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Why Is This Friday Different From All Others?

 

Isaiah 53:7-12 1st Peter 2:22-25 Luke 23:32-43

Today is Passover, and in Passover services throughout the Jewish community a young child asks his parents, “Why is this night different from all other nights? It’s assumed it’s important that the child know why this night is different from all others. It’s assumed as well that the child’s parents can tell her why.

At some point our children have asked us or will ask us, “Why is this Friday different from all other Fridays? Why do we call Good Friday ‘good’? It’s important that our children know why. And we, their parents, should be able to tell them.

The quickest answer is “Good Friday is the day on which Jesus died.” But our children will still have many questions: “Why do we make so much of the death of Jesus? We don’t make anything of the death of John the Baptist? And when aunt Susie died last year no one at the funeral said it was good.”

Children persist. “Is it because Jesus died a martyr?” But thousands of Christians have died martyrs. “Then is it because Jesus’ death was unusually painful or distressing?” But millions have died in greater physical pain and distress. Then why is this Friday different from all others?

‘Good Friday’ is a modern expression. In the mediaeval era Christians spoke of God’s Friday. For on this day God acted definitively on behalf of humankind. On this day God did something apart from which the human predicament would be hopeless. He did something apart from which we would have remained helpless. This Friday, God’s Friday, has eternal significance for the entire human creation.

I: — As we ponder what God did and why he did it the truth about us humans begins to settle upon us. We read the all-time favourite parable of the lost son, and we hear the father cry, “My son was lost. He was dead.” Lost? Dead? Do these words really describe the situation of sinful humankind before God? Surely Jesus didn’t mean that unbelief has consequences as serious as this. (‘Lost, dead.’)

And then our eyes alight on a few words with which Jesus introduces a teaching to his disciples: “If you fellows, evil as you are…” He’s talking to disciples, to his friends, not to atheists or moral degenerates or

ne’er do wells; to disciples. And to them he says, matter of factly, as if what he’s saying were so obvious no one could disagree, “If you fellows, evil as you are….”

We penetrate the sentimental haze that surrounds Christmas and recognize that the unrestrained effusiveness and uninhibited joy pertain to one item: we’ve been given a saviour. We catch the mood of the New Testament writers. Their mood is, “Whew. At last. Just when we thought it was all over with us and our predicament was irretrievable.” If these men and women are ecstatic over the gift of the saviour, do they know something about the human predicament that we, in our inflated self-assurance, have overlooked?

And then we hear Jesus announcing, as he looks detractors in the eye, “I didn’t come to call the righteous. I came to call sinners to repentance.” Repentance is a turn-around in life; it’s an about-face, a 180-degree redirection. Does Jesus Christ assume that my life is fundamentally misdirected now?

Yes. Our Lord’s diagnosis is that humankind is wrapped up in a deep-rooted revolt against God. Unbelief (he’s not talking now of the unbelief of the head, a relatively slight matter, but rather about the unbelief of the heart: hardness of heart); unbelief, he insists, isn’t an ‘allowable option’ that some pseudo-sophisticates prefer to hold. Unbelief of the heart is wilful rebellion and repudiation, protracted defiance and disdain concerning God himself. It’s persistent ingratitude concerning God and prideful contempt as well. Our revolt issues, in God’s economy, in a human condition that is accurately described, without exaggeration, by the words ‘lost’, ‘dead’.

A diagnosis as catastrophic as this has to be met with a treatment that’s anything but superficial, or else the treatment will prove wholly ineffective. Yet in our society shallow diagnoses of the human condition abound, and we are constantly proffered superficial treatments. Shallow diagnoses always call forth shallow treatments. One treatment is greater moral earnestness; another is hyped up religiosity; another is cultural refinement; another is more government control in order to ensure social order; another is less

government control in order to ensure individual responsibility. None of these treatments can remedy the human condition; they are all too shallow.

When I was eleven years old I was playing touch-football on the street when one of my friends upended me. My head struck the curb, and my skull was fractured. My friends managed to get me home. I was dazed, pain-wracked, and profoundly disoriented. My mother, distressed at seeing me and preferring not to think my condition critical, went to the bathroom medicine cabinet, took out a tube that was supposed to fix everything, and squirted Vaseline on my head. What was Vaseline going to do for a fractured skull? Nobody is faulting her. She didn’t perceive how badly I was injured; or unconsciously she couldn’t bring herself to admit I was badly injured; or she wanted to ‘buy time’, wait and see, by playing ‘Let’s pretend’.

In light of humankind’s predicament before God (universally denied by the purveyors of shallow diagnosis and treatment), all shallow recommendations are as ineffective as putting Vaseline on a fractured skull.

God sees our repudiation of him (the unbelief of the heart), our brazen attempts at disguising our revolt, and our shallow attempts at remedying a predicament whose profundity we won’t acknowledge. God reacts. Of course he reacts. If God didn’t react he’d be a psychopath, as character-deficient as those pathetic people who are conscienceless, shameless, and everywhere dangerous. His reaction is his condemnation. His reaction issues in our estrangement from him. His reaction fixes a gulf between him and us, which gulf our rebellion, rejection and repudiation of him aimed at anyway, didn’t it?

Our Lord is the supreme realist. His diagnosis is correct. We are, he tells us, estranged from God by our defiant disobedience, and fixed in that estrangement by God’s just judgement.

II: — Yet Good Friday is God’s Friday, remember; and God’s Friday is Good Friday. Good Friday must

be good news, it has to be good news, or nothing could be good about it. Good Friday is good news, the good news of the gospel. The gospel is God-in-his-mercy coming among us who are lost and dead just because he is more distressed at our estrangement from him than we are. In his mercy God will do anything in order to set us right with himself.

Then what has he done? At the cross he has sealed his judgement upon us and manifested that judgement incontrovertibly (bad news); and at the cross he has simultaneously taken his own judgement upon himself, thereby fashioning acquittal for us. Good news.

Think of the last time you had to discipline your child for a serious offence. You had to do two things. In the first place you had to impress on your child your displeasure at her; you had to ensure your child understood that her behaviour was unacceptable; you were not going to tolerate it, and her punishment she deserved entirely. In the second place, you had to assure your recalcitrant child that you still loved her; that her outrageous behaviour grieved you more than it grieved her; that your anger – legitimate, vivid, evident – was nonetheless nothing compared to your heartbreak. In a word, you had to assure your child that the punishment she had to undergo pained you more than it pained her, cost you more than it cost her. Every parent wrestles with this dilemma.

God wrestles with it too. And God resolves his dilemma through the cross. Through the cross he makes plain that our defiance of him and repudiation of him, so far from a slight matter, is an intolerable matter, a damnable matter. After all, our recalcitrance has cost him his Son – which is to say, has cost God himself everything, since Father and Son are one in their suffering on Good Friday.

At the same time, through the cross God declares that his mercy is without measure and without end, for he hasn’t spared his Son, hasn’t spared himself, all for the sake of sparing us. So it is that Paul exclaims, in limitless amazement, “God instantiates his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

I have heard people say, “What does the death of Jesus have to do with God’s saving us? If we were drowning a hundred metres offshore, out in the middle of the lake, and someone standing on the dock took pity on us, and exclaimed, ‘I feel sorry for your predicament. I’ll jump into the water and drown too: we’ll both drown together” – I’ve heard people say that such a situation doesn’t prove that the second person loves the first or can save the first. All it proves is the stupidity and ineffectiveness of the silly person who jumped off the dock and threw his life away.

Then did Jesus merely throw his life away? In truth, our Lord’s cross is wholly different. The alienation from his Father that the Son undergoes on Good Friday – the dereliction we call it (“Why have you forsaken me?”) is nothing less and nothing other than humankind’s alienation from God (even though we are insensitive to it). And since, according to the Incarnation, Father and Son are one in their judgement upon us, one in their execution of that judgement, and one in the alienation that judgement entails, then the Son’s alienation from the Father is simultaneously the Father’s self-alienation. And the Father’s self-alienation is nothing less than God, the just judge, absorbing in himself his judgement upon us, leaving us acquittal, pardon, forgiveness, life.

Think of it from another angle. In Jesus Christ, God the judge enacts his sentence of condemnation upon humankind. And then God the judge does what no human judge ever does in a court of law. He steps down from his elevated bench, stands with the offender, and imposes on himself the sentence he has just imposed on the offender, thereby absorbing in himself the sentence the offender deserves and has received and yet is now spared.

Let’s return to the matter of parents disciplining children. A parent comes upon a child behaving outrageously and consigns that child to her bedroom, without supper. Some time later, the parent, so very upset at the child’s behaviour that the parent can’t eat his supper, goes to the child’s room, sits with the child, and tells the child why all of this had to occur. Then the parent, having absorbed the punishment he

assigned the child, puts his arm around the child, and the two of them walk out of the room together.

III: — Together. This word brings us to the last point of the sermon. As God has absorbed his judgement upon us at the cross, he and we can live henceforth together. He can’t do anything more for us than he has already done. Whether we live henceforth together now hangs on our response.

Our response will include several aspects. It will include our recognition that the diagnosis concerning us has been correct. It will include our acknowledgement that the remedy for our predicament God alone has fashioned. It will include our admission that we do not add to this cure nor do we subtract from it: either we receive it or we spurn it. Our response will include our discernment that the remedy, finally, isn’t an ‘it’ at all but rather the effectual presence of Jesus Christ himself, and therefore we are going to embrace him gratefully or rebuff him haughtily.

Two hundred years ago it was the custom of the leaders of a vanquished army to hand over their swords (ceremonial swords) to the victor. Handing over one’s sword was the conclusive, public acknowledgment of surrender.

After the last shot was fired in the Battle of Waterloo, 1815, the victorious general, the Duke of Wellington summoned the defeated French generals to his tent. They appeared, greeted Wellington, and took the seats he offered them. Immediately they congratulated Wellington on his superior military prowess. Why, they were professional soldiers too, and certainly they had an eye for military genius. In fact, they continued, so fine a soldier was Wellington that it was no disgrace to lose to him. It was an honour simply to be found on the field of battle with him. Perhaps they could all have a glass of sherry and toast each other.

The flattery mounted. Wellington listened to it for twenty-odd minutes and then said quietly, yet

uncompromisingly, “Gentlemen, I want your swords.” He didn’t want to be flattered. He wanted to be surrendered to. And he wanted a conclusive, public acknowledgement of that surrender. To this end the men who surrendered to him were going to have to stand before him empty-handed.

It is for the same reason the hymn writer cries, “Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to thy cross I cling.”

If you are offended by the simplicity of the Good Friday message, I can only say that the gospel, finally, is simple.

If you are offended by its diagnosis of the human predicament before God, I must insist on its realism.

If you are offended by the crudeness of crucifixion and blood and bedraggled Jew, I can only say that no one has ever been saved by Gentile, genteel refinement.

Why is this Friday different from all others? Why is this Friday Good Friday? Because it’s God’s Friday. And by God’s grace and the faith his grace enlivens within us, may it ever be yoursand mine as well.

Victor Shepherd

Good Friday 2015       St Bride’s Anglican Church, Mississauga