Rev. Jeff Chapman, Faith Presbyterian Church
So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’ Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews”, but, “This man said, I am King of the Jews.” ’ Pilate answered, ‘What I have written I have written.’ When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. So they said to one another, ‘Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.’ This was to fulfill what the scripture says,
‘They divided my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.’
And that is what the soldiers did.
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:16b-30)
It was late in the afternoon on Thursday, January 1, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln retired to his study to sign his name to a document entitled the Emancipation Proclamation. Witnesses say that Lincoln’s hand was shaking from exhaustion as he took up his pen. He paused briefly but then, remarking, “I do not want to appear as if I hesitated,” firmly affixed his signature to the document.
In that historic moment what was happening? Well, on one level it was just a man seated at his desk signing his signature to a document. Ink was flowing from his pen and making permanent marks on a piece of paper. In one sense, you see, it was a very ordinary event. It’s something you and I do every day. How many times have you also picked up a pen and signed your signature to a piece of paper? In one sense there was nothing at all extraordinary in what Lincoln did that afternoon.
In another sense, however, what was happening was nothing short of extraordinary. Because of who this man was, because of the office in which he sat, because of the words written on that document, what was happening was infinitely more significant than just a man making scratches on a piece of paper. For above Lincoln’s signature was a proclamation that included these words: “That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free…”
What was really happening at that moment? In some ways it depends on who you ask. Ask a slave in South Carolina, or his slave master, or an abolitionist in the Congress, or Lincoln himself, and you would probably get a different answer from each. Each of them, however, would agree on one thing. They would agree that was has happening was far more than just a man making pen marks on a piece of paper in his study. Something was being set into motion in that moment which carried implications so tremendous they are still being felt today.
It was late in the afternoon on a Friday, the day before Passover, when a Jewish carpenter turned preacher from Nazareth was nailed to a cross on a hillside just outside of Jerusalem. Witnesses to the event say that this man was crucified there between two thieves and that he had been hanging there for about six hours. They say that at one point, after asking for a drink of wine to quench his thirst, he spoke his final words. “It is finished,” he said, and then he bowed his head and died.
So let me ask the same question. In this historic moment, what was happening? When this Jew breathed his last and died on that cross that day, what was happening? Well, had you been a traveler along the road that day and come across the scene and asked that question, the answer you received would have depended entirely upon who you asked.
Had you asked the Roman soldiers assigned to be the execution squad you would have received one answer. They would have told you that was just another Palestinian trouble maker who had stirred things up one too many times and now it was their task to do to him what they had done to thousands of others. They were driving spikes through his hands and feet and into the cross upon which they would hang him. Then they would stand guard until he suffocated to death for his crimes. For them, this was just another Friday and this was just another Jew who did not deserve to live.
Had you asked the Jewish leaders standing nearby, however, they would have given you an entirely different answer. For them, this was a moment which had been long anticipated. This was not just another common criminal. No, this man was a powerful threat to all that they held dear and so for the sake of their religion, for the sake of their position, for the sake of their God, he was finally being silenced. If this was routine for the Roman guards, this was relief for the Jewish leaders.
Finally, had you asked the followers of this man also standing off at a distance you would have received yet a different answer. Not routine, not relief, but remorse, deep remorse. This was a crushing blow. All their hopes had been bound up in this man and in his message. So much possibility. So much potential. So much power. They thought he was the Messiah, come at last to set them free. But now he was dying and there was nothing they could do about it.
Here’s what I want us to think about this morning. What happened at the cross? On one level we know what happened. Nails were driven. Blood was spilled. Some people celebrated. Some people mourned. Some people barely even took notice. In the end a man died.
On one level, we know what happened. A man sits at his desk and scribbles his signature on a piece of paper. A Jew dies on a Roman cross. But what really happened? Why has the whole world never been able to forget that Friday afternoon? Why have countless people devoted themselves wholeheartedly, both in life and in death, to following the man who died that day? Why do more people in our world celebrate this particular moment in history more than any other moment that has ever occurred?
Well, to answer the question of what really happened that day we have to go back even further than that day. In fact, we have to go all the way back to the beginning where the scriptures tell us that we were created and put in this world by a God of love who created us out of love and for love and who made us to enjoy God, and love God, and serve God, and to love and serve one another. The scriptures also tell us that if we would live this way, the way we were created to live, we would be completely happy and would enjoy a perfect world free of pain, sorrow, disease, hatred, even death.
Here’s the problem. We do not live in the way God intended us to live. We were created to worship and that worship was meant to be directed solely to our Creator who was ready, who is always ready, to be our source of life, and joy, and peace, and all that we will ever need. Tragically, however, that is not where we direct our worship. We can’t help but worship, that’s how we are wired. It’s just that we worship the wrong thing. Instead of trusting God as our sole source of security and hope, we trust in idols of all different shapes and sizes.
As one writer puts it, “We may believe in God, but we do not make him our greatest hope, good, or love. [Instead], we try to maintain control of our lives by living for other things – for money, career, family, fame, romance, sex, power, comfort, social and political causes, or something else.” Just think for a moment about your own life. Even if you want to live a life totally devoted to, and focused on God, is that your day-to-day tendency? It’s not mine. I’m just being honest. Can you see that like me, your tendency is to live ultimately for something else?
The result of this misplaced devotion and worship is alienation from God. And you do not have to look far to see what a life alienated from God, or a world alienated from God, looks like. Though our world is bursting with goodness and beauty, all of it is tainted. Violence. War. Divorce. Pain. Cancer. Disease. Loneliness. Heartache. Betrayal. Broken relationships of all sorts. Pornography. Racism. Greed. Brutal poverty. Deception. And on top of it all death, the ultimate and eventual demise of everything and everyone that we know and love. Somewhere, deep in your bones, if you are honest about it, you know that this is not how the world is meant to be. Something deep within us tells us that things were meant to be different.
They were. And they can be again. Because the same scriptures that tell us about a God who created out of love also tell us about a God who comes to save us out of love. They proclaim that the God who began history stepped at one point into history himself. Out of love, God would not stand by as his world alienated itself from him forever. We ran from him but he ran after us. In the person of Jesus Christ, God himself ran after us.
Writer Tim Keller has a great illustration which may help here. Dorothy Sayers was a remarkable woman. One of the first women to ever attend OxfordUniversity, she went on to gain millions of fans through her detective stories and mystery novels. One of the main characters in her novels was Lord Peter Wimsey, an aristocratic detective who had never married. At one point in the novels, however, a new character appears named Harriet Vane. Harriet is described, coincidentally, as one of the first women to ever graduate from Oxford and a writer of mystery novels. Eventually she and Peter fall in love and marry.
Who is Harriet? Many fans of Dorothy Sayers believe that at one point she looked into the world she had created in her novels, fell in love with her lonely hero, and wrote herself into the story to save him.
As remarkable as that may be, it is not nearly as remarkable as the reality of what God has done. As God looked into this world he had created and saw the way we had alienated ourselves to death, God was moved by love and compassion for his people to the point of writing himself into human history as its main character.
God, in Christ, came to be born as a human, but not just to be born. God came to live as one of us, but not just to live. God came to teach and to heal, but not only to teach and to heal. Ultimately, God came to die. Jesus himself said at one point, “I did not come [to earth] to be served but to serve, and to give my life, [to die], as a ransom for many.”
Which leads us all the way back to my first question. We know that he died. We have the eye-witness accounts. We know his blood was spilled out on the cross that Friday afternoon. And perhaps we are beginning to even understand why he died. He died to save us. He died because he loved us. He died for us. Still, here is what I want to ask today – what happened when he died? What happened on this cross which, at the deepest level, accomplished for us salvation?
In some ways, of course, the question can never be answered fully, at least this side of heaven. Though over the years the church has wrestled intensely to understand the cross, great mystery remains. Scripture, however, is clear on at least one thing. This much can be said. On the cross Jesus Christ, the Son of God, took our place. That is what was happening there that day. Jesus was taking upon himself all the consequences of our rebellion from God. All the shame. All the judgment. All the alienation. All the death.
You may remember that long before the cross the prophet Isaiah foretold what would happen. He wrote, “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Long after the cross, the Apostle Peter wrote these words: “[Christ] himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed”
At the moment of his death, at the moment of his last breath that afternoon, Jesus made this declaration. “It is finished,” he said. In a way, that is the best summary we have ever been given of exactly what happened on the cross. It is finished. By standing in our place, by dying in our place, Christ took the consequences of our rebellion upon himself. To the point of completion, Christ took what was ours upon himself that afternoon so that we, in turn, could take upon ourselves what was his. Shame was exchanged for favor. Condemnation was exchanged for mercy and grace. Alienation was exchanged for friendship. Death was exchanged for life.
Let me speak personally to you for a moment because the cross is personal. It is for the whole world but it is also very personal. And so let me tell you what happened to you personally that afternoon when Jesus died on the cross. This is going to be very hard for some of you believe. In fact, you won’t be able to believe it unless God helps you to believe it. But it’s the truth.
From that day forward God saw you differently. From that day forward God saw you as his beloved son, as his beloved daughter. In fact, the cross made it possible for God to look at you and see, in your place, his beloved Son. At the cross you were forgiven, and forgiven completely, forgiven for what you have done and even for what you have not yet done. It’s forgiven, all of it. At the cross you were extended God’s favor. At the cross God looks at your life and he sees Christ’s life. He does not see your sin. He does not remember your rebellion. He is your Father who has given you the cherished place of favored son, of favored daughter. Every one of you. Yes, even you.
But here’s the thing. Let me be very clear about this. This has very little to do with you. God’s love and grace and favor do not come to us because we deserve it. In no way do we deserve it. By definition, grace is never deserved. You cannot be good enough to gain God’s favor. It simply cannot be earned. Ever. It doesn’t matter if you give all your money to the poor, read your Bible and pray every day, show up in church every Sunday for the rest of your life, and love all the biggest jerks you ever meet along the way. It also doesn’t matter if you keep all your money for yourself, burn your Bible and refuse to ever pray again, never again show up in church the rest of your life, and become one of the biggest jerks any of us will ever meet. In terms of the way God sees you, it absolutely does not matter. There is nothing you can do to make God love you any more and nothing you can do to make God love you any less. Nothing.
How do I know? Jesus said so. Long before you were ever born Jesus said this about you. Not only about you, of course, but also about you. He said, “It is finished.” Before you were even born, before you did even one single honorable act or one single wretched act, Jesus said this about your alienation with God, “It is finished.”
Here’s the problem. Many of us know this in our heads. Far fewer of us, I fear, truly believe it in our hearts. Many of us persist in thinking that God’s love and acceptance are in some ways still tied to our present spiritual achievements and because we believe this we live as radically insecure people. It comes out in pride as we work constantly to bolster our own status and promote our own achievements. It comes out in our poisonous obsession with what other people think of us. It comes out in fear as we worry about our lives, afraid that somehow we will not be taken care of. It comes out in the judgmental spirit we feel towards others.
Listen to me. This is our greatest hang up. On the cross God demonstrates that He loves us and forgives us. On the cross God calls us sons and daughter and extends to us abundant and eternal life. But nothing will change in our lives until and unless we believe it.
Do you understand? This is not about trying harder, being a better person, a better Christian. This is about faith. This is about coming before God, naked in our brokenness and failure, and saying to God, “Father, I give up. I give up trying to get you to accept me because of what I have done or because of what I will ever do. I’m done with that. From this day forward I believe you when you say that you accept me simply because of what Jesus Christ has done in my place.” It’s about praying, “Lord, I understand very little of what you did on the cross that day, but I believe the scriptures when they tell me that on the cross you extended grace which made it possible for me to become your son, to become your daughter, and to be called favored by you forever.”
Once you place your faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior in this way, once you transfer your trust from yourself to Christ and rest in the reality of what has already been finished, everything begins to change.
No longer do you have to go through life looking out for yourself first. The Sovereign Lord of the Universe is your Father and promises to provide for you all that you will ever need. If God’s looking out for you, why do you have to look out for you?
No longer to you have to exhaust so much energy trying to prop up your reputation and image. You are a beloved son, a beloved daughter, of the Most High God. What earthly status could you ever gain that could even come close to comparing to that?
No longer do have you to ever again worry about money, about having enough in life. The whole earth and everything in it belong to your Heavenly Father. He takes care of even the smallest sparrow. Will he not also take care of you?
No longer do you have to rush around in life like a person who has to keep moving to keep things in control. All of a sudden you realize that you will never be in control. And that’s okay. Because there is Somebody else in control who is far better qualified for the job.
Lastly, no longer do you have to be afraid when you come into the valley of the shadow of death. For now you forever belong to One who is so full of life that not even the grave could hold him captive. If you trust him, neither will the grave be able to hold you down.
What happened on the cross? On one level a man was nailed to a piece of wood and was left there to die. For some it was routine, just another day’s work. For others it was relief; they wanted nothing to do with Jesus. For still others it was remorse; death ended hope for them. But those who have the faith to believe it, what happened on the cross was not routine, not relief, not remorse. It was redemption. For those willing to receive it, for those willing to receive Him, who believed in his name, he gave the power, the grace, to become the very sons, the very daughters, of a Heavenly Father whose favor will never run dry.
For those who believe, it is finished.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Read John 19:16b-30 again. As you see it, what is happening here?
What do you think Jesus meant when he said, “It is finished”? What exactly was finished?
Imagine somebody who knew nothing about the Christian faith asked you, “What happened when Jesus died on the cross?” How would you respond?
Do you believe that Jesus took your/our place on the cross?
A writer named Richard Lovelace claims that only a small fraction of people in Christian churches actually believe that their standing before God has absolutely nothing to do with their religious performance. He writes, “[These people] who are no longer sure that God loves them and accepts them in Jesus, apart from their present spiritual achievements, are subconsciously radically insecure people.” Is he right? Can you relate?
Can you say today that you have complete assurance that you are a favored and beloved son/daughter of your Heavenly Father? If so, how did you come to that place? If not, what stands in the way?
What would change in your life if you truly believed this?
Suggested Scriptures for the Week: Taken from the Seeking God’s Face resource our church is using daily.
Monday: Psalm 22:1-11 ~ Luke 22:7-22
Tuesday Psalm 22:15-19 ~ Luke 22:39-53
Wednesday: Psalm 22:1-8 ~ Luke 22:54-65
Thursday: Psalm 22:1-5, 23-26 ~ Luke 22:7-22
Friday: Psalm 22 ~ Mark 15:25-39
Saturday : Psalm 22 ~ Luke 23:50-56
Sunday: Psalm 118 ~ Matthew 28:1-10