A Skeptic Has Second Thoughts

“Seeing is believing!”

This is a creedal statement for the skeptic. We are all familiar with this statement, for in some ways we are all skeptics. We are skeptical of some people because they have been dishonest with us. We are skeptical of cars, appliances, and what not, because they did not perform well. There is even some skepticism in our Christian faith. So we pray, “Lord, I believe. Please help my unbelief.”

The priests, who were part of the crowd standing beneath Jesus’ cross, revealed their skepticism when they said, “Let him come down from the cross, and we will believe in him” (Matthew 27:42). Those were also the feelings of the Roman centurion who guarded Jesus, until he had second thoughts.

This army officer was a sergeant major who had seen many people die, but had never seen a person die as Jesus did. He had been in charge of Jesus, the prisoner, since the priests turned Him over to the Roman authorities. By his demeanor in the dying hours, Jesus witnessed to His righteousness. Rather than curse His enemies, Jesus prayed for them. He showed mercy to a fellow prisoner and promised him a heavenly home.

The centurion also witnessed God speaking in nature. The Bible tells us, “From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people. When the centurion, and those with him who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, ÔSurely he was the Son of God'” (Matthew 27:45, 51-54).

Enough was enough. These skeptics had second thoughts and concluded that Jesus was, as He had said, the Son of God. Do you remember what Jesus said, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself?” This was happening. You can be sure there were many who went home that night convinced Jesus was the Christ.

To a greater or lesser degree, all of us can identify with this centurion, who finally confessed that Jesus was the Son of God. No one hated Jesus more than Saul of Tarsus. He was not only thankful that Jesus had been crucified, but wanted all of his serious followers killed too. To accomplish this, Saul was making a full-time job out of bringing the scattered disciples back to Jerusalem to be persecuted and killed. But God intervened. While on his journey from Jerusalem to Damascus to bring back Christians to be persecuted, Christ confronted Saul. You can read the story of his conversion in Acts 9. Saul of Tarsus, better known to us as the Apostle Paul, became a new man and gave his life to Christ.

The same goes on today. There are millions of skeptics who were taught that Jesus is the Son of God, but walked away from Him. Who could believe that Jesus, dying on the cross and being raised from the dead, paid the price for my sin? the skeptic asked. Prove to me that He is God, and I will believe. Then the day came when the truths learned as a youth got your attention. You remember the peace that dwelt in the lives of your parents and grandparents, and how unsettled your own life was. Gradually you found your way back to the church, and began reading God’s Word. You were no longer 19 when you seemed to know it all. You were in your 40s, and you had experienced a good taste of life. You saw your weaknesses and need for help. You asked, What does this verse, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” mean?

This is not a fictitious story. The pews of our church are filled with such people who walked away from Christ, but came back when they saw their need for a Savior. Here we see the importance of sowing the seed in our children’s minds and hearts. The Sunday school and confirmation classes are more important today than ever as we see fewer and fewer homes assuming responsibility in introducing their children to Jesus Christ. If the homes are failing to introduce their sons and daughters to Jesus, the congregation has an even greater responsibility. We need not fear they will be bored in the classroom and become bitter with the church. Most of us would rather have been out on the playground than in the confirmation classroom learning the basic truths of Christian faith. Teach the children these Biblical truths through which the Holy Spirit works to give them second thoughts in the years to come! Let them walk with Christ in their subconscious minds, and see what will happen when they are spiritually destitute.

For those of you who have never heard the basic teachings of the Christian faith, let me summarize it for you.

1. You are created in the image of God. Among other things, this means you have a mind with which you can think, a will with which you can make a decision, and a soul that is eternal. In God’s eyes, you are a precious and important person, not because of your accomplishments, but because of who you are.

2. You are a rebel, a sinner. You used your mind and will to choose to live a life contrary to God’s will. This means that, by nature, you are out of a relationship with God. Unforgiven sin has separated you from your Creator.

3. God did not give up on you, but sent His Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to suffer, die, and be raised again as a payment for your sins. Full payment has been made for your sins.

4. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, if you will receive Christ as your Savior, He will take away all of your sins and restore you into a personal relationship with God. In this relationship with God, you seek to live according to His will, which is revealed in the Bible Ð your only authority in matters of faith and life.

You might react and say, I am thankful to have this summary of the Christian faith, but it does not make sense to me. May I suggest that you pray and invite Jesus into your life, and then begin to read His Word. I would suggest you get a Bible and turn to the Gospel of John. Find a Christian friend to help you understand its meaning. Attend a church where God’s Word is faithfully taught. Then see what happens to your life! Maybe you will come to the same conclusion the centurion did: Jesus is God’s Son, your Savior and Lord.

To those of us who are Christians, let me repeat what I said at the beginning of this sermon Ð that, to a greater or lesser degree, we can all identify with the skeptic. We have our questions.

Here are a few:

Why did my loved one die prematurely?

Why must I suffer?

Why does God permit all of this unrighteousness in the world?

Why do all of these earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes happen?

Why are there famines and terrible diseases in the underprivileged parts of the world?

By asking these questions, are we not asking, God, how do you explain your teaching that you love all people in the world, and still these difficult times come to all of us? Is this not a form of skepticism showing through? It does not mean that we are unbelievers. We trust and love Christ, but we continue to wonder what the explanation is for these apparent discrepancies. St. Paul helps us when he says, “Now I know in part. Some day I will fully understand.”

This centurion, who had second thoughts about Jesus, brings us great joy! Any skepticism about Christ, be it great or small, can be overcome when the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives through God’s Word. Remember that the centurion received his second thoughts about Christ at the foot of the cross. That’s where most of these second thoughts come to us.

Let Christ be lifted up in our own lives, in our churches, and in our communities, and there will be many second thoughts which lead to spiritual awakenings.

The Tears of the Women

Jesus is generally presented as a messenger of hope, love, peace and forgiveness. We think of His words, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) We love His assuring statement, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes Him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24). There is comfort in hearing Jesus tell us,

“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).

These are His words of comfort and peace. But today we have another word from Jesus that is stern, one that is frightening and makes us uncomfortable! We don’t like it as well as the others.

Jesus is on His way to the cross. He has been condemned to die by Pilate, beaten and spat on by Roman soldiers, and mocked by the religious leaders. A large crowd followed Him to the cross. Among them were women. Some of these women were Jesus’ followers. One can only assume that Mary and Martha from Bethany must have been there. Then there were Mary, the mother of James; Mary Magdalene; and Salome. These women were at the tomb on Easter. Certainly they were witnesses of Jesus’ crucifixion. We can also assume that some of these women were not followers of Christ. They could have heard their husbands talk about Jesus in a derogatory way, and agreed that He had to be silenced. But whether they were believers or not, they were emotionally overwhelmed with the barbaric practice of execution.

Nothing could be worse than death by crucifixion, so the Bible said they mourned and wailed.

Jesus turned and said to the crying women, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ÔBlessed are the barren women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed'” (Luke 23:28-29). These are stern words that some might consider out of character for Jesus to speak. They are condemning and judgmental. Could such a message come from the lips of our Lord?

To what was Jesus referring when He spoke of difficult days? Was He pointing to the fall of Jerusalem? Philip Schaff, a church historian, wrote in 1888, “There is scarcely another period in history so full of vice, corruption, and moral decay as the six years between the Neuronian persecution in 64 A.D. and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. This period was so corrupt that the Jewish people rebelled and showed tremendous courage in resisting the Roman Empire. Besides the thousands who died in the Jewish war, thousands more died from famine and disease. Finally, on the 17th of July 70 A.D., the daily sacrifices at the Temple ceased, and thousands of Jews died around the altar. Jerusalem was burned on August 10, 70 A.D., and by September 8, all of the city was destroyed.”

Josephus, another historian who lived in Jesus’ day, writes, “There remains nothing to make those who come to Jerusalem believe the place had ever been inhabited.”

These could well have been the years to which Jesus referred when He told them not to cry for Him, but for themselves and their children.

Now we live more than 110 years after Philip Schaff. Have these later years known worse destruction of lives and property than the destruction of Jerusalem? After all, in the last two generations we have witnessed people dying by the millions. I refer to such events as the explosions at Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Holocaust in German concentration camps.

It is not for us to argue if today has greater corruption and moral decay than in the Roman Empire. We know it is plenty bad today, and this is our greatest concern, especially when Jesus warns about a coming judgment. God does not wink at sin. He will forgive sin, but He will not condone it.

However, there is a final judgment far worse than any known to humankind. It is the judgment scene at that hour of death when the individual stands before his or her Creator. What do we do with our sin at that time? The Bible says there is that judgment when our Lord comes at the end of the world to “judge the living and the dead,” as we confess in the Apostles’ Creed. Hear once more Christ’s promise, “Whoever hears my words and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death into life” (John 5:24).

Believers in Christ Jesus will escape this final judgment. But those outside of Christ stand before the Almighty clothed, at best, with their own righteousness, which will not be adequate. Then comes the judgment.

Reading this, some will say, Sounds like old-fashioned, hell-fire preaching, doesn’t it? Doesn’t that preacher know modern humans cannot be scared into heaven? This approach is not effective. Best we leave this approach with the extreme fundamentalists, whose audience is less educated than we folks, who occasionally worship in main-line Protestant churches and want to be edified and not threatened.

The voices that speak these words are common among us, but it is this stern message of Jesus regarding sin and judgment that makes the cross necessary if humans want to be saved. Either we have to pay for our own sins, or Jesus has to pay the price for us. He has paid this price through His sacrificial suffering and death, and offers this redemption to all who will receive Him.

Our Lord wants no one to be condemned. Remember how Jesus sat on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Holy City and said,” O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ÔBlessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord'”Ê(Matthew 23:37-39).

Those words He speaks to every generation. He does not want to condemn. He does not like to deliver these stern words. He would far rather proclaim the good news of salvation in Him. His favorite message is, “He who comes to me, I will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37). He stands knocking at our heart’s door; but empowered by the Holy Spirit, we must let Him in to our lives.

The women cried, and who of us would not cry to witness such a torturous act as a crucifixion! But the greater sadness is to see Christ rejected by those for whom He died.

Look at our nation as a whole: we rejoice over our advancements in science and technology. We are living longer than ever before. We have money to spend. We are served by all of these new inventions.

But look at our nation spiritually and we see there is reason to mourn. Of course, there are many who confess Jesus as Savior and Lord. Their witness is strong. There are spiritual awakenings. But the Lord who spoke to the Roman Empire and its corruption speaks to our populace, and says to the millions who reject Him, “Repent and receive Me.” This is the Lenten message.

The Jeers and Assaults of the Crowd

Many parts of the Christian message warm our hearts and send us on our way as confident people, knowing that, in Christ, all is well. Let’s review some of these great Biblical lessons.

The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). This son had walked away from the family. He had spent all of his money and was destitute. Then he decides to go to his father. When the father sees the prodigal coming, he runs to meet him saying, “My son who was dead is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate. These words lift our spirits when we think of a loved one away from any kind of relationship with God. It tells us there is still hope. God will receive him or her. Who are we to give up on this person?

There is the story of Zacchaeus, who was a corrupt tax collector (Luke 19:1-10). The people hated him. Jesus spent time with Zacchaeus and changed his life. With the converted tax collector by His side, Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this man’s house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” When we feel hopelessly lost, God sends us a message, I can and will change your life. Come to me.

There are the inspired words of St. Paul, who said, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. ÔWhere, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Corinthians 15:54-47). This is the basis for our comfort as we walk away from the cemetery having buried a loved one.

These are some of the great truths of the Christian faith. But they have not come to us without a price. In order for us to know:

*Our sins can be forgiven,

*We can live and die in a personal relationship with God,

*We can be assured of a heavenly home,

*God had to send His Son to suffer and die at the cross as a payment for our sins.

The price was astronomical. As Peter says, “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (I Peter 1:18-19).

Scripture gives us a glimpse of what Jesus went through on His way to the cross. For three years Jesus had walked among His people telling them who He was and why He had come. It was His claims about Himself that irritated the religious leaders. Jesus had healed and rescued many people during His three-year ministry. Now the people around the cross are saying, “He saved others, but He can’t save Himself. He’s the King of Israel! Come on down from the cross and we will believe in Him” (Matthew 27:42).

Others said, “He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ÔI am the Son of God.'” He was mocked by the religious leaders, spat on, and struck by the Roman soldiers. But it was not only the religious leaders and soldiers who mocked Him.

Matthew tells us, “Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, ÔYou are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God” (Matthew 27:39-40).

Play back these words in our minds and we see visitors in Jerusalem who had heard bits and pieces of what was happening to Jesus say, We know religion is good, and we all ought to have some of it. But even religion can be carried too far. Look at that poor man. He must have some ability, but He has let His convictions get the best of Him.

He is too proud to recant, and so He is going to die this terrible death. Another life is wasted. If honest, can you identify with some of this thinking? After all, Jesus made some strong statements that people do not like in a society where tolerance is a primary virtue. He said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” He claims to be the Savior of the world. Even good members of the church will say, Such a statement is divisive. It divides friends and family members. Why not be broad-minded and say all religions are equally as good? The Jews have their religion, the Moslems have their beliefs, and we have ours. There is only one God. Who are we to say that Jesus is the way?

Jesus not only taught He was the way. He instructed His disciples to go and spread this Gospel. So we read about John and Peter telling the folks at the Temple, “There is salvation in no other name than in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:12). It is when the Church begins to evangelize Ð making it clear that in Christ alone we are saved Ð that it is confronted with strong opposition. When we deny this teaching, that Christ is the only Savior, are we not thinking like those people who stood at the cross the day Jesus died?

No, we answer, we believe what He said is true for us. We would never mock Him. We just think His teachings are a bit too exclusive for an enlightened age like ours. Our world has grown so much smaller in two thousand years. We must make allowances for others.

Here is another strong statement of our Lord, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ÔShow us the Father?’ Don’t you believe I am in the Father, and the Father is in me” (John 14:9-10)?

He also said, “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30) These words serve as a basis for the Church’s teaching that Jesus is God.

Here again this teaching is too strong for popular acceptance in our culture. Why not say, Jesus is our Master or Jesus is our role model. That leaves room for others like Moses, Mohammed, Buddha. But Jesus claims to be God, and Christians receive Him as the Lord of their lives.

Jesus says, “I am going to prepare a place for you that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2). Christians live with the assurance of their salvation, because Jesus has promised them a heavenly home which is eternal. And yet, when some church members are asked, Have you come to that place in your spiritual life where you know for sure that if you died today you would go to heaven?, many answer, I hope so. Then they will ask, How sure can we be about life after death? No one has come back to tell us about it.

Teachings like these sent Jesus to the cross. Teachings like these are stumbling blocks for many today, but the Church must be faithful to the Scriptures. The Bible is our only authority in matters of faith and life. God has limited us to proclaim faithfully what has been revealed to us. Take away these inspired truths and there is no basis for our faith. Therefore, there will always be tension between the Church when it is faithful and the society in which it finds itself.

The jeers have come from the crowd in every generation when Jesus is presented as Savior and God. Let the Church succumb to these jeers and comply to a form of Christianity ordered up by our culture, and it is no longer the Church of the New Testament.

In spite of strong criticisms, the Church believers in Christ Jesus) says, Thank you, Lord, for my salvation. I receive you as my Savior and Lord, grateful for your daily presence in my life and the assurance of a place in heaven when I die. While these truths go beyond my understanding, I accept them in faith as the foundation upon which I build my life.

Our salvation cost Jesus Christ His life. He died vicariously for you and me. If we will receive Him as our Savior and Lord, He brings us into a personal relationship with God. Pretty heavy, isn’t it? Yes, it is, but what a message!

In God’s eyes you are precious and important to God, not because of what you have accomplished in life, but because of who you are. That’s why He was willing to die for you.

Simon, the Cross Bearer

The forty days of Lent provide us with a marvelous opportunity to look aÊbit more soberly at the price Jesus paid for our salvation. The account of Jesus’ suffering and death can be summarized in a few words. TheÊApostles’ Creed uses eleven words to tell us, “He suffered underÊPontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” The Nicene CreedÊwas written in the fourth century and in fifteen words told the RomanÊemperor how Christ atoned for humanity’s sins. “For our sake he wasÊcrucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.”

However, the Gospel writers tell us the details of those horrible hours.ÊThese inspired writings introduce us to some of the people who made upÊthe crowd assembled at Golgotha’s hill where Jesus died. One of theÊpeople in the crowd was Simon of Cyrene.

Cyrene was an important city of Lida in North Africa that had a largeÊJewish population. One of its citizens named Simon was in Jerusalem toÊcelebrate the Jewish Passover. As he stood by the side of the road,ÊJesus, accompanied by the Roman soldiers, passed by. The Lord wasÊcarrying His cross on which He would be crucified. One of the beamsÊweighed about 30 to 40 pounds. Exhausted by the beatings He hadÊendured and the long, uphill walk to the place of execution, JesusÊcollapsed. At that time, a Roman soldier forced Simon to carry the cross.ÊIt could have irritated Simon. To visit Jerusalem was the experience of aÊlifetime for Simon. He had dreamed of the day when he would celebrateÊthe Passover in Jerusalem. Now Roman soldiers had forced him to carryÊthe cross of a criminal.

While carrying Jesus’ cross, something was happening in the mind andÊsoul of this man from Cyrene. He was attracted to Jesus. This personÊwas different. In severe pain, He looked down from the cross and madeÊpreparation for His mother’s care. He looked out over a crowd who wasÊshowing its hate for Jesus and asked God to forgive them. He looked toÊHis side and assured a criminal that today he would be with Him inÊParadise.

Did Simon leave Jerusalem after the Passover as one of Christ’sÊfollowers? Was he in the process of being converted? Had he become aÊChristian? There is no one sentence that would tell us Simon had beenÊconverted, but there is strong support that Simon did become a discipleÊof Jesus. We have to piece his story together, and when we do, there isÊstrong evidence to suggest the Holy Spirit brought Simon to confessÊChrist as his Savior.

Here is some of the evidence that is used to bring us to this conclusion.

Ê

Mark, in his Gospel, says, “A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the fatherÊof Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country,Êand they forced him to carry the cross.” Let me quote from twoÊprominent Biblical theologians.

Dr. R.C. Lenski writes, “Although Rufus is a common name, we are safeÊin regarding this Rufus as one of the sons of Simon. Mark wrote hisÊGospel a few years after Paul wrote the book of Romans and inserts thatÊSimon was the father of Rufus and Alexander. It is very likely that MarkÊwrote this Gospel in Rome for the Romans. He named Simon’s sonÊbecause the Romans knew them and had at least Rufus and his mother as members of their congregation. Simon, the father, must have died, and Alexander was either dead or lived in some other place.”

Another Biblical theologian, William Barclay, believes Simon was one ofÊthe Christian teachers at Antioch. Putting this together, it is a common viewpoint in the Church that Simon became a Christian and raised hisÊfamily in the Christian faith. This brings us a powerful message.

As we learn from Simon and his relationship with Christ, are we not muchÊlike him? When do we really get serious about Jesus and ourÊrelationship with Him. Is it when good things happen to us? I am sureÊthis is true in some cases. We are thankful for the Lord’s blessings. WeÊstop to thank Him for His goodness, and it draws us into a closerÊrelationship with God. But let’s go a bit further. For many of us, is it notÊmore often when we live with heartache, disappointment, and grief thatÊwe begin to look more seriously at life and wonder where God fits intoÊthe picture? Much of what we had counted on to bring us peace and joyÊhas failed us in the end.

Our material wealth has provided us with the necessities of life and manyÊpleasures, but we have learned there are many things our money will not buy.

When we have been successful in reaching our life’s goals, what are ourÊnew challenges that make life worth living?

When we boast about living for 70 years and never being a hospitalÊpatient, how do we handle the news that it’s time for bypass surgery andÊwe must adjust our lifestyle to accommodate our physical strength. What do I do when my spouse of 10 years has decided that he or sheÊdoesn’t love me anymore and wants out of our marriage? To whom do I turn when my children have forgotten me and seldomÊcome to call on me?

How do I forgive myself for making a mess out of my life? We learn that Christ has the answer to life’s more serious problems. When our souls are filled with guilt, He offers us forgiveness. When life draws to a close, He assures us of a Heavenly home. When humans fail us, He promises never to fail or forsake us.When we have made mistakes, He tells us it’s never too late to start over.When life is boring, He gives us new challenges.

Many crosses can be added to our life’s journey, but Jesus hasÊpromised, “Cast all of your cares on me, I care for you.” If you are aÊChristian, live with that promise. If you are not a Christian, receive ChristÊas your Savior and experience with Simon of Cyrene the joy of walkingÊwith Him each day. First, a peace that passes all understanding will fillÊyour soul. Then, you will have a story to tell to the nations.ÊAmen.