April 10, 2020 – Good Friday
© 2020 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here.
Pilate told them, “You take him and crucify him. I don’t find any grounds for a charge against him.” The Jewish leaders replied, “We have a Law, and according to this Law he ought to die because he made himself out to be God’s Son.” When Pilate heard this word, he was even more afraid.
On Good Friday, we encounter the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth as the punishment of both a king-pretender and a God-pretender. For Pilate and the Roman Empire on whose behalf the governor acted, Jesus was condemned as an insurrectionist—one who pretended to be the king of the Jews. Rome was a brutal occupier of first-century Palestine. Any who dared challenge the authority and might of the Empire was quickly put down. The titulus—the sign that hung above Jesus on the cross—identified in bitter irony the would-be king of the Jews, making that proclamation in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek to be sure that any who passed by and saw the condemned rebel would remember what Rome would do to those who would be king.
For the religious leaders who brought Jesus to the governor’s palace, their prisoner was condemned as a blasphemer—one who pretended to be the Son of God. According to the Law of Moses, there was only one punishment appropriate for someone who made himself out to be God, and that was death by stoning. But Rome had prohibited the Jewish authorities from executing anyone, so they appealed to the occupying power for the sentence of death by describing Jesus as one who sought to overthrow the Emperor, and in return the sentence was pronounced.
But, if that had been who Jesus really was—a failed rebel and a messianic pretender—we never would have heard about him. We wouldn’t be here today, celebrating the strange and horrible victory that God wins for us on the cross. Rome executed thousands of rebels and other notorious criminals by crucifying them, and almost none of them is still known by name. Throughout the millennia, religious leaders have put to death more heretics and blasphemers than we can count, and only a few of them are worth mentioning. If Jesus were just another leader of just another cause, the remembrance of his death might make a compelling story, but, other than some heart-warming entertainment for a time when compelling entertainment is scarce, what difference would his death make to us now? Yet, as his disciples, as the ones who celebrate Jesus as both our king and our God, we understand that death to be the very source of our life and the ultimate victory over all that plagues us.
That victory is uniquely possible because the one who died for us on the cross is exactly who the political and religious leaders of his day declared that he was not—both king and God. In the mythology of the ancient world, the death and resurrection of a divine or semi-divine figure like Osiris was not unusual. Such myths of death and rebirth were associated with the natural cycles of the world. But the concept of a crucified god—a shamefully executed deity who rose again victoriously—was unheard of. Even in the strange mythologies of the ancient Near East, it simply did not make sense. Why would a god of power endure the rejection of the powerless in order to reveal a victory that could only be achieved through death? And why would a king accept such a fate not merely as an injustice but as the very heart of that king’s royal prerogative?
Why? Because our God is not a God of transactional religion but a God of redemptive grace. Because our God knows that it is not the holy who need redeeming but the broken whose very brokenness needs transformation. Because the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, our God and king, fully human and fully divine, is the means by which the powers of Sin and Death, which have held sway over the human race, are themselves put to death.
In the cross of Christ, our instinctive understanding of king and God is itself put to death alongside the Nazarene. Our knowledge of how the world works and who God is is itself executed. Our inherited worldview and our religious impulse are shattered. The cross is the reversal of how we expect redemption and reward to be bestowed upon us. When our king and our God is nailed to the cross, the very wrong within us becomes the center of how God acts instead of the antithesis of where God is to be found. Instead of being buried under pretense or swept under the rug or stuffed into a closet or pinned upon a scapegoat, our brokenness is embraced by the Divine and held by God for all the world to see. Instead of embracing and being manifest in our best efforts and our greatest successes, God embodies our biggest failures and our profoundest shortcomings so that we might receive redemption not through the myth of our outrunning them but through the truth of God’s accepting them—of God taking them onto God’s self so that all that is amiss within us and the world might be transformed.
On this day, we stand in the shadow of the cross of Christ and gaze upon the one who was crucified on our behalf. On this day, we confront the breadth and depth of all our failures not in shame but in hope because, in Jesus Christ, we find that they are not merely excused but are embraced, not wiped away but absorbed, not pushed aside but enwrapped by God. They are taken on not only by a sympathetic human figure whose unjust and noble suffering inspires the world but by a God who, by accepting them, has defeated their power and their essence. Today, we celebrate the awful and awesome death of our king and our God and proclaim the new and unending life that that death has brought us.