This is the text of the first Good Friday sermon I ever preached. I proclaimed it at Parndana Uniting Church in South Australia in 2014.
Good Friday is often thought of as the defining day in the story of one man. If any day on any calendar was about one man surely it is Good Friday and the man Jesus. Unlike the Ides of March for Julius Caesar, the many saints’ days of the Orthodox, Roman and Anglican calendars, or even Christmas day, the date of Good Friday changes. In the Jewish calendar the day of Jesus’ death, the day of Passover, is 14 Nisan, but the Jewish calendar is based on cycles of moon, so it doesn’t line up with the Western calendar. This year Passover began last Monday night, so the actual calendar date of Jesus’ death was last Tuesday. Now that’s all very interesting, but what is it about this one man that makes his death remarkable in the history of the world? Why remember him at all?
Well, the short answer is that this one man represents the many.
When Isaiah’s prophecies were first written down to be circulated among the returned exiles of the nation of Judah there was no knowledge of Jesus and there was little idea that this passage about a Suffering Servant might be foretelling this specific Messiah five centuries in the future. Deutero-Isaiah, as scholars call him, like all prophets was a man of his time who spoke the immediate and relevant message of God to the people of his day. It is possible that to Isaiah this “Suffering Servant” was the whole nation of Judah, God’s chosen people represented as if they were one man: this is the understanding of many Jewish scholars today. It was Judah who represented God on earth because Judah, along with Israel to the north, was the Chosen People. So it was Judah who was unremarkable in its day, it was not a great empire like Assyria or Egypt that other nations would envy it, and it was Judah who in spite of looking unremarkable even before being beaten up by its neighbours who would stun the nations with its sacrifice. The justice of God was displayed before all nations in the way in which Judah, sent into exile and then brought back after seventy years, was treated by God. The righteous sacrificial nation was lifted up by God in honour of its service. God promises prosperity to the people returned from exile in Babylon and Persia in that they will be a great nation once again and no longer a mob of disoriented refugees in a desolate land of destroyed cities. The hope of restoration for Jewish readers is therefore not found in the future hope of the resurrection of a dead Messiah, but in the return of a people from exile, a story repeated again and again in Jewish history right into the twentieth century.
But that is not the Christian story. It is also likely that Deutero-Isaiah knew he was writing of a future Messiah, the one the Jews were told to expect, even though he had no way of naming that one man as a certain Jesus of Nazareth to be born in Bethlehem. We know that this passage from Isaiah forms part of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Scriptures, and it was used to good effect by the gospel writers and the early evangelists like Paul and the writer of Hebrews. They were able to identify this servant with Jesus, and the references to disfiguring, mocking, beating and piercing make this a compelling reinterpretation. Once again the one represents the many, only this time it is one man who represents all men and women rather than one nation representing all the nations. Hebrews 5:8-9 says that [a]lthough he was a son [Jesus] learned obedience through what he suffered, and having been made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. In our Lenten studies across Kangaroo Island over the past month the various groups, including the one at Stokes Bay, have discussed eternal life and what it means that Christ died and rose again. But here the promise of the writer to the Hebrews is more than eternal life. Did you see? According to this anonymous writer in Jesus we see the source of eternal salvation. Not just life without end, but life lived in the company of Christ in the presence of God forever.
So how does the suffering and shame of Jesus the servant of God guarantee eternal salvation for all who obey him? Isaiah offers the answer here; they were our sufferings that Jesus experienced, he took our punishment when he didn’t deserve any punishment at all. The New Jerusalem Bible makes in quite clear in Isaiah 53:5 where it says that the punishment reconciling us fell on him. The punishment Jesus received is God’s activity of reconciliation. With the punishment we deserve for disobedience taken by Jesus nothing is left to stand between God and humankind and we are able to be reconciled.
But the news gets even better. Guilt was dealt with forever by Jesus’ death, but guilt is not the only thing that keeps us away from God, or indeed from anyone towards whom we feel guilty. The way in which Jesus died, as a crucified man, also deals with the issue of shame.
The cross was a shameful way to die and Jesus was humiliated as much as he was murdered. In a shame-based culture where honour was everything there was Jesus, nailed up naked for all to see. He couldn’t move, his hands and feet were pinned, and he was on display in a very public place for at least six hours. Jesus not only conquered death when he rose from the dead on Sunday, or yesterday according to our Jewish calendar, he also conquered shame. The one who was so humiliated came back and looked everyone straight in the face and it was they who turned away in embarrassment.
The Christians of this church believe that Jesus represents not only all people before God, the one man who stands in the place of everyone else, but that he also represents God before all people. God chose to engage with humankind and in Jesus we see God coming to earth in human form to make friends with ordinary men and women. The Calvinists among you might like the thoughts of theologian Karl Barth who said “God in Christ elected [God]self for fellowship with humanity.” Jesus is the self-revelation of God and he revealed that God has always existed for humanity. God’s interest in the world is not a secondary endeavour; we have always been the highest priority of God. Unwilling to lose this connection Christ, who lives eternally in the intimacy of the Trinity, came to earth and was humiliated and murdered. Jesus Christ knows what it feels like to be forsaken by God and what the Psalmist wrote about Jesus knows about. Human expressions of grief and loss are totally understood by God.
Three hundred years after the death of Jesus the Roman Empire which executed him became Christian. One hundred years after that the barbarians who decimated Rome became Christian. Even today we Anglo-Saxons, Celts, and other barbarian-types worship the God of the people our ancestors defeated. Why would we worship the God of the losers? Because in Isaiah’s prophetic words of hope for a suffering nation, and in the life and suffering death of Jesus Christ, we meet a God who knows struggle and is willing to undergo abuse and murder at our hands just to be friends with us. So like Jesus, and a hundred generations of Christian preachers since, I invite you to hear the message once more. Repent. “Change your way of thinking”, is an invitation, not a threat. Jesus never said “turn or burn”, what Jesus said was dump the rubbish that is holding you back from living an abundant life. With open arms from Friday’s cross and Sunday’s abandoned grave Jesus shows that he is the one who knows how it is down here away from Heaven, and he is the one who is more than strong enough to deal with it all to make sure we each make it back to Heaven, alive.
Behold the man.