Do you know why this is a holiday weekend? I know most of you do. But this is one of those strange holiday weekends. Many will take off from work. Some will take trips with their families. But unlike other holidays—Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, or even the Fourth of July—most people fail to stop and realize what this holiday is really about. We enjoy the holiday, but sometimes we forget why it exists.
Memorial Day. Did you know that this holiday was first instituted around the time the Civil War ended? It was put into place to honor the Union soldiers who died during the war between the states. During WWI the holiday was changed to honor all US troops who died in any past, present, or future campaign. I’ll bet not many in this room knew that bit of history. The fact is, many Americans have become ambivalent at best toward our history. I may be presuming too much, and forgive me if I am. I’ll bet there are a few people in this nation, maybe even in this room, who upon hearing that bit of history, they think to themselves, maybe they don’t even say it out loud, they might say, very softly, “Who cares anyway?” Who cares to remember those who have given their lives for our nation’s freedom? Bring on the holiday, bring on the cookouts, bring on the baseball, but spare me the story.
At best, many Americans have simply grown silent in their remembrance of fallen heroes of the past. I imagine that statement troubles some of you, and to a degree I hope it does. I think it is a shame that we forget so soon. I think it is a shame that we relish in the benefits of being an American without very often remembering how or why we arrived at this place and time. But brothers and sisters, this may be the perfect occasion to talk about our tendency to forget another hero. And this hero is so much more important than fallen US soldiers. This hero also brought freedom, but freedom of a different kind. A freedom much more important than the freedom Americans enjoy, a freedom that only one person—or God—could bring. Hear the word of the Lord this morning from Luke 23:26–43 CEB.
READ LUKE 23:26–43 CEB
God forbid that this story should ever become stale or worn out in the minds of God’s children. For in that moment in history, God brought to us freedom—real freedom! And I wonder: Do we stop often enough to celebrate the freedom given to us on that day? I notice in the reading of this text that even those who saw with their own eyes the events of that day didn’t fully appreciate what was happening. Or, at least, their actions didn’t indicate that they fully appreciated it.
Notice the cast of characters. The first person mentioned is a man named Simon. Subsequent generations have been really good to Simon. Some people view Simon as if he were just waiting to help Jesus carry that cross. Ray Boltz, a contemporary Christian singer, wrote a huge smash hit entitled “Watch the Lamb.” It adds some flesh, if you will, to this story about Simon. Simon is a devoutly religious man who travels to Jerusalem for the religious festival. Traveling with his two sons, suddenly he comes upon the parade leading to Golgotha. Soldiers make him carry the cross, and his two sons watch the entire scene. It is a wonderful song! But this song, like most other depictions of Simon, characterize him as this great hero of the faith. All the text says is this: “Simon was made to carry the cross.” It doesn’t say anything else about him. All we know is that he, against his wishes, was made to carry the cross.
After Simon, we learn that the crowds are also there. Presumably, these are the same crowds that had followed Jesus throughout Luke’s gospel. Listening to His sermons; witnessing His miracles, this large mass of people that followed Jesus wherever He went. Fred Craddock says about this crowd:
And Luke says the crowd is there, the crowd that hung on Jesus’ words daily in the temple, but before this spectacle they only watch in silence. Had they entertained any thought of action, they probably felt powerless before the forces of religion and government joined in the execution of Jesus.Silence. How could the crowd that had witnessed all of those things, how could they be silent at this moment?
There were also women there. They saw what was happening too. But they could do nothing but weep. Then we have the two criminals. Notice the one who seemingly had some faith in Jesus. We often hold this guy up on a pedestal, “Look at this man’s profession of Jesus.” But I want you also to notice when this profession finally took place. Why couldn’t he have acknowledged Jesus before that moment? Not far up on a cross out of the earshot of the Romans, but in the public square hours or days before?
All of those who are even marginally tied to Jesus in this story are silent. Simon carries the cross unwillingly. The crowds do not utter a word. The women only cry. The criminal on the cross gives his good confession only when such a statement cannot possibly do him any more harm.
In contrast to their deafening silence, those opposed to Jesus are anything but quiet. The rulers are loudly ridiculing Jesus. The soldiers are mocking Jesus in public. The people of God are quiet; the enemies of God are loud and boisterous. As the hero died for freedom, ultimate freedom, the people of God were silent.
One of the better-known statements of Jesus comes to us in verse 34: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” The placement of this statement in this text is rather curious. It is not altogether clear who the “them” is. For whom is Jesus asking forgiveness? The statement comes directly after the first mentioning of the two criminals who would be crucified next to Jesus. But I don’t think he is only asking for their forgiveness. Certainly, I believe he is including in that group the soldiers and his accusers. But is it possible that Jesus’ group of potential forgiven persons also includes other people?
- The crowds?
- The women?
- All of those who saw what was happening and did nothing?
- All of those who needed for this to happen, past and present and future, and remained silent?
- All those who know the events of that day, but live their lives as if nothing really happened?
- All those who enjoy the freedom given to them on that day, but respond through the actions of their lives, “Who cares anyway?”
I don’t mean to imply that no one cares about Jesus or His gospel message, because many do. A dear sister I knew, Jane Shaw, was closer to the end of her life than the beginning. Her health was failing. Her sight was leaving. Her children told her, “Quit driving.” She told them, “They gave me a license; it must be OK.” In spite of her advanced age and failing health, Jane kept quite busy. She used that license. She made the rounds each day. Visiting her peers who were no longer able to leave their homes, she went to their homes and talked to them about the days of their youth. She prayed with them, and their prayers changed over the years. These were not the prayers of strangers, these were the prayers of siblings who journeyed together in the family of faith for generations. She sang with them. On Sunday, she took communion to them. Jane Shaw cared—until the day she died—she really did.
So does Kathy Pierce. Kathy is a young single mother of three small children. I say “single,” but that is not technically true. She is married, but her husband is busy starting his career. He’s gone much of the time. Often gone before the children wake up, sometimes home after they go to bed. But as Kathy will tell you, “She is there the whole time.” Some of our young mothers may appreciate the sacrifice Kathy is making. At the end of a long day, she wants nothing more than to curl up on the couch or sit in a hot bath and just be silent and undisturbed. After dinner on Monday, she has already used her week’s energy. But in spite of her desire to retreat, she goes into the bedrooms of her children. She gathers them together and reads to them the stories of Abraham and David and Jesus, and she prays for each of them. She prays that they will never forget what Jesus did. She prays they will always care. She prays that they will be like their mother, because Kathy cares, she really does.
Every year my family travels to Branson, Missouri, a few times to visit my mother. And we often attend a few of the variety shows that have made that town famous. Men and women sing. Comedians make us laugh, especially our children. And we eat enough popcorn to make us sick, especially our children. I always know what to expect at the conclusion of these shows. It doesn’t matter if the show is a country music show or a rock-n-roll show. They all end the same way. The second to last song is always a gospel song. And the crowd is always appreciative of these songs. They applaud loudly. This is a very religious crowd. But the last song at every single show is a patriotic song. “God Bless the USA;” “I’m Proud to be An American;” “The Star Spangled Banner,” and without exception, at this point in the program, everyone stands. Everyone stands, acknowledging our common allegiance to America. As one people we all affirm that “We Care” about those American heroes who have given their lives for our freedom.
It’s not a bad idea to remember American heroes who have given their lives for our political and social freedom. In fact, as a student of American history, I would argue that is a good thing. But I would hope that those whose allegiance is primarily to Jesus of Nazareth will not forget the ultimate hero who gave his life for our spiritual freedom. And may we not be silent in our remembrance. When the world says, “Who cares anyway?” I would hope that we would all stand and boldly say with our words and most importantly through our actions, “I do. I care, I really care.”