April 6, 2016

March 25, 2016 - Good Friday

This year during our Midweek Lenten worship we focused on personal accounts from certain eye-witnesses present at Christ’s trial and crucifixion. This evening we take a look at the final of our eye-witnesses, the Roman Centurion who was present at Golgotha as he speaks to us about the seven statements of Christ on the cross. In between each of the seven we’ll sing hymn verses that correspond to each, from hymns 180-186 in the Red Hymnal. The Centurion’s bold and miraculous confession of faith comes from Matthew 27:54.

So when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, "Truly this was the Son of God!"

I was there on the very first Good Friday to witness Jesus, the Son of God, on the cross. As a centurion, I had a unique perspective that day. I was standing guard to keep order along with some of my men. It was more of a formality than anything. There was no need to worry about Jesus or either one of the thieves escaping from the cross. I had overseen plenty of crucifixions before. Despite their horrific nature I had become quite used to them. And also, as a man of war, I had become accustomed to seeing atrocities. That part of it didn’t really phase me at all.

Yes, it takes a lot to surprise a man of war. And it was something different about Jesus that surprised me and all my men that day. It wasn’t the pain or the suffering. It was something much simpler; the words of Jesus on the cross. We all heard them. We saw those whom He directed them to. And they changed us all. My confession of Jesus as the Son of God came directly from the few things I was blessed to hear from Him. Let me take you this evening through each of the seven statements from Jesus on the cross. After some brief thoughts on each, you can offer your own songs of praise with hymn verses.

The first words Jesus spoke were to many the most surprising of all. I can attest to the impact they had on me. After everything that had been done to Jesus, He prayed to His Father for forgiveness for His enemies. His reasoning was that they acted in ignorance. I didn’t know much about Jesus, whether He was guilty or not. But I did know enough about crucifixion to know that plenty of wrongdoings were regularly committed. Soldiers and bystanders alike took extracurricular liberties with the condemned. They would often taunt and mock those who ascended to the cross. We soldiers in particular would get a few extra shots in behind the scenes. Our entire occupation was about catching the wrongdoers; there was a sense of satisfaction when you could lay you hands upon one. But, Jesus endured the mistreatment better than anyone else. Usually cursing and swearing would be exchanged but He remained silent. And then, He prayed for the forgiveness of those who mistreated Him? It was astounding and it caught my attention. And I’m grateful for I continued to listen.

1. Jesus, in Thy dying woes
Even while Thy life-bIood flows,
Craving pardon for Thy foes:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

2. Savior, for our pardon sue
When our sins Thy pangs renew,
For we know not what we do:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

3. Oh, may we who mercy need
Be like Thee in heart and deed
When with wrong our spirits bleed:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

The next words Jesus said were actually part of a private conversation with one of the thieves who were crucified next to Him. This thief had previously mocked Jesus with the others, but now had a change of heart. I remember thinking that Jesus’ prayer to His Father must have had some merit because it seemed to work immediately. One who had defiantly blasphemed now confessed his wrongdoing in total repentance.

And what Jesus said in response was nothing short of amazing. He spoke of a Paradise that this thief would witness that very day. All the soldiers looked at one another with perplexed expressions. How could Jesus and this thief possibly think of Paradise when they both were about to die? If Jesus had promised the same to me I probably would have scoffed at the notion. Yet, just as amazing as the promise itself was the thief’s reaction. He died that day upon the cross in complete peace and confidence. Something indeed had changed within him and today I know what it was: the peace of forgiveness and eternal life.

There’s a passage in the Scriptures that tells us that all of God’s promises receive a “Yes” because of Jesus (2 Corinthians 1:20). That’s precisely what I witnessed with the second statement that Jesus spoke, the beautiful conversation between Himself and the thief. He could promise Paradise and deliver because He earned the right to say “Yes” to all of God’s promises. All people feel a certain amount of fear when it comes to death. Even I, who spent most of my life around war and death, have a healthy respect for the end of days. But, very few have the same peace that the thief did. I wanted that too, so I kept listening.   

1. Jesus, pitying the sighs
Of the thief who near Thee dies,
Promising him Paradise:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

2. May we in our guilt and shame
Still Thy love and mercy claim,
Calling humbly on Thy name:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

3. May our hearts to Thee incline,
Looking from our cross to Thine,
Cheer our souls with hope divine: Hear us, holy Jesus.

Jesus’ next statement was directed at those who knelt at the foot of His cross. It was as if He was trying to reach out to everyone who was present in some way. In particular He addressed His mother and one of His followers who was there with her. Spiritually, speaking, there wasn’t much to what Jesus said. He simply requested that His disciple look after His mother. It was common for those condemned to death to make requests for their families for after they were gone. In that sense, there wasn’t much of any significance to Jesus’ words.

But in reality it was a very significant moment, and not just for Jesus’ mother. In most cases, the loved ones of those who suffer offer the comfort and support, not the other way around. You would think that His mother and disciple would be concerned about Jesus but they were the ones who needed His assurance. And in that moment the pieces finally came together in my head. This third statement was essentially the same as the first two, but simply addressed to someone different. Jesus took the three categories of people that were around Him and helped all of them. His enemies, His fellow sufferers, and now His family. Each statement was one of comfort and support; an example of Jesus following the very Law He ordained, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

You are not so distant from this support either. You, too, gather every week at the foot of Jesus’ cross. You, too, hear His words’ many more actually than those present on Good Friday. What do those words mean to you? Do you find the same peace and hope in them that we did? I do hope so, for that was the very reason Jesus endured the cross; to give us all hope.

1. Jesus, loving to the end
Her whose heart Thy sorrows rend, And Thy dearest human friend: Hear us, holy Jesus.

2. May we in Thy sorrows share, For Thy sake all peril dare,
And enjoy Thy tender care:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

3. May we all Thy loved ones be,
All one holy family,
Loving for the love of Thee:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

Jesus’ next words marked a dramatic shift in His demeanor. He went from conversing with those around Him to talked to His Father. And what He said made the strongest of men tremble. He shouted out with whatever remaining strength He had, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” It was at this point that I began to really think about who this Jesus could be. Surely, if He was masquerading as a cheap imposter, He would have broken character at this point. What would have been the reason for continuing the claim of being the Son of God? Almost no one believed Him, and it certainly wasn’t helping His cause. Who would endure such extreme agony for a lie? Why would Jesus continue to follow His Father if it was His very Father who forsook Him upon the cross? What other explanation would fit other than that it was all true?

I’m not saying that this was the moment of my conversion. But it certainly made me keep digging in my mind about who Jesus was. And now that I know more of God’s Word, I am sure this moment was the gateway to the Holy Spirit working upon my sinful heart. For when I sought to learn more about Jesus, it was His Words of Grace and Truth that gave me the answers I was looking for. You Christians who are used to the Holy Spirit’s work may not consider such a moment to be so monumental. But never discredit His work and never doubt the effectiveness of the Gospel message.

As Jesus cried out in agony I ordered two of my men to give Him something to drink. Perhaps the simple feeling of a damp sponge on His parched tongue would help alleviate the suffering. Jesus declined, but I could see the changed expression on my men’s faces. They started the day by despising Jesus as a cheap deceiver. They mocked and they beat Him; some even drove the nails through His hands. They now started to recognize the same that I did, that Jesus was exactly who He claimed to be and He was suffering to pay for our sins.

1. Jesus, whelmed in fears unknown,
With our evil left alone,
While no light from heaven is shown:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

2. When we vainly seem to pray
And our hope seems far away,
In the darkness be our Stay:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

3. Though no Father seem to hear,
Though no light our spirits cheer,
May we know that God is near:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

A short time passed before Jesus spoke again. It was clear that He was languishing far more quickly than the other two. His breathing was quite labored at this point. I felt fatigued just having to listen to it. His face was swollen and bloodied. Fresh blood continued to trickle down His brow as His head swayed. At this point however, who knows how much His nerves even responded to the embedded thorns. He body was puffed up by bruises, yet His figure was lean and gaunt. The scores of gashes on His back were beginning to clot yet you could easily tell the rough cross kept Him in a perpetual state of discomfort.

Finally, He cried for a drink. The agony of dehydration must have been equally difficult to bear. It was around midday yet the sky was covered in darkness. This foreboding shadow across the land placed a feeling of uneasiness within the hearts of the onlookers. The fury and commotion of the early part of the day gave way to an unsettling silence. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who took time to reflect. The uproar of the mob has a way of making things feel right in the heart. But once one has time to stop and think, not everything seems so simple. Great doubt entered my heart about what had been done to Jesus.

I think of this same image often now as I consider my actions in life. How often have I followed the mob, the crowd of the world, feeling great along the way while my Savior withers under the pain of my sins? Yet, soon enough, that initial feeling of pride gives way to guilt. I thank God for helping me remember the pain Jesus had to endure, not because I enjoy the guilt, but because only through Jesus is my conscience at rest. I know by faith that even my guilt and shame were taken away that day.

I pray that you feel the same. To be at one with God you must recognize your guilt. You must take responsibility for the consequences of your sin. Unless you do, you’ll always be hiding from the truth. But there is no way that you can separate yourself from God in which Jesus cannot bring you back. Many are those who begin their lives with hope and optimism for the future. They put off the pressing questions about God and eternity because they don’t feel the need to address them. They go along with the crowd because it’s easy. But life goes quickly and it doesn’t take long for the easy commotion of the morning to give way to the unsettling silence of the afternoon. What once seemed right and proper in our immaturity is soon revealed to be nothing. That’s how I felt on Good Friday. I went along with what I thought was right. I put my doubts and feelings of guilt in the back of my mind. But once the commotion died down, and I was left to ponder my actions, I could no longer hide from the truth. You may not have one day in your life where you feel all of those emotions at the same time. For many people, it stretches out for years, from adolescence, to adulthood, to old age. The point is, it’s never too late for Jesus, and it’s never a waste of time to draw closer to Him.        

1. Jesus, in Thy thirst and pain,
While Thy wounds Thy life-blood drain,
Thirsting more our love to gain:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

2. Thirst for us in mercy still,
Satisfy Thy loving will:
All Thy holy work fulfil.
Hear us, holy Jesus.

3. May we thirst Thy love to know;
Lead us in our sin and woe
Where the healing waters flow:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

The final two statements of Christ, although distinct, were spoken almost as if they were the same. Upon receiving some relief through the sponge, Jesus declared “It is finished,” and His finals immediately after were “Father, into Your hands I commit My Spirit.” After that, there was silence, at least from Jesus. What happened next, though, was anything but silent. The eerie quietness of the land was broken by the rending of the earth. The ground split open, rocks tumbled down from the hills, and everything shook violently.

Screams and shrills filled the air. People ran in terror and fear. Some wailed in agony at the sight of Jesus. Everyone could sense the regret, knowing what had been done. The righteous Son of God had come to earth and we humans had killed Him. We were so caught up in our own affairs that we ignored the clear signs of His coming. The long-established prophecies, the reason for the signs and miracles He did, the authority and wisdom with which He preached, and most importantly, the unique hope that He offered through sins forgiven. We missed it, we missed who He was, simply because we were too busy with ourselves.

In that moment of God’s judgment and anger we realized what we had done. We all felt guilty. We were all led to feelings of despair. All felt it. But, only some also realized this was not the end. Yes, we crucified the Lord who came to save us but the Father knew in advance that it would happen. He knew it needed to happen, and so even through our failures He kept His promise. Even when we chose death, He created life. And so, that is why Jesus said, “It is finished.” He didn’t come to earth to impress with miracles or to astonish through teaching. He came to die and through His death fulfill all righteousness before His Father; atone for your sins and for mine. Yes, we should all feel the guilt of what we did to Jesus. I know that feeling better than most, having been in charge of the very men who put Him on the cross.

But Jesus also wants you to know the peace He brought. He wants you to trust in His words as a victory cry, “It is finished,” for you and for me. The culmination of that day’s events happened as Jesus yielded His life to the Father. Through what I saw and heard, the Holy Spirit moved my heart to believe in Jesus and make my confession. One might say it was easy to believe that day, having seen all we had. But without the coming days and years of using God’s Word, I dare say my faith would have extinguished. I saw more than you have, but my faith came from the same source as yours. The words and promises of Jesus, my Savior. As the young church grew I was able to grow also. I pray that God gives you the same confidence of faith to overcome your doubts and guilt, because all that was needed to give you eternal life has been finished.

1. Jesus, all our ransom paid,
All Thy Father's will obeyed,
By Thy sufferings perfect made:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

2. Save us in our soul's distress,
Be our Help to cheer and bless
While we grow in holiness:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

3. Brighten all our heavenward way
With an ever holier ray
Till we pass to perfect day:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

1. Jesus, all Thy labor vast,
All Thy woe and conflict past,
Yielding up Thy soul at last:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

2. When the death shades round us lower,
Guard us from the Tempter's power,
Keep us in that trial hour:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

3. May Thy life and death supply
Grace to live and grace to die,
Grace to reach the home on high:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

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