Posted by: Johnold Strey | April 7, 2009

Good Friday Sermon (2009)

This sermon was preached at Apostles Lutheran Church in San Jose on Wednesday evening, April 1, and will be preached again at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Belmont (my congregation) on Good Friday evening, April 10.

The indented/quotation section at the beginning of this post, prior to the sermon itself, includes the description of Gloria Dei’s Good Friday “Service of Darkness” (Tenebrae service) as printed on page one of our Good Friday service folder.  The main source book for our congregation’s Good Friday service is “Christian Worship: Occasional Services,” available through Northwestern Publishing House (Milwaukee, WI).

Tonight the church remembers the crucifixion of our Lord.  Our remembrance, while solemn, is not a message of gloom, but the awe-filled adoration of the Son of God as he offers up his life as the Lamb of God.  Good Friday is part of the larger celebration of the mystery of salvation begun yesterday (Maundy Thursday) and culminating at the Great Vigil of Easter tomorrow evening (Holy Saturday).  Worship on Good Friday is not a funeral service for Jesus, but an austere time of reflection, intercession, adoration of the Lamb of God, and quiet meditation.  We gather to celebrate the sacrifice of the cross.

The word tenebrae (TEN-ǝ-bray) means “darkness.”  The service we use tonight originated in medieval monasticism as part of the monks’ Daily Office (seven prayer services held each day) and was used during Holy Week.  The order of worship centers on a series of Psalms and other Scripture lessons that focus on our Lord’s crucifixion, and repentance over the sin that necessitated it.

In the chancel burns a seven-fold candelabra in the shape of a cross.  The candles will be extinguished as the service progresses, darkening the chancel.  At the end of the service, the final candle of the candelabra is removed from the chancel leaving the church in tenebrae for silent prayer.  The service is closed by a loud sound, called the strepitus, which has been interpreted by worshippers in a number of ways.  Some see the strepitus as a symbol to remind us of the stone that was rolled in front of Jesus’ tomb to seal it shut; others see it as a statement of the cataclysmic nature of Christ’s sacrifice; still others view it as foreshadowing the rending of Christ’s tomb at his resurrection on Easter morning.  The final candle, which is still burning, is returned to its place at the end of the service before the congregation departs the church.

The mood of the service is most solemn, encouraging the worshipers to reflect deeply upon their own life in the light of the Passion of our Lord.  No closing blessing is pronounced and the congregation disperses into the night, leaving the darkened church in silence, yet remembering the Light which lingers and casts hope through the gloom of Good Friday.


Sermon Series for the Midweek Lent Services: “Father, Forgive Them”


Text: Matthew 27:35-44

Someone has said, “First God made us in his image, and ever since then we have been returning the compliment.”  God created human beings in his image: holy and sinless, with a will that was in perfect harmony with his perfect will.  And ever since the first act of disobedience by the parents of the entire human race, sinful human beings have tried to re-make God in their image.  Sinful human beings have tried to re-make God to be a god of their own choosing and preferences, rather than the God who has very specifically revealed himself in Scripture.  Sinful human beings want to remake God into a god that makes them comfortable with themselves, who loves and coddles them and never has a word of discipline or rebuke.  Sinful human beings want God on their terms, not on his own terms.

“First God made us in his image, and ever since then we have been returning the compliment.”  That thought-provoking phrase is a perfect summary of all human history, and it is the perfect summary of the scene before the cross of Jesus on Good Friday.  The cross of Jesus on Good Friday presents us with a stark and stunning and shocking image of God.  God is nailed to a cross.  God endures the worst form of capital punishment ever concocted by man.  God endures his own hellish punishment for the sins of his rebellious creatures.  God bleeds and groans and suffers.  God is ridiculed by everyone from hardened criminals to the religious leaders.  And perhaps the hardest truth to wrap our minds around at the cross is that God, who cannot die, dies.

Through it all, this man, Jesus Christ, claims to be God.  He claims to be God incarnate who came to redeem the world by his suffering, death, and passion.  He claimed in advance that everything that happened at the cross would happen, and yet through it all he claimed to be God himself and the promised Messiah foretold for centuries.  But do you think the Passover crowds took Jesus’ claims seriously?  And for that matter, do we take Jesus’ claims seriously?  As we stand at the foot of the cross and see the crowds despise Jesus’ claims, we must also pray, “Father, forgive us!  Forgive us for despising our Savior’s claims!”

Listen to the reading that forms the basis for tonight’s sermon from Matthew 27:35-44: “When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots.  And sitting down, they kept watch over him there.  Above his head they placed the written charge against him: This is Jesus, the king of the Jews.  Two robbers were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left.  Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself!  Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!’  In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him.  ‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself!  He’s the King of Israel!  Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.  He trusts in God.  Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, “I am the Son of God.”‘  In the same way the robbers who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.”

The death penalty is a pretty clean process in modern America.  I don’t mean to trivialize something as serious as capital punishment.  But the truth is that in our nation, we reserve the death penalty for the most serious of crimes, we allow multiple opportunities for the defendant to appeal, and we carry it out as painlessly as possible.

The Romans didn’t have that philosophy by a long shot.  Medical doctors have written articles explaining the excruciating torture that a victim of crucifixion would experience.  And not only was it horribly painful, but it was horribly embarrassing.  The convicts would be forced to carry their crossbeam to the site.  A sign was hung around their neck or carried before them stating their crime.  They were stripped of their clothing, tied or nailed to the cross, and hoisted up for all the world to see, with the sign posted above their head to deter anyone who saw the crucifixion scene from attempting the same crime.  A scene that Americans want to occur behind closed doors was a scene the Romans wanted to occur out in the open for all to see.

I don’t need to tell you that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was horrible.  He sweat drops of blood in Gethsemane just thinking about it.  He submitted to his Father’s will all the way to the cross, even though he prayed that there might be another way to atone for the sins of the world.  And before it was all over, he endured an eternity’s worth of punishment in hell on top of the six hours of intense physical suffering.  Surely, with the awful agony our Lord endured, the crowds and passersby would have some sympathy for him.  Surely people would respect his mother and best friend at the foot of the cross and not add their insults to his injuries.

But that would be hoping for too much.  For apart from his close followers, it appears that everyone who passed the shadow of the cross that day added their insults to his injuries.  It all started with Pilate.  The charge posted above Jesus’ head was not blasphemy or insurrection.  No, the charge Pilate had inscribed was this: “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews.”  It was a slam on Jesus’ claim to have a kingdom not of this world as much as it was a slam on the Jews.

new-testament-illustrations-031Then there are the soldiers.  They pound the rusty nails into Jesus’ hands and feet and roll dice to lay claim to his tunic.  And they put Jesus in the middle — the spot that was traditionally reserved for the worst criminal in the crucified bunch.  That’s what they thought of Jesus’ claims.

Then there are the crowds.  Travelers from near and far journey into Jerusalem for the next day’s Passover feast.  And they do not politely avert their eyes and pass by on the other side of the road into the city.  No, the ones who knew about Jesus’ claims also ridicule those claims.  Apparently Jesus won’t be rebuilding the temple in three days if he’s dead, they shout.

Then there are the other criminals.  There’s an actual, valid reason why they are there: They’re convicted criminals!  Jesus is crucified among robbers or insurrectionists.  And even the convicts insult him for his claims to be the Savior — although we rejoice to know that one of the criminals later repented for his ridicule and his crimes and was received into paradise.

And then there are the religious leaders.  And their insults to Jesus and to his claims are the most scandalous of all!  “The chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him.  ‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself!  He’s the King of Israel!  Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.  He trusts in God.  Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, “I am the Son of God.”‘”

These fellows knew the Old Testament like the back of their hands.  They were the scholar’s scholars.  They were the experts!  Did they suddenly forget the vivid description of the suffering Messiah predicted in Isaiah 53?  Did they suddenly forget the words of Psalm 22 that previewed the scene at the cross: “They divided my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing”?  Did they suddenly forget the words of Psalm 22 which predicted the very insults that they were hurling at the Messiah: “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads: ‘He trusts in the Lord; let the Lord rescue him.  Let him deliver him, since he delights in him'”?

But even with all their cynicism at his claims, doesn’t it shock you that these fellows actually knew better?  They knew Jesus wasn’t your run-of-the-mill rabbi.  They knew Jesus wasn’t a one-hit wonder.  Listen to them ridicule his claims and indict themselves at the same time: “‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself.'”  They admit that he has saved others!  They know that the man blind from birth received his sight again.  They interrogated him like he was some sort of criminal after Jesus healed him!  They know that Jesus just raised Lazarus from the dead a couple of weeks earlier.  That’s when they really picked up their heat against him!  This wasn’t exactly your typical headline in the Jerusalem daily press: “Dead man from Bethany raised to life.”  What else should they conclude but that this man was the Messiah?

But they didn’t care one bit for his claims.  This was not the kind of Messiah and God they wanted.  He rejected their legalism.  He said their laws were irrelevant man-made teachings.  He deflated their pride and dismissed their self-righteousness.  He said that it was faith in his righteousness, not their failed attempts at righteousness, that caused them to stand righteous and holy before God.  But that was the exact opposite of everything they stood for!  And they despised his claims to be the Son of God and the way to eternal life.  They despised his claims all the way to his crucifixion and death.

What do you think of Jesus’ claims?  I doubt you would place yourself into the category of the religious leaders who rejected Jesus and everything he stood for.  The crowd that shows up for evening services in Lent and Holy Week isn’t the crowd that pegs itself as Jesus-rejecters.

But what about his exclusive claims?  What about Jesus’ claim that no one comes to the Father except through him?  Does your sinful nature begin to concoct non-Scriptural exemption clauses that somehow apply to the family and friends you love?  Certainly that would be far more comfortable than actually confessing your faith before those people!

What about the claims Jesus makes about his Word?  During his ministry, Jesus made it quite clear that he put his seal of approval on the Old Testament and that the New Testament writers would be given a special gift of the Holy Spirit so that their words were truly God’s Word.  Wouldn’t it make sense to trust what the man who rose from the dead had to say about Scripture?  But then we find those teachings we don’t care for — fellowship, close communion, God’s design and roles for the genders, God’s will that sex is only within marriage, the sinful condition we are born with, the law’s condemnation against hatred, greed, lust, or some other sin we’d like to keep as our pet — we find those teachings in Scripture we don’t care for and then find ways to rationalize them away.

What about the claims Jesus makes about the Christian life?  In this life, we follow Jesus’ humiliation, not his exaltation.  Jesus has promised us the cross, not a cushion.  But will that sell to the unchurched?  Will such a message be palatable to our sinful nature?  Isn’t the prosperity message from the television evangelist, or the victorious life message heard in the megachurch down the street — isn’t that more attractive than Jesus claims about his cross and ours?

No, we are not all that different from the crowd at the foot of the cross.  If we took Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God seriously, wouldn’t we also take all of his Word seriously?  If we took Jesus’ claims seriously, would our sinful flesh convince us to remake God in our image?  And doesn’t the fact that we are not content to take Jesus’ claims seriously put us in a predicament with a God who has no love or tolerance for sin and rebellion?

new-testament-illustrations-033But there is something else that we should remember about Jesus’ claims.  Jesus’ claims are true whether or not anyone in the world thinks that they are true.  Jesus’ claims are not based on the latest CNN or FOX News opinion poll.  Jesus’ claims are based on fact.  They are based on the fact that he is the Son of God who suffered hell on the cross for the world and conquered death definitively by his resurrection.  And that demonstrates the validity behind each and every word spoken by our Savior.

You can know that Christ’s death has redeemed you from sin, for Jesus himself claims, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).  You can know that your guilt, your shame, and even your ongoing struggles against sin have been erased from the record, for Jesus extends this claim through the apostle Paul: “[Jesus] was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.”  You can know that everything needed for your forgiveness before God is secured fully through faith in Jesus, for Jesus also claimed in these famous words, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believed in him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).  You can know that you have an open invitation to come before God and receive pardon and forgiveness for the sake of Jesus Christ and his cross, for Jesus extends this claim through the apostle John: “If anyone does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense-Jesus Christ, the righteous One.  He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2).  And because Jesus did not remain in the grave after his crucifixion and death, you have total confidence that these are not empty claims, but claims from the throne of God who will not lie to you!

And so we pray, “Father, forgive us for the times we have despised our Savior’s claim.”  And then we pray once more, “Father, send us your Spirit, strengthen us by your Word and Sacrament that our new Christian nature may cling to Jesus’ claims and words more faithfully and rejoice in the pardon that his cross and blood have won for us!”  Amen.




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