Have you ever noticed how when people tell you directions, they tend to either use landmarks or science? The landmark people are the ones who tell you what you “can’t miss.” “Just turn right after you cross the bridge, go down that road until you get to a grey electrical box in a field. Turn right there. Continue on that road until you come to the house with a John Deere looking mailbox.” “You can’t miss it.” The bridge, the grey electrical box, the John Deere mailbox, these are directions for the landmarkers.
On the other hand, you have the scientists. Although they aren’t all bad, you sometimes need a compass. “Go east on Highway 50, a mile outside of town you’ll reach County Farm Road. Turn north until you get to Baker Road, then turn west there.” Using landmarks or science, either way, people seek to give you directions. But what they don’t know is that how they give directions creates a certain kind of following. For the scientists, you need a compass, street signs, and a numbering system. For the landmarkers, you only look to what is obvious and you clearly find your way.
In Luke’s Gospel, Luke has been rather scientific in his approach. As he tells us about Christ’s birth, he opens up with a world of kings and kingdoms. It was in the days of “Caesar Augustus, while Quirnius was governor of Syria” that “all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem” (2:1-4). Luke tells us approximately when Jesus began his ministry in the relation to John the Baptist. He says, “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee … during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas” (3:1-2). Luke in his Gospel has been scientific in his approach. This creates a certain kind of following. We recognize these events and names as a part of history. We read the Gospel, aware of the dynamics of the political situation. We try to understand where everything is and why it is important.
But notice the difference tonight. When Luke moves to the crucifixion … he begins to use landmarks. He points to creation and the temple. What he tells us touches the very foundation of life on this earth and eternal life with God. “It was about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two” (23:44-45). You don’t need a map of the Holy Land to know what is happening at the crucifixion. You don’t need to be able to tell the difference between a governor and a tetrarch. No, Luke uses what is obvious so that anybody in the world can see what is happening and all will believe in the graciousness of God.
Some churches can turn religion into a science. Turn on the TV and listen. You have your choice of religious systems. There are rules for living and promises for the future. If you just believe strongly enough, then God will bring healing. They will tell you what to do with your money, how to dress, and how to pray in the Spirit. And then you turn off the TV and are faced with the complexity of life. Here you sit with a teenage daughter who no longer talks to you when she comes home, an ailing mother who struggles to live alone, and a job that they are thinking of eliminating and you wonder, “Now how can I make God work in the middle of this mess?” We find ourselves caught up in all kinds of teachings and trying all kinds of activities until we soon begin to wonder whether there’s a God at all. Faith becomes harder than finding a tiny, hard to pronounce region on a map. And discouragement comes easily to a heart already weighed down with care.
Perhaps you’ve come tonight tired of trying to get God to work in your life. You’ve followed all sorts of rules. Your bookshelf has one too many books on how to have a happy marriage and you’ve stopped saying your prayers anymore before bed. You are simply tired of the struggle … worn out by the complexity … deep down afraid that maybe God isn’t there. Listen to Luke tonight.
Luke speaks for all who have ever been lost in a religious system. Whether it is the rules and regulations that we impose on our behavior, the Christian bookstore teachings, the politics of churches, or the promises of some TV preacher. If you’ve ever been lost, listen to Luke. Luke points to something as important and central to religion as the temple. To understand what is happening at this crucifixion, he says to think about worshiping where a huge curtain separates the people from their God. With that temple curtain is ripped, you know something has happened. The way of worship has changed. God is no longer hidden from people, needing to be reached by the blood of sacrifice. He does not need our religious activities, our efforts to find him because He comes to us. He comes to us and forgives us by the death of his Son. Lifted up on a cross, here is God’s simple love. Lift up on a cross, God opens the door to eternal forgiveness. Through the sacrifice of Jesus, God opens His heart to you! Jesus suffers the punishment of sin so that you might receive the love of God.
Do you still need directions? Luke points to something as universal as creation. To understand what is happening at this crucifixion, he says you simply need to have lived in a world where the sun rises in the morning, makes its way across the sky, to set in the evening. When it is the middle of the day, between the sixth and ninth hours, when the sun is in the middle of the sky and the sun stops shining … you know something has happened. The way of the world has changed. The power of darkness has come close to Jesus and, for a moment, creation bows it head and closes its eyes. There is night like no other when Jesus dies for a fallen creation. But then there will be a morning like no other when Jesus rises and bring about a new creation and a never-ending age. Jesus comes to you tonight, takes the wrath of God for you, that you might awaken in a new creation. There, you will never be faint or grow weary, for your God is a live. When Luke tells of the crucifixion of Jesus, he uses landmarks as important as worship and as universal as creation so that no one can miss the significance of this event.
But for those who need words, Luke offers one more landmark along the way. As Luke reports the happenings of Christ’s death, there are many reactions. The crowd beat their breasts, the women stand far off, and Joseph, a member of the council, asks Pilate for Jesus’ body. Yet, in the midst of all these, you have one strange reaction. … The Roman centurion. Listen to what Luke writes when the centurion sees Jesus die. “The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, ‘Surely this was a righteous man’” (24:47). This is the only word spoken which Luke records between the crucifixion and the resurrection. When the lips of Jesus become silent in death, Luke records one voice. One voice in the face of the deadly silence. You can’t miss it. And what does Luke call it? Words of praise. The centurion praised God.
Praise is what happens whenever Jesus performed wonders. When the miraculous occurred, people opened their mouths and praised God. The shepherds in the field saw heavenly wonders, ran to Jesus, and opened their mouths in praise. The people of Nain attended a funeral. When Jesus raised a widow’s child from the dead, their mouths were opened in a praise. When Jesus sent the ten lepers to the temple, as they were on their way and miraculously healed, one returned to praise God. The miracles of Jesus led people to praise. And now, when you think that the time for miracles has passed; now, when you would think that all wonders are over; now, when Jesus is dead on a cross, Luke records a word of praise.
Why? Because Luke wants you to see a wonder beyond all wonders. God has made a marvelous exchange. In exchange for your sins, God has given you His righteousness and, in the place of all sinners, God has punished a righteous man. Regardless of the complexity of your life, regardless of your decisions and indecisions, regardless of how many books for the spiritual life that you have on your shelf, one thing remains certain … the righteousness of Jesus saves you from sin. The cross has become for us a place of praise. God looks at our lives, sees our sin, and yet chooses to call us righteous for the sake of His Son. This is God’s work, not ours. His obedience, not ours. His grace, not ours. Only one voice is speaking, and it shares one simple truth … this was a righteous man and by his righteousness we are saved.
We live in a world filled with complexity. The changing emotions of your daughter, the aging of your mother, the changing job market and the instability of your employment. In that complexity, it’s easy to lose our focus. We try to balance our love for our children, our care for our parents, our love for our spouse, and our obligations at work. And in the midst of this, we don’t find easy answers. It’s never as simple as turning on the TV or picking up a book about Christian living.
We struggle, we pray, we love truly, and we live sincerely. At times, we falter and lose our way. You don’t need to know us long to see our sin and our failures. You don’t need to be a genius to recognize our weakness. But, even when in our weakness we fall into sin, God remains a Savior bringing us salvation. As long as we live and as long as we struggle, there is one thing which does not change. You can point to my sin, but I can point to my Savior. Jesus, the one who died on the cross, he was a righteous man. And lest any should doubt, Luke has given all the directions anyone would ever need. The heavens, the temple, and the people proclaim that here, tonight, on the cross is the glory of God. God has made this place of the cross, Golgotha, a place of praise. Take comfort in that certainty. Though our live are complex, God has given us life in the death of His Son. For this simple saving love, we sing praises. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, now and forever. Amen.