Authors Note: I first wrote and published this post on my church’s Lenten blog in 2013. Many people shared with me that they found it deeply meaningful. Therefore I am reprinting it here with hope and prayers that the much greater readership of this blog will likewise find it such.
Since my visit to the Holy Lands in 2011, it is impossible for me to focus on Holy Week without reflecting on that visit. It is especially true this year since in just the last couple of weeks I have finished reading a history of Jerusalem. It was on my visit to Jerusalem that God demonstrated to me most vividly the importance of broadening my focus and taking the entire journey from the Hosannas of Palm Sunday to the Hallelujahs of Easter.
There is a tendency these days to de-emphaisze our sin and its cost – to focus on the pleasant happy portion of the gospel and to keep the less pleasant aspects out of focus. Too often, mainstream, best-selling Christian literature tells us the good news of Christ’s “helping us towards wholeness,” or His “granting us our hearts desire” – But what Christ did for us was so much deeper and so much more fundamental that to discuss such things in such a fashion is talk about Handel or Mozart as if they were mere ten bar jingle writers.
My friend Mark Roberts is writing a commentary on Ephesians. He is using a daily devotional he writes, or sometimes edits, as an occasion to work out many of the ideas and avenues he is pursuing in that effort. Back in January, he looked at Ephesians 2:1-3 and said:
There’s no need to scream at the Apostle Paul as he begins Ephesians 2. He does not waste a moment getting to the bad news, and his news is really quite bad: “As for you, you were dead . . . .” Now that’s not exactly news you want to hear from someone. It’s also news that stirs up lots of questions: Dead? What do you mean? Dead in what way? How do you know I was dead? If I was once dead, am I still dead?
We’ll get to these questions soon. For now, I want to note that bad news is an essential piece of the Christian Gospel, the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. If we don’t grasp the bad news, we won’t understand the good news. And if we don’t feel the horror of the bad news, we’ll miss the joy of the good news. Too often these days, Christians downplay the bad news because we don’t want to put anyone off. But, by ignoring the bad news, we diminish the amazing goodness of the good news.
It has often been said that had Christ died on Good Friday and there was no resurrection on Easter, Jesus would be just another nattering nabob with messianic pretensions. That is indeed true, but what I have not seen written is that had Jesus merely been resurrected on Easter morning, that would not be such a big deal either. After all, Jesus had already established resurrection as a part of His bag of tricks. Lazarus and his family were more than willing to testify to the power of Jesus to bring the dead back to life. No, there must have been something about Christ’s death on Good Friday that made this particular resurrection something special. Without Good Friday, Easter would be just another miracle in the life of a man that made so many miracles.
In point of fact, if we shift our focus but a bit, the deepest miracle of Holy Week may not be the Resurrection. As we just said, this miracle was already firmly established. The real miracle may just be that Jesus died at all. Think about it. He was, after all, God Incarnate. He is the Alpha and the Omega – He was before and He will be after – he is the eternal God. How can that which is eternal die? How can that which is forever terminate? And more ominously, what could kill the eternal and omnipotent Creator of all things? Certainly not a few nails and a bit of suffocation inducing hanging.
|The Garden of Gethsemane|
Which brings me back to my visit to Jerusalem. I related the story of my visit to the Garden of Gethsemane to Lee Cook (current note: Associate Pastor at my church) not long after I got back. Lee wrote of it in The Messenger (current note: my church newsletter). The facts are simple. I entered the garden gates and tears began to flow – unbidden. They did not stop, despite my best effort, until I left the confines of the garden and the attendant Church of All Nations. When Lee related my story, he spoke of my being overwhelmed with emotion, but I must confess that is an imprecise description of what I was experiencing. I had gone to the Holy Lands cynical about the spiritual significance of the various sites. I attached to them no particular importance. Their authenticity is, and always will be, in some level of doubt and a large part of the message of Christ was that our experience of God is not bound by time or place. This was not some mere overwhelming of awe or anything else.
Rather, what happened to me at the Garden was, I believe, a direct encounter with the Holy Spirit. This is something rare amongst the frozen chosen of the Presbyterian church, but it does happen. The best way I can describe it is that the Holy Spirit came up to me, grabbed me by the collar and shouted in my face, “THIS IS REAL!” My focus was sharpened with the understanding that the events described in the Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were fact. Hard, cold fact. These were not literary means of expressing deep theological concepts. This was not crafting a narrative because an essay would not do. These were real events, involving real people. And more, the way the Holy Spirit chose to shout that message at me was to give me a taste, the smallest possible portion, of the agony that Christ experienced in that garden and then crescendoed to a culmination on the Cross on Good Friday.
|Golgotha Chapel In Holy Seplechure|
You see, it was not hard for the Holy Spirit to grant that small taste to me All He had to do was bring me face-to-face with my own sinfulness. Not the sort of peek-around-the-corner-with-your-eyes-all-squinty look we usually take, but make me focus to a hard, piercing stare lasting but the most fleeting of moments. The reason we take peek-around-the-corner-with-your-eyes-all-squinty looks at our sinfulness is because the agony of truly focusing on our depravity is unbearable. And so it became clear to me what force it was that could kill the unkillable. Imagine confronting in such a straightforward look not just your own sins, but all the sins of history and all the sins yet to come. The agony of such is truly beyond our comprehension. Why else would Jesus cry out on the cross, “ELI, ELI, LAMA SABACHTHANI?” that is, “MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?” (Matt 27:46)
Theologians have argued and argued about this cry of Jesus from the cross. Is He quoting Psalms merely to appear to fulfill prophecy? How could the Trinity be rent into multiple pieces? Can God forsake himself? It’s a bit like analyzing the force vectors when a hammer drives a nail in a piece of wood, Who cares? What is apparent in the cries of the Psalmist and the cries of Christ is unbearable, unrelenting agony. This, then, is the force so great that it could kill the unkillable. My sin, and your sin, killed Jesus.
Many Good Friday services feature a ritual in which the congregants write sins they wish to confess on a piece of paper and they nail that paper to a cross. Most people feel relief from this action, But the symbolism runs deeper than we often realize. We are putting those nails into Jesus hands and feet when we nail our sins to the cross. We are killing Jesus because those sins are what killed Him. That was the source of my tears that day in Jerusalem – the shattering realization that I was responsible for the the very real agony that Jesus suffered.
|Light from the dome onto the Tomb of Christ|
Oh how sweet grace, the grace of Easter, becomes when one truly realizes what is being forgiven. Jesus is not just forgiving me “my sins,” He is forgiving me for killing Him!
What response can we possibly offer to such revelation? I am certain nothing I ever do can in any fashion merit the grace I am granted nor compensate Christ for the agony He suffered. But I must make the effort — with the total commitment of all that I am and all that I have. Every time I sin, each slip I make, is another hammer blow on one of the spikes holding Christ to the cross – or driving the spear just a bit deeper into His side. I do not wish to be a part of that hideous scene anymore. I MUST give my all to overcome it.
Good Friday is the blackest day in history. But the blacker we understand it to be, the deeper our focus on that blackness, the brighter the dawn of Easter becomes. To truly appreciate Easter we must take the whole journey to that glorious morning.