Sermon Text: Matthew 27:11-56
I delivered this sermon at Hampton United Methodist Church in Hampton, Georgia, on Good Friday evening, April 18, 2014. The following is my original sermon manuscript.
Some of you have watched the show How I Met Your Mother. The series just recently ended, but a regular guest star during this final season was an actor named William Zabka, who was playing himself on the show. You probably don’t know his name. But if you’re around my age or my generation, you have certainly seen him in the movies before—or at least you’ve seen him in one particular movie, The Karate Kid. The Karate Kid was a Rocky-like movie of an underdog weakling named Daniel, played by Ralph Macchio, who ends up winning a martial arts competition against the school bully, a karate champion named Johnny Lawrence, played by Zabka.
Zabka’s character, of course, was the villain of The Karate Kid. Everyone knows that…Everyone except Barney, the character on How I Met Your Mother played by Neal Patrick Harris. To his friends’amazement and disbelief, Barney actually thought that Zabka’s character was the real hero of The Karate Kid. So Barney’s friends arranged to have Zabka the actor meet Barney, and that’s why he was on the show.
My point is, you have to really turn things upside down in order to see Johnny Lawrence as the “good guy”of The Karate Kid. You have to have the ability to see the good in the midst of something—or someone—that everyone sees as bad.
And in my mind, that’s the challenge we all face when it comes to this holiday we call Good Friday. I guess for some people—people who don’t even necessarily practice the Christian faith—Good Friday might be good because it means a day off work—or whatever. But, assuming the Church wasn’t being ironic when they named this day Good Friday, there must be something “good”at the heart of this holy day, right?
That’s not the way we usually think about it, though, is it? One theologian and blogger named Roger Olson was reflecting on this last year. He wrote:
We call it “Good Friday”but worship on it as if something terrible, depressing, sad and awful happened. Our “Good Friday”services tend to be dark, dour, minor key, funereal. At most we celebrate the Sunday coming—Easter! We say, “It’s Friday but Sunday’s Coming!”
But wait! he wonders. If it’s so bad, why don’t we call it Bad Friday?
That’s a good question. Why do we call it Good Friday? What’s so good about it? That’s what I want us to think about tonight. But in order to do so, it’s going to involve turning things upside down—reversing the way we normally see things.
So I want to focus on three surprisingly good things that make Good Friday good.
The first thing that’s surprisingly good about Good Friday is Pontius Pilate—and the fact that he’s a spineless coward who’s afraid to do the right thing. Now, don’t get me wrong and please listen carefully: the fact that Pilate is a spineless coward who’s afraid to do the right thing is not good in and of itself; rather, it is sinful and evil—and Pilate is going to face God’s judgment for this. But God is going to use Pilate’s sin and evil to accomplish something very good for us. That’s just the kind of thing that God always does!
When I was a kid, we had a neighborhood bully named Ricky. And we didn’t have all this “anti-bully”stuff back then. I had to fend for myself and fight to survive on the mean suburban streets of Peppermint Court and Hershey Lane. It was tough, I tell you! When I was in third grade, Ricky was in sixth grade. And he was only in sixth grade because he already had to repeat a couple of grades. So he was already a big kid relative to his grade level, and a bully on top of it. I used live in fear of Ricky. He constantly threatened to beat me up and beat my friends up—I’d seen him do it, too.
Anyway, my older sister Melinda and I would see him at the bus stop every morning—at least on those days when Ricky wasn’t playing hooky, which was often. And one morning at the bus stop—I kid you not—Ricky was playing with a Weeble. Remember those toys? “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.”Well, Weebles were for little kids. Even as a third-grader I had long outgrown Weebles, and here Ricky was, a sixth-grader, playing with a Weeble. I thought it was hilarious, for some reason, and I told a classmate on the bus about it. And he laughed and I laughed. And, kids, the moral of the story is, be very careful whom you tell your secrets to, because it got back to Ricky that I was making fun of him! And Ricky stopped me in the hall and said, “You were making fun of me? You’re dead!”
I hoped he was bluffing, but he wasn’t. And sure enough, as I was walking home from the bus stop that afternoon with my older sister Melinda, Ricky came up to me and cold-cocked me, right in the gut. Knocked the wind out of me. I started crying, naturally. But then my sister did the sweetest thing she had ever done for me—I mean, to this day, the sweetest thing. She hurled her aluminum Little House on the Prairie lunch box at Ricky’s head. And it hit him right in the temple, and guess what Ricky did? He ran away—he ran away fast. He seemed genuinely afraid of my sister and her lunchbox. But that’s how bullies usually are, right? No matter how tough they seem, when you stand up to them, they back down.
And such is the case with Pilate. He’s a bully and a coward. He seemed so tough with the Roman army at his command. He held the power of life and death in his hands. And he seemed so willing and able to teach these rebellious Jews a lesson. But when confronted by an angry mob, what does he do? He backs down, even though he knows they’re wrong. He knows Jesus is innocent, but it’s more important for him to save his skin than it is to save an innocent man’s life.
I know I’m supposed to feel really bad about Pilate’s act of cowardice. But why? I’m glad he was a coward because through his cowardice he sent Jesus to the cross—and it’s a good thing Jesus went to the cross, because that means our salvation! It’s a bad thing that Jesus had to go to the cross, to save sinful humans like us, but it’s a good thing that he went.
You probably heard last week that Steven Colbert has been chosen by CBS to succeed David Letterman. Speaking as a 30-year Letterman fan, I think he’s a great choice! Regardless, Colbert is a deeply committed Christian, a Catholic, and he’s outspoken about his faith in a way that few celebrities are. On Ash Wednesday, for instance, he’ll have ash on his forehead on TV.
Colbert gave an interview in the New York Times last year about one of the most tragic things that can happen to someone: In 1974, he lost his father and two of his brothers in a plane crash. He said that his mother taught him to be thankful no matter what life throws your way.
“She taught me to be grateful for my life regardless of what that entailed, and that’s directly related to the image of Christ on the cross and the example of sacrifice that he gave us,” he told the Times. “What she taught me is that the deliverance God offers you from pain is not no pain —it’s that the pain is actually a gift. What’s the option? God doesn’t really give you another choice.”
The deliverance that God offers you from pain is not no pain. Did you hear that? God loves us too much not to let us suffer, when that suffering would be good for us and good for the world. “It’s a gift,”Colbert says. Any bad thing that happens to us certainly can be a gift—if we have the faith to receive it that way. When something bad happens to us, we should ask, “I wonder to what good purpose God is using this in my life? How is he using it to help me? What do I need to learn? How is he using it for my good?”
What Pilate does is genuinely evil. But evil is no match for love, and God transforms it into something very good. And if he can do that with the bad stuff for which Pilate was responsible, he can do that with the bad stuff that comes our way!
So even Pilate is one good thing about Good Friday.
A second surprisingly good thing about Good Friday is Barabbas. Now, Barabbas himself was hardly any good at all. Again a sinner who will face God’s judgment for his sin and evil. He was a murderer, a violent terrorist who’d probably killed innocent people. The point is, we’ve heard so many preachers preach about what a bad person Barabbas was—and how could these crowds possibly want Pilate to release a violent murderer like Barabbas and not Jesus. And it’s just a terrible injustice, we say. Unthinkable! we say. These crowds didn’t really want Barabbas set free.
I mean, who could honestly want a man like Barabbas to be set free?
Well, I can think of exactly one person, besides Barabbas himself, who sincerely wanted Barabbas to be set free. You want to know who?
Jesus…Jesus wanted Barabbas to be set free. Jesus wanted to be merciful toward Barabbas. Jesus wanted to suffer scourging, and whipping, and beating, and spitting, and mocking, and dying on a cross in order to save a bad man like Barabbas! If we could ask Jesus, “Would you exchange your life for Barabbas’s life?”what do you think Jesus would say? “You bet I would! I love Barabbas! I want to save him!”
How is that not incredibly good news for someone like me… An you—because if Jesus exchanged his life for Barabbas’s life that means he’d do the same for people like you and me—and he has done the same for people like you and me through his suffering and death on the cross!
What are these preachers talking about when they complain about how unfair it is that Jesus’ life was given in exchange for Barabbas’s life? Unfair? “Well, yeah…It’s unfair. What’s your point? I hope it’s unfair!”Otherwise God would just give us what we deserve! I don’t want that, do you? God’s grace is about the fact that we don’t get what we deserve, and if Barabbas reminds us of that truth then I think the story of Barabbas is one of best things about Good Friday. It’s one thing that makes Good Friday truly good!
A couple of days ago, a clergy colleague posted something on Facebook, which, believe it or not, I had to take issue with. I’m afraid I’m developing a reputation for “taking issue”with things that some of my clergy colleagues say, but it’s only because I’m trying to remind them of what it is that we say we believe. Because I think many of them have forgotten! Be that as it may, he said that he attended this great Holy Week service, and he heard a preacher preach this great message about why we call Good Friday good. Since I was preaching on that same theme, I was interested. And here’s what this preacher said:
The “good”of Good Friday is only that in the deepest, darkest hole, God is present. Not that any solution is offered or that any problem is fixed but that the Divine one is near.
“In the deepest, darkest hole, God is present.”That’s the “only”good in Good Friday? In the case of what happened on the cross, that’s almost exactly opposite of the truth.
Because notice: Jesus doesn’t cry, in verse 46, “My God, my God, I’m so glad that you’re with me, even right here on the cross.”No, he shouts, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”He’s quoting the opening verse of Psalm 22, by the way. And herein lies the third surprisingly good thing about Good Friday—in truth, it’s the best thing of all: God the Father abandons his Son Jesus on the cross. This is nothing less than hell for Jesus—literally—to be separated from God. But God the Son, Jesus Christ, willingly endures this. He’s the only one who’s ever endured this separation from God in this world. It doesn’t matter how big a sinner you are; you can’t do anything, in your life in this world, to separate yourself completely from God. In eternity you can; but not here. God will be with you here on earth, whether you like it or not. But notice: God wasn’t with Jesus
That’s why, despite what Mel Gibson or anyone else might depict in a Hollywood movie, it’s not the physical pain that Christ endured that made the cross so unimaginably painful, it was this spiritual pain of separation from his heavenly Father. Psychologists would say that divorce is one of the most traumatic things that can happen to someone. That kind of separation, however, doesn’t compare to this because Jesus is closer to his Father than any husband and wife could ever be. The death of a loved one is another traumatic separation, but it doesn’t compare to what Jesus endured because no two people can be as close as Jesus was to his Father.
Why did Christ endure this separation?
The prophet Isaiah answers this question back in Isaiah 53:
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him—that is, on Jesus—
the iniquity of us all.
And this is what Paul means when he says, in 2 Corinthians, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” And in Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”
See, I don’t need the cross to show me that God is with me now when I suffer, but that God will be with me in eternity because God suffered for my sins now. I don’t need the cross to show me that God is with me now when I suffer, but that God will be with me in eternity because God suffered now.
And that’s the best news that Good Friday has to offer. That’s what’s so good about Good Friday.
Thank you, Jesus, for enduring the cross and separation from our heavenly Father so that we could become children of our heavenly Father. Amen.
 Isaiah 53:4-6 ESV
 2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV
 Galatians 3:13 ESV