Sermon Text: John 19:16-30
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The following sermon was preached on Good Friday evening, March 25, 2016, at Hampton United Methodist Church.
A British software developer named David Dixon moved to Brussels ten years ago to work for a financial services company. Like many expatriates in Belgium, Dixon’s loved ones back home wanted to know if he was all right in the wake of what happened last Tuesday. In fact, we have family—Lisa’s sister and her family—who live in Brussels, and I woke up Tuesday morning with a Facebook message from my niece saying that they were O.K. I hadn’t even heard yet that there was a terrorist attack there. But I wasn’t surprised given that just last week, the Belgians arrested one of the masterminds behind the Paris attacks last November.
So… on Tuesday morning, Dixon received a text message from his aunt: “Had he heard about the explosions at the airport in Brussels, and was he safe? Dixon texted her back: He was fine. And I’m sure his aunt and the rest of his family in England were greatly relieved.
The only thing is, he texted these words while on his way to the subway station to catch his train for his daily commute to work. He never made it. A bomb ripped through the station and killed at least 20. He was one of the victims—and for three days his family and friends back home didn’t know he wasn’t safe, that he didn’t survive the attacks.
Remember the first murder in human history? It’s recorded in Genesis 4, when Cain murders his younger brother Abel. And God confronts Cain and says, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” The voice of your brother’s blood… If that were the case after only one murder, think of how loudly the voice of David Dixon’s blood, and the voices of the blood of Tuesday’s 30-plus terror victims, and all the voices of the blood of the slain throughout all of human history must sound to God’s ears.
I’ll never forget, in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in New Town, Connecticut, at Christmastime a few years ago… a high school classmate, who is not a believer herself but knew I was a pastor, messaged me on Facebook and asked, in all seriousness and with respect, “How are you going to celebrate Christmas after the events in Newtown?” I reminded her that the very first Christmas was celebrated in the midst of another Newtown. The names of the children were different. The place was different: It was in Bethlehem instead of Connecticut. But it was Newtown all the same. Because remember: King Herod was so jealous that there was a child who had been born King of the Jews that he sent his army into Bethlehem to slaughter all male children two years and younger—just to make sure that he would have killed Jesus while he was at it. Of course, by that time Joseph had been warned in a dream to flee with his family to Egypt.
The blood of these dozens of children two thousand years ago in Bethlehem was crying to God.
But I also remember saying to my classmate… Sandy Hook happens every day somewhere in the world. We’re just not usually aware of it. It doesn’t hit so close to home. If we had to wait until all the senseless violence and killing and suffering in the world came to end—even temporarily—we’d never be able to celebrate Christmas or any other joyous event.
My point is, when we consider all these things, how will justice ever be done? Who will ever make this right? Who will judge and punish all this evil in the world?
Brothers and sisters, these are exactly the kinds of questions that Good Friday answers!
The United Methodist News Service published an article this morning attempting to answer the question, “Why did Jesus have to die?” I don’t believe they answered the question satisfactorily. For one thing, no one asked me to weigh in! But one person interviewed for the article said, “I don’t understand why God couldn’t just forgive people without needing God’s Son Jesus to die on a cross.”
My main problem with the article is that they just sort of left that question floating out there, without offering a response to it. The problem with the question is that it assumes that forgiveness is free; that forgiveness doesn’t cost anything.
But forgiveness is never free. It always comes at a cost. It always requires sacrifice. And some of you are like, “Not always. If someone does me wrong, most of the time I can just forgive them without requiring any price to be paid any sacrifice to be made.” Really? For one thing, there are plenty of people that we quote-unquote “forgive”—or say we forgive—all the while continuing to nurse a grudge against them. Right? Aren’t there people in your life whom you’ve “forgiven” like that? “Sure, I forgave this person… But I can’t stand them, and I never want to be around them, and being around them raises my blood pressure, and raises my stress level, and makes me want to punch them in the face, and my stomach is all tied up in knots, and when I see them coming I walk the other way to avoid them, and then I think about how badly that person hurt me for the next couple of days, and I enjoy telling my friends at every opportunity how much that person hurt me and how horrible they are… But of course I forgave this person.”
So see, even the kind of half-hearted “forgiveness” that we human beings usually pull off often comes at a great cost—to our physical, emotional, and psychological health, if nothing else. Forgiveness is costly! The truth is, we’re not usually willing to pay the cost, which is why it happens so seldom.
Pastor Tim Keller shares a helpful analogy about the costliness of forgiveness that I want to share with you. He asks us to imagine that someone breaks into your car and steals it. So you’re without a car for many days. Meanwhile, the car thief gets in a police chase and ends up wrecking your car—totaling it. And the police call you, and you arrive on the scene. And there’s your car. It’s all smashed up. And there’s the guy who stole it and wrecked it. And I’m not saying this would ever happen, but suppose the cops say to you, “Look, Mr. White, this young man who stole your car and wrecked it—he says he’s genuinely sorry for what he did. If he goes to jail or has grand theft auto on his record, it’s really going to ruin his life, his job prospects, his opportunity to go to college, to be a productive member of society. I think you should forgive him.”
And suppose you’re really touched by the contrition that the car thief shows you. You can tell he’s really sorry, and you don’t want him to be punished further. So you agree with the officer: “O.K., I forgive him.” And the cop says, “Great!” So the police drive away. The parents of the grateful car thief take their son away. So… that’s that. All is forgiven!
Well, maybe… Maybe you’re a better person than I am, and you genuinely did forgive this person. But guess what? Your smashed-up, totaled car is still sitting there on the side of the road—blocking traffic. Who’s going to tow it away? That costs money, time, and energy. More importantly, you still need a car to replace the one that this guy wrecked. That costs a lot of money. And you’ve been renting a car for the past several days—and that costs money. And you’ve had to miss work to deal with all the legal and police business related to the theft, and that costs money. And even if your insurance covers most of the cost, you’ve been paying insurance premiums every month for years—and that costs money. And now those premiums will go up! And that costs money.
All that to say, even in this best-case scenario of forgiveness, someone has to pay for it! It’s costly! Always!
So that person who was interviewed for the article who said, “Why can’t God just forgive us without requiring his Son Jesus to die?” was really asking for the impossible: forgiveness that doesn’t cost anything. Since we know of no such forgiveness on earth, it stands to reason that it doesn’t exist in heaven, either!
And even this stolen car is a trivial example compared to what happened to Brussels three days ago… or Sandy Hook three years ago… or Bethlehem two thousand years ago.
On Good Friday, on the cross of his Son Jesus, God himself, in the flesh, paid the cost for all of the world’s sins!
Many years ago, one Christian pastor slandered our traditional understanding of the cross by characterizing it as “cosmic child abuse”—that an angry, vengeful Father would send his Son Jesus, an unwilling and innocent victim, to die on the cross to appease his wrath. That’s nonsense! God is a Trinity of three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Together they are one God—and each person of the Trinity wants the same thing: to save us sinful human beings from our sin!
So is God angry about human sin? Does he have wrath—justifiable anger—about sin? I hope so! If he cares about justice he does! If he loves the world he does! Were you righteously angry when you heard about what happened in Brussels? I hope so! As one pastor said,
When you see people who are harmed or abused, you get mad. If you see people abusing themselves, you get mad at them out of love. Your senses of love and justice are activated together, not in opposition to each other. If you see people destroying themselves or destroying other people and you don’t get mad, it’s because you don’t care. You’re too absorbed in yourself, too cynical, too hard. The more loving you are, the more ferociously angry you will be at whatever harms your beloved. And the greater the harm, the more resolute your opposition will be.
So by all means God has wrath toward sin and evil. But his wrath is a consequence of his love; it’s not in spite of his love.
And because God loves us he knew—he knew before he even created this world—that one consequence of creating it would be that he would come to us, as God-in-the-flesh, Jesus, to save us, through his death on the cross. There was never a time in all eternity when God didn’t know that he was going to come and die on the cross for us. Both 1 Peter and Revelation tell us that Christ was the lamb slain “from the foundation of the world.” It was always a part of God’s plan.
And because God is Trinity, God the Son wants the same thing that God the Father wants: Jesus doesn’t go to the cross as some kind of unwilling victim: As Jesus says elsewhere in John’s gospel, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” And when Jesus realizes that his “hour” has come—that it’s time for him to go to the cross—he says, “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour.” Jesus wasn’t looking forward to the suffering of the cross—but he very much wanted to die on the cross in order to save us!
O.K… So I’ve argued that forgiveness is always costly. And in the case of forgiving all the world’s sin and evil, it’s infinitely costly. How does Christ pay for it? John gives us a clue in verse 28, with some strange sounding words: “After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.”
Is John simply telling us something about Jesus’ physical condition: that he’s thirsty. Well, I’m sure Jesus felt a great physical need for water. But given the great torture he had endured—beaten and whipped within an inch of his life—so physically weakened that he couldn’t carry the 40–pound crossbeam on his shoulders to Golgotha, such that the Roman soldiers had to enlist the help of an onlooker named Simon of Cyrene. Of course he’s thirsty—and in incredible pain and in need of desperate medical attention, by all means. Yet the only comment John records about Jesus’ physical suffering is when he has Jesus say, “I thirst.”
Jesus, as he does throughout John’s gospel, is using a physical event—that he’s thirsty—to describe a spiritual reality. He does this, for example, when he talks about being born again, and Nicodemus wonders how he can re-enter his mother’s womb; or when he tells the Samaritan woman about giving her living water, and she says, “I would love to have some, so I wouldn’t have to keep coming to this well!”
When Jesus talks about “thirst,” he’s talking about it the way the Bible often does: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.” Or in Jeremiah 2:13: “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” Or Psalm 22, the very psalm which Jesus quotes from on the cross when he says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The weary psalmist describes his god-forsakenness in terms of being “dried up like a potsherd” and having his dry tongue “stick to his jaws.” And so this thirst is our spiritual craving for God, the desire for God that nothing or no one else can ever satisfy.
Earlier in John’s gospel, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman in John 4: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again”—referring to the water that she was drawing from the well—“but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.”
So what does it mean that Jesus, who promises us that we’ll never be thirsty again—is himself thirsty?
It means that he is experiencing something—deep down in his soul—that Jesus alone, among all of us human beings who ever lived, should never have to experience: the complete abandonment by his Father; the separation from his Father that we all should have to experience because of our sins.
Even more, think of the parable that Jesus tells about someone being in hell: the rich man and Lazarus. Remember the rich man spends his whole life mistreating the poor beggar Lazarus, and when the two of them die, Lazarus is in heaven, and the rich man is in hell. What does the rich man ask Father Abraham to tell Lazarus to do? “Send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue.”
Similarly, Jesus says, “I thirst.” It’s no exaggeration to say that on the cross Jesus experienced hell itself for us.
Earlier this week, when President Obama went to Cuba, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, a Major League team, also went. And they took on the Cuban national baseball team. The Devil Rays won! 4-1. So one afternoon I came home. Townshend was watching the game. And the first words out of my mouth were, “Are we winning?” Are we winning. And even though “we” weren’t in Cuba, even though we weren’t major league baseball players, even though we weren’t from Tampa Bay… In spite of all this, when I said “Are we winning?” Townshend knew exactly what I meant: Because on that particular day, Tampa Bay represented us—they represented Americans. They were playing this game on our behalf. Winning a victory on our behalf.
This is exactly what Jesus did for us! God didn’t want us to suffer for our sins, to experience separation from God for our sins, to experience hell for our sins—even though that’s exactly the cost that forgiveness requires. God wanted to save us from all that, so in Jesus Christ—God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity—did it for us. For us. In our place. As our representative.
If, like most people, you’ve wondered at times why we call this day Good Friday, I hope my words—fallible and faltering though they may be—have helped to explain why.
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… Here’s the good news: “Everyone” includes you.
 Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Dutton, 2008), 71.
 John 10:18 ESV
 John 12:27
 Psalm 42:1
 Psalm 22:15
 Luke 16:24