A parishioner told me after the sermon that this was the best she had heard me preach, and I don’t think she was far off. In this sermon I make the case for Christ as our substitute on the cross: truly, he lived the life we were unable to live and died the death we deserved to die. I challenge us to think about ways in which we are like the crowds on that Good Friday morning, yet God used even our sinful rebellion against him to accomplish the greatest good.
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
The following is my original sermon manuscript, with footnotes.
Lisa and I were at a party once many years ago with a friend named Kathi who was getting a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Emory. And most of her friends at the party were also Bible scholar-types and Ph.D. students. A real lively bunch! So I was trying my best to make small talk with these people. This was years before I ever thought about going to seminary, but I was a Christian, and I loved the Bible. So I said to one of Kathi’s friends, a woman who, like Kathi, was getting a Ph.D. in Old Testament: “Gosh, that would be really interesting to study the Bible at that level! I wouldn’t mind doing that. Maybe I should get a Ph.D. in the Bible.” And she looked at me with contempt—like, “Who is this idiot I’m talking to?” And she said, “Are you a Christian.” I said, “Yes.” She said, “Then I’m guessing that you’re not interested in getting a Ph.D. in the Bible.” I’m sure I looked confused. She said, “You probably want to get a Ph.D. in the appendix to the Bible.”
The appendix to the Bible. She was referring, of course, to that part of the Bible that we call the New Testament. And, you know… She had a point. We have this much Bible that’s part of the Old Testament, and this relatively tiny part of the Bible that’s the New Testament. And yet we spend by far the bulk of our time in the tiny part. You know? But I do hope that you are reading and studying the big part of the Bible and not just the small part because—oh my goodness—when you do, you begin to see Jesus in that part too—on nearly every page.
Let me give you three examples of places in the Old Testament that I see Jesus. In Genesis 18, three angels come to visit Abraham and Sarah, and they tell them that in a year’s time they’re going to have a baby—the long-promised son Isaac. But after giving them the good news, the angels tell Abraham, “Oh by the way, while we’re in the area, we’re going to check out what’s happening in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to see if there’s as much injustice and wickedness there as we’ve heard.” And if there is, they tell Abraham, God will wipe them off the face of the earth. And the angels leave for Sodom.
Next, Abraham does something remarkable. With great boldness, he approaches God and says, “Far be it for you, God, to put the righteous to death with the wicked… Shall not the Judge of the earth do what is just? So let’s say there are 50 righteous people in Sodom. Will you spare the city for the sake of the 50 who are righteous.” And God says, yes, if he finds 50 righteous people he’ll spare the whole place for their sake.” With increasing boldness, Abraham says: “Suppose five of the 50 are lacking. Would you really destroy the city for the lack of five righteous people?” And God says, no, even if there were only 45 righteous, he would spare the whole city. Then Abraham asks, “Suppose 40 are found?” “No,” God says, “I won’t destroy it for the sake of 40.” What about 30?” “No.” “What about 20?” “No.” “What about only ten?” “No, even for the sake of ten righteous people I won’t destroy it.”
Abraham stops at ten, but the implication is clear enough: the God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” will not destroy the city—in spite of its great evil—even if there’s only one righteous person.
But you know what the problem is? What does scripture say? “None is righteous, no, not one.” “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way…” “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
If only God could find one righteous person for whose sake he could rescue us from the consequences of our sin. Who would that one righteous person be?
Or think about Exodus 32. Moses has just come down Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments, having spent 40 days on the mountain listening to the Lord speak to him. While he was gone the people of Israel grow impatient, and they build and worship a golden calf. And God is angry, and threatens to wipe the people out. And Moses tells the people, “You’ve sinned a great sin. Perhaps I can go to the Lord and make atonement for you.” Then he says to God, “If only you will forgive their sin… But if not, please blot me out of the book you’ve written.” In other words, Moses was offering his own life for the lives of his people—but even more, he was willing to give up eternal life for himself—to be god-forsaken, and suffer hell—if it meant salvation for his people.
If only there was someone who could suffer god-forsakenness and hell for the sins of the world? Who would that person be?
Finally, I’m thinking of the prophet Jonah. God calls him to go and preach to the people of Nineveh, something that he does not want to to. The Ninevites are his enemy. So he tries to run away from God and boards a ship on the Mediterranean, bound for Spain. And God sends a terrible storm on the sea that threatens the lives of everyone on board. When Jonah realizes that God is judging him for his disobedience, he says something remarkable: “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.”
And reluctantly, the captain and the crew do so—and what happens? The storm subsides. The people are saved. Jonah voluntarily surrenders his life to turn away God’s wrath. Now, I might point out that in this case Jonah himself was responsible for God’s wrath being poured out on the people on board this ship, but… think about it: Suppose there was one righteous person who had the power to take upon himself not his own sins—because he would be sinless—but the sins of everyone else in the world, and voluntarily surrender his life on behalf of us sinners, to take our sins to the grave with him, and by doing so turn away God’s wrath and bring peace to the people?
Who would that person be? What righteous, sinless man could die for us, on our behalf, for our sin? Who would be our substitute?
I’m sure by now you all know the answer. Jesus. The same righteous, sinless man we see in today’s scripture who, quite literally, substitutes for a sinner—and not just any sinner—a cold-blooded killer, a terrorist, a revolutionary who was trying to overthrow Rome named Barabbas. But you know, Barabbas was only his last name. Matthew’s gospel gives us his full name: Jesus Barabbas. So Pilate gives the people a choice. He’ll release one Jesus or the other—either Jesus Barabbas or Jesus of Nazareth. Which will it be?
One more interesting detail. The name Jesus was one of the most popular names in first-century Palestine, so it’s not surprising that Barabbas has this name, too. It was the Greek version of the Hebrew name “Joshua.” It means, literally, “God saves.” A very appropriate name for a savior, wouldn’t you say? The Jews were certainly looking for a savior back then—someone who could rescue them from the military and economic might of the Romans and establish a kingdom in Israel once again. And the truth is, that’s the kind of savior the people wanted back then—political, military, revolutionary saviors like, for instance, Jesus Barabbas. So when given the choice, the people chose that kind of savior—the wrong savior.
It occurs to me that we do that too—without necessarily recognizing that that’s what we’re doing. Whenever we put something or someone other than Jesus on the throne of our lives, we’re choosing the wrong savior. Whenever we trust in something or someone other than Jesus—to fill up that God-shaped hole in our lives—we’re choosing the wrong savior. Whenever we treasure something or someone other than Jesus, whenever we try to find happiness and fulfillment and joy in something or someone other than Jesus, we’re choosing the wrong savior.
How do we do this? In any number of ways. But here’s one way… [pull out iPhone] It’s not for nothing that this device was nicknamed, back when it debuted in 2007, the Jesus Phone. Because it promised us so much—it meant so much to us. Be honest: When you think about your smart phone—regardless who makes it—don’t you think, “How did I ever live without it?” Do you ever misplace your smart phone and feel like you are dying? Oh my goodness, I get this woozy feeling in the pit of my stomach—like I’m going down the first drop on the Scream Machine at Six Flags. Then I find the phone and it’s like… instant relief. Many of you know what I’m talking about. “You’ll get my iPhone when you can pry it out of my cold dead fingers.”
Isn’t there something wrong with that?
The comedian Louis CK was on Conan O’Brien about five years ago talking about how easily we take for granted all the good stuff we have. And he said something interesting. He said, “Everything’s amazing right now, and nobody’s happy.” Everything’s amazing right now, and nobody’s happy. And he talked about some of the great technological changes he’s seen in his lifetime. All these great things, he said, are “wasted on the crappiest generation of spoiled idiots…” Can I say “crappy” in church? I hope so. Anyway, he said, “I was on an airplane and there was high speed internet. That’s the newest thing I know that exists. And I’m sitting on the plane and they say, ‘Open up your laptops,’”—turn on your smartphones—“‘you can go on the internet.’ And it’s fast, and I’m watching YouTube videos—I’m on an airplane.” After a while, the wifi stops working, and the guy sitting next to him is angry and indignant and cursing! [Pause] Because this thing that he didn’t even know existed ten minutes earlier stopped working for a couple of minutes!
What is wrong with us? What’s wrong is Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy. Why? Because we’ve chosen the wrong savior!
Of course we don’t just look to technology and gadgets to be our saviors. We can look to career success, money, popularity and recognition, our spouse, our boyfriend, our girlfriend, our children. A particular cause that we’re passionate about. We might look to our armed forces to be our savior. We might look to the health care industry to be our savior. Just today on Facebook, they have this “Now trending” section, which tells us what the most popular news stories are. I saw a headline there: “Drug-resistant stomach bug hits the U.S.” Shigella, it’s called. And I’m already worrying that I might have it. And I’m like, “Oh, please modern medicine! Please find a cure for this dread new disease before I get it!”
These are phony saviors because they can never satisfy our deepest needs. They will always let us down. But not only that—we will let our saviors down. And we’ll feel guilty and depressed. If your romantic relationship is your savior—you think, this person—finally, this person—will make me truly happy. And then when they get mad at you and break up with you, your life falls apart. If your career is your savior, what happens if you get laid off? Your life falls apart. It’s the end of the world.
Is it possible for religion to be our savior? Religion says, “You must do this, this, and this, exactly like so. And if you do, then and only then will God love you and accept you.” Have you ever met someone at church like that? Of course you have! “Religious” people can become very proud of themselves for being religious. Unlike the rest of us, they’re following all the rules, they’re keeping all the laws, they’re doing all the good works—and you probably don’t measure up to them. And God better do what they say because God owes them! And they’re frequently disappointed with God.
That’s one danger of religious people… Self-righteousness. But a bigger problem for me is the other danger: guilt. You see, I know that I’m not following all the rules, I’m not keeping all the laws, I’m doing all the good works. I want to, but I’m not. I fail frequently.What happens then? We feel guilty. We beat ourselves up. We hate ourselves. We know we don’t measure up. We know we can never measure up.
If you’re over a certain age, you remember the movie Saving Private Ryan. If so, you remember the dying words that Captain Miller, Tom Hanks’s character, spoke to Private Ryan, played by Matt Damon. After nearly everyone in the unit dies in order to save Ryan’s life, Miller says to Ryan, “Earn this… Earn it!” And then we see an elderly Ryan, decades later, near the end of his own life, standing beside the grave markers at Normandy beach—asking his children and grandchildren, “Did I earn it?”—in other words, did he live a life worthy of the sacrifices that Miller and his fellow soldiers made for him so long ago? Did he deserve the life that their deaths made possible for him?
And his family reassures him: Of course you did, Dad!
And I’m like, Really? Who are they kidding? A dozen men sacrificed their lives to save his. How can he possibly “earn” that. What a cruel thing for Capt. Miller to tell him with his dying breath! What an impossible burden to have live up to! What guilt to have to live with for your entire life!
By contrast, when Jesus—the world’s one and only true Savior—willingly sacrificed his life on the cross to save ours, he didn’t say “earn this”—as if any one of us could earn God-in-the-flesh suffering death and hell for us, in our place… No, our Savior didn’t say, earn this—“earn this forgiveness,” “earn this salvation,” “earn this eternal life,”—instead he said, receive this—“Receive this gift. Receive it! Take it for free! It yours! There’s no guilt. Not anymore! I did it for you. Out of love! Because I love you that much—and you couldn’t do it for yourself!
“I did it because I love even terrorists and cold-blooded killers like Barabbas… I did it for sinners like my disciples, who, instead of standing by my side in this moment of greatest need, ran away, denied me… even betrayed me. I did it for sinners like this Roman centurion, this enemy of God’s people, who beat me, mocked me, nailed me to this cross. I did it for sinners like Pilate, who had a chance to do the right thing—even though it was risky—but instead took the coward’s way out and let evil run its course.
And if I did it sinners like these, don’t you know I did it for sinners like you, too?
When I cried, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” I was offering forgiveness for you, too.”
The beginning of the gospel is that we are badly messed up sinners. We are damaged goods, each and every one of us. We are helpless to save ourselves. But this is exactly why God the Son chose to die on the cross.
Michael Gove is a member of Parliament in Britain and an outspoken Christian. He wrote an editorial in a London paper this week in which he said:
[G]enuine Christian faith — far from making any individual more invincibly convinced of their own righteousness — makes us realize just how flawed and fallible we all are. I am selfish, lazy, greedy, hypocritical, confused, self-deceiving, impatient and weak. And that’s just on a good day. As the Book of Common Prayer puts it, ‘We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts…And there is no health in us.’
Christianity helps us recognize and confront those weaknesses with a resolution — albeit imperfect and fragile — to do better. But more importantly, it encourages us to feel a sense of empathy rather than superiority towards others because we recognize that we are as guilty of selfishness and open to temptation as anyone.
One of my favorite prayers comes from the Church of England, from the Book of Common Prayer. It begins:
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace…
That everyone might come. Everyone means you.
 Psalm 14:1-3; Isaiah 53:6; Romans 3:23
 Jonah 1:12
 See Matthew:16-17 NRSV. Some manuscripts lack the surname, but most recent translations recognize that the older, more reliable manuscripts include it.