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.

1 John 2:1-6 – Live as Jesus Did

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did. (New International Version)

Jesus is our advocate, the one who speaks on our behalf, our mediator, who stands in the gap between heaven and earth, standing-up for us when we have no leg to stand on. 

Christ has atoned for all our sin, guilt, and shame through his “propitiation” which means that his death satisfied all demands of justice and put to rest the sin issue once for all through his blood. Christ’s gracious intervention has saved us from ourselves. 

Jesus Christ has made it possible for us to experience forgiveness, restoration, and new life. Whenever we are so broken and so full of tears that we cannot even speak words at all, Jesus steps in and speaks on our behalf with words that mean something because they have been backed up with the action of the cross.

“But” as the late Ron Popeil used to say on the old commercials, “that’s not all!” Not only do we have deliverance from sin, death, and hell, Christ’s followers have both the means and the opportunity to give back and be a blessing to one another and the world. The Spirit enables us to obey God’s commands and is the continuing presence of Jesus to us and on this earth.

Christians are called to be little advocates, practicing the ministry of coming alongside and interceding for one another before God. We can agents of spiritual healing in a world of brokenness. Our gospel proclamation, a message of grace and forgiveness, gets to the very root of human problems and travails.

  • Anyone who harms and hurts others as a matter of habit in the name of Christ, and does not heal, is no follower of Jesus but is a victimizer.
  • Any person who talks a good talk, and walks a bad walk, is not living as Jesus did, and is a spiritual pettifogger.
  • Anybody who claims the name of Christ and avoids reading and studying and praying over the New Testament Gospels, is a slovenly lout, no matter whether they have prayed a “sinners prayer.”

Whoever claims to live for Christ must live as Jesus did. So, how did Jesus live?

“If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me.”

Jesus (Matthew 16:24, NLT)

“You know that the rulers of the non-Jewish people love to show their power over the people. And their important leaders love to use all their authority. But it should not be that way among you. Whoever wants to become great among you must serve the rest of you like a servant. Whoever wants to become first among you must serve the rest of you like a slave. In the same way, the Son of Man did not come to be served. He came to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many people.” (Matthew 20:25-28, NCV)

He came to tell about the light and to lead all people to have faith.

John 1:7, CEV

“You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (John 13:13-15, NRSV)

Your life must be controlled by love, just as Christ loved us and gave his life for us as a sweet-smelling offering and sacrifice that pleases God.

Ephesians 5:2, GNT

Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

Though he was in the form of God,
        he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
        by taking the form of a slave
        and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
        he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
        even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8, CEB)

Don’t be angry with each other but forgive each other. If you feel someone has wronged you, forgive them. Forgive others because the Lord forgave you.

Colossians 3:13, ERV

But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

“He committed no sin,
    and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:20-23, NIV)

This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.

1 John 3:16, CEB

Christians inhabit unlovely places for the purpose of putting sacrificial love there. This is what it means to live as Jesus did.

O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing. Send your Holy Spirit and pour into my heart your greatest gift, which is the love of God in Christ, the true source of healing and the real bond of peace. Amen.

Psalm 1 – Two Different Ways

Oh, the joys of those who do not
    follow the advice of the wicked,
    or stand around with sinners,
    or join in with mockers.
But they delight in the law of the Lord,
    meditating on it day and night.
They are like trees planted along the riverbank,
    bearing fruit each season.
Their leaves never wither,
    and they prosper in all they do.

But not the wicked!
    They are like worthless chaff, scattered by the wind.
They will be condemned at the time of judgment.
    Sinners will have no place among the godly.
For the Lord watches over the path of the godly,
    but the path of the wicked leads to destruction. (New Living Translation)

Today’s psalm presents us with two differing ways we can choose to shape our lives: The way of the upright and virtuous, or the way of the unethical and depraved. 

The way of the right and just person leads to human flourishing and life – whereas the way of the wicked and unjust person leads to human degradation and death. 

Distinguishing between the righteous and the wicked is not always as easy as it looks.

Only at the end of the age, when the Day of Judgment comes, will we know for certain the righteous and the wicked.

The magisterial Reformer, Martin Luther, contrasted these two ways with his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. Luther called the way of the wicked a theology of glory – and described the way of the righteous as the theology of the cross.

The cross of Christ, as expressed by Luther, is God’s attack on human sin. Christ’s death is central to Christianity, and one must embrace the cross and rely completely and totally upon Christ’s finished work on the cross to handle human sin. Through being crucified with Christ, we find the way to human flourishing and life. In other words, righteousness is gained by grace through faith in Christ.

Conversely, the theology of glory is the opposing way of the cross. For Luther, the wicked person, and the vilest offender of God, is not the person who has done all kinds of outward sinning and heinous acts. The worst of sinners do good works.

Specifically, the wicked person is the one who does all kinds of nice things – yet does them disconnected from God by wanting others to see their good actions. Another way of putting this: The wicked person is one who seeks to gain glory for self, rather than giving glory to God.

Our good works can be the greatest hindrance to righteousness.

It is far too easy to place faith in our good works done apart from God, rather than having a naked trust in Christ alone. And it is far too easy to do good things for the primary purpose of having others observe our goodness, rather than do them out of the good soil of being planted in God’s Word. 

The remedy for sin is the cross, and the sinner is one who lives apart from that cross, trusting in self so that people can recognize and give them their perceived due respect and accolades.

“It is impossible for a person not to be puffed by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.”

Martin Luther

We are not to avoid good works but do them from the good soil of being planted in the law of God and connected to the vine of Christ. When the psalmist uses the term “law” he is referring to Scripture as a whole, to all the acquired wisdom about how life is supposed to be lived in God’s big world.

The righteous are those who immerse themselves in the law; secretly rise early to meditate on God’s Word; privately pour over Scripture’s message and pray to put it into practice because they want to delight in God. Their fruit will be abundant and sweet.  

The wicked, however, are simply too busy to take note what the law says; only serve to be seen; and publicly desire to be recognized for their charity and works. Such works will not stand when Judgment Day comes.

You’re nothing but show-offs. You’re like tombs that have been whitewashed. On the outside they are beautiful, but inside they are full of bones and filth. (Matthew 23:27, CEV)

Truly righteous people have a humble sense that they could easily drift from God, if not staying connected and rooted in Jesus and the way of the cross. 

The wicked, in contrast, are like chaff – worthless, and not adding value to anything. They are arrogant and annoying – wanting all the attention that God rightly deserves. The wicked have nothing to contribute to God’s kingdom. They hinder the harvest of souls God is working toward with their irritating attitudes.

Generosity marks the righteous because God is generous. Grace defines the righteous because God is gracious.  Gentleness is the way of the righteous because Christ is gentle. Spiritual prosperity is the result of a righteous relationship cultivated with Jesus Christ. The Lord watches over the way of such persons.

The way of the wicked will perish.

We have sixteen prophetic books in the Old Testament, all given to a single message: Judgment is coming because of wickedness.  And the wicked turn out to be God’s covenant people, because they selectively did their good works to gain glory for themselves. They withheld the good they could have done because it did not add any value to their reputation or their personal goals.

God desires genuine spiritual growth for us. That will only happen if we avoid the theology of glory and embrace a theology of the cross – delighting in God and the law.

Every day, we have a choice to make: The way of connection and life, or the way of disconnection and death. 

Look here! Today I’ve set before you, life and what’s good versus death and what’s wrong. If you obey the Lord your God’s commandments that I’m commanding you right now by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments, his regulations, and his case laws, then you will live and thrive, and the Lord your God will bless you…. But if your heart turns away and you refuse to listen, and so are misled, worshipping other gods and serving them,I’m telling you right now that you will definitely die…. I have set life and death, blessing and curse before you. Now choose life—so that you and your descendants will live—by loving the Lord your God, by obeying his voice, and by clinging to him. That’s how you will survive and live long…. (Deuteronomy 30:15-20, CEB)

The idols of our hearts can so easily draw us away from God so that our own good works are done for an audience who will recognize and affirm. Instead, our daily choice must be to love God supremely and give God glory for everything good in our lives. 

What will you choose this day?