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What's the Point?

4/10/09

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It amazes me that Good Friday has survived. When I was a kid there never was any school; shops were closed at least from noon till three, and there were services then and at night. Now we're down to one. Why even have one? You all know the facts. You probably know the seven last words from the cross as well as I do. What's the point of gathering today?

Do you think it's to sympathize with Jesus? Is this a pity party for Jesus? He certainly didn't ask for pity. On the way to Golgotha, though Jesus hadn't the strength to carry His cross, He did have enough to turn around and say to the women bewailing Him, "Don't weep for Me." Jesus didn't look for sympathy from anyone. He didn't tell the thieves he was innocent. He didn't say to His mother, "Look what God has done to Me."

There is something wrong with sympathizing with a condemned man. During the French Revolution it was a capital crime to sympathize with a victim of the guillotine (Tale of Two Cities, 342). Babylonian Jews "use to mock the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement and pull its hair while it was on the way to the desert" (Jeremias, Jerusalem, 67). The scapegoat was the goat on which the high priest placed his hands and confessed the sins of the O.T. church. That goat was led out of Jerusalem and released into the desert carrying away the sins of the people.

This is how Jesus goes to the cross laden with the sins of all men including yours. He is really that guilty, and you sympathize either because you don't know how great, how disgusting, how many sins you have, or you sympathize because you think you're kinder than God. Jesus may be beyond the reach of divine sympathy but He's not beyond the reach of your great, big, tender heart. If you came today to sympathize with Jesus neither Jesus nor you are getting anything out of it. If you sympathize with Jesus, you're not benefiting from what Jesus is doing, and you could be calling judgment down upon yourself.

What's the point of going to Good Friday service? If it's not to sympathize with Jesus, is it perhaps to suffer with Him? I think you know the details of Good Friday well enough to know this can't be true either. On the cross, in the depths of His innocent suffering, He thinks of a thief in his guilty suffering and promises that it ends today in Paradise. When Jesus sees His mother at the foot of the cross, He mitigates her suffering by commending her to John's care. And though feeling the full weight of His body pulling on the nails and the full weight of the guilt of the world's sins, Jesus thinks of the guilt others might suffer in the future and says, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do."

Jesus doesn't call us here today to suffer with Him, and where would we be if He did? How much do you suffer with Jesus now? For that matter, how many times in the last year did you actually suffer with Him? Have you suffered any pain, loss, or even embarrassment as a disciple of His this past year? And you think you could come here today and suffer with Him? That's just absurd.

Even if you could, what good would it do? What can the suffering of a sinful man add to the suffering of God? It can only take away from it in this way. If I come to your house, and mow, and rake, and edge, and weed, and you help me, you don't receive the same benefit and therefore are not as thankful as you would be if I had done it all myself. Don't thin the Blood of Jesus by adding your own; don't lessen the beads of sweat on Jesus' brow by sweating your own; don't water down His tears by crying your own.

Besides it's heartbreaking to Jesus when people come on Good Friday to suffer with Him. If you suffer for someone you love, the last thing in the world you want is them suffering with you. Bruce Willis in Armageddon knocks out his soon to be son-in-law and takes his place on the doomed asteroid. The father in Vertical Limit cuts his own rope to save his family from falling off the mountain. Imagine the pain, the sadness, the sense of defeat Bruce Willis would've felt if his daughter's groom-to-be ended up next to him as the bomb went off. Imagine the horror the father would've experienced if after choosing to suffer death for the sake of his family, he sees his family tumbling off the mountain by his side.

Don't you do that on this Friday Christians call Good. The point of coming here is neither to pity Jesus nor to suffer with Him. The point of coming to this Divine Service is the same as coming to every other one: to gain faith. Luther said, "Those who meditate on Christ's Passion only in order that they may suffer with Him or gain from it something other than faith meditate in a way that is nothing short of fruitless and heathenish" (AE, 29, 210).

Gain here today the faith that Jesus died for the ungodly not reluctantly but willingly. The Mystery Religions which were popular in the days of the early church also spoke of a dying god but with this important difference. Their gods "died by compulsion and not by choice." Never did they die in self-giving love (Anderson, Incarnation, 62). This is a step up from the gods of Greece and Rome who never died for man, but this is still not love so amazing, so divine.

To get to that you have to join Christ's self-giving, sacrificial love and ungodly people. The legend of the thorn bird might help. The thorn bird supposedly sings just once in its life. From the moment it leaves the nest it searches for a thorn tree. Only when it has found one does it begin to sing. Then "it impales itself upon the longest sharpest spine. And, dying, it rises above its own agony to out-carol the lark and the nightingale" On the basis of the legend of the thorn bird, one author says, "For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain" (The Thorn Birds, intro).

Jesus did the opposite. Jesus bought the worst at the cost of the eternal pains of hell. Going back to the illustrations of suffering for someone else, they can only apply to Jesus if Bruce Willis had taken the place of the man who raped his daughter; if the father on the mountain had died saving the people who murdered his family. Our holy Thorn Bird is impaled by nails and crowned with thorns to save the ungodly. He does His best work for the worst people. St. Paul says bluntly in Romans, "While we were still sinners Christ died for the ungodly." Think of the ugliness and repugnance ungodly' indicates, then wince.

Gain from this service the faith that Christ died willingly for the ungodly in order to reach those beyond the reach of human sympathy. In The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne says that the scarlet letter that marked the adulterous woman "had such potent and disastrous efficacy that no human sympathy could reach her, save it were sinful like herself" (89). See the Scapegoat headed for the cross; see them enjoy mocking and jeering him. See them ridicule Him on the cross; make fun of His pain; revel in His suffering. Deep down that is how you know you should suffer and die. See His shame, His pain, His suffering, His sadness and know that's what you deserve for your ungodly thoughts, your sinful pride, your utter unbelief. But you don't come here to gain the faith that you deserve this; no your own heart tells you that much. You come here to gain the faith that Jesus got what you deserve.

And there's more; Jesus wasn't sinful but taking on the sins of the world He became sinful, guilty, ungodly in God's eyes and Jesus knew it and felt it. Though fallen, human sympathy can never reach the depths where we have fallen; though we think, "If anyone really knew the sins I'm guilty of, they wouldn't sit next to me let alone sympathize with me," Jesus really does know, and He looks with sympathy upon you even from the cross you nailed Him to.

Gain comfort, sympathy, and hope from the crucified Jesus. C.S. Lewis has a slave in a novel praying toward a shapeless, ugly stone rather than to the same goddess represented as a woman tall and straight in beautiful robes. The queen asks the slave why does she always pray to the ugly stone and not the beautiful statue, she says, "'That otherwouldn't understand my speech. She's only for nobles and learned men. There's no comfort in her" (Till We all Have Faces, 272).

The crucified Jesus does understand words of pain, shame, grief, worry, doubt, fear. And that's why we constantly come back to Golgotha, to an ugly cross, to a dying God, not once a year but daily sometimes hourly. Once you've set foot here, once you've been to the foot of the cross and felt His blood, sweat, and tears on your wicked, ungodly, dirty face, you're drawn back here as a moth to flame. For even if you can't see how or why, you know this crucified God is the answer not just to your sins but to your sinfulness, your death, your life. The deep wounds in the crucified Christ sooth your deep wounds. That's why no one wears an empty tomb around their neck but a crucifix.

The point of coming to Divine Service is to gain the faith to use Jesus' gifts of Baptism, Absolution, and Communion as Jesus meant them to be used. Baptism is to take you back to the cross so that your old sinful nature can be crucified and buried anew with Christ and a new man, woman, child rise with Him. Absolution is to take you back to Golgotha so you can hear Jesus declare your sins finished, suffered for, died for, paid for. Communion is to bring the cross back to you as you eat the same Body that Jesus gave there and drink the same blood He shed there so you might be sure that your sins are forgiven; you will not die, and you are going to heaven.

Leave here not with pity for Jesus or with the feeling that you have suffered with Him. Leave with the faith that Jesus has rescued you forever from a fate worse than death. Then you leave with what Jesus wanted you here for which is the point of having this service. Amen.

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Good Friday (20090410)