It’s happened more than once during my years as a pastor. A person will arrange to see me, at their wits’ end. Their faces show they’ve been spending sleepless nights. There’s desperation in their manner and in their words. Some will cry. Some will be numb with shame.
Their stories have differed: The woman who bilked her company of money. The man who turned his back on his parents, wife, and kids. The man who forced his wife to get an abortion. The woman who regretted her former relationship with a married man. But for all the differences in circumstances, these and others have had one thing in common: They didn’t believe that God could forgive them.
You and I know that God’s Word speaks to us in three major ways: as Law, Gospel, or the call to follow Jesus.
The Law convicts of our sin, the ways in which we show ourselves incapable of completely loving God or our neighbor. The Law tells us that we are sinners in need of the Savior Jesus. The Law can’t save us from sin, death, or futility because none of us is capable of perfect obedience to the commands to love God and love others. But when we hear God’s Law rightly, it will, as Martin Luther puts it, drive us to the foot of Jesus’ cross for forgiveness and reconciliation with God.
The Gospel is what God has done for us in Jesus’ suffering and death. On the cross, Jesus paid the penalty we deserve for our sin so that, as we repent and believe in Him, we are spared the awful price of separation from God. In Romans 5:8-20, the apostle Paul writes (this is from the Good News translation): “God has shown us how much he loves us—it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us! By his blood we are now put right with God; how much more, then, will we be saved by him from God's anger! We were God's enemies, but he made us his friends through the death of his Son. Now that we are God's friends, how much more will we be saved by Christ's life!” (Romans 5:8-10, GNT) It’s this Gospel--the good news of God’s great love given to us in Jesus and His cross-- and Holy Spirit-given faith in it, that saves us. As we repent and believe in Jesus, we can be assured that we are forgiven and that we are God’s own child.
The call to daily follow Jesus is described by Him in the Gospel of Luke: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) As the Holy Spirit empowers us to daily repent and believe in Jesus, we can be assured that we are walking with God, despite our faults and failures. If repentance before God in the name of Jesus doesn’t result for us in release and joy, there’s something wrong. Repentance always ends with joy!
The people I mentioned a moment ago weren’t experiencing the joy that results from repentance because, for whatever reason, they couldn’t hear the Gospel. They couldn’t hear Jesus when He said words like those in this month’s memory verse, John 3:17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” To them, God’s saving Word in Christ was for everybody else, not them. No matter how many times they heard the Gospel or received Holy Communion or were reminded that God had claimed them in Holy Baptism, they couldn’t accept that they were forgiven.
There’s a person like that in the Passion History, the history of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. It’s Judas. Jesus, you’ll remember says in Matthew 26:24, “The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born." In other words, Jesus was saying, “I was born to go to a cross, just as the Old Testament prophets said the Suffering Servant would do. But condemnation and sorrow will be on the man who chooses to be the instrument by which the Messiah is sent to the cross.”
In our reading tonight, we’re told: “When Judas, who had betrayed [Jesus], saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. ‘I have sinned,’ he said, ‘for I have betrayed innocent blood.’ ‘What is that to us?’ they replied. ‘That’s your responsibility.’ So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.” (Matthew 27:3-5)
The word translated here as remorse is, in the Greek in which it was originally written, μεταμεληθεὶς (metamelethes). It can be translated as repentance, but it’s not the usual word for this term. (That's metanoia, literally, change of mind). Whatever the word though, we can see that Judas regretted his sin of betraying the innocent Jesus to people intent on crucifying Him. Judas’s action was a failure to love God and love another. Sadly, Judas’s sense of guilt was so great that he committed suicide.
There are, for me, two great unanswered questions about Judas.
The first is why Judas fell into such despair over his sin. Judas had watched Jesus forgive hundreds of sinners. Judas had heard Jesus assure all the prodigals of the world, like you and me, that He had come into the world to seek and save sinners and welcome them back into the embrace of God. Why is it that, after realizing the wrong he had done, Judas could hear God’s Law, but couldn’t hear the Gospel? That's a mystery.
The second great unanswered question for me is whether, in those brief moments when Judas was suspended between life and death, he recalled the grace that Jesus bears for all sinners and, like the thief of the cross, would pray, “Lord, remember me in Your kingdom.”
Of course, I don’t know the answers to these two questions. But there are two things I know for sure.
One is this: We are never so lost in sin that Jesus can’t save us. His saving Gospel Word belongs to any and all who turn to Him. When God’s Word tells us, as it does more than once, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,” you can trust that as Gospel--good news--for you! (Romans 10:13)
The other thing I know is this. It’s always too early to give up on anyone. If there are people you know who are, like Judas, wallowing in guilt and shame, as long as they’re breathing, it won’t be too late for you to share the good news of forgiven sin through Jesus with them. Their regret can lead to joy. So, don’t give up on praying for or sharing the Gospel with anybody ever! They may come to know Jesus as God and Savior yet.
We all have done, do, and will do things that we regret. We are sinners. But we’re also the objects of God’s great love and forgiveness, given to us in Christ. Turn to Jesus and trust that, by His forgiving grace, you are reconciled with God now and always. Amen