April 10, 2009

"I Was There : The Centurion at the Cross" - Apr 10, 2009

            To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests to God and His Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever, Amen. The text that I would lay on your hearts on this solemn occasion comes from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 23, beginning with the 44th verse, as follows:
            And it was about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. Then the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was torn in two. And when Jesus had cried out with a loud voice, He said, "Father, 'into Your hands I commend My spirit.'" And having said this, He breathed His last. Now when the centurion saw what had happened, he glorified God, saying, "Certainly this was a righteous Man!" These are the words.
            In Christ Jesus, who on this dark day gave up His life for us, Dear Fellow Redeemed,
            If you've been to Disneyland, Great America or Six Flags sometime within the last thirty years or so, you may have had a movie experience the likes of which you'd never dreamed of. It's called the IMAX theater. The people sit in a round auditorium, almost completely surrounded by a huge, semi-circular screen. The screen is so large, in fact, that it totally fills the range of vision of the viewers. When the movie begins, you have the immediate sensation of actually being there, because that's all you can see. In one film, called "Flight", you get the feeling that you, personally, are soaring in a glider over the Grand Canyon. The feeling is so strong that, when the plane in the movie banks left, the whole audience will lean to the left in unison!
            Why is this type of movie so thrilling and powerful? Because it fills the eyes of the viewer. In fact, what it actually does is allow the viewer to look through the eyes of an airplane pilot, or a race car driver, or a passenger on a roller coaster. Tonight you and I are being given an opportunity like that. Today God is offering us a first-person view of most important event in history. It is the death of God's Son, Jesus Christ. Tonight we'll see that event, looking through the eyes and feeling the emotions of a Roman soldier who was actually there. Through him, you will stand a few scant feet from the cross on which the Son of God was crucified! The theme we've been following this Lenten season is "I Was There!" This evening we're introduced to...
I. See the cross through my eyes.
II. Join me in my good confession.
            I'm glad I finally get to tell my story. After all, I was there. I was a first-hand witness to the events of that dark day. Tradition says my name is Longinus, but you may know me simply as the centurion at the cross.
            I was an officer in the Roman army; a centurion, in charge of 100 men. Something like a master sergeant in your own army. Like most veteran soldiers of my time, I was tough, and hard-bitten. You don't get to be an officer in the Roman army by being a nice guy. I'd seen a lot in my years in the Roman legions, including plenty of crucifixions. I'd witnessed a lot of cruelty, a lot of injustice, and a lot of death. It takes quite a bit to shock an old campaigner like me. But what happened that Friday outside Jerusalem shocked me, I can tell you. More than shocked me, it changed me - changed me forever!
            You read in your Bible that it was the Jewish mob that screamed for the death of Jesus. But it wasn't the Jews who carried out the actual crucifixion - that job fell to a squad of Roman soldiers. I was in command of the execution detail.
            You should understand something about me - I had no natural sympathy for the Jews. Just the opposite, in fact. As part of the Roman army occupying Israel, I was a long way from home, and I wasn't very happy about it. I was a Roman citizen...these Jews were foreigners to me. Normally I couldn't care less what happened to them. That is, until Jesus came along. His case caught my attention.
            Of course I had heard about this unusual prophet. Everybody had. Word concerning Him had spread through Judea like wildfire. For three years He had been traveling around the country, calling sinners to repentance, forgiving the penitent, and blessing the children. By all accounts, He had performed some powerful acts of healing. Rumor had it, He had even raised a dead man named Lazarus back to life!
            Well, I took it all with a grain of salt. But when I heard He was going on trial before Pontius Pilate, my curiosity got the better of me. So I looked in on the proceedings. They didn't have anything on Jesus - not really. The charges the Jews brought against Him were obviously phony; they'd never make them stick. I heard our governor, Pontius Pilate, declare again and again, "I find no fault in this Man!" But for some reason, the frenzied mob just kept crying out, "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!" over and over. There seemed to be no reason for it. Certainly I knew of Jesus' claim to be the Son of God...but was that an offense punishable by death? It didn't seem so to me!
            And yet, He was condemned. Pilate gave in to the mob, washed his hands, and passed sentence. He turned to me and said, "Centurion, crucify this Man!"
            "Crucify this Man!" -Over the centuries you in the Christian Church have grown used to the word "crucifixion." Perhaps, for you, the word conjures up thoughts of beauty or nobility. Well, take it from me - a Roman centurion: I crucified a lot of men, and there was absolutely nothing beautiful or noble about a crucifixion. It was a disgusting and a humiliating way to kill a man, and that's why it was the form of execution reserved for the worst of criminals. Basically, the prisoner was attached to a rough wooden cross, and exposed to the elements until he died. His arms were fixed on the cross-beam either with ropes, and the full weight of his body had to be supported by a tiny block of wood that sloped away from his feet. It was death by slow torture. As the prisoner succumbed to exhaustion and dehydration, his legs would eventually become too weak to support the weight of his body. The body would slip lower and the head loll forward. Eventually the airway would be blocked, choking the victim. Death - when it finally came - was either caused by suffocation or heart failure. I can see a few of you shiver at the thought, and well you might! -This was a particularly horrible way to die.
            But remember: crucifixion was nothing new to me. The soldiers under my command were so used to it that they sat down under the crosses and calmly began to throw dice to see who got the clothes of the prisoners. Another day, another execution. A little grim, perhaps, but really no big deal, not to us...
            Or was this one different? Over the course of that day, some strange things began to happen. It began to dawn on me that there might be something special about the case of this man Jesus of Nazareth. Take at it through my eyes, for a moment. Consider the things I witnessed during those final, fateful hours in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
            I've told you I'd seen a lot of crucifixions, and it's true. But Jesus' crucifixion was different, somehow. More sinister and diabolical. For one thing, I'd never quite seen the level of cruelty that was applied to this particular prisoner. Usually, a criminal would suffer either scourging or crucifixion; Jesus was whipped within an inch of His life, and then crucified, too. Normally, the victim's limbs would be tied to the cross with ropes; Jesus had large metal spikes driven through His hands and feet. I'll never forget that. To this day I can hear the hammer blows ringing in my head.
            The whole scene was strange, and terribly wrong somehow. It made me think, I can tell you! While my men were gambling under the cross, I was watching and listening. Later, I saw the light of the sun go out - go out, I'm telling you! Not an eclipse, not just an overcast sky, but a sudden darkness as black and as heavy as velvet. The darkness lasted from noon till three.
            Even more unusual, to my mind, was Jesus Himself. I had seen many men die...but never like this! This Man prayed for the people who were mocking His agony, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." From the very cross, this Man showed care and concern for His mother. Why, He even spoke kindly to the wretched thief who was dying on the cross next to Him! -And imagine what went through my mind when I heard what Jesus said to that thief! He said, "Today you shall be with me in paradise."
            Well, what started out as a rather routine day was all of a sudden getting a lot less routine! Things were getting stranger by the moment. Who was this Man who controlled people's destiny, this Man who forgave people's sins and admitted them to paradise? Who was He? I asked myself. Why was He suffering?
            You don't have to ask those questions, do you? You don't have to wonder and struggle like I did. You know who He was. More than that - you know exactly why He was suffering. You've always known it...but I never found out until that dark afternoon on Golgotha. The Man on that cross was dying for the sins of the world. In His own words, Jesus was "giving His life a ransom for many." -- Matt 20:28.
            Do you realize that? As you gather here in this pleasant building for your Good Friday commemoration, do you know what the cross was all about? I'm a plain-speaking man, so I'm not going to tiptoe around it...Jesus was dying for our sins. He was suffering for every time that you and I have failed to love God with all our heart, soul and mind; every time that you and I have abused God's name, skipped church, or defied authority; every time you or I have hurt somebody, had lustful thoughts or cut somebody down behind their back... well, just keep going down the commandments - you won't have any trouble finding where you fit in. I certainly didn't, hard-living soldier that I was. I was a sinner of the blackest stripe, and I knew it!
            The point is, on that Friday afternoon, God's anger over those sins of ours finally came crashing down. But it didn't strike us. -It struck Jesus! "All we like sheep have gone astray," the prophet Isaiah said, but "...the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all." Is 53:10.
            Yes, you know exactly who Jesus is, and why He was suffering on Calvary that day. And I - the grizzled old centurion - I was beginning to figure it out, too. At about three in the afternoon, when Jesus was near the end, I suddenly felt the earth shift beneath my feet. A tremendous earthquake shook the ground; rocks split, and people cried out. By this time fear was clutching at my heart - What have we done? Who IS this Man we've crucified? With His final words, Jesus answered the question: "And when Jesus had cried out with a loud voice, He said, 'Father, into Your hands I commend My spirit.' And having said this, He breathed His last."
            Now I knew! There was no doubt in my mind as I made  my trembling confession: Your evangelist Luke wrote down what I said: "Now when the centurion saw what had happened, he glorified God, saying, 'Certainly this was a righteous Man!'" And the parallel account in Matthew records that I not only confessed Jesus to be a righteous Man, but the very Son of God.
            The death of the Son of God softened my hard heart. In passing sentence on Jesus, the Jewish Sanhedrin had snarled, "He is guilty of death." But with my confession, I overturned their verdict. "No," I decided, "He wasn't guilty of death. He was who He said He was - the innocent Son of God, the Messiah, the Savior." That's an important confession. It's a good confession. It took quite a bit for the Lord to bring me to the point of making that confession. And it's a confession I hope you'll share with me on this Good Friday!
            Perhaps my example - the example of a Roman centurion - will encourage you. It certainly ought to! Especially if you've had a particular sin or sins weighing on your conscience recently. Has the devil been trying to convince you that your sins aren't really forgiven? Then look to my example. I was the worst sort of sinner imaginable, and the Lord forgave me. Why, I gave the orders to pound the nails and set the cross...I killed Him...and He died for me!
            My Christian friends, He died for you, too. If, like me, you've felt that your many transgressions have been piling up in a book somewhere, then on this day of all days you can rejoice. For with the suffering, the hell, and the God-forsakenness He endured on Good Friday, Jesus Christ cancelled your sins. The Apostle Paul put it this way in his letter to the Colossians: for Jesus' sake God has "...forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross." Col 2:13-14.
            Wonderful Good News! Strange, happy tidings to come from so black a day! Let rejoice in knowing that, with His innocent death on the cross, Jesus has saved us from our sins. Today I ask you to join me - the centurion at the cross - join me in confessing, "Surely this was a righteous Man." It's a good confession to make. You can take it from me that that Friday was a dark day. But, as one inspired Christian said: "How good it is to know that it will never be that dark again!" AMEN.

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