Photo: The “Famine Cross”, Church of the Immaculate Conception, Clonakilty.
It seems like long while since I put a sermon on this blog, so here are the words I spoke from at the Methodist Church in Clonakilty last night, for Good Friday…
Text: Matthew 27:33-54
I read an extraordinary story in the news last night. It happened in Iran. A man was to be hanged for murdering a young man of 17 in a street fight. The photos showed a large crowd all around him, pressing in on the scaffolding that surrounds the place of execution. The condemned man is standing there on a chair with a noose around his neck. There he was in tears and moments from death when the mother and father of the man he had killed came up to him and together removed the noose from around his neck, the mother declaring that she had forgiven him. Understandably this has caused quite an uproar in Iran, enough of an uproar that it is even being reported about in Ireland…
Our reading for this evening concerns another place of execution and one in which the man being executed is entirely innocent. The uproar caused by this particular execution has sent shockwaves through history ever since, shockwaves that transcend time and distance, language and culture, heaven and hell.
As we turn to Matthew 27, starting at verse 33, the Lord Jesus, who had already been flogged, mocked, spat at, and had a crown of thorns pushed onto His head is brought to the place of execution, known as Golgotha, the place of the skull. The Lord refused the bitter wine he is offered; He wants to face what is ahead with full clarity of mind. Matthew does not give us any details of the crucifixion, he merely writes: “And when they crucified him they divided his garments among them by casting lots.” This is talking about the Roman soldiers who would have been the ones to nail Jesus to the cross, hoist him up and then keep watch. It is their job to keep the people at least a spears distance away from the cross and it is easy for us to imagine a seething crowd of people around, some mocking, some grieving, and some just waiting to see what might happen. In the crowd were Mary, Jesus’ mother, some of the disciples and many of Jesus’ friends, but also the chief priests, scribes and elders and many others who were only too glad to see the Lord Jesus as He now was.
The soldiers put up a sign above Jesus which read “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews”, we learn from John’s Gospel that the religious leaders did not like this sign at all (John 19:19-22), but Pilate, who had written it would not let it be changed.
We are told that two robbers were crucified with Jesus, one on His right and one on His left and so we can imagine the scene more clearly, soldiers around the three crosses, a sizeable crowd, many of whom were mocking Jesus and even passers by we are told, wag their heads, deriding Him, saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself. If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” (v.39, 40). Are we not reminded in these words of the words of satan as he tempted Jesus in the wilderness: “If you are the Son of God…” (Matthew 4:3). Here again Jesus is being tempted to leave the cross, to show His power. The words of the accusers, even the chief priests, elders and scribes ringing in His ears saying: “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him…” Of course, Jesus could have come down from the cross if He had wanted to, He could have silenced the jeering and the mocking with a show of power or with legions of angels. But He chose the path of suffering because He was on the cross not though human plan or action; He was not there because things had gone wrong. He was there because it had been planned all along that He would give His life as a ransom for all (1 Timothy 2:6), to purchase freedom for all who would receive it.
Matthew tells us that at the sixth hour, (that is 12 noon); there was darkness over all the land. This was no ordinary darkness; it can only have been a special act of God, as it lasted for three hours. Obviously we cannot even begin to imagine the suffering that the Lord Jesus took on Himself during that time. The pain of the nails in his hands and feet, the pain and exhaustion of hauling up His tired body to breathe, all this would have been nothing in comparison to taking upon Himself the sin of the whole world, including my sin and yours. He experienced the full punishment that our sins deserve. He experienced God’s anger and wrath that would otherwise have been directed at us. He experienced the judgement of the Father that we deserved. So great was this suffering that Jesus calls out a line from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Son of God, who had in all eternity known total oneness and intimacy with the father and with the Spirit, is now rejected and judged and punished for our sin, as He hangs in the place of execution, dying the death that we deserve to die. Finally, when the time comes for Jesus to die He gives up His spirit not in weakness fading to death but with a loud voice, which John records as Jesus saying, “It is finished.” (John 19:30).
God the Father responds in a dramatic way. The curtain of the temple is torn in two. No longer would an elaborate system of animal sacrifices be necessary. No longer would God be inaccessible and hidden. No longer would there be an enormous unfathomable chasm between God and us. There was now a bridge, in the shape of a cross, and we are free to cross over that bridge into the Holy of Holies. The dividing barrier, symbolised by the curtain in the temple was now torn in two. Next we see that there is an earthquake, strong enough that rocks are splitting and tombs opening. Godly people who had died are now raised from the dead and come out of the tombs. Later, after Jesus’ resurrection these risen saints go into the city and appear to many.
The reading ends with the Roman centurion being filled with awe. What had started out as a day like any other day for him had become utterly like any other day in history. He had seen how the Lord Jesus had calmly and silently dealt with the mocking and accusations, even uttering words of forgiveness (Luke 23:34). He had seen the dignity and authority of Jesus even in the midst of unimaginable pain and suffering and he had witnessed the supernatural darkness, the earthquake and the raising of the dead saints coming out of their tombs. All this had an effect, a profound effect on the centurion, enough for him to utter those famous words: “Truly this was the Son of God!” (54)
This is the point where we come into the story. What is our response to it? This is not just ancient history, the cross of Christ transcends time and space and it is indeed a crossroads in all of our lives. How do we respond to Jesus? How do we respond to the fact that He died for us, that He willingly and totally gave His life for us in order that we might be forgiven and made right with God? How do we respond to such incredible love? Surely when such an overwhelming gift is offered to us, we take it, then with tears of gratitude in our eyes we say ‘thank you’.
The Lord Jesus not only takes the noose off our neck, He places it around His own neck and dies in our place. Not only that but He wants us to be with Him, to allow Him to live in us and to be His friend and disciple and to walk with Him and talk with Him and share our whole life with Him. How could we not want to do this? It is the most beautiful gift and it is one that He offers to ever single one of us, please I ask you, accept it with all your heart. Amen.