It is finished

[Last night, The District Church's East Side campus marked Good Friday at a joint service with The Table Church and Douglas Memorial United Methodist Church. We explored the Seven Last Words of Jesus, and this was my contribution to "It is Finished."]

It is finished. Three words in English, but one word in the New Testament:

tetelestai

One of the most powerful words ever spoken. One of the most definitive words ever spoken. One of the truest words ever spoken.

See, in Jesus’ day, that word tetelestai was very common; it was used in several ways.

1. It was used by a servant, reporting to his or her master. Tetelestai: “The work you gave me to do is finished.” In the gospel of Luke, it says, “Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work.” And by that, it means the work that his Father gave him to do. It’s not that he wasn’t working before that—most of his life, he worked faithfully as a carpenter in Nazareth; but he also knew that there was a work to do that was greater still. In John 17, he prays, “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.” The work of making God known, the work of showing the world what God is like, the work of bringing the kingdom to earth, the work of inviting all of creation into right relationship with its Creator. This work is finished.

2. The word tetelestai was used by artists and writers. When a sculpture was done, a picture finished, a manuscript completed, the creator would say, “Tetelestai. It is finished.” The story of creation God had been writing, the tapestry of salvation God had been weaving, the masterpiece of love God had been crafting—since before the dawn of time—each of these found its completion in the Son of God hanging on the cross. Here at Calvary, God’s work of art is finished because somehow, out of the death of that one comes life for all.

3. The word tetelestai was used by merchants. In ancient times, just like today, people would sometimes use credit to make purchases—they would incur debt that they would have to pay off. And when they had erased their debt, when whatever it was they had purchased no longer had any payments to be made, the creditor would write that word on the document as a kind of receipt: “Tetelestai. Paid in full; the debt is no more.” There is no more to be done; Jesus paid it all.

4. The word tetelestai was used by priests. In Jesus’ day, people brought animals to the temple in Jerusalem to be sacrificed, both as a price to be paid for their sins and also as a sign of their worship and devotion to God. According to the Law of Moses, the animal had to be whole, uninjured, and spotless—the book of Leviticus says, “without blemish.” The priest would examine the animal and, if it was found to pass the test, he would declare, “Tetelestai!” meaning, “It is found suitable for sacrifice.” Jesus, the perfect, spotless Lamb of God, found suitable to pay the price for our transgressions.

5. And finally, the word tetelestai was used by jailers and judges. In those days, when someone was convicted of a crime, he or she would have what was called a “certificate of debt,” which listed all the crimes of which the person was convicted, and it was usually nailed to their cell door so that all could see. And when that person served his or her sentence, the word tetelestai would be written across that certificate of debt and that document would be given to the criminal to show that all crimes had been paid for. Jesus took the sin of the world upon his shoulders; for the first time in his life, he felt the separation from God that sin creates, and not because of any transgression of his own. The apostle Paul wrote, in his letter to the Colossians: “When you were dead in your transgressions … God made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us … and He has … nailed it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-14). Tetelestai. The crime has been paid for.

Tetelestai. The work is complete. The masterpiece is finished. The story finds its apex. The tapestry finds its golden thread. The play finds its climax. The mission is accomplished. The job is done. The sacrifice has been found. The price is paid in full.

Tetelestai. It is finished.

How can Good Friday be good?

[Last year's Good Friday homily, preached on March 29, 2013.]

Good Friday. Good Friday. Good Friday.

How could anything like this be good?

He was an innocent man. Even the criminal said of him, “This man has done nothing wrong.”

An innocent man. No, more than that: the best of men.

The most human of us all. The one who was and did as we were created to be and do. The one who lived as we were supposed to live. The one who loved as we were supposed to love. The one who gave as we were supposed to give and served as we were supposed to serve. The one who showed God to the world—in all his subversive goodness, in all his inexplicable humility, in all his infinite grace and prodigal mercy.

The one who said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” and he should know, because he brought it. The one who said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” and did just that. The one who said, “Your sins are forgiven; now go and sin no more,” and then made that possible.

The one who healed the broken and touched the untouchable, who welcomed the outcasts, lifted up the oppressed, associated with unsavory characters, who was called “a friend of sinners” and wore it as a badge of honor because he came to seek and to save the lost.

This man is rejected.

But more than that, not even just a simple, “No, thanks.” No, his disciples run away in his time of need; his closest friend denies him—not once, but three times; and so this man, who entered Jerusalem only days earlier to adoring crowds, is now hanging on a cross, triumphant cheering turned to derisive jeering.

This man cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus took on the sin of the world. “The sin of the world.” Such a small phrase for such a large burden.

Every time we sin, we choose a reality opposed to that for which we were made. We choose by our actions to be separated from God, the creator and designer and source of life. When we lie or when we walk past someone in need or when we hurt those who care about us or when we choose to gratify ourselves at the expense of others, sexually, emotionally, relationally, financially—when we choose anything other than life with God, which is what we were made for, we choose death.

It’s as if we are keys, made to fit the door of life with God, and we’re grating and grinding and scraping and pieces are being broken off because we’re trying to open all these other doors, and it’s not getting us anywhere. Or at least, not anywhere good.

Now think about those decisions, drawn out over the course of your life, however many years you’ve been around. And now think about those lives, drawn out across the planet—six billion people. And now think about the course of human history, drawn out across time—thousands and thousands and thousands of years, billions and billions of lives, a multitude of decisions choosing death. Is it any wonder our world is hurting?

And now bring it back to you.

And to Jesus, the one who lived as we should have lived and died the death we should have died. To paraphrase John Stott:

The essence of sin is that we substitute ourselves for God; we put ourselves where only God deserves to be … that’s the essence of sin. But the essence of salvation is that God substitutes himself for us; God puts himself where we deserve to be … that’s the essence of salvation.[1]

You might remember the story in Genesis, when Adam and Eve reject God’s command and sin against him, and one of the results is that the ground is cursed—Genesis 3:18 says, “It will produce thorns and thistles.” On Good Friday, we see the king of all creation, crowned with thorns, quite literally wearing the effects of human sin, little bits of cursed ground.

Jesus is the only one who could have saved us. Imagine the climber who’s made it to the top where no one has managed it before, where no one has even come close, and he throws down a rope and says, “I’ve got you; I’ll pull you up.” And though you’re tired from straining and struggling, and you’ve got cuts and bruises, and actually, despite your best efforts, you’re still a lot closer to the ground than you are to the top, he says, “I’ve got you; I’ll pull you up.”

Only this climber is actually hanging on a cross, and his method of pulling you up is by laying down his life for you. One writer put it this way:

As far back as recorded time and doubtless before, kings, princes, tribal chiefs, presidents, and dictators have sent their subjects into battle to die for them. Only once in human history has a king not sent his subjects to die for him, but instead, died for his subjects.[2]

Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, came to redeem, to rescue, and to restore all of creation—including us. This is God’s great plan: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Because even till the end, even in suffering, even in death, he fulfills his mission: to show God’s reign, to be a sign of God’s kingdom—this is what it looks like when God is here.

  • He says to the criminal who seeks him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Because of what I am doing right now, there is grace—amazing grace.
  • He says to his mother and he says to his dear friend John, “Look after one another.” I came that you might have real and eternal life, more and better life than you ever dreamed of—but it isn’t just some pie-in-the-sky, out-there-in-the-great-unknown kind of life; it is real, and it is tangible, and it is practical. This command I give to you: love one another.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” It cannot overcome it.

This is Good Friday.

[1] John Stott: “The essence of sin is we human beings substituting ourselves for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for us. We … put ourselves where only God deserves to be; God … puts himself where we deserve to be.” Quoted in Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 202.

[2] Charles Colson and Harold Fickett, The Faith: What Christians Believe, Why They Believe It, and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2008), 90.

[Painting by Audrey Anastasi. Check out the rest of her amazing Stations of the Cross.]

It’s the crucified Jesus who is Lord

But it was our sins that did that to him, that ripped and tore and crushed him — our sins! He took the punishment, and that made us whole. Through his bruises we get healed.

- Isaiah 53:5

Cross silhouetteJesus is the Lord, but it’s the crucified Jesus who is Lord–precisely because it’s his crucifixion that has won the victory over all the other powers that think of themselves as in charge of the world. But that means that his followers, charged with implementing his victory in the world, will themselves have to do so by the same method. One of the most striking things about some of (what we normally see as) the later material in the New Testament is the constant theme of suffering, suffering not as something merely to be bravely borne for Jesus’s sake, but as something that is mysteriously taken up into the redemptive suffering of Jesus himself. He won his victory through suffering; his followers win theirs through sharing in his.

The Spirit and suffering. Great joy and great cost. Those who follow Jesus and claim him (and proclaim him) as Lord learn both of them. It’s as simple as that.

- N.T. Wright, Simply Jesus, 205

Hating Easter and the same old Jesus

He Qi Palm SundayOn Saturday, I got out in the glorious weather (finally!) to have brunch with a friend at Eastern Market (if you haven’t had the crêpes from the crêpe place and Blackout donuts from DC Donuts, you should really put that on your to-do list!).  As we were talking, I reminded him that yesterday was Palm Sunday and his face scrunched up and he made a little noise of distaste.

I said, “Dude, how can you hate Easter?!”

His response:

It’s the same old thing: the same cheesy songs, the same scriptures, the same sermons. There’s nothing new there.

That got me thinking, because in a sense he’s right. Every Easter we talk about the same thing; every Palm Sunday we talk about the same thing. It can be real easy to go through the motions, to slip into lazy routines, to assume that we’ve heard it all before. Especially at this time of year.

I’ve heard the Easter story for as long as I can remember, and yet what God impressed upon me this week is that if we open ourselves up to God, if we ask him to show us some new insights, he will. That’s what it means to be in a relationship with the living God; that’s the power of the Word of God.

In writing this week’s message (which you can find here), I was reminded again that Jesus is far more than our traditions and our routines and our well-worn stories.

The messiah whom we encounter in Matthew 21, the one who enters Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, is not really at all what you may have expected, the one who is not here to fulfill all of your greatest longings in all the ways that you planned.

Jesus is not the king of your own making or your own choosing, but the king who turns everything on its head. This Jesus was not just an ancient teacher spouting wise sayings that you can post on social media to get likes and clicks, but the king who says:

Do what I say and you will have life. Trust in me. Trust in my way.

This Jesus did not stay dead; this Jesus did not stay in ancient history, just to be talked about and dissected and debated. This is not the Jesus of same old, same old. This is the living Christ.

Roll on, Easter.

LISTEN HERE: “Not the Same Old Jesus.”