Prayer Before Death
12/11/2006 at 9.30am / 11.15am
Jesmond Parish Church
A sermon preached by Jonathan Pryke
On these autumn Sunday mornings we’re learning about prayer from the teaching of Jesus. This morning we want to learn from how he prayed at the very end of his earthly life. My title is ‘Prayer Before Death’. It’s a solemn subject. I’m aware that as a rule we prefer to avoid being solemn nowadays as far as possible. On the other hand, Remembrance Sunday is a day when solemnity is very appropriate. The reality of what we’re remembering today is almost too much for our minds and hearts to bear, it seems to me. But it’s right that we make the deliberate effort that’s necessary. It’s right that we face head on the brutal facts of war in living memory, and remember the countless millions of lives that have been lost. And it’s right that in this country we thank God for the freedom that even now we enjoy as a result of the tremendous sacrifices made by earlier generations. Private Harry Patch recalled a day in 1917:
"At Pilckem Ridge I can still see the bewilderment and fear on the men's faces when we went over the top. I came across a Cornishman, ripped from shoulder to waist with shrapnel… He was beyond all human aid… He just said 'Mother'. [And he died.] I will never forget it."
Just a generation after that the world was at war again. I have stood in Normandy, like many of us, no doubt, amidst wave upon wave of neat white crosses, each with carved into it a name, a rank, an age, a date – and most of them just boys, often teenagers, younger than my own son. Mankind has paid a heavy, heavy price for turning its back on God and his ways of love. And if we’re going to find a way out, we have to remember continually another brutal and bloody death – the death of Jesus.
What this passage from Luke’s Gospel that we’re looking at this morning makes very clear is that, though mankind has turned its back on God, God has not turned his back on mankind. This is Luke 23.32-49. We heard it earlier. It would be good if you can have that open in front of you. And because we want to learn about prayer, I want us to focus particularly on the three prayers that are recorded here. We’ll look at them under the three headings that are there on the back of the service sheet. First, the prayer on which we depend; secondly, the prayer we need to pray; and thirdly, the prayer of a Son whose work is done.
First, THE PRAYER ON WHICH WE DEPEND: ‘FATHER, FORGIVE THEM’
The prayer is in verse 34, but let me read from v 32 to set the scene. Luke has just described how Jesus has been led to the execution site:
Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals – one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
Here is Jesus, the Son of God, asking God his heavenly Father to forgive those who are responsible for crucifying him. Who precisely does he have in mind? When Jesus says ‘forgive them’, who does he mean by ‘them’? The obvious answer to that is that he doesn’t say, and therefore we don’t know.
Most immediately, presumably, he’s speaking of the Roman soldiers who have just hammered the nails into his hands and feet and who are about to throw lots for his clothes, as if this was to them just another day at the office, which in a way no doubt it was – for them crucifying someone was a fairly routine matter, just a question of obeying orders. And yet they were crucifying the one who created them and the universe in which they lived.
But the responsibility for the death of Jesus did not lie only with those soldiers, nor even with Pilate, or the Jewish leaders who urged his killing. As Peter put it to the crowds on the Day of Pentecost, most of who would not have had anything directly to do with the crucifixion:
You, with the help of wicked men, put [Jesus] to death by nailing him to the cross…
That’s Acts 2.23. Mankind – all of us – have a corporate and individual responsibility for killing Jesus, because we all share in the sin for which he died.
Likewise, all of us can claim that we did not know what we were doing. Our sin was not a deliberate attempt to crucify the Son of God. And Jesus is clear, if you like, that all the circumstances are taken into account: “they did not know what they were doing”, he prayed. All the extenuating circumstances are allowed for. But that still leaves us guilty. Jesus is not saying, “They don’t know what they’re doing, so there’s nothing to forgive; they’ve done nothing wrong.” No. He says, “forgive them”. The need for forgiveness for the death of Jesus means the guilt is real. After all the excuses are taken into account, still God rightly holds us responsible for killing Jesus.
What, then, should be our reaction? For a start, we should react in the same way as Peter’s hearers as they realised their guilt. Acts 2.37:
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
We should be cut to the heart. But then, like them, we should look to the mercy of God. What is the simple lesson for us to learn as we listen again to this prayer of Jesus: “Father, forgive them…” It is, so wonderfully, that God is a God of mercy. Jesus and his Father are one, and they are at one in their attitude. Jesus looks at his enemies, who are putting him to death, and he looks at all mankind, who reject him and wish him dead, and he is merciful.
What does that mean? It means that he doesn’t want us to suffer the just consequences of our sin. We owe this great un-payable debt to God because of what we’ve done to his Son, who came among us and loved us. And Jesus wants us to be set free of that debt. When we see Jesus dying because of us, we should be cut to the heart. When we hear Jesus praying for us, we should be humbled and overwhelmed with gratitude that this is what God is like. He is a merciful God.
God watches all our warfare – whether it’s between great nations or between members of a family – and it wouldn’t be surprising if he decided to draw a line under mankind and wipe us all from the disfigured face of the earth. But he doesn’t. He is a merciful God. As Peter later put it in his Second Letter, 2.9:
He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
If God were not merciful, we would have no hope. Humanity, would, quite literally, be doomed. But God is merciful. Listen to this prayer of Jesus, and rejoice. This is the prayer on which we depend: “Father, forgive them…”
Secondly, THE PRAYER WE NEED TO PRAY: ‘JESUS, REMEMBER ME’
This is the prayer of the penitent thief. It’s there in verse 42, but once again let’s put this in context. Let me read from verse 39:
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him, “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” [Now here comes the prayer – and it is a prayer because prayer is talking to God and Jesus is God.] Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
It’s not enough simply to overhear Jesus praying. It’s not enough even to know that God is merciful. The forgiveness that Jesus has made possible has to become real in our lives. And that can only happen when we ask for the forgiveness without which we are lost eternally. To use the Bible word, we need to repent. And that’s what this dying thief does here.
I wonder whether, when the time comes, we’ll know that we’re dying? And if we do know, I wonder how we’ll pray?
It is wonderfully true that the example of this dying thief who had a change of heart reassures us that no one is too bad, nor, up until the moment of death, is it ever to late to repent and to ask for forgiveness. But that doesn’t give us any room for delay or complacency whatsoever. And that’s for three reasons.
First, we don’t know when we’ll die. Remember the rich fool in Jesus’ parable, who was settling down for a long, wealthy and pampered retirement, and who died that very night.
Secondly, even if our death is decades away, we don’t know that when the time comes we’ll get any notice of it. It might happen suddenly and without warning. We can’t afford to say to ourselves, “I’ll get sorted out with God when I know that my time is up and I’m soon going to be face to face with him.” We may not get such an opportunity.
Thirdly, even if we do get some warning, we don’t know that we’ll be inclined to repent then, if we’re not willing to repent now. Most likely, we won’t be. Most likely, what we are now, we will be then.
In preparation for this, I did a bit of research into peoples’ last words before death. As I did my survey, the most striking thing was this: the attitudes that people adopt as death draws near reflect the attitudes with which they’ve lived. That’s not rocket science. It’s pretty obvious that’s going to be the case – except that we tend not to live by that obvious fact. We tend to assume that when we know death is approaching, we’ll do things differently. But the only safe assumption is that we won’t.
People of earlier generations used to put quite a lot of thought into dying well, and into preparation for death. To be sure, we aren’t to be morbid. But they were on to something. The key thing to recognise, though, is that we prepare to die well by living well. We prepare to be right with God then, by getting right and staying right with God now. The fact is, of course, that every one of us already knows that our death is approaching, in a few short years. What we’re not prepared to do now, we’ll almost certainly not be prepared to do then. So the time to learn from the example of this dying thief is today.
What does this dying thief do? First, he worries about wickedness. “Don’t you fear God…?” he says to his partner in crime. Secondly, he freely acknowledges his own guilt and accepts its consequences: “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.” Thirdly, he accepts the sinlessness of Jesus: “But this man has done nothing wrong.” Fourthly, he has faith both in the power of Jesus to save him and in the desire of Jesus to save him. In other words, he trusts in Jesus both as Lord and as Saviour. Fifthly, he expresses that trust in prayer to his new King: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Sixthly, he hears Jesus’ word of forgiveness, acceptance, and certain hope for his eternal future: ‘Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”’ That’s not a bad model of what repentance means. That’s not a bad model of the attitude we need to have and the prayer we need to pray as we prepare now and every day for the day of our own death.
Someone who had to learn this the hard way was General Sir Richard Dannatt, who has been in the news recently as the new Chief of the Defence Staff. He writes that he dates his commitment to Christ from a mysterious stroke that he suffered at the age of 26.
For three quarters of an hour … I was lying on the floor of the cloakroom… My right side was paralysed, and I couldn’t talk sense… Pippa [my wife] was told that she should not hope for too much.
For the dying thief it was pretty obvious that it was all or nothing. He knew that his only hope was to throw himself completely and totally on the mercy of God in Jesus. He had heard the prayer of Jesus: “Father, forgive them…” Perhaps that awakened hope in his pain-wracked heart. Perhaps we should see him as the beginning of God’s answer to that prayer – the first one to find that forgiveness. What is clear is that his prayer is the prayer we need to pray: “Jesus, remember me… “
Thirdly, THE PRAYER OF A SON WHOSE WORK IS DONE: ‘FATHER, INTO YOUR HANDS I COMMIT MY SPIRIT’
God is merciful. But there is a problem. How can God forgive our sin without abandoning justice? Sin and evil cannot simply be swept under the carpet. God cannot give up his holiness for the sake of his love. A world with no justice, where holiness no longer matters, where evil is simply ignored is a world in which God is not God and evil triumphs by the back door. So how can God’s justice and God’s mercy co-exist?
The answer lies in what God accomplished in Christ on the cross. As he dies on the cross, Jesus is both our representative and our substitute. He is God become man. He is one of us, identifying himself with us. And he substitutes himself for us, dying the death that we deserve as the wages of our sin, satisfying the demands of God’s holy justice, paying the ransom price that sets us free, clearing the debt that we owe to God.
At the cross Jesus does these things once and for all. No further sacrifice is necessary or possible for our sins or for the sins of the world, past, present or future. That is why Jesus can pray, ‘Father, forgive them’. God has done what needs to be done to make forgiveness possible in the person of his Son. That is why Jesus dies as he does, not in despair but at peace. Verse 46:
Jesus called out in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.
His task is completed. It is finished. This is the prayer of a Son whose work is done.
So, what have we seen as we’ve stood beside the cross watching with the eyes of faith? As we watch Jesus die, and as we hear him pray, we can be sure that God is a merciful God. Our offence against him is very great. Above all, we have scorned his love, rejected his loving commands and killed his Son. But such is the mercy of God that he’s ready to forgive us.
As we watch those dying thieves, we learn that forgiveness is not automatic. We have to ask for it.
And as we hear Jesus’ final words, we can be assured that everything that needs to be done for our forgiveness and our eternal freedom has been done once and for all.
We live in a world that seems continually to be tearing itself apart limb from limb. Some wars end and others gear up to begin. If all we could do was to watch the news or look into our own hearts, then we would only be left with despair for humanity. But we can look at Jesus. We can look at the cross. And there we find hope. And forgiveness. And joy.
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