Isaiah 52:13-53:12 – Good Friday

CrossChrist
Depiction of Christ on the Cross at Holy Hill in Hubertus, Wisconsin

The Lord says, “See, my servant will act wisely.
People will greatly honor and respect him.
Many people were shocked when they saw him.
His appearance was so damaged he did not look like a man;
his form was so changed they could barely tell he was human.
But now he will surprise many nations.
Kings will be amazed and shut their mouths.
They will see things they had not been told about him,
and they will understand things they had not heard.”

Who would have believed what we heard?
Who saw the Lord’s power in this?
He grew up like a small plant before the Lord,
like a root growing in a dry land.
He had no special beauty or form to make us notice him;
there was nothing in his appearance to make us desire him.
He was hated and rejected by people.
He had much pain and suffering.
People would not even look at him.
He was hated, and we didn’t even notice him.

But he took our suffering on him
and felt our pain for us.
We saw his suffering
and thought God was punishing him.
But he was wounded for the wrong we did;
he was crushed for the evil we did.
The punishment, which made us well, was given to him,
and we are healed because of his wounds.
We all have wandered away like sheep;
each of us has gone his own way.
But the Lord has put on him the punishment
for all the evil we have done.

He was beaten down and punished,
but he didn’t say a word.
He was like a lamb being led to be killed.
He was quiet, as a sheep is quiet while its wool is being cut;
he never opened his mouth.
Men took him away roughly and unfairly.
He died without children to continue his family.
He was put to death;
he was punished for the sins of my people.
He was buried with wicked men,
and he died with the rich.
He had done nothing wrong,
and he had never lied.

But it was the Lord who decided
to crush him and make him suffer.
The Lord made his life a penalty offering,
but he will still see his descendants and live a long life.
He will complete the things the Lord wants him to do.
“After his soul suffers many things,
he will see life and be satisfied.
My good servant will make many people right with God;
he will carry away their sins.
For this reason I will make him a great man among people,
and he will share in all things with those who are strong.
He willingly gave his life
and was treated like a criminal.
But he carried away the sins of many people
and asked forgiveness for those who sinned.” (NCV)

We all suffer.  In some way, whether a chronic physical condition, emotional or moral distress, mental illness, or spiritual oppression, everyone faces living in a fallen world with its pain and heartache.  Presently, the entire world is suffering the scourge of the COVID-19 virus.  Every person in my neighborhood, city, state, and nation is impacted and affected.  Not only do many suffer because of disease and death itself, all are enduring either lost wages, limitations, loneliness or more.  Suffering that seems to have no reason, the senseless kind, the type where nothing good appears to be going on at all can be very troubling to our souls.

Perhaps it seems ironic, maybe even cruel, that Christians would observe a day called “Good” Friday.  Considering the hard circumstances of so many people, to call today “good” appears awkward, as if Christ’s followers have their heads in the sand.  Even for Christians, at first glance, “Good Friday” might seem a oxymoronic for a day observing the torture and death of an innocent man.  Some would argue that Christ is no longer on the cross and we need to give all our focus on the resurrected Jesus and the victory he achieved.  No need for all this suffering stuff.  Yet, the Resurrection only has meaning because of this very day, Good Friday.  Without the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, there is no King Jesus.  For Christians everywhere, this day is very good in the sense that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ means the redemption of the world.  On this day we remember and commemorate the events that led up to the cross; unpack those events and interpret them with profound meaning and significance; and, worship Jesus with heartfelt gratitude because of his redeeming work of the cross.

16th St Baptist Church Crucifixion Stained Glass Window
This stained-glass window was donated to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church of Birmingham, Alabama by the people of Wales after the church was bombed in 1963.

The bulk of the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are given over to the final week of Christ’s life, especially leading to the cross.  Good Friday observances often take a somber form due to the brevity of Christ’s experience on the cross.  Christians remember the last words of Christ, and recognize the significant impact his death had on the immediate persons around him.  Believers also contemplate the lasting results of that singular death as an atoning sacrifice; perfect love; reconciliation between God and humanity; victory over evil; and, redeeming all creation.

Sadness, then, is far from the only emotive expression on this day.  It is appropriate to feel wonder, gratitude, and deep satisfaction for the accomplishment of deliverance from the power of sin.  There is the recognition that something profound and meaningful has truly happened in the egregious suffering of Jesus.  Thus, we not only remember the anguish of Christ, but what that horrible torment accomplished.  In fact, the cross of Jesus is so significant that an eternity of considering its import and impact could never plumb the depths of its far-reaching effects.

With all that has been said, one would think that Good Friday is a hugely observed day on the Christian Calendar.  Yet, for a chunk of churches and Christians, it’s not.  The bottom line is that the cross is not popular.  Maybe it’s because neither Christian nor non-Christian wants to ponder something that appears so icky and bloody.

Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge has adroitly put her finger on the issue: “Religious people want visionary experiences and spiritual uplift; secular people want proofs, arguments, demonstrations, philosophy, and science.  The striking fact is that neither one of these groups wants to hear about the cross.”  Indeed, as the Apostle Paul has said, the cross of Christ is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

A personalized religion which leaves the cross out of the picture (too much blood and violence) might seem appealing yet will only leave us bereft of the communion of the saints both past and present.  Consider the ancient witness of the Church:

“I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord… he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell.” –Apostles’ Creed

“For our sake he [Christ] was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.” –Nicene Creed

Christ suffered “in both body and soul – in such a way that when he sensed the horrible punishment required by our sins ‘his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.’  He cried, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’  And he endured all this for the forgiveness of our sins.  Therefore, we rightly say with the Apostle Paul that we know nothing ‘except Jesus Christ, and him crucified;’ we ‘regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.’ We find all comforts in his wounds and have no need to seek or invent any other means than this one and only sacrifice, once made, which renders believers perfect forever.” –Belgic Confession, Article 21

And let us consider further the New Testament witness:

“Jesus suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.  Therefore, let us go forth to him outside the camp, and bear the abuse he endured.” (Hebrews 13:12-13, NIV)

“May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14, NRSV)

6a7f0-thecross

The extent of Good Friday goes far beyond just a day on the calendar; it is the fulcrum upon which all of Christianity hinges.  Because Christ suffered, our suffering has meaning.  Each situation of trauma; every case of disease; all adversity and wholesale hard circumstances make sense, in the Christian tradition, when they are viewed in solidarity with Jesus Christ crucified. So, today, let Christians everywhere contemplate the cross, observe the salvation accomplished through Christ’s death, and offer prayers and petitions for those who need deliverance from the power of evil.  In short, let us worship God in Jesus Christ because of the suffering on the cross.

Along with all believers everywhere we pray:

Jesus, Lamb of God, have mercy on us.

Jesus, Bearer of our sins, have mercy on us.

Jesus, Redeemer of the world, grant us your peace.  Amen.

Click Were You There performed by The Vigil Project as we station ourselves near the cross.

Job 13:13-19 – Contending with God

Mother Teresa suffering quote

“Keep silent and let me speak;
then let come to me what may.
Why do I put myself in jeopardy
and take my life in my hands?
Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him;
I will surely defend my ways to his face.
 Indeed, this will turn out for my deliverance,
for no godless person would dare come before him!
Listen carefully to what I say;
let my words ring in your ears.
Now that I have prepared my case,
I know I will be vindicated.
Can anyone bring charges against me?
If so, I will be silent and die. (NIV)

The story of the biblical character, Job, is both famous and infamous.  It’s famous among most bible readers because we are privy to why Job endured such terrible suffering and how the story ends.  Conversely, the story is infamous because Job’s “friends” and most everyone else in his day believed that the extremely hard circumstances were proof positive of sin.  Job had the misfortune of being misunderstood and misinterpreted with an evil, infamous, reputation.

Job was understandably desperate.  He hadn’t a clue why he lost his every earthly possession and relationship, not to mention his health.  Job was hurt, angry, and lonely.  In today’s Old Testament text, we observe Job getting ready to have-it-out with God.  It is interesting to me that in such grinding physical, emotional, and spiritual pain as Job experienced, he held to both his own integrity and of confidence in God.

If this story strikes a familiar chord, it may be because this was also Christ’s experience.  Jesus did nothing unethical or immoral to deserve being whipped, beaten, and tortured.  Our Lord, like Job, felt the awful sting of silence stating, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).  As we fast approach Holy Week, the Lectionary reminds us that there must be suffering before glory, crucifixion before resurrection, agony before victory.

Christ on the Cross
Painting by Hans Mertens

I wonder what humanity would be like if we stopped fighting so hard against suffering and instead leaned into it as a teacher and a means of awareness.  For the Christian, I am curious what the Church everywhere would be like if she embraced suffering as the path of solidarity with Jesus. I wonder what human interactions on the personal, corporate, and global level would look like if people throughout the earth would stare this current pandemic through their spiritual eyes and imagine as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann does:

“We may imagine God doing a new thing among us. Perhaps we are arriving at a new neighborly normal:

  • Imagine, we are treating prisoners differently, even releasing some who constitute no threat
  • Imagine, we are mobilizing generous financing for needy neighbors who must have resources in order to survive.
  • Imagine, we are finding generous provisions for students and their debts.

The new thing God is making possible is a world of generous, neighborly compassion.”

When we are stripped of wealth, cut-off from others, and do not know how to make sense of the suffering around us and in our own lives – it is in such a time that we are invited to consider a few observations from the story of Job:

  1. Much, if not most, of life is a mystery – including God. We are neither all-knowing nor all powerful.  Our nation’s perceived power and intellectual savvy expose deep fissures of pride and hubris.  Events like pandemics reveal that there is so much we don’t know and must learn.  We will likely never get all the answers we want when tragedy hits and lives are turned upside-down.
  2. Confronting and contending with God is okay, perhaps even encouraged. Unlike the human creature, the Creator God is big enough to take and absorb whatever anger, rage, disappointment, discouragement, depression, fist-shaking, and expletives we throw at him.
  3. Suffering does not mean that God has forgotten us. We may not understand why or even what we go through.  We will, however, never go through it alone.  God is often silent; yet, never aloof.  God maintains both his transcendence high above us and his immanence close to us at the same time, all the time.  In the Christian tradition, this is why the Holy Spirit was given – to be the continuing presence of Jesus on this earth.

My prayer for you today is that your suffering will not be wasted – that God will bend each adverse situation toward your good and the good of others.

Soli Deo Gloria

Click How Deep the Father’s Love for Us sung and mixed by David Wesley as we anticipate the suffering of Christ on our behalf in this next Holy Week.

1 Peter 4:1-8

            Today is Holy Saturday.  As we journey with Jesus, we contemplate his being put to death and lying in the grave.  If there is one thing that I continually emphasize as a pastor is that Christianity is not only a set of beliefs to hold onto, but a powerful way of life to lean into.  The Christian’s life ought to be deeply influenced by the crucifixion of Christ, more than just believing it is an historic event.  The cross means that we now have the ability and responsibility to put to death everything that is counter to God’s will.
 
            The Apostle Peter made this connection explicit in his epistle to a hurting and suffering church.  “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.”  Peter moved effortlessly from Christ’s cross to our way of life.  And the height of that particular Christian way of living is through love: “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.”
 
            The season of Lent and Holy Week will have accomplished its intended purpose if it results in the individual sinner putting to death his/her unloving and selfish passions and turning to the cross with its ultimate expression of love and godly commitment. 
 
            Bypassing the putting to death part of Christianity and anticipating the resurrection of Easter will only short-circuit the spiritual power that is available.  We cannot effectively live into the new life of Easter without first dying to ourselves and tapping into the power of the cross.  So, use this holy time before Sunday identifying the ways that are contrary to the Jesus life, and allow the proper time to lament of it so as to properly lean into the new way of unconditional love.
            Holy God, sometimes I care much more about the things of the flesh and of the world than I do the incredible spiritual realities that exist right in front of my face.  I grieve those things I have done, and the things I have left undone.  Yet, your mercy is eternal.  Allow the cross of Christ to infiltrate my soul so that I am ready to receive the new life of love you desire.  Amen.

Hebrews 10:16-25

            By the wounds of Jesus Christ we are healed of the stench and power of sin.  There is forgiveness.  And where forgiveness exists and is the controlling existential reality, there is no longer any offering for sin.  In other words, Jesus has offered a once-for-all sacrifice for sin.  Therefore, there is no need whatsoever for us to provide something that will take care of and deal with our foul and odious sin; Jesus has already done it.
             Good Friday is the most bittersweet day in the Christian Year.  It is bitter because they have tortured and crucified my Lord.  It is sweet because the Lord Jesus accomplished what he set out to do:  opened the way back to God through a new and living way.
             So, then, Jesus did not go through the agony of the cross just so that no one need offer the blood of bulls and goats as a sacrifice anymore.  No, he did it all to strike a death blow to the power of sin so that we could take advantage of this new spiritual reality.  We now can draw near to God without any obstacle.  We now can persevere and hold fast to our bold confession of Christ.  We now can effectively spur one another on toward good deeds, reminding each other of the tremendous privilege we have of sharing in Christ and his finished work.
             Faith, hope, and love are our business as Christians.  Good Friday was the means by which we are now able to live into these three great actions of the Christian life.  All that we do, all that we say, and all that we plan are to center fully around the person and work of Jesus using these incredible tools of faith, hope, and love.  Let us consider and reflect deeply on our new reality made possible on this most holy day.
             Merciful God, as darkness covers the land today I confess along with the Roman centurion:  surely Jesus is the Son of God.  How can I say thanks for the things you have done for me?  It is a small thing for me to dedicate myself completely to faith, hope, and love.  These three actions I endeavor to live into as a means of gratitude for your great sacrifice, Lord Jesus.  Amen.