April 22, 2011

Seven Last Words

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Preacher: Rev. Karl Burden | Series: 2011 Sermons

I think it’s fairly safe to say that none of us here today can even begin to appreciate the excruciating pain and suffering which Jesus experienced on that first Good Friday.  We simply have nothing with which to compare it, because it doesn’t come remotely close to anything we’ve had to endure.

But what we do know is this.  By the time Jesus’ ordeal had come to an end, He had been deprived of sleep for at least 36 hours, during which time, He’d been taken prisoner, tried before both Pilate, then Herod, and back again before Pilate.

When Pilate had finished interrogating Him the second time, he ordered Jesus to be whipped; a fact which the Gospel record seems almost to gloss over; dedicating but a single phrase to this aspect of Jesus’ suffering.  And yet we know that flogging in biblical days was a horrendous form of torture;  so horrible that it was illegal to subject a Roman citizens to it.

Historical records tell us that flogging was so brutal that a single blow at the hand of a Roman soldier, could inflict wounds on the back of person, that would take nearly 200 stitches to close them up.  Yet Jesus endure, not just one blow, but many; and in so doing experienced the second worst punishment the Roman soldiers could inflict upon another human being.

But this was only the beginning of His ordeal; because after that Jesus suffered the humiliation and pain of carrying a heavy cross bar through the city streets of Jerusalem to the place where He was to be executed; a task which proved too much even for Jesus to bear.

It was only then, after experiencing all this unimaginable pain, that He was finally nailed to the cross and crucified.

The Romans for over 100 years, had been perfecting this form of torture as a means of controlling the people over whom they ruled.   They always made it a point to crucify victims in prominent locations, so that as many people as possible would see the suffering, and be reminded that if they didn’t obey, they would suffer a similar fate.

In our day, I guess Mel Gibson has come closest to showing us, just how much our Lord endured, when he produced the film ‘the Passion of Christ’.  Personally, I chose not to see it, and I find it hard to understand how anyone can want to watch such a spectacle.  And yet I know that in times past crowds of people often gathered to watch crucifixions.  What is it about human suffering that attracts spectators?

I don’t need a detailed description of Jesus’ suffering to know that what He endured was unbelievably cruel and painful.  And though it’s true that we gather here week by week to worship at the foot of a cross, surely we do so, not to relish in the gore and pain of such torture; but rather to give thanks for the sacrifice of the One who endured this suffering in order that we might live.
And so this morning, as our thoughts are drawn to the cross of Jesus, I would like us to focus, not on His suffering per se, but rather upon how He responded during that ordeal.  The Gospels reveal that during the hours He hung on the cross, Jesus spoke 7 times.

I – FATHER FORGIVE THEM

His first words were:  “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
Think about this for a moment.  If you’ve ever suffered the pain of an abscessed tooth, or maybe a broken bone, you know very well where your attention was focused?  It was on yourself, wasn’t it.  You were totally fixated by the pain.  It monopolized your whole being; crowding out thoughts about everything else.  You could feel that pain throbbing throughout your whole body, and you wanted no more than for that pain to cease.

Yet here is our Lord, experiencing something far more intense than anything we’ve experienced; yet how does He respond?   His very first words as He looked down upon His tormentors; upon those who were inflicting this pain, weren’t curses, but words of forgiveness.  So totally selfless was this man of God, that even in torment, He was not distracted from showing mercy.

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  These first words, above everything else, set this man above all others.

II – WORDS OF PROMISE

Hanging there that day, beside Jesus were two other men; both convicted criminals condemned to the same horrible death.  The one, filled with rage and pain, turned his head toward Jesus and mocked him, saying: ‘If you’re really the Messiah, save yourself and us!”

His companion, however, immediately reprimanded him, saying:  “Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?”  And then with words of pleading, he begged of Jesus: “Remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”

Although it was obvious that this man had led a life that was anything but pure, Jesus nevertheless recognized in his pleading, a reverence for God, and a respect for who Jesus was.

And so with a second act of forgiveness, Jesus spoke to him, saying:  “I tell you the truth, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”  (Luke 23:43)

III – CONCERN FOR HIS MOTHER

Among those standing near the cross, witnessing this horrible deed were: Jesus’ mother; her sister, Mary the wife of Clopas; and Mary Magdalene.  Seeing the anguish on His mother’s face,  suffering there as only a mother can suffer when her child is in agony, Jesus once again spoke words of compassion and love.

His mother was standing beside a disciple identified only as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, but whom many believe was John, the son of Zebedee.  Speaking to both of them, Jesus said: “Woman, here is your son.” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.”  (John 19:26-27)

He calls his mother ‘woman’, not in a cold, formal sense, but rather with deep respect to the one who nurtured Him from birth.  Jesus knew He can no longer look after her, so He did for her the very best thing He could;  He entrusted her to the care of the one person He knew would look after her like a son; her nephew, John.

IV – FEELINGS OF ABANDONMENT

Hours later, the spark of life draining from His body;  and having endured the shouts and insults hurled at Him by travellers passing by, who saw only three condemned men suffering a well deserved fate; Jesus uttered words that expressed His very human emotions of abandonment and loneliness; crying out with a loud voice:- “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”   which in translation is: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  (Matthew 27:46)

These words echoed the ancient cry of the Psalmist,  who in Psalm 22 cried out : “My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?  Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?”  But far from being words of hopelessness, Jesus’ lament reminded all who knew these ancient words, that the Psalm ends with the sufferer’s vindication and triumph.  And so it was to be for Jesus, that day.

V – WORDS OF SUFFERING

Knowing that He had completed His Father’s work, and having left nothing undone, Jesus once again spoke words that reflect His humanity, saying simply:  “I thirst.”  (John 19:28)

There is rich symbolism in these words, for earlier Jesus told Peter that He must drink the cup which His Father had given Him (John 18:11);  a cup of suffering.  Jesus was at the lowest point of His ordeal; He had paid the price for our sins.  So complete was this act of self sacrifice that the Gospels tell us that although it was about noon, darkness came over the whole land for three hours, while the sun’s light failed; and that then the curtain of the temple was torn in two.

VI  – WORDS OF TRIUMPH

John’s Gospel tells us, that having received the wine, Jesus said:  “It is finished” then He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.  It was a cry of victory, not of defeat; for Jesus was the one in charge, not the Romans; not Herod or Pilate’; and certainly not the priests who had orchestrated His execution.  They were but pawns in the hand of God.  It was Jesus who was in full control; and in allowing Himself to be hung there on the cross, He had fulfilled the will of God, and paid the price for our sins.

VII – WORDS OF COMMITMENT

It is Luke who tells us that Jesus spoke one last time, saying:  “Father, into your hands I commend My spirit.”  (Luke 23:46)  And in so doing, He breathed His last breath, and died.

Conclusion
No one can ever be reconciled to the fact that evil things happen in this world.  Death and suffering are all around us, reminding all who are willing to see and understand, that something is wrong with Creation; something which only the sacrifice of One who is without sin, can ever hope of redeeming.
Seeing the horror of the Cross and listening to the last words of the One who hung upon it, helps us appreciate that Christ is the only hope for this fallen world.  For through Christ, God has done something about death and suffering, and shown us the power of His infinite love.  And so as we gather here on this sombre day of remembrance, let us never forget that because of what Jesus did that day, so long ago, we are assured that through faith in Him, when we die, that will not be the end of our lives, but that we will go to that place that Christ has prepared for us in the eternal kingdom.   Thanks be to God.

Amen.