Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Terrible chapters in our history teach us to be careful in talking about being “hanged on a tree,” as the history of slavery and racism in our country may come to mind too easily. Experts estimate that over approximately seven decades spanning the turn of the 20th century, about 4,000 people have been lynched in the United States. The last lynching was only 39 years ago in 1981 when the Ku Klux Klan hanged a 19-year-old African American boy named Michael Donald from a tree in Mobile, Alabama.
Such violence is still sensitive in the minds of some and many don’t like to talk about this history in our country because it reminds us of our country’s sins. We similarly may not want to talk about Jesus’ hanging on the tree of the cross because it is extremely violent and is stark evidence of our guilt in our sins, but we need to talk about it to understand its violence, shame, and eternal significance.
The Shame of Hanging from a Tree
From our first reading in Deuteronomy [21:22-23], we heard the Lord through Moses in his final sermon command the people of Israel to bury on the same day criminals who were hung on a tree. This hanging was after the criminal had already been executed by stoning or some other method. Hanging on a tree after execution publicly displayed the criminal’s shame [Schneider, 39] and deterred others from committing the same crime [TLSB, 312]. Such criminals were cursed by God and being displayed on a tree showed the shame of God’s judgement and rejection. Yet there was to be a limit: God said that leaving them hanging overnight would defile the land He was giving the Israelites. So, they were to be buried that same day.
The people of Israel were not the first or the only ones to use trees or wood for such purposes. The book of Genesis reports that Pharaoh’s chief baker, who was imprisoned with Joseph, was hung from a tree [Genesis 40:19, 22]. The book of Esther much later reports that the Persian king hung two of his rebellious eunuchs [Esther 2:23]. The Bible reports at least two other cases where the people of Israel under Joshua did obey this particular command to bury those hung by a tree on the same day [Joshua 8:29; 10:26-27].
Of course, the Israelites could hardly boast that they obeyed that particular command or any of God’s commandments all the time. In today’s second reading from Galatians, we heard St. Paul quote from elsewhere in Deuteronomy [27:26] as he wrote about salvation by faith, saying that everyone who does not abide by and do all the things written in the Book of the Law is cursed. Because no one can keep the whole Law all the time, he says, no one is justified before God. This includes you and me.
In thoughts, words, and deeds, we fail to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul; and we fail to love our neighbours as ourselves [Matthew 22:37-40]. We each know our own failures better than others know them, and God knows them best of all! Such failures flow from our sinful nature we inherited from the first man and woman who ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in an active rebellion against God, and for such failures we deserve to be rejected by God. We all deserve to be hung by the curse of the tree!
Yet do we think of such an outcome as being shameful? Are we ashamed of our sins? What do we consider to be offensive? Are we more concerned about loss of respect than we are of our guilt because we’re afraid to call out sin for what it is? For example, we would rather offend God because we fear offending our LGBT neighbour, or our friend or family member who commits some other kind of sin. We fear the disrespect and hatred of man more than we fear God’s rejection. We prefer the curse of God to the curse of man.
That’s how messed up we are—or, as Luther would say, that’s how much we’re “curved inward” upon ourselves. Under the Law, all these sins and more—and all those who commit them—are cursed by God. This is reality. No amount of rationalising your sins and the sins of your friends and family will stop this from being true. Reality is stubborn like that. Yet there’s a reason we call it Good Friday.
Justification by Faith via the Tree of the Cross
As we heard from St. Paul in Galatians, the sinless and righteous Jesus redeemed you from the curse of the Law by becoming that curse for you, being hanged on the three of the cross. For us and for our salvation, Jesus humbly endured the shame of crucifixion, the greatest possible insult—stripped, beaten, and left hanging naked before the world—so that you and I might be sinless and righteous [2 Corinthians 5:21], not by the Law, but by faith in Him. Jesus Christ took to the cross your sins—your curse, becoming that curse for you.
That is why we call it “Good Friday.” In truth, it’s a bittersweet day. It’s bitter in that yours and my sins killed God the Son, and that He had to die in order to save us. Yet it’s sweet in that Jesus did this willingly by becoming cursed for you because He desires to be gracious and merciful. That’s why we call it Good Friday because Jesus did the good thing—really, the best thing—of dying and suffering God’s wrath and rejection in your place. And when this is believed by faith, you are justified, hence the term we Lutherans use all the time: justification by faith.
Yet perhaps this term is new for you. Maybe you’ve never heard it before or maybe you’ve been Lutheran for a long time but don’t quite remember what it means. If you do, then here’s an opportunity for you to be reminded of what Jesus did for you this holy day.
“Justification by faith” is a legal term; we also call it “forensic justification.” So, let’s think of what Jesus did in terms of the court of law. Specific laws and its systems have changed throughout history in its different empires, but the one common thing among them all is that the person being accused needs to be proven of his guilt. We know what this looks like; we have a lot of TV shows that portray this.
The accused typically has a defence attorney arguing on his behalf while the prosecuting attorney argues for his guilt. Both lawyers lay evidence before the judge and the jury that would prove either his guilt or innocence beyond a reasonable doubt.
Only, God’s Court of Law is vastly different. God the Judge is omniscient—He knows all things; He doesn’t need a jury, though certainly His angelic hosts would be watching your court case. You stand before God the Judge guilty of all the things you’ve done, even the thing left undone but you thought about doing. You cannot prove your supposed innocence because it’s non-existent. You know the bad things you’ve done. Even the ones you think you’ve hidden! On the scales of justice, all the bad you’ve done always far outweigh all the good you’ve done. In fact, all the “good” you’ve done are actually considered bad because of your sinful nature!
Even worse, you don’t have a defence attorney. No one comes to your defence because there’s nothing to defend! The only lawyer who stands before the Judge is Satan, whose very name means “Accuser.” Satan does what he does best: he accuses you of everything you’ve done and left undone, and the Judge already knows it. The Devil is merely a redundant annoyance. The curse of the Law is clear: you must suffer the punishment. You must die and face God’s eternal rejection.
Yet the Judge is not finished with your case. He is waiting to hear from Someone else. He is waiting to hear from His Son. After hearing the case of the Accuser, His Son steps forward as your defence attorney and the Judge says, “What say You?” And Jesus says, “Father, You know.”
Then the Judge slams His holy hammer down and declares the final sentence: “The evidence before the Court is incontrovertible: I hereby judge you innocent! For all eternity, I declare you justified in the name of My Son!”
God’s judgement of justification by faith is what has taken place that first Good Friday on the cross. Before the court proceedings even take place, Jesus offered Himself up as the sacrifice to make atonement for all your sins. As Jesus Himself said, “Whoever hears My Word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life. He does not come into judgement but has passed from death to life” [John 5:24]. You will not face judgement because Christ has already taken that judgement upon Himself—upon that violence, shame, and rejection of the cross.
Under the curse of the Law, only blood can be offered for one’s life. As it is written in Leviticus, God speaks through Moses, “‘For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life… For the life of every creature is its blood: its blood is its life'” [17:11, 14].
Blood must be shed. Your blood must be shed. Yet God gave up the blood of His Son to make atonement for your soul. Whoever believes this, Jesus says, has eternal life. Only the justified can have such life.
The reason why we uphold the doctrine of justification by faith in the Lutheran Church above all others is because of what it declares through the Word of the Cross. The Greek word for “justify” literally means “to make righteous,” or “to make right.” As we believe, teach, and confess with the Scriptures, only God is righteous—only God is right. We are total opposites of this. God is God; we are ungodly—literally, not God, or anti-God.
Yet as you heard Pastor Mat preach not too long ago from Romans 5, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” [v. 6]. The ungodly are God’s enemies! Jesus died for His enemies! As Paul continues, “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die” [v. 7]. We might consider dying for “a good person,” or for a loved one, but we would never die for our enemy! But Jesus did! You and I were His enemies, and He chose to die to save us.
As the High Priest of Heaven, Jesus chose to offer Himself up as the sacrifice to make atonement for your life, His enemy, by His own blood. And because you believe this, you are no longer His enemy, but He now considers you His friend [John 15:15], His brother and sister [Matthew 12:50], and all of us as one Body Christ considers us His Bride [Revelation 19:7]. By faith in who Jesus is and what He did on the cross, His righteousness becomes yours and your curse of sin becomes His.
As He cried out the fulfilmenet of Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me” [v. 1; cf. Matthew 27:46], Jesus faced God’s rejection so that you would not be rejected by Him, and He was buried that same day.
And in His final words, “It is finished,” He completed the work of justification that by faith in Jesus—by believing in Him—God makes you righteous, that is, He makes you right with Him. Therefore, the cross is no longer a symbol of shame, but for God’s people it has become the symbol of Christ’s power and victory over Death for you and me.
Therefore, on this Good Friday, let us rejoice in our Lord who gave Himself over to Death so that you and I might be saved from its curse. And so, at the end of our lives, we shall only pass into a temporary sleep in His gracious arms until the Lord reawakens us upon the dawn of His morning star in the new creation. Amen.
“Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.” Equal Justice Initiative. https://eji.org/reports/lynching-in-america/. Accessed March 31, 2020.
Schneider, Johannes. “xylon.” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Ed. Gerhard Friedrich. Trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Vol. 5. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967.
The Lutheran Study Bible. Deuteronomy 21:22-23 textual note.