Friday, March 25, 2016

The Seventh Word: Homily for Good Friday 2016

It was now about noon,
and darkness came over the whole land
until three in the afternoon,
for the sun stopped shining.
And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.
Jesus called out with a loud voice,
'Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.'
When he had said this, he breathed his last.
(Luke 23:44-46)

And so the scene draws to a close. We've heard already about the six other sentences Jesus uttered while suspended on the cross. They all lead here, to this moment, this climax. And I'd like to suggest this afternoon that there are four key truths we need to see about this last sentence, this string of eight words – four things Jesus wants you to know.

First, Jesus knew death was not the end of the story. That seems like such a simple point, but it's an important one. When Jesus was hanging on the cross, when he thought about what it meant to die, he knew that the story continued on – that the Gospels would not end with the words, “He breathed his last” (Luke 23:46) – literally, “he expired,” he exhaled and didn't inhale. No, such a Gospel would be no gospel at all. Jesus knew there'd be plenty more to tell, that he would breathe again. 

In today's pop culture, death is usually treated as a mystery: “Ooh, is it the end, or isn't it? Nobody can know!” Well, Jesus knew: It isn't the end. His “spirit” does not disappear; it does not dissipate; it does not die out. He sends it to the Father for safekeeping – and so the story continues. Nor, when the cross was hoisted off the ground, was it the last time the warmth of his feet would meet the coolness of this earth. Death was not the end of his earthly story. Jesus's plan wasn't to shift permanently from earth to heaven; he knew he'd return in resurrection, bodily resurrection, and ultimately would be back to stay someday. 

Nor is death the end of our earthly story. When we breathe our last, when our bodies return to dust – well, start the countdown! “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven … and the dead in Christ will rise first. … For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (1 Thessalonians 4:14, 16).

Second, Jesus displayed his deity by exercising sovereignty even over his own death. In these last words from the cross, Jesus does not say, “Oops, I guess I'm dying now.” He says, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). He takes an action – that, at this particular point in time, he chooses to enter the state of bodily death. Nailed to a cross, that isn't a choice we'd get to make. We would die when our body gives out. Not Jesus: he dies when he says he dies, not a moment sooner or a moment later. 

Remember what he himself said earlier? “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father” (John 10:17-18). Jesus has that authority, because he's the divine Father's divine Son – he does the things that only God can or should do, says the things that only God says, is what God is. You cannot point to God, cannot try to identify God, without Jesus in view. And so, after hours on the cross, with his atoning work complete, the worship-worthy Jesus chooses to lay his life down – for now.

Third, Jesus cherished the Bible. Jesus had a deep and profound love for the Scriptures – so much so, he quoted them with literally his dying breath. Did you know that? This line actually comes from Psalm 31: “Into your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, LORD, my faithful God” (Psalm 31:5). Think about that for a moment: the very last thing Jesus said on earth before being taken to the tomb, and he chose to make his last words a quote from the Bible – not something new, not some deep thought, not some aphorism or proverb all his own, but a verse sung by Jews for nearly a thousand years – because Jesus literally loved the Bible to death.

Can we imagine that Jesus loves the Bible less now than he did on the cross? And yet how does our attitude to the Bible stack up? There are church leaders, Christian celebrities, even whole denominations, where the Bible is treated more as an inconvenience or an embarrassment than an authority. It needs to be demythologized, or deconstructed, or corrected, or brought up to date, whenever it gores our sacred cows, whenever it ignores the lines of today's cultural orthodoxy. 

But that's not the mindset of Jesus toward the Bible! Jesus, the living Word of God, didn't share our modern or postmodern disdain for the written word of God. The Bible is relevant in life and death, all on its own terms.

Those of us from churches that extol ourselves as “Bible-believing” – we might be tempted to pride ourselves on this point. “Oh yes, we're plenty better than them,” we might say. But hold your horses! Jesus meditated on Scripture day and night (cf. Psalm 1:2). From youth to adulthood, Jesus went regularly to the synagogues where he could hear the words of the Bible and talk about them with people. Jesus quoted the Bible in every circumstance, and handled its words faithfully – unlike Satan in the wilderness, who twisted them out of context. And Jesus lived every aspect of his life in conformity with what the Bible says. 

For so many of us, the Bible is a dust-collector to keep on the shelf, or to read alone, or to keep for Sundays, or to project our fantasies ontoloved in theory, neglected in practice. But in these words, Jesus shows how highly he prioritizes the Bible in life and in death. May we do likewise.

And fourth, Jesus trusted God even when God seemed most absent. Hanging there on the cross, Jesus entered our darkness. He took upon himself the burden of our sin and its consequences – including our frequent sense that God is distant. When Jesus quoted Psalm 22 in his fourth word from the cross, he meant to evoke a message of deliverance – that, in the end, he'd be rescued and restored to life; that he'd be vindicated from humanity's judgment leveled against him. But Psalm 22 begins with an outcry against God's absence for a reason. Sometimes, we do go through those dark places, where we look for God and can't find him – when, in a practical way, from our perspective, we live as though God-forsaken. On the cross, Jesus went to all those places with us and for us – into the valley of the shadow of death, where faith meets its breaking-point.

And yet – and yet Jesus didn't lose faith, not even in his darkest hour. He didn't say, “God, I give up on you.” Even when God seemed most estranged, Jesus didn't address him as, “Stranger.” Jesus called him “Father.” The relationship, obscured with the hidden sun, drowned out by the roaring mob, was not over. In the most trying time, when Jesus was stripped naked and held up for mockery and reckoned as nothing, when Jesus was at death's door and facing the grave – still, to him, God was “Father” – the same Father he's always been. 

The Father who loved him from eternity past, the Father who sent an angel army to announce his birth, the Father who was pleased at his baptism, the Father who met him in the spoken words of Scripture, the Father who was in constant communion with him on Hanukkah and Purim and Shavuot and Yom Kippur, on Palm Sunday and Spy Wednesday and Maundy Thursday, was still the same Father amidst the lethal agonies of Good Friday!

And Jesus willingly – not out of desperation, but out of a Son's love – trusted himself into his Father's hands. The wording here suggests the image of placing something closer to someone than it is even to us. Jesus puts his spirit in the Father's safe-deposit box and tosses the key at the foot of heaven's throne. He entrusts his spirit to the Father – completely, without reserve, without hesitation. Jesus has faith even when everything visible before his human eyes seems so godless. 

I'm not saying it was easy to have that kind of faith. I'm not saying it feels natural to exercise that kind of faith. But it was the kind of faith that led Jesus to the cross, and that was his constant theme on the cross, and that could not be extinguished by the cross. That kind of faith – not faith in ourselves, not faith in our faith, but faith in the Father – is Psalm 31 faith.

Psalm 31 isn't about giving up hope, about resigning ourselves that God is forever distant. Psalm 31 is a patient cry for help. Listen: “Keep me from the trap that is set for me, for you are my refuge. Into your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, LORD, my faithful God. … As for me, I trust in the LORD. I will be glad and rejoice in your love, for you saw my affliction and knew the anguish of my soul. You have not given me into the hands of the enemy, but have set my feet in a spacious place. … They conspire against me and plot to take my life. But I trust in you, LORD; I say, 'You are my God.' My times are in your hands … In my alarm, I said, 'I am cut off from your sight!' Yet you heard my cry for mercy when I called to you for help. … Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the LORD (Psalm 31:4-8, 13-15, 22, 24).

Psalm 31 is about trusting God – even at that lowest point – to set things right. Jesus wasn't bitter over the cross, over what was happening to him. He entrusted himself to the Father's care in faith, trusting that the cross and the crowds would not have the last words. And as we'll all celebrate this Sunday, Jesus was right! He really was and is the Son of God. The Father didn't reject his Son's spirit. The Father hadn't surrendered the Son into the hands of the enemy; the Son ended in the Father's hands, not the crowds'. The Father did hear the Son's cry on the cross – and answered it, for our sake, on Easter morning, when the gloom of the grave gave way to the unquenchable light of life.

But for now, suffice it to leave the story where it pauses – with the surrender of Jesus' spirit up to the Father. It pauses, not to hold a doleful note of defeat and loss, but with the suspenseful certainty of hope. “And hope does not disappoint” (Romans 5:5). Jesus faced his suffering with a faith that refused to lapse into hopelessness or turn away from the Father. 

And in that, he provides a model for us. That's why his disciple Peter could later encourage Jesus-followers by telling us to celebrate when we face “the fiery ordeal,” and that those suffering in obedience to God should “commit” – same word Jesus used – “commit their souls to the faithful Creator in doing good” (1 Peter 4:19). In ease, in suffering, in wealth, in poverty, in sickness, in health, into the Father's hands we too commit our souls, through the reconciliation Jesus made possible on the cross, with the same hope of deliverance in the end: the hope of Easter.

This afternoon, if you find you aren't free from the trap sin has set for you – if you realize you aren't trusting in the LORD, and you haven't been serving him as your God – if you don't know that God is your Father through your union with Jesus Christ – if hope and life seem far away – if you haven't been committing your soul to the faithful Creator in doing good – then whatever you do, do not leave this sanctuary until that changes! There are plenty of pastors here this afternoon who can meet with you, listen to you, talk with you, pray with you – provide whatever help you need to commit your heart, your soul, your whole life to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Don't put it off to some other day. “I tell you, now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2).  

This day, Good Friday, Jesus submitted to the whip, the crown of thorns, the nails, the rough wood, the mockery and shame, even the cup of the wine of God's wrath – for you. So that he might bury your sin and shame in his tomb, and leave it behind when he rises Easter morning. Don't let the third day's dawn find your life and soul in your own safekeeping – which ain't at all safe. Commit yourself to the Father through the cross of Christ – today.

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