March 30, 2018

Good Friday Service

crown of thorns

Crown of thorns made by the late Jim Greer

Preached by Rev. George Yando on March 30, 2018.

Isaiah 52: 13 – 53: 12
Psalm 22
John 19: 17-30

Listen to this sermon

The Ultimate Mystery

I invite you this morning to explore with me an ancient story, a mystery: the story of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ.  It is a story recorded by all of the Gospel writers.  This morning we read from John’s account.  It may be helpful to remember that John was the last of the four gospel accounts to be recorded.  In many ways his account is very different from the earlier three versions.  John’s is the most theological, the most thoughtful in terms of his attempts to record, not just the words and actions of Jesus, but also to offer a kind of commentary by way of explanation.   In the crucifixion of Jesus, John sees the person and purpose of Christ revealed.  Let’s review John’s description of the events of that long ago and far away day and meet this Christ.

The gospel writer John tells us, “So the soldiers took charge of Jesus.  And carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. (John 19: 16 – 17, NRSV)  Evidently something about the site resembled a human skull.

I’ve never been to the Holy Land, but those who have gone to Jerusalem and visited the “Garden Tomb” site, tell me that the description has meaning.  Apparently, just outside the ancient city walls of Old Jerusalem, at the site of an old stone quarry, is a hill.  It is said that if you stand and look at one of the rock faces on the side of that hill, you can see two indentations in the stone and an outcropping of rock that together look like eye sockets and a nose.  Perhaps it was this resemblance to a skull that gave the site its name.

But for John, more than a physical resemblance was intended.  This place was called Golgotha, because it was a place of death, a “skull” place, symbolic of human death and decay.  The sign of a skull, long a symbol of death.  Think of the image of a skull and crossed bones.   We use it to label poison.  Pirates used it on their flags to signal their evil intentions, their lack of mercy, as a sign designed to instill fear into the hearts of others. Here at Golgotha, the symbol was real, the fear justifed.  This was called “the place of the skull,” and not simply because of the shape of the rock outcroppings.  This was a place of death.  It was here that Jesus would die.

John tells us that Jesus was led out “carrying his own cross.”  (John 19: 17)  No mention is made by John of Jesus’ falling and another being forced to take his place.  For John it is important that Jesus walk the way of the cross alone, that he bear the instrument of His own sacrifice alone.  Just as Isaac in the Old Testament was to be sacrificed by his father, Abraham, so will Jesus be — only this time there will be no reprieve, no ram caught in the bushes to be offered up in His stead.   Jesus must bear the cross alone, and in so doing , show us that he will also bear the sins of all humanity.

John goes on: “Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’”  Pilate had ordered it put there — not as a testimony, but, I think, as a sign of his contempt of the Jews.  They were so troublesome.  Attempts to placate them only brought forth righteous pronouncements that “God was their king, not Caesar.”  So to poke fun at them, Pilate had that sign put there, proclaiming that Jesus was King of the Jews.

Next, notice the soldiers, busy with their usual pastime, dividing up the spoils. It’s an expression that has stood through time: “To the victor belongs the spoils.”  However in this case there was little to fight over: some garments, little better than rags, and a robe, for which the soldiers cast lots.  But in doing so, the soldiers became part of Scripture’s fulfillment.  In Psalm 22, the writer speaks of the Messiah to come as One whose hands and feet will be pierced, whose garments are divided, and whose robe will be given to the victor.

The One spoken of was Jesus — the One whom God would send to bear the burdens of humanity and our sinfulness.  This is the One who is pierced.  This is the lamb sacrificed, the fulfillment of promise, and the gift of salvation.

Finally our survey of the scene at Calvary must include Jesus and those gathered nearby.   John tells of a group of women and a single apostle, congregated at his feet, gathered there as families meet around the bed of a dying loved one, assembled there to share their pain and to lean on one another, so their sorrow and anguish would not overcome them.  There they stand.  There in the midst of the anger and hatred of the crowd, the mocking of the onlookers, the scorn of the religious leaders and the insults of the soldiers.  There, in that place of shame outside the City of Kings, Jerusalem, there they stand, waiting for it to be over.

In the midst of those at the foot of the cross is Jesus’ mother, Mary.  What must have been going through her mind? Perhaps only a parent who has lost a child to death can truly know.  Perhaps only those who have experienced the death

of a loved one can have any sense of the mixed flood of emotions.  Is she thinking of the angels singing and the shepherds present at His birth?  You know, it’s not very far from Bethlehem – the place where Jesus was born – to Jerusalem and the place called Calvary, or Golgotha, the place where He died.  The distance is about 8 kilometers, or about 5 miles.  You could walk it in a couple of hours, probably in less time than it took to endure the vigil at the cross on that fateful Friday. The journey of a lifetime, over in a few hours, ending just a few miles from where it began.

Perhaps Mary was recalling the words of wise old Simeon at the Temple, where Jesus was taken when only a week old to be circumcised.  Simeon told her, “This child is meant for the rising and fall of many and a sword will pierce your soul as well.” (Luke 2:34)   Maybe it’s some of Jesus’ own words that she thinks of, or the works of wonder he performed, the kindness he showed to so many. Or perhaps she remembers the times he spoke of his own death.

What was on her mind we’ll never know.  Nevertheless, Jesus now speaks to her, and even in his hour of greatest challenge and need, he thinks of her, provides for her, and assures her that she will be cared for by the disciple who stands nearby.

Events now rush to their conclusion.  John writes, “After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.”

He knew what was happening.  It came as no surprise to him.  He knew that he was dying, and he also knew the Scripture, and so to fulfill the Scripture, he said, “It is finished.”  It is accomplished.  It is done.  And having done that, he bowed his head and died.  Having done all that the Father requested of him, he offered up his spirit. And with those words, the gospel writer John concludes his description of the events of that fateful Friday. But note, my friends, that I say description and not explanation.

No matter how thoughtfully, how skillfully John may write about the happenings of that day, He is unable to explain the event.  John can’t bring reason to bear on the facts of this event — because the cross is simply not reasonable.  In one sense, we can approach it logically (as I’ve tried to do in this sermon today.)  We can describe what happened, reason from one position to another, formulate doctrines regarding it, just as theologians have done throughout the centuries.

But now matter how hard we try, we cannot fully explain the cross and Jesus’ death.  For us it remains a mystery, a riddle whose solution only God can know.  Think about it!  The cross, an instrument of torture so cruel that Rome had forbidden its use on Roman citizens.  A mob of people condemning an innocent man and choosing instead to release a common criminal.   And the Son of God delivered into the hands of sinful men!

No my friends, the cross is a mystery and, try as we might, we simply can’t impose reason on it.  It defies reason.  That the Creator would allow the Divine Self to die for that one’s own sinful creation! That the Son of God should suffer so!

Centuries ago, the famous church leader Saint Anselm wrote to a young man who had his doubts and misgivings about the cross, saying, “Son, you have yet to consider the seriousness of sin.” And therein lies the heart of the matter.  Until we consider the seriousness of sin, our own sinfulness and the sin of the world, unless we recognise in the horror of the cross our own failure before God, our own inability to live as God wishes that we live, we cannot understand the cross.

The cross confronts us with the reality and the nature of sin, the sin of the world and our own personal sinfulness.  Here at the cross is revealed the full scope and spectrum of sin, the whole vile catalogue of sins.  Every selfish and unsavory appetite, every evil desire, every wrong action or unwholesome thought is brought together there that day.

James Russell Lowell tells of a painting in Brussels in which God is about to create the world and an angel is depicted as attempting to hold back the arm of God as if to say, “If Thou be about to create such a world, prithee, stay Thy hand.”  But that’s not the answer.

It would be easy to blame all this on God, but we can’t.  God didn’t create this world filled with the evil and crime, violence and death that we’ve come to know.  God didn’t intend for people and their governments to be at war with each another.  God didn’t design schemes of greed and corruption that would plunder the savings of the honest poor and elderly and spend it on the privileged and crooked few. God didn’t establish an economic system where, even in the wealthiest countries of the world, there are poor who can’t afford decent housing or enough food.

No, that’s not God’s doing.  It’s ours. We can’t blame God for the cross. The guilt is ours.  And yet the mystery of the cross is just that.  This is God’s cross.

In God’s Son, Jesus, God has chosen to bear the cross, to take the punishment that is rightly ours and to transfer it to the Divine Self.  And therein lies the ultimate mystery of the cross — the mystery of God’s love for us.  For the cross is above all else, the message of God’s love, of God’s eternal forgiveness, of God’s grace at work, pouring itself out for you and me.

The cross is God calling a sinful and wandering humanity back to God’s own self. It is God offering comfort to Peter when he denied Jesus.  It is God offering forgiveness to Paul who persecuted Christ’s followers.  It is God offering acceptance of Mary Magdalene whose sinful life had once mocked God, and it is God’s love offered freely and unreservedly to you and to me.

In Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, there is a tomb to an unknown Union soldier who died fighting in the American Civil War.  When President Abraham Lincoln heard about it, he had the tomb inscribed with the words, “Abraham Lincoln’s Substitute.  He died that I might live.”   Words that we might fittingly inscribe on the cross. “He died that I might live.”

As we stand at the foot of the cross today, we see the breadth and depth of our sinfulness and yet even more wonderfully, the wonder and the glor and the extent of God’s love for us.  We see the power of God’s forgiveness and the grace to begin again.

It is a promise that we who are God’s children have in God and in God alone, the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.