echoing over all of our lives is this last word from the cross: "Father forgive them for they don't know now nor will they ever know without being told what they do."
This first last word is an ongoing word but the forgiveness is decisive. Jesus doesn't just say, "Father forgive them," but "Father you must forgive them." It's an imperative; it's a command; it's an order. Jesus can do that because Jesus is God in flesh and blood, equal to the Father according to His Divine nature. Moreover, who owns the sins of the world? Who has been carrying the sins of the world publicly since John baptized Him? Who has been given the cup of God's wrath against the world's sins? Who paid for sins with His holy precious blood and innocent life and death? Jesus, and so He has the right to command His Father to forgive sinners.
"Forgive" is not just an imperative, a command, it's an aorist. That means something like "Forgive them now." It looks at a point in time. Think of a camera taking the picture now. One fell swoop. Send their sins away (That's what this word "forgive" means.). Not tomorrow; not next year; but right now. Separate their sins from them as far as east is from west, now. Think of being hounded, chased, harried by dogs. Think of those dogs sent away from you, now. That's how sins have been forgiven.
Hang on tight here; the sweetness, the sureness of forgiveness hangs on these next words. Jesus' command that they be forgiven can't be based on their repenting. How could it? Jesus says they don't know what they are doing. Haven't you ever had your spouse mad at you for awhile and you really didn't know why? Finally you say, "Look tell me what I've done wrong so I can be sorry." You can't be sorry; you can't repent of what you don't know you are doing wrong. Jesus says, "Father you're just going to have to forgive them because they don't know what they do. You can't wait till they say, I'm sorry,' because they don't know what to be sorry for."
Can forgiveness really be that full, that encompassing? When Jesus says, "Father forgive them for they do not know what they do," could He really be talking about me right now? Yes, that's what those four verbs mean because the goat has really gone over the cliff.
This will take some explaining. The Old Testament Church had the Day of Atonement. On that day a bull was sacrificed by the high priest for his sins. Another goat was sacrificed for the sins of the people. A second goat, the scapegoat, was the only one the high priest put sins on. Leviticus 16 says, "He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelitesall their sinsand put them on the goat's head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert."
You can easily see Jesus foreshadowed in the bull and the first goat. His blood was poured out on the cross and brought into the heavenly sanctuary as the wrath removing sacrifice for the sins of the world. But what about the second goat? He got all the sins put on him but he is left wandering around with them. Aren't you afraid he'll wander back with them? Now we're back to guilt. Now you see the power of the movie titled "I Know What You Did Last Summer." The foul, evil deed the teens thought they had gotten away with comes home by an anonymous caller saying, "I know what you did last summer." As long at that scapegoat is alive he's wondering around with what I did, how is that type of Christ?
Well this bothered the rabbis of Jesus' time too. So once the goat was led away from Jerusalem; the man leading it would push it over a cliff (Edersheim, The Temple, 319). The Jews of Jesus' day felt compelled to make the goat bearing their sins a wrath removing sacrifice when all along it was to highlight that the Old Testament ceremonial laws were only the shadow of the coming Messiah. The blood of goats and bulls never in themselves could remove sin. No it took far richer, far holier, blood than that. It would take the blood of God. The scapegoat was left to wander to remind them that God needed to come to once and for all take away sins.
The true scapegoat was the Lamb of God that carried away the sins of the world. And today we celebrate Him being pushed not over a cliff but into hell on the cross. There Jesus answered; Jesus paid; Jesus suffered for every sin known and unknown to man. If you want to go hunting for your sins or the sins of your neighbor or the sins of your enemies, to the cross, to the Crucified is where you must go. The days of the scapegoat wandering are over. He has been caught and not just killed but crucified: made to suffer, made to bleed, made to pay in blood for sins. His punishment was not cruel or unusual. It was the just punishment for the sins of untold billions.
If you've followed the four verbs out of Jesus' mouth they led you to the goat. If you seen the scapegoat has at last really gone over the cliff, see that your guilts go with Him. My version of Microsoft Word doesn't recognize "guilts" as a word. It says there is no plural for guilt. Microsoft Word doesn't know my conscience. I've never known the word in the singular.
Guilt is a powerful motivator and the more it motivates the more it enslaves. When you do something "because you feel guilty." You are really saying, "I'm doing this to relieve my guilt." What you will find is that once you start doing that and are successful the more you will have to feel guilty about. Ayn Rand says in one of her books that once you've made a man feel guilty you can make him do anything if he thinks it will relieve it. The only proper response to guilt is to place it on Jesus, push the scapegoat over the cliff and watch Him fall.
Go through your hymnal, and you will never find guilt as a reason to do anything. Guilt is not a cross for you to bear but what Jesus bore on the cross. Hymn 140, "If my sins give me alarm/ And my conscience grieve me/ Let Thy cross my fear disarm." Hymn 141, Jesus the Sacrifice became/ To rescue guilty souls from hell." Hymn 142, "A Lamb goes uncomplaining forth/ The guilt of all men bearing." Hymn 149, "Come to Calvary's holy mountain,/ Sinners ruined by the Fall;/ Here the guilty free remission,/ Here the troubled peace may find." And hymn 153, "Lamb of God, for sinners wounded,/ Sacrifice to cancel guilt."
This last word from Jesus on the cross is the sliver bullet aimed at guilt. Jesus is constantly commanding that our sins be forgiven because it's not as if we're able to extract ourselves from them because we don't even know them all. Jesus can command this because He's not only the scapegoat who carried our sins away; He's the Lamb of God sacrificed to pay for our sins.
You know those stories where a man is found to have been imprisoned innocently for decades? That's what you do to yourself when you won't come out of the cell of guilt Jesus opened. Where the innocent man behind bars comforts himself with the knowledge that he really is not guilty; you the forgiven sinner who stay in your cell are saying Jesus doesn't know what He's talking about when He declares me not guilty, forgiven from the cross. Who's to be pitied more? The innocent man who someone else won't let out or the forgiven person who won't walk out of an unlocked cell?
Somehow we've gotten it in our heads that being a faithful Christian means staying in touch with our guilt, not being too sure that our sins have either all been paid for or all the way been paid for. But that can't be true especially in light of Jesus' first last words from the cross. If Jesus could say, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do," to the Roman holding the nail, to the Roman doing the pounding, to the Jewish leaders doing the jeering, then what freedom, what forgiveness, what guiltlessness, He wants for us who have been brought to some knowledge of what we do but even a better knowledge of what He did and says from the cross. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Good Friday (20120406); Luke 23:34