Lectionary texts: Isaiah 52.13-53.12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 4.14-16, 5.7-9; John 18-19.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Remember, LORD, what has happened to us; look, and see our disgrace. You, LORD, reign forever; your throne endures from generation to generation. Why do you always forget us? Why do you forsake us so long? Restore us to yourself, LORD, that we may return; renew our days as of old unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure (Lamentations 5.1, 19-22).
The man was dying of cancer and he knew it. As the time of his death approached he became more and more fearful, even though he was a professed and devout Christian. For you see, like the psalmist in Psalm 51 he knew his transgressions only too well and his sin was ever before him, and that terrified him. He personifies the passage from Lamentations that I just read. That passage was written after the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem in 586 BC and burned down God’s Temple, the very place where the Jews believed heaven and earth intersected and God had come to dwell. As the writer makes clear, he and his people wonder if God had forgotten or forsaken them forever because of their sins. Like the man dying of cancer, they too knew their transgressions and their sin was ever before them. They had utterly failed to be the people God called them to be and now they were paying dearly for it. They were faced with the real and awful possibility that the Source and Author of all life had rejected and abandoned them forever, just as he had abandoned his Temple. This too is what the man dying of cancer feared.
Or take St. Peter in tonight’s gospel lesson. In his bravado he had bragged to Jesus that he would never abandon or desert him, only to do exactly that to save his own skin. In St. Peter, we see all the ugliness of the human condition—pride, fear, cowardice, and loss of integrity. We all can relate to St. Peter because we are just like him. We remember the times we failed to speak up for goodness and justice because we were afraid. We remember the times when we have denied our Lord in word and action because we wanted to be accepted and didn’t want to face the prospect of being ridiculed. Who does? We can relate when the other gospel writers tell us that after this massive collapse of truth, courage, and integrity, especially in the face of his earlier bravado, St. Peter went out and wept bitterly. When you have denied and separated yourself from the one who loves you and who has always been there for you, how can you possibly expect to be forgiven for something like that? It simply does not compute and it makes you afraid. The man dying of cancer surely would have understood.
And I suspect this is what many, if not most, of us fear. We know our transgressions and our sin is ever before us and that makes us terribly afraid. Each one of us carries secret sins so dark that we are terrified that someone might find out about them. We are convinced that those things are so wrong and so unforgivable that if found out, especially if God finds them out—which of course, God already has—that we will be justly condemned and rejected by God and others forever. Who could ever love someone like us who carry about our dark secrets? And so we usually do one of two things. We sometimes bury our secrets so thoroughly that we forget about them. We do this because the pain of carrying them with us on a daily basis is too great and terrible for us to bear. This strategy, of course, will not work because the knowledge of our repressed sins will continue to bubble up and manifest itself in the form of ongoing guilt or fear or alienation or a host of other psychological and/or physiological disorders, the way they did for the man dying of cancer. Satan uses all this to convince us that we are unlovable or beyond hope, and he will often appeal to our sense of justice. God or others could never love or accept someone as awful as you.
Or we do what sinful humanity has done since that sad and terrible scene in Garden that we read in Genesis 3. We hide from God or we come out to attack God and rid ourselves of him like the soldiers did in that other garden from tonight’s gospel lesson. We do this because while we know we can keep our darkest secrets hidden from others, we cannot keep them hidden from God and so we seek to attack and destroy him, as utterly futile as that might be. This is what many who reject God in all kinds of ways do. But if we are honest with ourselves, we know that jig is up and that God knows who we really are—and that scares us beyond our ability to describe or cope with. Perhaps you are one of these people I have just described, or some variation of it. Perhaps you are someone like the man dying of cancer who is terrified that you are beyond forgiveness or healing or reconciliation, even as you desperately seek it. If so, I encourage you to hear what God has to say to you in tonight’s Scripture lessons and with the Spirit’s help, really believe it because in it you will find the forgiveness, healing, hope, acceptance, reconciliation, and real peace that you desperately seek.
This brings us to the title of tonight’s sermon. What’s so “good” about Good Friday. Seen from one perspective, there’s nothing good about this day because all we can see is massive injustice and human cruelty at its finest. We see an innocent man being flogged within an inch of his life. Roman scourging was not just some ordinary beating. It involved using a whip with multiple tails, each have rock, bone, or other sharp materials attached to the end of each tail so that when it hit the flesh, it was designed to flay it open. Often people died from the 39 lashes themselves. But Jesus didn’t. No, he survived not only that but also having a crown of sharp thorns shoved down on his head so that he could be crucified as King of the Jews.
Then there was the crucifixion itself, which none of the four gospels offer any details, but which we know quite a bit about. The victim was taken to the place of execution carrying the crossbeam of his cross on his shoulders and with a placard of the crimes committed around his neck. Crucifixion involved nailing spikes into the victims wrists and then hoisting the crossbeam onto a pole already embedded in the ground onto which the victim’s feet would be nailed. To add to the humiliation, crucified people were stripped naked and then left to die. It was a slow and agonizing death because the weight of the body made it increasing impossible for the victim to breathe so he would have to push up with his feet to relieve the pressure around his lungs and grab some air. This trauma would eventually rupture the sacs of fluid around the lungs and the victim would drown in his own fluid. The whole process could literally take days. It was not a pretty sight to behold but behold it the Jews of Jesus’ day did and it is not unreasonable for us to believe that Jesus would have witnessed others being crucified so that he would have been familiar with its horror before his own crucifixion. But of course, looking at Good Friday in this manner is to look at it only from a human perspective and if that is all you can see, you likely will never understand why it’s called “good” because there is absolutely nothing good in what I have just described. Neither will you ever find the forgiveness and healing you seek.
But this is emphatically not what St. John and the other gospel writers are telling us about Jesus’ crucifixion. That’s why they do not detail his torture; they simply report it happened and that he had to suffer it. Instead, the gospel writers have something much, much better in mind. The massive injustice and extreme human cruelty—and the terrible, dark forces of evil behind it all—were simply means to a greater end. What the gospel writers want us to see in the death of Jesus is that this is how God is putting to rights all that has gone so terribly wrong with his good creation and its people—by becoming human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and taking on the full weight of God’s just and holy wrath on our sins and rebellion so as to spare us from having to experience it. Consequences for our sin often remains, and in some cases we have to deal with those consequences for the rest of our life. But we no longer have to fear bearing God’s terrible judgment on our sin and darkness and the total alienation and separation from God that accompanies that judgment because God himself has borne it for us. The gospel writers, each in his own way, are telling us that Good Friday is the decisive turning point of human history, that God has taken on himself all the awful consequences of sin, evil, and death, and defeated them decisively, but not yet completely (cf. Colossians 2.15). In quite subtle and sophisticated ways, St. John and the other gospel writers are telling us in the crucifixion narratives that the cross has reestablished God’s sovereign rule on earth as in heaven and that in dying for us, Jesus has become Lord.
But I do not want to focus on the kingdom aspect of the cross tonight. Instead, I want to focus on what must happen if we ever hope to follow Jesus in joyful and willing obedience, even in the face of our own suffering for his sake. For you see, if we ever hope to be a faithful follower of Jesus and do what he commands, we must first be convinced that we are forgiven those terrible and dark secrets we keep hidden and that God really will accept us for who we are (but who also loves us enough not to let us stay where we are). In other words, we have to be convinced that God really has made it possible for us to be reconciled to him so that we can have our relationship with him and others restored and enjoy real peace with God and others. When we know, really know, that God loves us despite who we are, that not even our darkest sins will keep us separated from God and his love for us, and that God will never abandon us, despite our massive rebellion against him, all the guilt, fear, and despair that we deal with and dehumanizes us will go away and we will find real healing and the wonder of forgiveness that is really undeserved. Without God’s forgiveness, without him bearing the consequences of our sin and the evil it produces, we can never hope to love or follow him in his kingdom work. We will be too busy dealing with our own guilt and despair.
We see God bearing the consequences of our sin and the forgiveness that flows from that illustrated in several places in our gospel narrative tonight and here I will point out just two. First, we see the innocent Jesus bearing the consequences of Barabbas, a murderer and insurrectionist. Barabbas, representing sinful humanity that deserves nothing but God’s wrath and condemnation, goes free while God himself bears his (and our) punishment. This explains the horror that Jesus the man felt in the garden of Gethsemane, which St. John does not report but which the other gospel writers do. We watch him sweating blood as he agonizes over having to bear the consequences of all the world’s evil and sin. It also explains the cry of dereliction in St. Matthew and St. Mark’s gospels. The terrible consequences of having to bear the weight of all our sin was so awful that for the first time Jesus knew what it was like to be separated from God, just like we do when our sin separates us from God. But if we stop there we miss the point. In bearing the consequences of our sin, God offers us forgiveness! We are not beyond hope! Jesus suffered God’s abandonment so that we would never have to worry about that again—ever!
Second, in St. John’s gospel we also see God’s forgiveness offered in Jesus’ last words on the cross. “It is finished.” What is “it” that was finished? St. John, always conscious of the creation narratives in Genesis, is telling us that the conditions for the new creation have been established by the Creator God himself embodied in Jesus. On Friday, the sixth day of the week in which he created humans and declared things to be very good, God himself has defeated evil, sin, and death by bearing the collective weight of human sin himself, thus taking care of the necessary conditions for forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation to be offered, the very things needed for us to follow Jesus in his kingdom work. All this is why we call Good Friday “good.”
And so we return to our story of the man dying from cancer. Without Good Friday, he would indeed be without hope, as would all of us. But Good Friday has come and the course of human history has been changed. Because of that, I was able to ask him what he was going to do with St. Paul’s great statement in Romans 8.1, “[Because of the cross] there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Either you are in Christ through faith or you are not. Either you believe the truth or you do not. Fortunately the dying man was able to wrestle with this and found forgiveness, healing and peace before he died. He was able to know that the love of God manifested on the cross is far greater than even his darkest and manifold sins and he died in the peace of God, thanks be to God!
What about you? Are you struggling tonight with issues of failure and darkness? Are you allowing Satan to whisper in your ear that you are no good and beyond any hope for God to love someone like you? Do you suffer guilt or fear or despair or alienation because like the dying man or the people of Jerusalem you don’t believe that God could possibly love the likes of you? Do you desperately seek healing and reconciliation with the Source and Author of all life but are afraid that you will get wrath and judgment instead? If so, listen to the stories of Jesus’ crucifixion and really come to grips with it. Dare to believe the great love you see poured out for you. Dare to believe that like Barabbas, Jesus is taking your place on the cross. Dare to hear the gracious words of Isaiah and Hebrews in tonight’s lessons that by his wounds you are healed and that you do not have to live life alone and afraid because you have God’s very Spirit living in you and shaping you slowly into the human God created you to be. Dare to believe the truth of St. Paul’s statement that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus and understand there are no exceptions to the great truth. None. Then let the healing forgiveness that you see flow from Christ’s side on the cross flow down on you so that by the power of the Spirit you might know what real healing and forgiveness are all about, just the way the dying man did and countless others have. Don’t succumb to the lies of the Evil One or your own broken fears. Look on the cross of Calvary and realize the one who is dying there is none other than God himself and he is doing so because he desperately wants you to feel his healing love and forgiveness so that he can equip you to help him bring in his kingdom and promised new creation. A God like that will never abandon you or remain aloof from your problems and hurts. And when, by God’s grace, you finally know what’s good about Good Friday, you really will have Good News, now and for all eternity. I pray that God grant each of us the grace to accept without reservation the wondrous love he offers to the whole world on Calvary.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.