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Leader: Rev. David Thomas
Scripture: Matthew 20:45-56
Date: Apr 14th, 2017
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Who do you say that this man is?  This is the question we’ve been asking throughout these weeks of Lent.  This is the day in which we answer the invitation – all ye that pass by, to Jesus draw nigh.  This is the day in which we’re invited to draw close to Jesus as he is led to and nailed to the cross.  Matthew doesn’t linger over the description.  He simply states “And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes…”  Matthew is talking about the soldiers here.  Earlier they mocked him, putting a crown of thorns on his head.  A reed in his hand.  A scarlet robe – no doubt one of their own – around his shoulders.  “Hail, King of the Jews!” they say.

The thing about these soldiers though is, they’re getting a chance to keep vigil on this first good Friday.  Then they sat down there and kept watch over him.  It’s the same thing we’re doing.  Something vital is happening this day.  It’s vital for us to sit with those soldiers who are keeping watch.  As followers of Christ we don’t go from the triumph of Palm Sunday to the triumph of Easter Sunday without taking our stand at the cross and keeping watch there.  What is it that we see?  What does what we see tell us about who God is and what God does?

We see that the crucifixion was part of God’s plan all along.  What is happening today is not a detour on the way to resurrection.  It’s not something to be forgotten about.  The risen Christ bears the marks of the cross.  We sang about this earlier.  We’ll know him by the mark where the nails have been.  When John the Revelator has a vision of the heavenly throne, he’s told’ “see the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, and he looks and sees a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered…”  Peter writes of the lamb who was “destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake.”  This is our ransom friends.  This is our deliverer. 
Throughout the book of Matthew Jesus has shown what God does. God delivers.  God saves.   God brings healing.  God brings wholeness.  Here we have Jesus being brought to the Place of the Skull.  The Place of Death.  The place in which he will do battle with Sin and Death on our behalf.  The irony is rich here.  “Hail King of the Jews” is the mocking cry directed at the one who has walked through the pages of Matthew as if clothed in the purple robes of royalty.  The one who is showing now what God’s Kingship looks like.  Jesus’ Kingship was never about self-aggrandizement.  It was never about self-preservation.  He had told his followers that he had come not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

This is what we are looking at this morning along with those soldiers.  The prevailing thought of the day – of any day really – is that we need to save ourselves.  God helps those who help themselves right?  Save yourself!  Life is all about self-preservation.  About protecting yourself and your people.  If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.  Prove it!  Do something spectacular.  Power is spectacle after all right?  Let him come down from the cross and we will believe in him.  Do something really big. 

The ironic thing is, Jesus is doing something really big.  Remember how he talked about loving your enemies?  This is what enemy love looks like.  This is what we are seeing.  God’s love to us was proved in this way, that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Christ is numbering himself with sinners.  This is what he did in his life.  Remember the party that Matthew threw after he decided to follow Jesus?  Many sinners and tax collectors came.  Christ takes his stand with sinners on the cross.  
Christ takes his stand for us.  He’s delivering us from something from which we are unable to deliver ourselves.  Remember the story of the disciples out in the boat on the Sea of Galilee during the storm?  Their boat was tormented.  They were in a situation from which they were unable to extricate themselves.  Jesus came and said “Do not be afraid.  It is I.”

This is who we are keeping watching over this morning along with those soldiers’ friends.  He’s fighting for us with the power of sacrificial redeeming love. 

You may sometimes hear the question “Why did Jesus have to die?”  I think a better question, especially for a day like today is, “Why did Jesus have to die such a ghastly death?”  Crucifixion was reserved for the worst sort of criminals.  It was designed to be a public humiliation and warning.  It was a long, drawn out, torturous death.  It was not something that was talked about in polite society.  It was never used for Roman citizens.   For Jewish people, being hung publicly meant being cursed.  One writer describes the process in this way – “the feet were joined almost parallel, both transfixed by the same nail at the heels, with the legs adjacent; the knees were doubled, the right one overlapping the left; the trunk was contorted; the upper limbs were stretched out, each stabbed by a nail in the forearm.  A small seat was used on the cross.” 

Why do we go over these ghastly details?  Friends because there is no suffering from which God is absent.  No human situation can keep us from God’s love.  We’re not called to turn our faces away from suffering any more than we’re called to turn away from Christ on the cross.     In redeeming love- love that brings us back to God – Christ is showing that all we hope for, all we fear is met at the cross.  The hopes and fears of all the years.  Every human situation, no matter how dark, no matter how dire, is brought back to God through the cross. NT Wright describes it like this:  “Bring the hopes you had when you were young.  Bring the bright vision of family life, of success in sport, or work, or art, the dreams of exciting adventures in far-off places…. Bring the longings of your heart.  They are fulfilled here, though not in the way you imagined.  This is how God has fulfilled the dreams of his people.  This is how the coming king would overcome his enemies.  Or bring the fears and sorrows you had when you were young.  The terror of violence, perhaps at home.  The shame of failure at school, of rejection by friends.  The nasty comments that hurt you and hurt you still.  The terrible moment when you realized a wonderful relationship had come to an end.  The sudden, meaningless death of someone you loved very much.  They are all fulfilled here.  God has taken them upon himself, in the person of his Son.”  All of our guilt.  All of our shame.  Everything that kept us away from God has been taken on the person of God’s Son. This is for the whole world.  Again Wright – “…bring the hopes and sorrows of the world.  Bring the millions who are homeless because of flood or famine (or war)…Bring the politicians who begin by longing for justice and end up hoping for bribes.  Bring the beautiful and fragile earth on which we live.  Think of God’s dream for his creation, and God’s sorrow at its ruin.”

On the cross, God is remaking creation.  He is making things anew.   When we looked at the first verse of Matthew’s Gospel, we noted the Greek word – an account of the genesis of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.  In Jesus God is making things new.  There is a new creation.   At the first creation we read “darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God (or the spirit of God) swept over the face of the water.  Then God said….”

Before the dawn of this new creation we have darkness.  From noon on, darkness came over the whole land, until three in the afternoon.  Then God speaks, just like Genesis 1.  God speaks a new creation.  It’s really more like singing though.  Matthew is always looking back to the Hebrew Scriptures, and here we have Christ crying out with a loud voice.  The thing he’s crying out is a song.  Someone has called it the greatest song ever sung in the history of the world.  Psalm 22.  How can we say this? My God my God why have you forsaken me?  Jesus spends three hours in darkness.  Theologians have argued for millennia now what exactly this cry meant.  Was Jesus actually forsaken by God?  Is such a thing possible for the Trinity?  Was the weight of humanity’s sins on Jesus such that his Heavenly Father abandoned him temporarily?  I don’t think we can say any of this for certain.  I think this is one of the things that we leave to the mystery of our faith.  We hold with faith that Christ who knew no sin became sin for us, and marvel at the mystery.  Perhaps the best way to do that is with thanks and praise and songs ourselves.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?  Listen to how this Psalm of David looks ahead to Christ – “But I am a worm, and not human (suffering a dehumanizing death), scorned by others, and despised by the people.  All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads. Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me… I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart if like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.”  And in the midst of this we have this loving trust – “In you our ancestors trusted, and you delivered them.  To you they cried and were saved; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.  Yet it was you who took me from my mother’s womb, and kept me safe on my mother’s breast.  On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.”  Listen to how the song ends – “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.” 

I don’t feel I have to say much more.  Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last (or gave up his spirit).  No one takes my life away.  I give it willingly.  Those were Jesus words in the Gospel of John.  Jesus cried again.  Again the Gospel of John – It is finished.  Look at how the song ends.  “He has done it!”  It is finished.

This is why we call this day Good friends.

A new creation.  Things are shaken up.  Literally.  The curtain of the temple is torn.  We are brought back to God in a new way.  The earth shakes.  The rocks are split.  New life.  The tombs also were opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.  They were seen after the resurrection…

Because we’re waiting for the resurrection.  We’re told that many women looked on from a distance.  Some of these same women will go to the tomb on the third day.  We look forward to that.  And we wait.

In the meantime we wait, knowing that sin and death have been defeated.  That God has done something new.  That God calls us to be follow this man and be made new.  To end our vigil along with those soldiers and to say with them “Truly this man was God’s son!” To make this man and the Kingdom he has ushered in the foundation of our lives and all the hopes and fears and joys and sorrows and darkness and light with which make up our lives.  While we wait.

Who do you say that I am?  This was Jesus’ question.  May our answer this morning be Our Lord.  Our Saviour.  Our Deliverer.  May our actions and words proclaim his deliverance to people.  May these things be true for us all.  He has done it.   Amen.