Monday, April 05, 2010

Sermon on John 19:30, for Good Friday, "Beginnings and Endings...and Beginnings"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The death of Jesus Christ has a power and gravity all of its own. It has a way of wrenching us out of our own existence, our busy worlds, our self-absorbed lives—and plunking us right down in the middle of holy history. (paraphrased, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 53-54). Refocusing our attention on Christ crucified on the cross. In all other parts of history that we might choose to study or consider, we’re more or less spectators on the outside looking in. We played no active role, we merely witness what history has recorded. But the Good Friday story pulls us right out of our particular time and place and sets us down nearly 2,000 years ago outside the ancient walls of Jerusalem, and shows us that we are participants in this story.

Here we stand, at a hill far away, beneath an old, rugged cross. A scarred and ugly hill, marred by bloodstains of criminals; the wind scraped by the harsh gasps of suffering. Familiar only through the retelling of this story, we look on this barren scene of anguish and wonder—how can we be participants? Certainly none of us would want an innocent man to die—certainly none of us would approve this barbaric form of torture and capital punishment. No, here we must merely be observers to the story. Not participants. We did not cry for His death. We did not hammer the nails into His hands. Like I mentioned in the sermon on Palm Sunday, we would like to presume ourselves innocent of the matter. Disassociate ourselves with His sufferings.

I mean, at least God could forgive us if we weren’t the guilty parties that nailed His Son up there, right? If we can just free ourselves from that blame, then God would be able to love us, wouldn’t He? We weren’t really there when they crucified our Lord, anyhow. But the story of Good Friday pulls us with irresistible force to see our own guilt, our own participation there. And it teaches us that the way to forgiveness is not excusing ourselves from participation. God’s love and forgiveness isn’t limited to those who had no direct hand in His death, but Jesus forgave even those persecutors: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We find that our participation in Jesus’ death is far-reaching.

We’re participants in these ways: first, whether we wanted Him to die or not, it was our guilt that made His death necessary. Our sins were laid on Him at the cross. “He has born our griefs and carried our sorrows…He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed.” Seven centuries before Jesus was born, as Isaiah penned the famous words of this prophecy about Jesus—he felt the same compelling force of Good Friday that placed him and all of Israel as participants in this event. Our…our…our…we…So we must claim our responsibility, our participation in His death, if we are to be forgiven. Do not fear the guilt that is being taken away from you!! It is no longer yours, it is His! He bore it!

The second way in which we are participants in the cross, is how St. Paul writes: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” More than just being actively responsible in His death, we participate in His death! How is this possible? Through our baptism, through which we are crucified and raised with Christ. We find that our participation goes much deeper than our guilt. It goes also to the putting to death of our old sinful nature and desires at the cross. It goes to receiving Jesus’ innocence in exchange. His chastisement, the whipping, the punishment, the scorn—this brings us peace. His wounds and the stripes left by the whip and nails and spear bring us healing.

And this second aspect of our participation brings us insight into why we call this Friday “Good.” It gives us insight into why we can give thanks for such a terrible “ending.” Why the dying words of Jesus: “It is finished!” hold such freeing power and hope for us. Normally we celebrate beginnings and mourn endings. We celebrate births, baptisms, marriages, inaugurations, etc. We mourn job terminations, divorces, closings, death. So why isn’t this just another sad and mournful ending? “It is finished!” What is finished? What? Jesus’ life? The bitter wine He drank from the sponge?

What is finished is His suffering for our sin. The death-payment for our guilt and wrongdoing. The whole dark scene of sin that envelopes the world is finished. That Friday was consumed in darkness, both physical and spiritual as He hung on the cross. It was as if you had passed from broad daylight into a dark tunnel with no light. You know when you travel through a very long tunnel under a cold dark mountain, and there’s no visible daylight from either end? The closest thing we have in Hawaii is the Pali or H-3 tunnels on Oahu. Once you’ve entered, you can’t see daylight from either side—imagine all the lights off, and complete blackness. That was the darkness that Jesus entered into that day, because of sin. Everyone had lost hope, and couldn’t see the light of day on the other side. But He passed under that crushing mountain of sin, and came through to the other side, into the daylight, into the life on Easter morn.

When Jesus cried out into the dark abyss that surrounded Him: “It is finished!”, He had singlehandedly defeated sin. He had created a cosmic upset of powers, overthrowing Satan’s deathly grip on humanity because of our sin. With His dying gasps, He sacrificially wrenched us free from sin’s grip, and took the fall for us. “It is finished”—a single word in Greek: “Tetelestai”—means also it is “accomplished” or “completed.” There was nothing more to add to salvation, no human effort or achievement. Your salvation was finished on that tree, in that moment. Have you received that salvation by faith? Have you trusted that it’s now yours? When Jesus finished off the whole dark scene of sin, He opened our eyes to see a new life.

That turning point of history that inevitably draws us into participation at Jesus’ cross, opens our eyes to the light that comes through the other side. It clears our mind of the dark sin and guilt, and enables us to witness the vision of glory that Jesus has prepared for those who love Him and participate in His cross by faith and their baptism. On dark Good Friday, we see that this ending is not a mournful ending, but rather a new beginning. We’re given a vision of a brighter future and we see that God’s presence with us spans the dark times. Just as Jesus made it through the darkness and night to the light of day on the other side, so we are promised a new hope and a resurrection from the dead, when our bodies die and decay one day.

So we will be at the same time mournful of our participation in Jesus’ death and also joyful that we participate in His death. Mournful of our sins and the suffering it caused Him. Desiring to lead better lives in thankfulness to Him. But joyful that we participate in His death, because we have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us! Joyful that this ending—this “it is finished”—does not mean our end…but rather our new beginning. Tonight the dark scene begins to brighten. It is finished. Our tears glisten with hope, knowing that He who promised is faithful. In Jesus Name, Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

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