Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion, 14 April 2019
A Sermon on Luke 23:1-49 by Samuel Zumwalt, STS

Luke 23:1-49 English Standard Version, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers]

[The congregation remains seated.]

Then the whole company of them arose and brought him before Pilate. 2 And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.” 3 And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” 4 Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.” 5 But they were urgent, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place.”

6 When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. 7 And when he learned that he belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him over to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. 8 When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see him, because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him. 9 So he questioned him at some length, but he made no answer. 10 The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. 11 And Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him. Then, arraying him in splendid clothing, he sent him back to Pilate. 12 And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other.

13 Pilate then called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, 14 and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. And after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. 15 Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him. 16 I will therefore punish and release him.”

18 But they all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas”— 19 a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder. 20 Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus, 21 but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” 22 A third time he said to them, “Why? What evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.” 23 But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. 24 So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted. 25 He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will.

26 And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus. 27 And there followed him a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him. 28 But turning to them Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ 30 Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ 31 For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” [Please stand.]

32 Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. 35 And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

44 It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45 while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. [Pause.] 47 Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” 48 And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. 49 And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things. The Passion of the Lord.


Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

All of us are, by nature, evil doers. That is the truth about ourselves that we must face again and again. When we are placed next to God’s beloved Son Jesus, like the two evil doers, we are exposed as we are. Under the glaring Light of God’s innocent Son, every flaw in us becomes apparent. Next to Jesus, we can no longer hide beneath all the deceptive age-defying tricks we employ. Even the youngest, healthiest, and most beautiful young woman or man, small girl or boy, cannot hide the truth about ourselves. We do evil.

You and I are hanging next to Jesus. That is the truth about us. We are all dying. We just don’t know when. Today could be the day. We might try to pretend otherwise. Most of us do. We might say, “I eat right. I exercise right. I take good care of my relationships. I work hard. I work a good program.” All of that might be true, but there is a lot of self-deception going on in the midst of that. Put an asterisk by it all. The asterisk means, “God will be God. I will not be God. His Word, not mine, is Truth.”

One of my seminary professors used to say that when we are disagreeing with a Christian sister or brother in matters of doctrine or ethics, we must never forget that we stand under the same condemnation of God’s Law. Even though one might be convinced he or she is in the right, one remains in the flesh. One still remains in this body of death, and is, therefore, due to receive the same death, the wage of sin.

In a book from 2005 entitled “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Eyes of American Teenagers,” sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton gave a name to the beliefs of most American teenagers: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

Baptist professor, Albert Mohler, summarized their findings in this way: “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism consists of beliefs like these: 1. “A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.” 2. “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.” 3. “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.” 4. “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.” 5. “Good people go to heaven when they die.”

“That, in sum, is the creed to which much adolescent faith can be reduced. After conducting more than 3,000 interviews with American adolescents, the researchers reported that, when it came to the most crucial questions of faith and beliefs, many adolescents responded with a shrug and ‘whatever.’”

Those adolescent beliefs did not emerge in a vacuum. They were taught. They were modeled. They were lived by parents, grandparents, pastors, church workers, and teachers – all of whom practiced Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Some even called it Christianity. It is not. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism cannot save.

This is the week that tells us plainly what Christianity is: The one true God hates sin, but He loves sinners. His Son, the eternal Word of God, who was born of the Virgin Mary, is truly God and truly Human. He battles Satan for every square inch of this earth and for us sinners. Jesus lives the life of total obedience to His Father even unto death on a cross to destroy death and to win the victory over sin and Satan. On the cross, He dies innocently the death we deserve. He joyfully served us in His suffering and dying. With a rightly deserved death facing you and me, we are hanging next to Jesus. The question is: which evil doer am I? Which evil doer are you?

The one evil doer joins the crowd in mocking Jesus. He mocks the sign over Jesus’ head which reads: “The King of the Jews.” To his dying breath, someone else is to blame for all that has gone wrong in his life. To his dying breath, he cannot admit the truth about himself. Like those who believe in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, he cannot understand why God isn’t keeping him from being punished to death.

You may have read about my former parishioner Pat, who had two neighbors in their 90s, who refused to the end of their life to admit they needed God. They thought it was more honorable to hold onto their atheism even when they were facing death. Pat lovingly asked them: “What if you are wrong? What if there is a God, whom you will face to give an account of your life? What if you die refusing His help?”
Pat was reminding them, as the sinner she knew she was, that they needed a Savior. Like the bitter criminal on the cross, her neighbors were mocking God even when their deaths were imminent.

You and I are hanging next to Jesus. We are nearer to death than we want to admit. The bell is tolling. You are not innocent. I am not innocent. We are evil doers, sinful and unclean, apart from Christ.

The other criminal, whom the early Church named Dismas, admitted the truth about Jesus and the truth about himself. Dismas knew that Jesus was without sin. Dismas knew he was looking at the King of the Jews. Dismas knew Jesus could do something about the death Dismas was about to die. Dismas said: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”

You and I are hanging next to Jesus. That is the truth Holy Week reminds us every year. When I die, I will die because I am a sinner, and the wages of my sin are a well-deserved death. I may die a painful death as my father died from lung cancer. I may die suddenly and very unexpectedly. I have lived already 19 years longer than my brother. I have lived three years longer than my father. I have lived fourteen years longer than my mother-in-law. As a pastor, I have lived decades longer than the youngest persons I have buried. When I die, I will die because the wages of sin are my well-deserved death. No excuses.

This week is the heart of our faith. This week, we remember what St. Paul wrote: “If for this life only we have hope in Christ, we are, of all people, most to be pitied.” Because I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, born of the Virgin Mary, I believe that in my Baptism I was crucified with Christ. Now daily I return to my Baptism to remind myself I am hanging with Christ like Dismas, who actually was crucified with Christ. My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. No merit of my own I claim but solely lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ, the solid Rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand” (Edward Mote, 1834, British Baptist pastor).

If you have not been baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection, please speak with me after worship. You need Jesus to be your Savior and Redeemer. So, do I. That will be true of me until I draw my last breath.

If you have been baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection, return to your Baptism today and confess, like Dismas, that you need Jesus to save you… not once, but every day. You and I will be hanging on the cross beside Jesus until the day we draw our last breath. We do not want to go to our death mocking Him like the other criminal. We need His forgiveness of sins, His promise of life and salvation every day.

This is the most important week of every year. We call it Holy Week, because it is set apart from all the other weeks of the year. This is the week we walk with Jesus daily to His cross and ours. If there is someone you know who doesn’t know Jesus and doesn’t believe he or she needs saving or, perhaps, even believes he or she is too far gone to be saved and redeemed, pray for them. Ask them to attend worship with you. In fact, invite them to worship every day this week at noon as we listen to the story of salvation. If you can’t worship every day, then be here Thursday, Friday, Saturday night, and Sunday. This is the heart of our faith. This is what Christians believe.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a lie. We will not be saved by our good works. We do need Jesus to save us every day from sin, death, and the old evil one. Do not hang alone. Hang with Jesus, and you will go to your death with His words to Dismas ringing in your ears: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”

In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

©The Rev. Dr. Samuel David Zumwalt, STS
St. Matthew’s Ev. Lutheran Church
Wilmington, North Carolina USA

Bulletin Insert
Joyful Service: In the Suffering


“Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen” (The Daily Prayer of the Church, 1087).


Luke 23:33 “And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him….”

St. Cyril [5th century Patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt]: “It is written again, ‘Cursed is every one that hangs on a tree.’ His act did away with the curse that was on us. We are blessed with him and because of him…Blessings descend to us by his sufferings. He paid our debts in our place. He bore our sins. He was stricken in our place, as it is written, He took our sins in his own body on the tree, because it is true that his bruises heal us. He also was sick because of our sins, and we are delivered from the sicknesses of the soul” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Luke, 360).

Luke 23:34 “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do….”

St. Augustine [late 4th – early 5th century Bishop of Hippo Regius, Algeria]: “Look at the Lord who did precisely what he commanded. After so many things the godless Jews committed against him, repaying him evil for good … He prayed as man, and as God with the Father, he heard the prayer. Even now he prays in us, for us and is prayed to by us. He prays in us as our high priest. He prays for us as our head. He is prayed to by us as our God. When he was praying as he hung on the cross, he could see and foresee. He could see all his enemies. He could foresee that many of them would become his friends” (361).

Luke 23:42 “…Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

St. Cyril of Alexandria: “Let us look at his most beautiful confession of faith. He says, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom.’ You see him crucified and call him a king. You expect the One who bears scorn and suffering to come in godlike glory. You see him surrounded by a Jewish crowd, the wicked gang of the Pharisees, and Pilate’s band of soldiers. All of these were mocking him, and no one confessed him” (364).

Luke 23:44 “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

St. John Chrysostom [late 4th – early 5th century Patriarch of Constantinople]: “In the beginning, God shaped man, and man was an image of the Father and the Son. God said, ‘Let us make man to our image and likeness.’ Again, when he wished to bring the thief into paradise, he immediately spoke the word and brought him in. Christ did not need to pray to do this, although he had kept all people after Adam from entering there. God put there the flaming sword to guard Paradise. By his authority, Christ opened paradise and brought in the thief” (364-365).


1. Do I believe that everyone I love and I deserve to suffer and die for our sins? If not, why?

2. Do I trust that Christ opens the door to Paradise for all who repent and are baptized?


The Sacrament of the Altar (from Martin Luther’s Small Catechism)

As the head of the family should teach it in a simple way to his household.

What is the benefit of this eating and drinking?

“These words, ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,’ show us that in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us through these words. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”

How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things?

“Certainly not just eating and drinking do these things, but the words written here: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ These words, along with the bodily eating and drinking, are the main thing in the Sacrament. Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: ‘forgiveness of sins.’”


1. Pray for every unbaptized child you know and for the child’s parents, too.

2. Pray for your unchurched loved ones and friends. Invite one or more of them to worship.

3. Discuss with your spouse, your family, or a friend what it means to take the Lord Jesus at His word of promise. How does rationalism (trying to explain how this could be so) is actually nothing more than a sophisticated form of unbelief that refuses to hear Christ’s promise and, thus, makes the sacrament simply a family bonding experience without forgiveness, life, or salvation.

4. Whether you were an infant in arms, a child, a teen, or an adult, stop to ponder what you brought to the font when you were baptized. The answer? Your sin and your death. If you haven’t been baptized or your child hasn’t been baptized, ask. Holy Baptism at the Easter Vigil is amazing.

5. Set aside time daily, preferably first thing, but when you are able to focus, to hear the Word of God, to reflect upon that Word, and to ask the Holy Spirit to grant you grace to be shaped by and conformed to that Word. Daily devotions are available by email, on St. Matthew’s Facebook page, and on the home page at

For Husbands and Wives

Repeat daily: “I (name) take you (name) to be my wedded wife (husband), to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish until death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I pledge you my faith.”