Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Introduction: Looking at the Cross
Brothers and sisters in Christ, when you look at the cross, what do you see? …For some, you might see the Law: you see your guilt and the judgement you deserve. For others, you might see the Gospel: you see your forgiveness and salvation. Both of you would be right, of course. What St. Paul calls in 1 Corinthians the Word of the Cross is God’s work of Law and Gospel in one fell swoop. And so, each time we behold the cross, God does His cyclical work of Law and Gospel in our minds and hearts: our need to repent and faith in His promise to forgive for Christ’s sake.
Here are a few facts about Good Friday we often overlook. First, in addition to His torture, Jesus was horribly sleep deprived. He stayed up all night and into the morning being tried by the Jerusalem Council, Pilate, and Herod. Second, despite their best efforts, the Jerusalem Council could not condemn Jesus because all their witnesses disagreed on the so-called facts. It was Jesus who condemned Himself when, under oath, He declared Himself to be the Christ and the Son of God. The council finally had what they needed to kill Him. Third, our Lord was not wearing a loincloth when He was crucified. Remember how the Roman soldiers stripped Him of His clothes? He was completely naked when He hung upon the cross; it was part of the humiliation of the crucifixion. And fourth, we often split Maundy Thursday and Good Friday into two days, but from the Hebrew calendar at the time in which a new day begins at sundown instead of 12am, the events all happened in one day. (In fact, that’s why our service today didn’t begin with the Invocation, because it’s a continuation of last night’s service.) Jesus’ Passover began with eating the Supper and ended with His burial. And Jesus, our Lord and God, died for you.
The Cross as Law
The philosopher Nietzsche famously said, “God is dead.” Many atheists will say it was man who created God, but they have it backwards. We didn’t create God; we killed Him. Jesus, fully God and fully man, was “despised and rejected by men,” and He was thus “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces,” like His very own disciples. We despised Him and “esteemed Him not.” On this man of sorrows was laid our griefs, our own sorrows, and we left Him to be stricken, smitten, and afflicted by the wrath of God the Father.
We killed Him literally, and today we kill Him figuratively. We remove Him from our lives. In the effort to remove the guilt of their sin, the atheist will get rid of Christ entirely, thus killing Him. God is dead; He neither matters nor exists. Others are more childish in their approach. Some Christians will treat the Word of Christ like a bag of Trail Mix; they take out the parts they don’t like and keep the parts they do like, at least until they finally get sick of the parts they do like and throw out the whole bag. You cannot have parts of Jesus; you must have Him whole. The atheist at least has the mercy to give Jesus a quick death by just getting rid of Him right out of the gate; the Christian who gradually throws out the parts of Jesus they don’t like give Him a slow and painful death in their lives, like that of the crucifixion.
This is why Nietzsche made his observation about Western culture that “God is dead” because not only is God unnecessary for modern and now postmodern people who depend on science and philosophy, but there are also Christians who believe Christ is risen, but you wouldn’t know it in their belief or practice. In belief, they take out parts of His Word they don’t like rather than keeping the whole. In practice, they live by the works of the flesh like sexual immorality, idolatry, egoism, fits of anger, drunkenness, and so forth rather than living by the fruit of the Spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, you know the rest [Gal. 5:19-23]. Christ is risen, which these Christians believe, but in their belief and practice, He might as well be dead. Rather than crucifying “the flesh with its passions and desires,” as Paul puts it [Gal. 5:24], we prefer the more comfortable option of crucifying Christ all over again. We would rather kill Him instead of living according to our Baptism, which is dying to sin that we might walk in the newness of life Christ gives us [Rom. 6:3-4].
Like the sheep in the Parable of the Lost Sheep [Luke 15:1-7], we have all gone astray. Like the Israelites in the Book of Judges, we do what is right in our own eyes. Despising and rejecting Christ and His Word, we crucify Him all over again so that we might live the sexual lives we want to live, worship the false gods we want to worship, and behave with impurity and impiety so that the world might approve of us. Rather than offend our neighbour in calling them to repentance, we prefer to offend God by justifying whatever sin we favour. We commit the same pattern as sinful Israel by forsaking God’s commands and doing what is right in our own eyes. The iniquity of the Israelites fell back upon them when God sent armies of nations to oppress them, and eventually—as Isaiah warned—exile in a foreign nation. And so, what you see on the cross is the bloody judgement you deserve for your sins: death.
The Cross as Gospel
But you do not receive this judgement. Therefore, the second thing you see when you behold the cross which is what should predominate your thoughts, is that your iniquity does not fall upon you because it fell upon Jesus. Jesus Christ, the only perfect righteous man who walked the earth because He is also the God of righteousness, makes “many to be accounted righteous,” Isaiah says, which we call justification by faith. He has made you righteous—He has made you right with God—by bearing your iniquities. He died the death of sinners, being counted among transgressors like you and me, though He knew no sin [2 Cor. 5:21]. On the cross, He took your sins and placed them on Himself to make intercession for you, meaning He died in your place so that you will not face eternal death.
Still, that raises the question, “Why did Jesus have to die? Why did God have to send His only-begotten Son to die?” I believe there’s no better way to help us understand this than to tell a story. The story I would like to share is not my own, but one told by Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Speaker of The Lutheran Hour. The following story comes from The Lutheran Hour episode titled “The Peace Child.” In the story, Rev. Zeigler takes us back half a century on the other side of the globe in the southwestern Pacific Island of New Guinea from Canadian missionary Don Richardson’s book, Peace Child, which tells a true story about Sawi culture in New Guinea. This is how Rev. Zeigler retells the story:
If you read Don’s book, Sawi culture will sound strange to you, but also strangely familiar. There’s a common humanity that we share. Just like parents from other parts of the world, Sawi moms and dads want good things for their children. And they would rather live in peace with their neighbors. And on most days they would be glad if we could all just get along.
But there is a sinister side to Sawi culture just like there is in every culture. There is a selfish ambition and jealousy, comparison and suspicion. And there is tribalism.
Here’s how tribalism manifested itself among the Sawi people. After years of fighting between two rival tribes, fighting over food and land and honor, two men hopeful for peace might try to forge an alliance, forge a friendship, across tribal lines. But there was always the possibility that one of them was using the friendship for a more sinister purpose.
He was “fattening him with friendship,” as the saying went: fattening for the slaughter. And just when his friend began to trust him, he would lure him into his tribe where the other men were waiting, and they would jump him and brutalize him and take his head for a trophy. Centuries of tribalism had lodged in them a deep distrust of anyone outside of their tribe. And when I read about it, I wonder what’s tribalism done to us? What tribalism is lodged in my heart? What [tribalism is] lodged in yours?
At one time, Don Richardson thought that tribalism was the strongest force in Sawi culture, but he was wrong. Normally the Sawi people had a segregated housing plan, sort of the jungle version of suburban development. The man-made plan to help them all get along was to keep the tribes separate. But when Don and his family moved into the jungle with modern tools to trade and modern medicine to share, the two tribes, long-standing rivals moved together to be near Don and his family. It was a hopeful, yet fragile, multicultural urban jungle community.
Peace didn’t last. Soon the drive by bow-and-arrow shootings got so bad that Don told them that he was moving out. That night leaders from both of the tribes came together at his thatched roof jungle hut, begging him not to leave. “But I don’t want you to kill each other,” he said to them. “We’re not going to kill each other,” one said. “Tomorrow, we will make peace.”
The next morning, both tribes gathered together on opposite sides of an open area near Don’s family home. One man from the tribe on the left came forward. He came like a broken man, cagey, walking into a fight that he knows he can’t win, carrying a child on his back, one of his own sons. The man’s wife was following him, sobbing violently. Don and his wife holding their infant son close, moved closer to watch. Everyone was watching the man carrying his son when suddenly his wife desperate wrenched her baby from her husband’s shoulders and rushed him back into the crowd. He tried to grab hold of her, but she was out of reach. Other mothers from the crowd began crying, clutching their babies to their breasts. Men on both sides were running back and forth, gesturing, shouting, strange opposing forces of attraction and repulsion were building up an incredible tension between the tribes. Don said, “I could feel those forces crackling around me with an almost physical violence.”
Now with all the commotion in the crowd on the left, a man on the other side slipped away unnoticed and returned to his hut in the jungle. This man and his wife had only one son, a six-month-old baby boy they had named Biakadon. The baby was lying on a grass mat in the middle of the hut. He recognized his father, smiled and stretched out his little arms to be picked up. His father reached for him, heavy with what he was about to do. “It is necessary,” he told himself. “There is no other way to stop the fighting.”
He returned to the crowd holding his son one last time. He came to the center and called to a man on the other side. The man came forward. The two of them stood facing each other, both tribes were around them, eyes aglow with anticipation. Biakadon’s father said to the man facing him, “Will you plead the words of my people among your people?”
“Yes,” he says. “I will plead the words of your people among my people.” So he continued.
“Then I give you my son and with him, my name.”
The man from the other side received little Biakadon into his arm gently. And then he shouted, “Eehaa! I will surely plead for peace between our people.”
Just then another man from the other side of the crowd came forward, holding his son. He called to Biakadon’s former father who was standing there, childless. He says to him, “Will you plead for peace between our people?”
“Yes,” he says.
“Then I give you my son. And with him, my name.”
“Will the children be harmed?” Don asked them later. “They will not be harmed,” they told him. “Both villages will guard the lives of the peace child because if the child lives, the peace lives also.”
Ages of betrayal had made every other demonstration of friendship across tribe lines suspect. But if a father would give his son to his enemies, that man could be trusted and all who bound themselves to this given son would share in this promised peace. And there in the jungle of Western New Guinea, a light of insight began to shine on Don, the Christian missionary from Canada… Don Richardson was with the tribal leaders after he had witnessed their dramatic alliance. He spoke to them in their own language. “I wanted you to make peace without this painful giving of a son. But you kept saying to me, ‘There is no other way.’ And you were right. When I stopped to think about it, I realized that the Creator, the great Spirit whose message I bear has declared the same thing. True peace can never come without a peace Child. Never.”Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, “The Peace Child,” The Lutheran Hour, aired July 25, 2021, accessed July 28, 2021, https://www.lutheranhour.org/sermon.asp?articleid=36035.
So, what kind of father would give up His only Son to His enemies? One who realises there is no other way to make peace. Consider God’s two choices: either annihilate His enemies (you and me) or make peace with them. In His unfathomable mercy and unsearchable wisdom, God chose to make peace, and there was no other way for Him to do that than to give up His only-begotten Son. As St. Paul says, “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us… For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life” [Rom. 5:8, 10]. And Jesus went to the cross willingly. As He Himself said, “For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may 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 I have authority to take it up again. This charge I received from My Father” [John 10:17-18].
Peace could only live between the Sawi tribes if the peace children lived. As you well know, Jesus did not stay dead for long, for death cannot bind the Living God. God is not dead. He lives and reigns for all eternity. By His death and His life, He has brokered peace between you and God the Fatehr because it was the only way to do so. The Christ child lives; therefore, peace between you and God lasts forever.
Before you leave the sanctuary in silence tonight, take one last look at the cross and witness just how far God went to save you and give you peace through Christ our Saviour, to whom be all the glory, forever and ever. Amen.