How to sum up what we’ve heard tonight…
“Jesus died for our sins.” – Hmm, sounds like a guilt trip.
“Jesus’ death was a substitutionary death.” – Naw, sounds too technical.
“Jesus died so we didn’t have to die.” – Touching, but still not much oomph in it.
How about asking some rhetorical questions instead:
Would I die in order to save another person?
Would I die in order to save many others?
Would I sacrifice my own child to save others?
Ah, suddenly things get harder. It’s too easy to talk about substitutionary death like that of Jesus without really getting a proper sense of its reality. It may even be too easy to think about ourselves dying for a noble cause. But if we think about allowing someone else to die in order to save others… woah. Self-sacrifice is comparatively easy because you don’t have to deal with the consequences or live with the emotionally-scarring memory. Sacrificing someone else, especially our own children, is when this concept of substitionary death begins to hit home.
In a sense, then, when we think about the cross, it’s easier to identify with Jesus because emotional detachment is possible. But when we think about it from the perspective of God the Father, suddenly the horrible pain becomes real. Suddenly Abraham looks less like a monster, preparing to kill his son Isaac, and more of a nervous wreck.
So the question stands – what could have possibly been a good enough reason for Abraham to prepare his only son for death? What could possibly have been a good enough reason for God to allow his perfect Son to be tortured, nailed to a piece of wood, and die? The answer to both of these questions is one and the same: us.
You see, however-many-thousand years ago, Abraham was given a promise from God: his descendants would be as numerous as the stars, and his offspring would bring blessings to every other family as well. As Paul pointed out in one of his letters, “offspring” is singular – the promised bringer of blessings to the entire world was actually Jesus. That’s why the story of Abraham and Isaac sounds so similar to the story of the cross of Christ. It is the same story! And it took thousands of years to complete, now that’s an epic!
But let’s go back, for a moment, to Abraham himself. How was he able to proceed with preparing Isaac for the sacrifice? All we have from him is one simple utterance: “the Lord will provide the sacrifice.” Oftentimes we hear this explained as Abraham’s great faith in God’s provision, such as in the book of Hebrews. But there’s more to it than that. For God had clearly told Abraham to prepare Isaac for sacrifice. So behind this faith in God’s provision that enabled Abraham to move forward with this seemingly horrible act was hope. Abraham had hope that God would make this all work out. He had hope based on God’s promise concerning his descendants and his special offspring who would bless the world. And what a profound hope it was! More powerful than the fear and the pain as he tied up his only son and placed him on the altar of sacrifice and pulled out his knife to slay him.
That same hope, alongside faith and love, is a powerful Christian virtue. We stand on the promises of God spoken through Christ: that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have everlasting life; that if we have died with Christ, we will rise with Christ; that we are no longer children of Satan, but children of Abraham. Life around us is still full of sin, corruption, wickedness, suffering, evil, and death. We still face mortgages, health insurance, life insurance, student loans, and market crashes. We still have to put up with mockery, false brethren, competing lies about the world, oppression, and persecution. But amidst all this we have something from Christ himself that will pull us through, and that’s hope. — Hope founded upon the promise of God through the teaching of Jesus and demonstrated in his death and rising to new life. We saw it work for him, so we have a sure hope that it can work for us too.
So really in the drama that is the liturgy of Holy Week we’re not just re-living the experience of the arrest, trial, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. We’re also walking through the very foundations of our spiritual lives. Tonight we sit ourselves down at the foot of the cross and weep and mourn that our Savior died, but we also see through that pain to its effects and promises. As we contemplate the insanely painful death of our God, our King, our Brother, our Friend, Jesus of Nazareth, we take into our hearts the very real reminder that these are the events that changed our lives, giving us not only something to believe in, not only a god to love in response, but also a very real hope in the work that He’s still carrying out in us and in the world.
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.
Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three. ~ I Cor. 13:12-13