A Good Friday Sermon

Luke 23.39-43

It’s Good Friday. We can’t help but think of the cross. Maybe we need Good Friday to help us reflect on and understand what happened there at the place called skull. I fear sometimes we start thinking of the cross as religious furniture or inspirational jewelry. But today we are reminded that what happened to Jesus was an execution.

And we have the unusual opportunity to eavesdrop on the words being said there. What kind of words do we expect to hear at an execution? We listen but we are not data collectors. We listen because we are learning how to follow. And we hear words like this “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

There is a lack of reverence in the text. We can be certain the scene was loud. It is full of the sounds of violence. Soldiers were shouting. Hammers were pounding. Gamblers were gambling. Mocking voices from the crowd. Screams of despair.

Luke wants us to know some of the words that were said. And they are interesting. Rulers were saying, “let him save himself.” Soldiers were saying “save yourself.” A criminal from the cross is saying “save yourself and us.” Three times we are told that people hostile to Jesus are telling him to “save yourself.” Jesus does not reply.

And then, Luke gives us a brief conversation. The other criminal replies to the first one “Do you not even fear God?” And he speaks to Jesus “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This time Jesus replies, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

Most of us are in favor of being saved. We are in favor of being rescued. In fact we have been raised on stories about being saved. We have all heard stories about a brave knight in shining armor who rides fearlessly into a scene where a fair maiden is trapped and held against her wishes by a fire breathing dragon. We know how this goes. This gallant knight saves the maiden. That is unless my daughters are telling the story. In their version of the story the knight messes everything up and the maiden has to bust them both out.

The Gospel of Luke is full of people who are in need of saving. Luke is, after all, the gospel that tells us Jesus came “to seek and to save the lost.” In Luke we find stories about lost sheep, lost coins, and lost sons. And in the end they are all found, or if you will, they are saved.

Luke brings all sorts of unlikely people into the story. Shepherds, soldiers, tax collectors, women who live unclean lives, lepers and other unclean people, Samaritans, Levi, Zaccheus, two criminals hanging on the cross, even Peter in the gospel says “I am a sinful man.”

Luke wants us to know, all of these are welcome in the kingdom. People keep entering the story and Jesus keeps saving people. Wherever they come from, whatever they have done, he simply continues to do what he claimed he came to do. He is seeking and saving the lost. And for this, he was crucified.

And we start to realize something. Jesus is not crucified for saving people as much as for saving the wrong people. Even at his own execution, he is hanging out with the same kind of people he has been hanging out with for his entire ministry. And he is still welcoming undeserving people into the kingdom.

“Today you will be with me in paradise.” This word from the cross tells us something about grace. This word is exactly the kind of thing Jesus is executed for. This criminal does not deserve saving. But not even a cross can stop Jesus from seeking and saving the lost.

This word reminds us that following Jesus takes us beyond the borders of the present world. This word takes us beyond what we deserve.

All the way through the gospel, all the way to the cross, people complained about who Jesus spent time with. Now at the place called skull, the one who eats and drinks with sinners also dies with them and for them. Jesus is crucified because he would not stop saving the wrong people. He never stops welcoming unlikely, undeserving people into the kingdom.

It is one thing to talk about Jesus welcoming unlikely and underserving people into the kingdom. It is one thing to listen as Jesus speaks these words from the cross. After all, this is the kind of thing we have come to expect from Jesus. It is far more challenging to actually be inviting, welcoming and loving. We all know people who simply do not deserve it. We know some who have been places and done things that are difficult to look past. We are know people who are really hard to talk to. People who vote for the wrong candidates (what are they thinking)? People who cheer for the wrong team. People who listen to the wrong music. The fact is, some simply do not deserve the same saving we do. The idea of spending eternity with some people does not sound like heaven at all.

This is not easy stuff, this welcoming others into the kingdom. Yet, the fact remains, we are not the managers of the guest list – we are the welcome committee.

We do not know what else these criminals and Jesus may have said to one another while on the cross. If they said anything else, Luke did not think it was necessary to record it. Yet the conversation continues. And you and I are part of it. Each of us are asking Jesus to do what we would like him to do or we are trusting that he knows what he is talking about. We are all either asking for or receiving something we do not deserve. That is worth repeating.  We are all either asking for or receiving something we do not deserve.

Today we listen to these words from the cross. We need Good Friday to help us reflect on and understand what happened. We listen but we are not data collectors. We listen because we want to learn how to follow. But what happens on the cross makes following Jesus very hard. We hear words like this and we are reminded how Jesus kept welcoming unlikely and undeserving people into the kingdom. We are reminded how he kept saving the wrong people. But it is not enough to be reminded. As followers we are expected to be welcoming and inviting and loving as well – but beware – one has already been crucified for this kind of behavior.


“Father, Into Your Hands…” – A Sermon Starter

As with other words from Jesus, we are able to talk more intelligently about this text when we are attentive to the episode surrounding the text (context). For example, a natural tension arises in this scene as it appears Jesus has his life taken from him. Jewish leaders have been convincing that this man needs to die. Roman executioners appear to be in charge of his fate. Yet, Jesus is not swayed by this alliance of power. Instead his words suggest ongoing confidence in the Father. On account of this confidence, Jesus gives his life on his own terms.

Luke has already told us what Jesus has said about the hostile world and what he has said to the undeserving criminal. Now Jesus is giving his very spirit into the hands of the Father. Each of these statements reveal a consistency in the worldview of Jesus. When preaching, we can communicate this by reaching back into the gospel to highlight his tendencies to forgive, to invite the undeserving into the kingdom, and his own dependence on the Father.

Again, we do not want to ignore surrounding events. We want to remember the sun is darkened for three hours, the temple veil is torn in two, the centurion praises God and declares the innocence of Jesus, and a member of the council is waiting for the kingdom of God. Perhaps Luke wants to be sure we recognize that Jesus knew what he was doing when he put total trust in the Father.

The challenge for preaching these texts remains “What will we do with this information?” This short look proposes that in response to the hostile world – Jesus is forgiving. In response to the undeserving sinner – Jesus is welcoming. And in response to the Father – Jesus is self-giving. This at least provides a starting point for preaching these “last words” of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke.

A Written Sermon

“A Long Journey of Presence and Absence” (Matthew 27.45-54)

Crucifixion. The word sometimes gets lost on us as we are inclined to think about the cross as a piece of religious furniture and crucifixion as some religious ritual. But lets be clear, what happened on Good Friday at the place called skull was an execution.

The Gospels give us permission to eavesdrop, to listen in on words spoke by Jesus on the cross. Words we have come to know as “the last words.” We might find ourselves asking the question “What would we expect to hear at an execution?” Each of the Gospel writers contribute. This is not a collecting of data about crucifixion. We listen in in order to learn how to follow. We read these words with the hope to discover what it means to be a disciple.

Matthew paints a gloomy scene. Jesus is not only executed but executed alongside convicted criminals. He has received the death penalty. Passersby insult him. He is taunted and mocked. He is insulted some more. Matthew does not even mention the pain. There is total darkness. It was inevitable that emotions would be strong. It is then we get the words… “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.”

“My God, My God, whay have you forsaken me?” These are the only words from the cross we get from Matthew. We get them in Aramaic, perhaps so we won’t overlook them. Perhaps so we feel the emotion. Jesus is experiencing some strong feelings and takes this time to quote a psalm. This is not a coincidence, the psalms are words used by old Israel to navigate during emotional terrain. The psalms are songs and prayers that travel a long journey of presence and absence. This “word” is part of the practice of singing and praying the psalms. Old Israel knew about the presence of God, that is why they could sing about being led beside still waters. Old Israel also knew absence. They know the feelings of being forsaken. Some still feel it.

Mark also records these words. His is a dark Gospel with dark powers showing up in the early chapters. Even Jesus is accused of being in league with dark powers. He writes these words after the deaths of Peter and Paul. He writes them to a church in danger of losing their own life. We might say they felt forsaken. He writes so that those who feel forsaken may have hope. The early church knew what it meant to feel forsaken. Some still feel it.

Of all people we can trust Jesus speaking these words. He knows what the presence of God feels like. He knows the presence of God in healing the leper, in making the lame walk, the blind to see. He knows the presence of God when the dead are raised. He knows as he witnesses the kingdom of heaven come to earth. We can trust Jesus. Since he knows so clearly what presence is like, we can trust him to recognize absence.

What goes through our mind as we read this text? This is a word we might expect during an execution but not one we were hoping for. We hear a word like “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” and we might think “Oh that Jesus, always thinking about forgiveness.” But we read this word “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” and think “Oh no, what are we going to do with this?” Forgiveness fits nice in our vocabulary. Abandonment belongs to some other story. Yet this text reminds us, our story is one of presence and absence.

These words remind us the cross is not for safe religion. The cross cannot be reduced to a piece of religious furniture. Crucifixion is not just another religious ritual that can be cleaned up easily afterward. Pop religion will try to convince us that a scene like this is not even possible. Pop religion, pop psychology, pop songs – they all try to do the same thing. They all try to convince us they can simplify complicated things in the hope of selling something along the way. We know this all too well, we are presently getting a regular dose of pop politics.

The cross goes against the way the world works. The cross leaves the holiness of God raw in the world. This is evidenced as the temple curtain is torn and as the Son of God hangs exposed. The cross exposes a holy God and His plan of victory by weakness.

We do not want to neglect the conclusion of the scene. The temple curtain tears, the earth shakes, the rocks split, tombs open, bodies are raised, the Romans are terrified. And whatever conclusion we come to, we know, this was no ordinary execution. What are we to make of this response to Jesus three o’clock afternoon prayer? What are we to make of the way God answers the prayer of His forsaken son?

We may know what presence feels like. We may be able to point to people, situations, and activities where we have known the presence of God. We may claim to know absence. We may experience absence even when among people, in places, and during activities where we used to feel His presence. These words may leave us with questions. But they do not point fingers at us. The text simply highlights the reality of a long history of presence and absence. The text does not provide an escape from absence, instead it may imply that following Jesus may bring us into places where we feel forsaken. But Matthew reports them so we can learn to follow. Matthew wants us to know what it means to be a disciple.

Perhaps, more than anything, the text wants us to recognize that God is present even in what seems like a certain absence. That God is there even during unimaginable pain. The psalm that begins “My God, My God,…” goes on to say “You have been my God from my mother’s womb.” Further we hear, “My strength is dried up like a potsherd, And my tongue cleaves to my jaws.” Further still we hear “A band of evildoers has encompassed me; They pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones. They look, they stare at me; They divide my garments among them, And for my clothing they cast lots.” Does this sound familiar to anyone? Still further “I will tell of Your name to my brethren; In the midst of the assembly I will praise You.” And finally, “They will come and will declare His righteousness to a people who will be born, that He has performed it.” 

This is not the sad psalm we sometimes think it is. This psalm sings victory. This psalm, the prayer of the crucified one, prayed to it’s conclusion, winds up in a great congregation. We find the presence of God in a place of certain absence. Perhaps more than anything, the text wants us to know that even in our worst times, we are not alone. We journey with one who knows how to navigate dark days. We are following one who has traveled the paths of presence and absence. This is good news.

“Today You Will Be With Me” – A Sermon Starter

The second statement from the cross may prompt us to explore the type of people we find Jesus hanging around with in the Gospel. More specifically, we might be interested in the types of people Jesus invites into the kingdom. There is a substantial list of people who are welcomed by Jesus that may prompt a series of questions. Does everyone receive this invitation the same? Are others always in agreement with those Jesus chooses to invite? What tensions enter the narrative due to Jesus and his care free invitations? Is there any significance of this criminal being with Jesus?

Luke includes multiple people who may appear unlikely to be welcomed into the kingdom. Perhaps it would be valuable to examine any number of them on the way to our text where Jesus speaks with this criminal at this place called skull. These words are spoken in the context of a conversation between three men who are being executed, one of them Jesus. It is of interest that Jesus not only spent his life with such people, but also his death. He dies with them and for them. Jesus is crucified because of conversations like this one. Yet he does not stop, not even now, not even from the cross.

We do not know what else, if anything, these three on the cross may have said to one another. If there was anything else, Luke did not think it necessary to report it. Yet this conversation continues. Every one of us continues to ask for or to receive what we do not deserve. We are either asking Jesus to do things the way we want them done “Save us and yourself” or we are believing he knows what he is doing “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Again, we are not accumulating information for the sake of information. When working toward application, we ask ourselves “what are we to do with this information?” It is not enough to know that Jesus welcomed unlikely people into his kingdom. We are also expected to be inviting as well. But be aware, one has already been crucified for this kind of behavior.

“Father Forgive Them” – A Sermon Starter

Luke shares three different statements from Jesus on the cross. Simply stated, one of them is directed to the Father about the mob or the hostile world. The second is directed toward an unlikely recipient. The final one Jesus directs to the Father about his own self. While it would be easy to make too much of this observation, it is possible that distinguishing the words this way could help during our preaching.

For instance, upon reading the first text, we might explore the way the world operates. What is important to the world? What are the world’s expectations of others? How far is the world willing to go to maintain its control on the way things operate? Questions like these will help us understand the crucifixion from the world’s perspective.

On the other hand, there is another perspective on display in the text. We might explore the way that God operates (in this case, how God operates in the person of Jesus). What is important for Jesus? What expectations does Jesus have for the Father? How far are Jesus and the Father willing to go in order to demonstrate the way they operate? Questions like these help us reframe the crucifixion from God’s perspective.

Keeping questions simple will help preachers to prompt listeners to think without making the sermon a cognitive exercise. The episode surrounding our text reveals information about how the world responds to the ways of God. It also provides us with information of the way God responds to the ways of the world. Our text helps us understand that what the world (and all onlookers) thought was a criminal execution was actually an opportunity for Jesus to demonstrate the way God works.

Our application is then related to what we do with this information. While we are reminded of God’s desire to forgive, we are also reminded that as followers of one who is willing to forgive (even from the cross), we are expected to be a people who practice forgiveness.

Preaching the Cross

Death by the cross was an attempt of the Roman Empire to deter a rebellion. It was hoped that public torture and humiliation would prompt any would be rebels to think twice before getting any ideas. Yet, Jesus consistently makes clear that to follow him means the cross as a way to view the world. Interestingly, words like cross and crucifixion have become somewhat pious and religious and do not cause us to shudder the way our ancestors might have. It would do us well to remember that what took place one Friday afternoon on Golgotha was an execution.

Having said that, my friend Layne and I are making plans for Lent. These plans include preaching about the cross. More specifically we will be preaching the seven last “words” from the cross. This makes it obvious that, at least this year; we will not be rushing past Good Friday to get to Easter. Though we are well aware the grave is empty, we want to recognize that the narrative we live in includes “God crucified” before it includes “He is risen.” Perhaps this is our feeble attempt to “Preach Christ crucified” as the apostle encouraged.

It is hoped that a close examination of what Jesus said from the cross will help us in our understanding of what it means to follow. This is an event that changed the world and the way we view the world. Just like Good Friday and the crucifixion, we want to remember that these “words” belong to a larger story. One that includes both the ministry of Jesus and the ministry of those who gather in his name.

Preaching the Crucifixion Narrative of John

A harmony of the Gospels is an interesting exercise but any attempt to do it likely results in missing out on the emphasis of the individual gospel writer.  Thus, preaching should result in telling the story as the gospel writer tells it.  Ben Witherington says it like this, “let the evangelist have his say.”

For example, the first century view of crucifixion makes it somewhat surprising that John presents it as a moment of triumph.  The Gospel of Mark includes darker and more disturbing parts about the death of Jesus.  Witherington refers to Mark as providing “gut wrenching feelings.”  Some of the things that provide such feelings include darkness at noon, earthquake, additional mocking, splitting the temple veil, and the cry “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  Witherington concludes that John’s telling of the crucifixion is intended “to produce different emotions and reactions.”  I agree.

As a side note, if you are unfamiliar with Witherington’s commentaries, his John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel is an excellent one to start with.  Preachers will find his sections titled “Bridging the Horizons” particularly helpful.  He suggests that John includes “many ironies and peculiar turns to the story of Jesus.”  He goes on to say that “none is more strange than the way this story ends.”

In his discussion about the ending, he introduces a word from J. R. R. Tolkien to the conversation.  Eucatastrophe is defined as a fortunate disaster.  He then suggests that the death of Jesus is an illustration of such a fortunate disaster.

Such a triumphant, victorious version of the crucifixion leads us to ask whether John is guilty of leading readers astray.  If crucifixion is the final chapter, then the answer is yes and Billy Joel’s sermon “Only the Good Die Young” is the one we should be singing.  But the crucifixion is followed by resurrection and in that context triumph and victory are in play.  We have here “the benefit of hindsight and insight” – we have eucatastrophe!

Preaching John’s narrative does not put preachers in a place to describe crucifixion or retell history.  When we preach John’s version of the story, we are preaching for the same reason that he wrote, “so that you also may believe” (John 19.35).