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Today is not a day for rejoicing. Today is not a day for celebration. This may not be what we want to hear – but it is the truth. We live in a world, of course, where the pursuit of personal comfort and satisfaction is a key driver for us; consciously and subconsciously. We feel cold – we put the heating on. We feel hungry but can’t be bothered to cook – we get a Chinese takeaway. We are bored with what’s on BBC – we have another 200 channels to keep us happy. We are conditioned to not sit in an uncomfortable place, physically, spiritually and emotionally for too long. We don’t like the discomfort – we want it eradicated as soon as possible.
But the Christian faith does not permit us this luxury. The Christian faith demands of us that, for this one day at least, we sit in discomfort and dis-satisfaction. It is a profound error for churches to treat every day as if it were Easter Day, to treat every act of worship as if it were a celebration of resurrection. It is a profound error to do that, because we cannot know the joy of resurrection without first truly contemplating the pain of crucifixion. It is a profound error to do that, because we can never truly know the depth of God’s grace if we do not truly contemplate our need for God’s grace. It is a profound error to do that, because, ultimately, it is dishonouring to God and dishonouring to the Son of God who hung on a cross for us. In the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night before he died, Jesus prayed and his disciples slept. And Jesus came to them and said, “Could you not stay awake with me one hour?” I think, on Good Friday, God asks a similar question to his Church: “Could you not cease from celebrating just for one day?”
Why does every day have to be resurrection and celebration and joy? Easter Day is coming – we know that: and there will be enough time then for Alleluias. But for one hour, for one day – let us not celebrate but let us sit in quiet contemplation and self-reflection as we witness again the Son of God dying in loneliness and agony on our behalf. Let us honour Jesus in at least this way…
A sense of being honoured was far from Jesus’ experience on that first Good Friday, of course. Here we witness suffering. True, intense suffering. All that Jesus has been through: the betrayal, the false trials, the mockery, the loneliness, the anguish, the misunderstanding, the beatings, the humiliation…All this has been leading up to this point.
Here is Jesus, hanging on a cross: a fool in the eyes of the world. Jesus is a failure. This moment of crucifixion, for all to see, is not so much ‘mission accomplished’ as ‘mission failed’. Jesus hangs before us: utterly alone, in pain and anguish, carrying the sins of the world. He carries your sin and my sin.
We cannot begin to imagine the sheer agony of the moment, the utter desolation that Jesus felt; the torture in his own soul. And so it is not surprising, is it, that Jesus should cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
These are difficult words for us to understand. How could Jesus be the Son of God and yet be forsaken by God? If his God – if our God – is a God of love, what sense does it make for him to forsake his Son; to turn his back on Jesus in his ultimate hour of need?
If this loving God will turn his back on his own Son, how can I be sure that God will not turn his back on me?
Of course, we may hear it said that God had to turn away from his Son because he is too pure to look on sin. But, frankly, that doesn’t give me any sense of confidence or reassurance, because I look on myself and I am overwhelmed with my own sin and wrongdoing. If God would turn his back and forsake his own Son at the sight of sin, then surely he will do the same with me?
No. I don’t think that this is a reflection of the God whom I worship. So I need to dig a little deeper here to find out what is really happening on the cross…
Jesus is feeling utterly abandoned by God. Jesus has become sin for us and the dis-location that he felt within himself, the dis-location he felt from his father, is something that he had never experienced before. And so Jesus, who cannot find the words to express his pain, turns to what he knows best: the Scriptures. “My God, my God’ why have you forsaken me?” is, as we have heard today, the opening line from Psalm 22.
It is a very human expression of isolation that the Psalmist David felt when he was running for his life from Saul. In that moment, David felt utterly alone, completely abandoned, aware of his own vulnerability, overcome by fear. And it felt for all the world that God had turned his back on him.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
So Jesus is able to make these words his own on the cross.
But Jesus is a deeply spiritual man, well versed in the Scriptures, and the Psalms would have been part of his spiritual DNA. He knew that Psalm 22 begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But he would have known equally well that it concludes with this statement of faith: “Proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn”. And between the first verse and the last verse of Psalm 22, Jesus would have been aware of this beautiful statement of faith in verse 24: “He did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him”.
Here is a beautiful truth that Jesus knew very well in his heart: Psalm 22 begins with a cry of abandonment but ends with a cry of salvation. Psalm 22 is the story of a spiritual journey from doubt to certainty, a spiritual journey from the feelings of abandonment to the certainty of the truth that, in reality, God never abandons us…
We may hear it said that God turned his back on Jesus on the cross. No. Here is the wonderful truth of this moment on the cross…That Jesus felt abandoned but he knew in his heart that he wasn’t abandoned.
God had not turned his back on Jesus – because God does not do that. Jesus just felt as if God had turned his back on him. But he knew that his feelings, his emotions, did not mirror the reality…
And that is the amazing truth at the heart of our Good Friday experience, the amazing truth at the heart of the Christian Gospel, the amazing truth that gives us real hope for today and tomorrow…
And the truth is this: There are times in our lives when we feel utterly hopeless, there are times when we feel overwhelmed by life, overwhelmed by our own weakness, overwhelmed by our continual sense of failure, overwhelmed by grief and sorrow in our hearts. There are times when we have an overwhelming sense of having been abandoned by God, when we cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But the truth for us, just as it was for Jesus, is that we have not been abandoned by God and we never will be abandoned by God.
There is a very real difference between how we feel and what is true.
God never, ever, ever, abandons those whom he loves.
Like Jesus, we may need to endure times of agony and desolation. Like Jesus, we may feel abandoned and alone. But like Jesus, we are never alone. The love of the Father is from everlasting to everlasting.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul has this to say: "This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus".
And this, surely, is the good news that makes this Friday a Good Friday. That no matter what we have done in the past, God can forgive absolutely anything…There is no sin too big for God to deal with in our lives. No matter what we have done, God will accept us and give us another chance.
As we sit with Jesus today, we need to know that God is with us. He is not judging us for our past. That judgement is hanging on a cross and being put to death. If God is willing to crucify your past so that you may live, then you have the freedom to do the same. We do not need to carry the burden of past mistakes. We are free. God has declared us free.
And whilst we want to avoid a sense of celebration, we recognise that this is, indeed, a Good Friday. In a few hours time, Jesus will cry out, “It is finished!” That is no cry of defeat: “It’s all over: I can’t take it any more”. It is a cry of victory. “It is finished! The work is done”. Three hours of agony had been building up to this moment. Three years of ministry had been building up to this moment. Thirty-three years of life had been building up to this death. From the beginning of time, even before time began, God had planned for this moment. The whole of history had been building up to this moment.
This is, indeed, a Good Friday. Our debt is paid and we are now set free. And, if we want to honour Jesus, if we want to honour what he has achieved for us, we need to live as free people.
Sometimes, we live our lives as if we still owed the debt. We carry the weight of past sins around as if we were trying to find a way to cleanse ourselves. That is a needless way to live. We are set free: we have nothing more to pay.
But more than that, it is also a dishonouring way to live. It is as if we are saying that Jesus has not done enough, as if Jesus did his best but we still need to finish the job ourselves.
We are free people. The debt is paid. “It is finished!” We must learn to live that truth, live that freedom.
Christ came that we may have ‘life in all its fullness”. To live a half-life, still carrying the weight of guilt for sins past, is not life in all its fullness. It dishonours our humanity. It dishonours Jesus’ crucifixion. As Jesus said, “If the Son has set you free, you shall be free indeed”.
This is, indeed, a Good Friday. This is the day to leave all our baggage at the foot of the Cross in the confidence that Jesus has dealt with it and we can give ourselves over to the loving care of our Father.
There is nothing left for us to do now other than sit for a little while longer and consider what it might mean for us to leave our burdens with Jesus. Now is the time to reflect in our hearts and decide whether we will take that step today; to hand over all our sins and guilt and cares and worries to Jesus and then leave here as free people.
It is to this moment that Good Friday events have brought us. Jesus has achieved it all for us.
How are we going to respond?