Hear the Cries of Christ
April 5, 2009
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the beginning of Holy Week when we
give thanks to God for our salvation in Christ Jesus Our Lord. On this
day, Passion Sunday, we not only remember our Lord’s triumphant entry
That Horrible Death
And even though we call this day of his crucifixion Good Friday, it’s also a terrible one indeed – filled with corruption, horror and pain. For Jesus is falsely charged and convicted, treated brutally by his jailors, and executed in the most painful of ways – being nailed to a cross in the ancient Roman manner of public humiliation, punishment and death. This form of execution was especially gruesome – trading as it did on slow blood-letting and gradual strangulation or asphyxiation. And on the cross, Jesus suffered for hours, in between two thieves who were sentenced to death with him on that same fateful and sorrowful day. William F. Buckley, Jr. (1925-2008), vividly describes the crucifixion in the most excruciating detail, borrowing his words from the controversial Roman Catholic mystic, Maria Valtorta [Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith (1997) p. 141]:
The sufferings are worse and worse. The body begins to suffer from the arching typical of tetanus, and the clamour of the crowd exasperates it. The death of fibres and nerves extends from the tortured limbs to the trunk, making breathing more and more difficult, diaphragmatic contraction weak and heart beating irregular. The face of Christ passes, in turns, from very deep-red blushes to the greenish paleness of a person bleeding to death. His lips move with greater difficulty because the overstrained nerves of the neck and of the head itself, pushing on the cross bar, spread the cramp also to the jaws. His throat, swollen by the obstructed carotid arteries, must be painful and must spread its edema to the tongue, which looks swollen and slow in its movements. His back, even in the moments when the tetanising contractions do not bend it in a complete arch from the nape of His neck to His hips, leaning at extreme points against the stake of the cross, bends more and more forward because the limbs are continuously weighed down by the burden of the dead flesh.
Surely these words are not too extreme since Christ carried in his body all the sins of the world, being punished for them in our place (1 Peter 2:24; 1 John 2:2). How tough that is to imagine.
The Cry of Dereliction
But while he was suffering and dying on the cross, he didn’t remain silent. Instead he spoke out and cried out before it was all over. His first cry was verbal – asking God, in so many words, why he had forsaken him (Mark 15:34). This cry has baffled Christians down through the ages. Why, we have asked, would God forsake himself since Jesus is his only begotten Son (John 3:16) – filled with all the fullness of God and equal to his Father in heaven (Colossians 2:9; John 5:18, 10:33)? And we know that God cannot deny himself (2 Timothy 2:13) – and forsaking is surely no different than denying! So what’s up? Why does Jesus cry out these words of despair from the cross?
The church has argued that these words from Christ on the cross are not personal ones of his own – they’re not from him as the very Son of God. Instead when he cries out these words of dereliction, they are words that he mouths for all the sinners of the world – speaking them “in our name from the cross” [Catechism of the Catholic Church, Revised edition (1999) §603]. So in crying out like this, he is play-acting – speaking on behalf of all who stand under the wrath of God (John 3:36). Even so, this cry goes unanswered – which makes it all the more despairing. But if God had answered it, he probably would have said: “Because you’re all abject sinners who deserve nothing but punishment and everlasting torment in hell – that’s why I’m forsaking you!”
So in this first cry from the cross, we see Jesus being punished in our place. This act of mercy saves us from having to be punished for our sins in hell for all of eternity. And it is merciful, because as Martin Luther (1483-1546) taught in his beloved Small Catechism (1529), “we deserve nothing but punishment” [The Book of Concord (1580) ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 347].
That Courageous Giant
But that’s not the end of the cries of Jesus from the cross. He has one more, but this time it isn’t verbal. All we’re told is that “Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last” (Mark 15:37). Nothing more is said about it. As a little boy going to church during Holy Week with my mother, I remember thinking that in this last cry Jesus was probably saying, “Ouch! man, that hurts.” But the more I learned from the Holy Scriptures as I grew older, the more I realized that I was wrong about that. For it would have been too wimpy for Jesus to have said that (Luke 24:19). Christ the Lord, after all, was a dread warrior – destroying the works of the devil (Jeremiah 20:11; 1 John 3:8). He was “the only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Timothy 6:15). He was a spiritual pugilist, if you will (2 Corinthians 10:3-6). So imagining him squealing under the pain of it all, wouldn’t have been fitting at all. Something more, then, had to be going than that.
It wasn’t until I read in Martin Luther’s famous Lectures on Romans (1518), that my eyes were opened regarding this last cry from the cross. There Luther wrote that Jesus died on the cross “with joy [for] He died with a loud shout like a most courageous giant” (Luther’s Works 25:312). Just think of it! His last cry, then, was a victory yelp – “Hurray!” he bellows from atop the instrument of his execution. Here, on the cross, we then have the quintessential depiction of the Biblical, paradoxical declaration that “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). That is because in his ignominious death, Jesus is victorious.
Death Against Death
How so? Isn’t death, death, and nothing more? Isn’t death the opposite of life, and nothing more? How then can there be victory in such a shameful, painful defeat? Against these common sense considerations stands Hebrews 2:14 that “through death” Christ destroyed “the power of death.” On this verse Luther writes in his Lectures on Hebrews (1518) that
God... completes His work by means of an alien deed.... He compels the devil to work through death nothing else than life, so that in this way, while he acts most of all against the work of God, he acts for the work of God and against his own work with his own deed. [For when Christ died] he completely swallowed up death in Himself through the immortality of His divinity.... [So] Christ, by reason of His union with immortal divinity, overcame death by dying.... Christ took away the fear of death,... not so that it does not exist, but so that it is not feared,.... for... both death and all evils have been changed into a blessing and a gain (LW 29:135, 136, 141).
Amazing to contemplate! Death becomes a gain. Christ overcomes death by dying. In dying, Christ’s immortal divinity swallows up death. But just how does that exactly take place? On this The Lutheran Confessions (BC, p. 549) help explain matters:
[If] Christ had been conceived by the Holy Spirit without sin and had been born and had in his human nature alone fulfilled all righteousness but had not been true, eternal God, the obedience and passion of the human nature could not be reckoned to us as righteousness.... [for it could not] render satisfaction to the eternal and almighty God for the sins of all the world.
Christ’s death is potent because it renders satisfaction to God for the sins of the world. In that way his divine immortality swallows up death. It takes away death’s power to send us to hell forever. And it does that by paying the penalty we owed for sin – which is death (Genesis 2:17; Romans 6:23; LW 13:97-99; BC, p. 414).
Once that has been done, death is then defanged or detoxified. It no longer can hurt us – even though we must all still pass through it, but only as if we were waking from a sleep (John 11:11; Mark 5:39; Matthew 27:52). And this is because God has been satisfied by the sacrifice Christ has made to him – which he receives as “a fragrant offering” (Ephesians 5:2). This makes Christ’s death a ransom (Mark 10:45; 1 Timothy 2:6), which buys us back from the ravages of hell (John 3:36; Luke 16:23, 28), when we but believe in him (John 3:16; Ephesians 2:8; Romans 3:25). There’s no other way for God’s wrath to give way to his mercy, except through the death of his dear Son, our Savior Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:7). All of this means that “it is not simple for God to forgive sins” [Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought, ed. Carl E. Braaten (1968) p. 166]. And that truth is often defied.
So the death of Christ is our salvation and not his empty tomb. Easter doesn’t give us salvation from sin. Only the blood of Christ does that (1 Corinthians 15:3). Neither does Easter give us eternal life. That too only comes by the death of Jesus (Revelation 7:13-17). What Easter does is prove that because of the crucifixion, “death no longer has dominion over” Jesus (Romans 6:9). And it does that in his resurrection from the dead – which makes Jesus the “first fruit” of the salvation that all believers will one day share in with him (1 Corinthians 15:20; John 14:19). (On this see my sermon, “Keep Easter a Close Second,” April 8, 2007.)
The Good Fight
But even with all of these clarifications and justifications, we still buckle under the weight of it all. We can’t imagine ourselves basing our lives on those cries of Jesus from the cross. Imagining victory in death is simply too much for us. We’d rather skip dying!
Therefore our only hope is to go to Philippians 2:8 and hear again that famous verse that “Christ humbled himself and was obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” And in that verse we find our hope because of the very obedience of Christ – an obedience we wish we could muster but can’t. In fact, his obedience almost becomes our own – much in the way that his righteousness becomes our own (1 Corinthians 1:30). And this happens through the changing of our expectations. In the face of Christ’s obedience we no longer suppose that our trust in God must be placid. Now we see that faith is far too tumultuous for that – because Jesus, after all, had to humble himself and obey – which we know included his famous struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:38-39). Faith therefore is never an oasis. It’s more of a battlefield, a boxing ring or a race track (2 Corinthians 10:3-6; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27). So while faith may appear to be “easy on the surface,” it’s actually quite
difficult to... fortify the heart against the terrors of sin and death, to confide and believe in God,.... to convert the heart [and] trust in God’s Word in the agonies of death so boldly that death is not faced with fear but with joy (LW 23:179).
Faith, then, is so troublesome because of its many and great enemies that resist it. In the Large Catechism (1529), Luther says faith must fight against all that clings to the old Adam and Eve in us – the “irascible, spiteful, envious, unchaste, greedy, lazy, [and] proud,” that all work so diligently to corrupt us (BC, p. 445).
do not think too lightly of faith, for it is the most excellent and difficult of all works (LW 36:62).
But none of this exertion or work is aimed at getting God to love us (Romans 9:16). No, it’s rather all about trying to make our own, the one who already has made us his own (Philippians 3:12). So while faith “is a work that man must do,.... at the same time [God] Himself must implant it in us, for we cannot believe by ourselves” (LW 23:23; BC, p. 345; John 15:5).
Nevertheless this struggle makes faith rugged – surely something not for the faint of heart (2 Timothy 1:7). So Christ wondered whether any one would ever believe in him (Luke 18:8). Who in their right mind would want such trauma? But since faith is what delivers salvation, it’s our only hope. To be saved we will have to believe in Christ and “slug it out with death” (LW 17:389). Those foes of faith will “make you sweat; they crush your bones; they make heaven and earth to narrow for you” (LW 23:73). But we must still fight against them even knowing that it will mean hanging “between heaven and earth,... suspended in the air and crucified” (LW 29:185). For that’s the nature of faith – which “has its existence... in the terrors of a conscience that feels God’s wrath against our sins and looks for... deliverance from sin” (BC, p. 126). It’s that mixed – just as it was for the father who cried out to Jesus to heal his son, “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Let us then be as honest about that mixture as he was. Let us bring our mixed bag of belief and unbelief to the Altar as we receive Christ in, with and under the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper (BC, pp. 447, 575). Let us do that so our faith may grow and we may become more sure that our sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake, and that when we die, heaven will be our eternal home.
Glorify the Cross
And when we leave
church today we need to be prepared or equipped (Ephesians 4:12) to do
good works in the name of our beloved Savior Jesus Christ (Colossians
3:17). That is because faith without works is dead (James 2:26). On
Passion Sunday our best work would be to glorify the cross of Christ.
Some Christians say it would have to be an empty cross since only it can
symbolize the resurrection. But the empty tomb is a better symbol for
that than the empty cross. An empty cross symbolizes execution – as were
the two empty ones that waited on
in the sight of the world I am foolish, evil, and guilty of all crimes.... For the cross of Christ has condemned all things that the world approves (LW 27:404).
So glorifying the
cross of Jesus Christ will not be making a big-to-do out of it – but
quietly suffering because of it. That means you will have to suffer
shame and unpopularity if you glorify Christ’s suffering and death –
saying “far be it for me to glory except in the cross of Christ.” Not
even this sunny Sunday morning after days and weeks of cold, cloudy,
rainy and even snowy weather can hold a candle to the glory of Christ’s
cross. Nor can the apparent reprieve we appear to have from the last few
days of horrifying mass murders in our land (14 deaths in
But that’s not why we glorify the cross. The suffering and death
of Jesus don’t count for anything by themselves. What’s so wonderful
about the crucifixion of Christ is its outcome – that it saves us from
the wrath of God (Romans 5:9; John 3:36). So it’s the effects of the
crucifixion that we’re praising and not the means to that end. If we
were to praise the means to that end, we then would be sadistic. But
that’s not our purpose. Nevertheless, even with this clarification, our
critics continue to howl. They demand both a different means and a
different end. They want a bloodless salvation – in defiance of Hebrews
9:22 which says that there can be no salvation without the shedding of
blood. So by their dreaming and scheming, they end up turning themselves
into “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18). The first
So against these enemies of the cross we
must not budge an inch. Against them we must steadfastly glorify the
cross of Christ anyway. Against them we must continue to distinguish
between the means and the end of the cross. Against them we must pray to
God for help in making them see the method in our madness – that our
message isn’t inherently garbled. Against them we must never lose our
love for that last cry from Jesus on the cross. Against them we must
weather the shame inherent in the suffering and death of Jesus. And
against them we must pray that one day they will join us in glorifying
the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross at
(printed as preached but with some changes)