Isaiah 52:13-53:12 – Good Friday

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 Lord says,

“My servant will succeed in his task;
    he will be highly honored.
Many people were shocked when they saw him;
    he was so disfigured that he hardly looked human.
But now many nations will marvel at him,
    and kings will be speechless with amazement.
They will see and understand
    something they had never known.”

The people reply,

“Who would have believed what we now report?
    Who could have seen the Lord’s hand in this?
It was the will of the Lord that his servant
    grow like a plant taking root in dry ground.
He had no dignity or beauty
    to make us take notice of him.
There was nothing attractive about him,
    nothing that would draw us to him.
We despised him and rejected him;
    he endured suffering and pain.
No one would even look at him—
    we ignored him as if he were nothing.

“But he endured the suffering that should have been ours,
    the pain that we should have borne.
All the while we thought that his suffering
    was punishment sent by God.
But because of our sins he was wounded,
    beaten because of the evil we did.
We are healed by the punishment he suffered,
    made whole by the blows he received.
All of us were like sheep that were lost,
    each of us going his own way.
But the Lord made the punishment fall on him,
    the punishment all of us deserved.

“He was treated harshly, but endured it humbly;
    he never said a word.
Like a lamb about to be slaughtered,
like a sheep about to be sheared,
    he never said a word.
He was arrested and sentenced and led off to die,
    and no one cared about his fate.
He was put to death for the sins of our people.
He was placed in a grave with those who are evil,
    he was buried with the rich,
even though he had never committed a crime
    or ever told a lie.”

The Lord says,

“It was my will that he should suffer;
    his death was a sacrifice to bring forgiveness.
And so he will see his descendants;
    he will live a long life,
    and through him my purpose will succeed.
After a life of suffering, he will again have joy;
    he will know that he did not suffer in vain.
My devoted servant, with whom I am pleased,
    will bear the punishment of many
    and for his sake I will forgive them.
And so I will give him a place of honor,
    a place among the great and powerful.
He willingly gave his life
    and shared the fate of evil men.
He took the place of many sinners
    and prayed that they might be forgiven.” (Good News Translation)

We all suffer. 

Whether a chronic physical condition, emotional or moral distress, mental illness, or spiritual oppression, everyone falls prey to this world’s pain and heartache. 

The refugee, the poor, the oppressed, the lonely, the forgotten, the disadvantaged, the diseased, the distressed, and the displaced are just a few of the persons experiencing their own private pain, public humiliation, and an awful suffering.

Suffering that defies reason, the kind of pain which seems senseless, the type of hurt where nothing good appears to be going on at all, is all horribly troubling to the soul.

Perhaps it seems ironic, maybe even cruel, that Christians observe a day called “Good” Friday. Considering the adverse circumstances of so many people, to call today “good” appears awkward, as if Christ’s followers have their collective heads in the sand. 

Even for Christians, “Good Friday” may seem a bit oxymoronic for a day observing the torture and death of an innocent man. Some argue that Christ is no longer on the cross, and so, 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. 

Holy Hill Stations of the Cross, Hubertus, Wisconsin

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.

The bulk of the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are given 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 emotion on this day. It is appropriate to feel wonder, gratitude, and deep satisfaction for 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 so incredibly violent, hateful, 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.” 

Fleming Rutledge

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 it will only leave us bereft of the communion of 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 whichthe world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14, NRSV)

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; adversity and wholesale hard circumstances, all 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.

Hebrews 12:1-3 – Wednesday of Holy Week

As for us, we have this large crowd of witnesses around us. So then, let us rid ourselves of everything that gets in the way, and of the sin which holds on to us so tightly, and let us run with determination the race that lies before us. Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, on whom our faith depends, from beginning to end. He did not give up because of the cross! On the contrary, because of the joy that was waiting for him, he thought nothing of the disgrace of dying on the cross, and he is now seated at the right side of God’s throne.

Think of what he went through; how he put up with so much hatred from sinners! So do not let yourselves become discouraged and give up. (Good News Translation)

“If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.”

Viktor E. Frankl

We are moving, step by step, inexorably to the cross of Christ. Along the way we will face opposition, ridicule, misunderstanding, and betrayal. We will be befuddled and feel confused. The path of discipleship is not easy.

And yet, on this Holy Wednesday, today’s New Testament lesson informs us that all the suffering of Christ was motivated and animated because of joy. 

The road to the cross, along with the cross itself, is painful, in every sense of the word. None of this tortuous suffering seems joyful, at all! There’s no definition, in any dictionary, of joy including severe spiritual anguish, bodily harm, and emotional shame. Joy isn’t remotely mentioned when talking about betrayal from someone close to you.

Jesus did not relish the pain. He was no masochist. Pain with no purpose is nothing but tragic despair. Rather, Jesus clearly understood what the end of his suffering would accomplish: the saving of many lives.

It is most necessary that we do not try to sanitize Christ’s death.

Although many beautiful crosses can be found in stores, the cross of Jesus was anything but lovely to look at. It was bloody. The cross was a harsh implement of torture and execution, meant to expose the condemned to public shame.

Trying to make sense of this great sacrifice on our behalf can be difficult. No earthly illustration or word-picture can begin to adequately capture the idea of vicarious suffering. Perhaps, then, we may understand the necessity of discipline, effort, endurance, and yes, pain, in order to accomplish a goal. We know from agonizing experience that the realization of our most important goals requires a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears. 

In a former life I was a cross country runner (back far enough for Sherman to set the way-back machine). Whenever I was running on a road or a golf course, I would sometimes get that very nasty and sharp pain in my side while running. It is called a side cramp, or side stitch. 

If you have never experienced such a cramp, the pain feels like an intense stabbing, as if someone were taking a knife and twisting it inside you. Runners know there’s only one thing to do when this occurs: Keep running through the pain, and then it will subside in a few minutes. To stop running only exacerbates and prolongs getting over the hurt, not to mention losing a race.

Jesus endured the cross knowing he was going to experience terrible excruciating pain. He also knew that avoiding the shame and agony would only make things worse; it wouldn’t take care of the problem of sin. 

Jesus persevered through the foulness and degradation of the cross for you and me. All of the wretched pain was worth it to him. Christ did not circumvent the cross; he embraced it so that the result would be people’s deliverance from guilt and shame, death and hell. 

The end game of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross was joy over deposing the ruler of this dark world and obliterating the obstacles to people’s faith.

Suffering often does not fit into our equation of the Christian life. However, it needs to. No suffering, no salvation. Since Jesus bled and died for us, it is our privilege to follow him and walk with him along the Via Dolorosa, the way of suffering. 

Holy Week is a time to reflect and remember on such a great sacrifice, and to consider our Christian lives in the face of such great love. On this Wednesday, allow yourself to feel the bittersweet experience of simultaneous pain and joy – the very real bitterness of seeing the Lord crucified, along with the exultation of joy over being washed clean by the blood of the Lamb.

Gracious Lord Jesus, I give you eternal thanks for your mercy toward me through the cross. It is a small thing for me to follow you even it means great suffering on my part. My life is yours. Use it as you will, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Hebrews 7:23-28 – Jesus Is Better

“Exodus” by Marc Chagall, 1952

Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore, he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.

Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests men in all their weakness; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever. (New International Version)

Several years ago, I enjoyed serving communion with a retired minister in the church for which I was serving at the time. When we were in the middle of it, I leaned over to him and gave him a bit of instruction on what we were about to do. After I finished, he leaned over to me with a smile and said, “I didn’t hear a thing you just said, but I’ll figure it out!”

When it comes to the Christian life, I think we can learn something from the old Pastor. We are neither always going to hear well everything which is in the Bible, nor are we going to understand everything which is happening around us as Christians. 

The Jewish Christians, for which the book of Hebrews was originally preached, had a difficult transition from Judaism to Christianity. In Judaism, they knew what was happening. The sacrificial system was detailed and meticulously planned. The priesthood was clearly observed with men from the tribe of Levi. Worship was predictable.

However, becoming a Christian changed a lot of things. Being a Christian meant relying on the wild and unpredictable Spirit of God. There was no longer a tangible sacrificial system. Jesus is the high priest, but the believers never see him. 

There was so much living by faith, and so little understanding of what was going to happen, that the Hebrew Christians’ resolve began to break down. They became discouraged and started to lose patience with Christianity.

“The Painter and the Christ” by Marc Chagall, 1975

Today’s New Testament lesson is in the middle of an extended discussion by the author of Hebrews about the priesthood and sacrificial system. The Christian Jews were thinking about reneging on their commitment to Jesus and returning to their previous way of life in Judaism. 

So, central to the author’s exhortation is to demonstrate that Jesus is superior to everything in Judaism. Jesus is better than any Old Testament priest. Jesus is the once-for-all sacrifice for sins. Jesus is better because his priesthood is permanent, and his sacrifice is perfect.

In the ancient world, sacrifice was at the center of everyone’s belief system. Every pagan religion had some sort of sacrificial practice to satisfy the god(s) and ensure deliverance and/or prosperity. Jews, of course, had an elaborate sacrificial system of their own with detailed prescriptions of how to go about it.

We need to feel something of the original force of Christianity. It was a radical idea to have one sacrifice to end all sacrifices.

Everyone understood that sacrifices were temporary; you had to keep offering them over and over again. Christianity, however, asked the world to have a new understanding of sacrifice. No longer would there be any sacrifice – no grain sacrifice; no offerings of first-fruits; no animal sacrifices; no physical sacrifices whatsoever. 

In Christianity, Jesus as the once-for-all sacrifice to end all sacrifices was such a crazy notion for so many people that they mocked Christians for it. Both Jews and pagans could barely wrap their minds around such a progressive idea. It would be like saying to us today that there is no longer any need for money because some individual became the underwriter for everything everybody does.

“The Martyr” by Marc Chagall, 1970

All the things the old sacrificial system did for worshipers are now completely fulfilled in the person of Jesus.  Condensed in just a few verses of Scripture, we have a very rich picture of Jesus:

  • Jesus is not a temporary priest, but a permanent priest, the one who is able to intercede continually on our behalf without us having to perform a ritual sacrifice.
  • Jesus lives forever, which enables him to never cease his intercessory work.
  • Jesus saves completely.
  • Jesus meets our need.
  • Jesus has been made perfect forever.

Yet, sometimes Christians go back to the old sacrificial system, not by physically offering animal sacrifices, but treating Christ’s once-for-all finished work as if it were just too good to be true. We reason that we need to do something to help save ourselves. Although Jesus has saved us fully, and therefore, there is no longer any need for sacrifice, yet we still try:

  • To appease God through church attendance or other works, as if the Lord needs to be soothed into not becoming angry at us.
  • To satisfy God through our giving so that the Lord will not have a furrowed brow against us.
  • To assuage our guilty conscience through Christian service, believing this will give us some leverage with God.

In all these kinds of instances, it is going back to an old sacrificial system that is obsolete.

The biblical and theological truth is that Jesus has thoroughly saved us from our sin, and, so, has cleansed us from all guilt, including a guilty conscience.

Jesus meets our need and has completely satisfied God’s wrath against sin. Jesus is our mediator and intercedes for us as we come to God’s throne of grace. That means we do not need to try and get God’s attention with some incredible sacrifice that will somehow obligate him to take notice. 

There is no longer ever a situation where we must run to some spiritual liquor store to pick up a Captain Morgan because the Captain of our souls, Jesus Christ, has already given us everything we need.

Since Jesus has been made perfect forever; is our great high priest; and is the once-for-all sacrifice to end all sacrifices, we have all the grace we need. 

We need not worry anymore about being good enough because Jesus is perfect. Christ’s work is made complete in us. The constant anxiety of feeling we don’t measure-up is not from God. The person and work of Jesus is sufficient to deliver us from guilt and shame.

“Well,” you might say, “if everybody believed that, then nobody would ever do anything.” No, it’s just the opposite. When we feel like we don’t measure up, we do less, not more. A low level discouragement sets in, and we do nothing because we intuitively know it will never be enough. We do just enough to squeak by, never quite knowing if it is doing anything. 

“Crucifixion” by Marc Chagall, 1961

Just like the Hebrew Christians of the first century, we consider giving up because Christianity doesn’t work for us. Yet, when we grasp Christ’s sacrifice to end all sacrifices, and are overwhelmed by grace, then everything we do in the Christian life is a simple desire to say “thank you” with our life and our lips. 

It is the grace, and not the wrath, of God that teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live upright and godly lives (Titus 2:11-12).

The old system wasn’t bad. It served a purpose. Now, however, the old has given way to the new, and there is a better hope by which we draw near to God. The sacrificial system pointed forward to a perfect sacrifice by a permanent priest that would bring us to God forever.

Going back to the old system is like living permanently in a tent, and believing you are home.

Therefore, we must choose what is better. The options are not so much between what is bad and what is good, but between what is good and what is better than good. It is possible to do all kinds of good things and miss the better thing God is doing. 

So, how do we choose the better thing? How do we embrace the new, which is Christ, and not the old, which is the sacrificial system?

  1. Learn to say “no” to the treadmill going nowhere. Since we do not need to impress God, we have the freedom to say “no” to keeping up with the spiritual Jones’s; “no” to cajoling God’s favor, approval, or attention.
  2. Learn to say “yes” to engaging in spiritual practices which remind us of Christ. Say “yes” to the new way of the Spirit, which is by faith and not by sight. This present spiritual age is often intangible, ethereal, and unseen. It requires a new set of spiritual eyes to see.
  3. Let Christianity be about Jesus, and not about us. Resist the allure to rescue others, or have others rescue you. The work of rescue has already been done. Christ saves, we don’t.
  4. Know the better thing over the good thing. Pause before acting or re-acting. Are we expecting someone else to do what Christ has already done? Are we looking to do something we think will make God like us better? Remind yourself of Jesus and his redemption every day in small ways through Scripture reading and prayer, fellowship, and loving service.

Good people can love God, and yet, miss the opportunity to see they are already justified through Christ’s blood. We do not need to justify ourselves. We need to live into the justification we possess by grace through faith.

May it be so to the glory of God.

1 Corinthians 2:1-10 – Where Does the Power to Change Come From?

When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:

“What no eye has seen,
    what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”—
    the things God has prepared for those who love him—

these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.

The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. (New International Version)

We need the Holy Spirit of God.

Without the Spirit’s help, Jesus is merely one of thousands of individuals crucified in history – only an example of someone martyred for his faith. Yet, Jesus was infinitely more. Christians discern Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of the world. 

Through Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension, people can be redeemed from empty lives, saved from destructive life-patterns, and given the kind of security and purpose which God intended from the beginning. The Spirit’s role is to take these redemptive events of Jesus and apply them to our lives. 

Thus, Christian Trinitarian theology understands we are unable to see the truth about the cross of Jesus Christ unless God the Holy Spirit, sent by God the Father and the Son, breaks into our lives and does an intervention, showing us our denial about how we are really doing – as well as our delusions about who we really are.

Admitting we need the Holy Spirit of God means the power of Christianity and the Christian life rests with Jesus Christ and him crucified, and not with us.

We are, in many ways, powerless. I realize this is not a popular message, especially in Western society. Tell the average American they are powerless, and they’ll think you’re off your rocker. It sounds ridiculous. Some would argue that we have done well, thank you very much, on our own. We have a couple of cars, a house, a job, and a family. After all, we worked hard, and we did it.

However, any worldly success we gain, and getting the things we want, may lead us to the delusion we have the power to do whatever we want.

Oh, sure, we might reason, we have problems just like everybody else. After all, we cannot control everything.  But we are not completely powerless just because we have difficult circumstances and a few problem people in our lives. God will step in a take-over where I leave off, right?…

Wrong. Apart from the Holy Spirit of God, we are unable to become Christians and live the Christian life. If we believe we manage our lives fine, with some help from God, then we might be in denial about how much we place ourselves at the center of the world. And believe we should be able to deal with whatever comes at us in life. When our consistent response to adversity, or the realization we are not handling something well, is to try and fix ourselves, we are living the delusion we have the power to change.

A reflexive response in asking Google to find answers to our problems; dealing privately with our personal issues; expecting our willpower to be enough; passively resigning ourselves to mediocre lives because we have tried to change or be different; then this means we are feeding the delusion we do not really need the Holy Spirit of God. But just need more effort or information to overcome my problems. And when more doesn’t solve our issues, we easily become discouraged.

We need the true power source of the Christian life. We need the Holy Spirit applying the work of Jesus Christ to our lives so that we can live a victorious life.

Unfortunately, it typically takes a tragedy or crisis to break our delusion of power – a bad marriage, a family member’s addiction, a runaway child, a terminal illness, a bankruptcy, a death. How bad do you and I need to hurt before we will admit we are not managing our lives well, at all, and that the real power to change resides with the Holy Spirit?

There is power in the cross of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul believed this with all his heart. Although Paul was an intelligent and learned person, he did not rely on his abilities but on proclaiming the power of Jesus and him crucified. The crucifixion of Christ was a past action with continuing and forceful ripples into the present time.

The cross of Jesus is more than an historical event; it is an ongoing reality to experience for victory over all the brokenness of this world and all the mess we have made of things putting ourselves at the center of the universe.

The Reformer, John Calvin, repeatedly instructed and encouraged his Geneva congregation that the Spirit joins us to Christ, assures us of salvation, and grows us in confidence through the Scriptures. Calvin, although a genius, did not rely on his intellect or abilities but insisted we need the Spirit’s witness to mature as followers of Jesus.

There are tough situations and incredibly sad realities which are mysteries beyond our comprehension. They defy simplistic answers and are greater than our attempts to explain them. Hard problems stretch our faith. And they ought to cause us to cry out to God and Christ’s church for help because we are powerless to manage our lives.

We absolutely and totally need the Holy Spirit of God. Without the Spirit, we are lost. But with the Spirit we experience the saving power of Christ’s cross to deal with everything in our lives.

The Serenity Prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.  Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that he will make all things right if I surrender to his will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with him forever in the next. Amen.