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A Journey With God: Cross Prayers

Luke 23:32-49

I want to tell you about two men, each of whom rode into a city to die and each of whom prayed the same prayer before dying …

80,000 people poured into the arena hungry for excitement and thirsty for blood. It was a Roman holiday in the fourth century and all of these thousands of people had turned out for the Roman equivalent of the Super Bowl—a day of chariot races and gladiator games. In those days, Christians were no longer thrown to the lions, but the brutal gladiator games were still a part of the culture. Men taken captive in war were brought to the arena and made to fight each other to the death for the entertainment of the spectators.

But this particular day was to be different from any other because in the crowd of 80,000 that day was a holy man named Telemachus. Telemachus was a devout Christian monk who years before had gone out into the desert intending to spend the rest of his life in solitude and prayer. But the longer he prayed, the more he began to realize that if he wanted to serve God then he should go into the city and minister to the needs of the people there. So as he then came riding into the city of Rome, he saw the people crowding into the arena. Curious, he followed them in and took a seat just as the chariot races began. He had never seen anything quite like it. He was amazed at the excitement of the people as the races were run. Then suddenly the crowd grew quiet. Telemachus watched as two gladiators marched out onto the floor of the arena and shouted their greeting to Caesar: “Hail, Caesar! We who are about to die salute you.” In moments then, the fight was on. Telemachus was appalled. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing—men for whom Christ died were killing each other for the amusement of the people. Telemachus felt that he had to do something to stop this madness. He climbed over the barrier, dropped to the arena floor, and ran over to position himself between the two gladiators. He wouldn’t let them continue to fight. The crowd began to chant: “Let the games go on! Let the games go on!” The gladiators pushed the old man aside, but he quickly jumped back between them. The crowd screamed: “Kill him!” The commander of the games looked to Caesar and Caesar gave the “thumbs down” sign. The gladiators raised their swords and as they did, Telemachus, in a voice that echoed around the stands, prayed: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” Then the swords flashed. Telemachus fell dead, and the sand on the floor ran red with his blood. The sight of that struck the crowd into stunned silence. You could have heard a pin drop. They were shocked that an innocent holy man was killed in such a brutal way. Suddenly, there was a collective realization of how horrible and how wrong that killing had been. In the silence, one man, disgusted, stood up and walked out, followed by another and another and another until the whole arena stood empty. The gladiator games ended abruptly that day and were never held again. One man, Telemachus, ended them forever. The spilling of his blood stopped the blood spilling of others. The giving of his life saved the lives of many. He did more in dying than he ever could have done in living. And when you know the story, you know where Telemachus found his inspiration and his courage. He got it from Jesus.

The story of Telemachus is a good one for us to remember on Palm Sunday because it reminds us of that other man who came riding into a city to die. In Palm Sunday triumph Jesus came riding into the Holy City, Jerusalem—and the following Friday He was nailed to the cross. On Palm Sunday, He came into the city determined to stand tall for what is right. On Good Friday, He died on the cross, giving His life, spilling His blood in order to save us all. Of course, as you know, the day He died on the cross He prayed the same prayer Telemachus would later repeat: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” But I want us to remember today that that prayer was actually one of three prayers He prayed from the cross—and I would contend that when you understand those three prayers, then you understand what the cross really means.

First, Jesus prayed from the cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

As Jesus prays this prayer, time stands still because it is one of the greatest moments in human history. It’s the picture of unconditional love. It’s the portrait of amazing grace. It’s the measuring stick for all human relationships. It’s the secret of joy and peace in the world. Carve into your consciousness the image of Jesus hanging there, nailed to a cross though He was totally innocent, and saying of those who nailed Him there: “Father, forgive them …”

Joe Smith was his name. He was a 15-year-old high school freshman. He was handsome, winsome, bright and committed to Christ. He could “light up a room” with his smile. Everybody loved Joe Smith. Then tragedy struck. It was the end of the year, and the high school yearbook had come out. It was Joe’s first yearbook and he was excited to get it. After school, he and his friends stayed in the cafeteria signing each other’s yearbooks. It was a happy moment. But when Joe came out of the cafeteria, one of his classmates, a guy named Tim, tried to snatch the yearbook out of Joe’s hands. Tim hadn’t been able to afford to buy a yearbook, so he decided to steal one. Tim doubled up his fist and swung as hard as he could. The blow slammed into Joe’s esophagus, collapsing it and Joe fell to the ground unconscious. They rushed Joe to the hospital but it was too late. He died on the operating table. Fifteen years old and he was dead because of a high school yearbook that cost $8.00.

That night there was a knock at the Smith’s front door. When they opened it, there was no one there but a note was wedged in the door. It read: “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Smith: I am so sorry that my son killed your son. I’m blind. My husband deserted me and I am trying to raise eight children all alone. I didn’t have $8.00 for a yearbook. Can you forgive? (signed) Tim’s mother.”

Tim was arrested. His mother couldn’t afford a lawyer. Do you know what happened? Joe’s parents paid for the attorney. When Tim was convicted and sent to the youth detention center, it was the Smiths who visited him and who took his mother to visit him. It was the Smiths who wrote him letters of encouragement. When he was released, the Smiths were there to pick him up and take him home to his mother. “Can you forgive?” Tim’s mother had asked. The Smiths could forgive because they had learned it from the One who prayed from the cross: “Father, forgive them.” That prayer reflects what the cross really means.

Next, Jesus prayed from the cross: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”

Some people read that and wish it weren’t in the Bible because it sounds so unlike Jesus. But a closer look reveals something priceless here.

I think that there is no doubt that Jesus, who knew the Old Testament Scriptures like the back of His hand, was here quoting the 22nd Psalm. That Psalm begins with these very words: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” And then, even though the Psalm was written hundreds of years before Good Friday it describes with amazing precision the events of that infamous day. Listen: “I am … scorned by others and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they shake their heads and say: ‘Let the Lord rescue the One in whom He delights’ … I am poured out like water and all my bones are out of joint, my heart is like wax, it is melted within my breast. My mouth is dry … my tongue sticks to my jaws … my hands and feet are pierced … they divide my clothes among themselves and for my clothing they cast lots.” Isn’t that amazing? What an accurate description of the crucifixion, written long before it happened. But then listen to the way the Psalm ends: “All the ends of the earth shall remember this and turn to the Lord. Future generations will be told about the Lord and proclaim His deliverance to people yet unborn.” So I think Jesus was praying the words of that Psalm to declare that He was the fulfillment of that prophetic Psalm which begins in suffering and ends in glory.

Now some say that a person dying in such agony would not be quoting Scripture. I know better. I am a pastor. I have found that when people are in pain that’s when they quote Scripture the most. Time and again, I have been at bedsides of pain, only to hear from the lips of the suffering one the 23rd Psalm or the Lord’s Prayer or John 3:16. It’s also interesting to note that in every prayer we have that Jesus prayed, including the other two He prayed from the cross, He always calls God “Father” except here, which probably means that He was quoting someone else’s prayer, namely, the 22nd Psalm.

Think about it. Here, at the precise moment when all of the sins of the world were laid upon Him, at the precise moment when He became the sacrificial Lamb to save us all, at the precise moment when He who knew no sin became sin for our sakes—at that precise moment He lifts up the words of the Psalm as a prayer to remind us that we are to turn to the Lord for our deliverance. So we don’t have to “reinvent the wheel” when it comes to salvation. We don’t have to chase after every fad that comes along. All we have to do is to take hold of those nail-scarred hands.

And then Jesus prayed from the cross: “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.”

Did you know that this was not the first time that Jesus prayed this prayer? We can be sure that He had prayed it hundreds of times as a child. You see, this was the bedtime prayer taught to little children in Biblical times. It was the first century version of “Now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” Jesus was reared by Godfearing parents. We can know without any doubt that for all the years of His childhood His parents saw to it that each night as He climbed into bed, He prayed: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” It was a prayer of total and complete trust. It was a prayer of total and complete confidence. Isn’t it fascinating to realize that on the cross just before His eyes closed in death, He prayed a prayer He had prayed as a child just before His eyes closed in sleep?

It’s a prayer you and I can pray as well, because we know that we can trust God. We know that God has the power to turn the agony of Good Friday into the ecstasy of Easter Sunday and that God has the power to take the cross, the emblem of suffering and shame, and turn it into the greatest symbol of victory the world has ever known. Who could ever say it better than this?

Love so amazing, so divine.
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

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