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The Life of Jesus: His Death on the Cross

April 18, 2014

Sermon:  The Life of Jesus: His Death on the Cross
Text:  Matthew 27:31-50

Our Scripture reading today comes from Matthew 27:31-50:

31 After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.
32 As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross. 33 They came to a place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). 34 There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it. 35 When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots. 36 And sitting down, they kept watch over him there. 37 Above his head they placed the written charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS.
38 Two rebels were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” 41 In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. 42 “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” 44 In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.
45 From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. 46 About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
47 When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”
48 Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. 49 The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”
50 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.


This is the Word of God for the people of God today.

Something about Holy Week requires sleep deprivation. The Moravians enforce this. In Old Salem they stay awake all night long on Saturday night, marching through the streets with big brass bands, looking forward to gathering at God’s Half Acre Cemetery at Home Moravian Church and celebrating Easter as the sun rises.

A story in the Bible tells about the disciples who were too tired to stay awake with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Imagine. Grief will absolutely wear you out physically and mentally. It is Luke, the physician, who recognizes that the disciples fell asleep in the Garden because of their sorrow and exhaustion. I suppose that if Peter, James, Andrew, John, Thomas and all the others had known what Friday would hold, they would have decided to pull an all-nighter, much like college students do when they have a big exam.

Last night at three o’clock in the morning, our telephone rang. When I answered the phone our son Scott asked, “Dad, can you come to our house?”

I went. His mother-in-law, Carolyn Jolly, who is in Hospice House, is very close to death. He sent me a text this morning at 9:00 that said, “It won’t be long.” Scott needed me to come stay with our grandchildren, feed them breakfast, dress them, and take them to school. I did that, then went back home to take a nap.

I sat down in my easy chair and started listening to The St. John Passion, which I enjoy listening to on Good Fridays. It is a beautiful requiem, written by John Sebastian Bach who was responsible for the music at St. Thomas Church and also at St. Nicholas Church. He composed The St. John Passion, a moving piece, for a vesper service on Good Friday. Though it was written in 1724, it will get you where you need to be for Good Friday.

We sit here today and gaze at this cross before us. Think of the cross of Jesus. The great religions of the world all have an object of beauty as their central emblem. The eastern religions have a lotus flower. The Jewish faith has the Star of David. For Islam, it is a crescent moon, something shared with South Carolina of all things. The central emblem of the Christian church is a cross. It could resemble the brass cross above our baptistery or the wooden one we have used many years now in the Sanctuary during this season. The central symbol of our Christian faith is an instrument of execution. Jesus could have died by any method – lethal injection, a firing squad, or the gas chamber. He could have died like so many other Jews died in the gas chambers of Dachau and Auschwitz. He could have died in an electric chair.

My guess is that some of you are wearing crosses today. Can you imagine wearing a miniature electric chair around your neck? Thinking of the cross as an instrument of execution demystifies it, making us see it in all of its stark reality.

With crucifixion, the Romans devised a way to kill a prisoner slowly, extracting as much pain as possible. The actual crucifixion sometimes did not even happen. The prisoner often died during the flogging. If you have seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ, you know how bloody and gruesome the scenes are. Prisoners actually put on a cross died by suffocation. The weight of their body pressed down on the thoracic cavity, making breathing very difficult. Slowly their lungs filled with their own body fluid, causing them to essentially drown.

The soldiers would often break the legs of a prisoner who took too long to die. Doing so would prevent the prisoner from supporting his weight on his own feet. When they thought of doing that to Jesus and returned, it was not necessary. He was already dead. Just to make sure, however, they speared him in the side, possibly striking a kidney. Scripture says that water and blood flowed, mingled down.

We talk about the blood of Jesus, as in the line of the hymn, “There is a fountain filled with blood…” We talk about the blood of Jesus as if he had more than the eight to twelve pints that most of us have. Those who have seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, know the blood was enough, not only in the literal sense. It was also enough to secure salvation for a broken world.

The Gospels of Luke and John contain all seven of the last words of Jesus. Matthew and Mark, however, include only one, the Aramaic cry, “Eli, Eli lema sabachthani!” which means, “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” Some misunderstood this cry, thinking he was calling on Elijah. “Maybe Elijah will come and save him.” No. Some say Jesus was quoting Psalm 22:1, which repeats that same cry. That psalm ends with an assurance that the one who felt God-forsaken now was going to tell others about the love of God. Whether that is true or not, I do not know. I do know that on that day at the place called the Skull, nowhere on earth ever seemed more God-forsaken. Crucifixion was without the modesty afforded by Renaissance painters. Jesus was stripped. He was beaten. He was mocked. He was crucified. Even at the cross the crowd mocked him.

Matthew gives explicit details about comments people made. We hear the mocking of the high priests, “He saved others. Let him save himself.” On that day and in that place, salvation seemed utterly impossible. “If he is the ‘king of the Jews,’ let him come down.” Jesus could not come down from the cross if he was to accomplish his mission. He could not come down and accomplish the purpose God had ordained for him. So he died.

Why was this necessary? Why did Jesus have to die? Christians have come up with many reasons. The first question to ask is, “Did God really forsake him?” I have heard many sermons that say in that moment God turned his back on Jesus. Let me ask you. Would you turn your back on one of your children in their moment of greatest need? God did not turn His back on Jesus. God did not turn a deaf ear. James Russell Lowell got it right in his hymn “Once to Every Man and Nation” when he says, “Standeth God within the shadows, keeping watch o’er all His own.” God heard the cry. God saw the agony. God loved this son. This is not just Mary’s son flattened out against a timber there. This is the Son of God. God knew that if the world was to be saved, this had to be done.

During the time I worked in a chaplain for an institution for juvenile delinquents, I made a real attempt to bring home the reality of the cross. It was not an easy task with kids that were street-hardened, kids that had seen a lot of violence, kids who had even seen death up-close-and-personal. A cross similar to the one here in our Sanctuary was placed in the big auditorium at the institution. We put spotlights on it. I played an old recording of the Scripture on a record player. At the moment where Jesus breathed his last, the light on the cross turned from blue to red. One of the maintenance workers behind the scenes began striking an anvil with a hammer. Then everything fell silent.

From the back of the room, one boy shouted out, “No!” Then he cursed, taking God’s name in vain. Later those kids asked me, “If he had all this power, why did he let them do that?” Kids of the street think, “Surely there is a way out.”

Christians tend to gloss over why this death was necessary. We do not like to think too much about something we call the doctrine of atonement. It confuses us. It is hard to get our minds around us. It all centers on the question, “Who required this?”

One answer is that God required it, that somehow the death of Jesus is a substitute for us. We saw that so clearly in the service last night. The very common doctrine of the atonement says that Jesus took our place, that somehow God – a God of justice – demands a pound of flesh. Someone has to die. Did God decide to substitute His own Son for all the rest of us? No.

Some see this as a ransom. The Scriptures even mention ransom. It is as if Satan had somehow kidnapped the entire world and was demanding a ransom payment. Did God and Satan sit down together at a table like kids trading baseball cards? “I will give you one Jesus for the rest of the world.” Was this a swap of prisoners? “You take Jesus. I will free the rest of the world.” Was God striking a bargain with Satan? No.

Some say that this was mob violence led by the leaders. Herod and Pilate did not get along well until now. Common enemies make strange bedfellows. Jesus spent a long night being passed back and forth between the two. We see great collusion here between the empire and the temple. The Sanhedrin held a kangaroo court in the middle of the night, violating once again their rules. Even good Jewish scholars will tell you that at this point in history, the post of high priesthood was corrupt. The average length of stay for a high priest was about ten months. Execution by the Romans usually followed because the priests would not compromise. Annas and Caiaphas compromised, remaining in power a long time. Together they held the post of high priest for about forty-one years. The mob shouted, “Crucify him!” and Pilate washed his hands of the whole thing, turning Jesus over to the mob. “Nice try, Governor! I am innocent of this man’s blood.”

I used to drive the old Saluda Grade, Highway 176. You can still travel the old road by getting off at Tryon and driving north to Saluda. This road, made with mules and drag pans, follows the twists and turns of the mountains. One of my great horrors was meeting a big petroleum tanker coming down that mountain when I was going up the mountain. Those hairpin curves do not let you stay in your lane very well. I do not know if those tanker trucks even tried to keep in their lane. It was miserable getting behind one of those trucks going up the grade, but getting in front of one coming down the grade would scare the bejebbies out of you.

All along the Saluda Grade, someone put over and over again signs that were not well made. The signs read “Jesus saves” and “Jesus died for your sins.” If the planks had been longer, the painter might have written, “Jesus died for your sins on the Saluda Grade.” Those signs looked as if they had been painted in someone’s backyard. They were messy, painted with irregular letters. Paint dripped off the bottom. I thought, If you’re going to declare the gospel on the Saluda Grade, you could at least get a neat sign made somewhere at a shop. Those signs were sloppy.

There was nothing neat about Calvary. Blood dripped down at the bottom.

I have tried to imagine who made those signs and placed some high up on the trees. I have imagined someone hanging by their heels out over those rock ledges, trying to put up that sign. I found something a little offensive about those “Jesus saves” signs all along the Saluda Grade.

One day I realized that the signs were incomplete. They should have included a name at the end…Jesus saves Bob. Jesus saves Sam. Jesus saves Jack or Holly or Chris. Jesus saves Kirk.

When I think about who required what happened on that hill, Golgotha, so long ago, I understand that I required it. I cannot blame it on the Jews as Hitler did. I cannot blame it on the Romans, though they certainly had a part in it. I cannot blame it on God or Satan or the mob. None of us would have ever believed just how much Jesus loves us if he had not loved us to death. Jesus loves you to death. That is why we call it Good Friday.

Let’s bow together for our benediction. Now may the love of God, fully revealed in the face of Jesus, keep your hearts and your minds at peace in Christ this day and forevermore. Amen.

Kirk H. Neely
© April 2014

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