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

Good Friday

Original post: April 10, 2009; repost: April 2, 2010–Good Friday.

How could anything so tragic be good?

[From Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, 2004.]

And the account from Matthew’s Gospel (27:27-54):

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31 After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.

As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots;  then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink.  But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.”  Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”