Friday, March 29, 2013

Were You There? (A Good Friday Meditation)

SCRIPTURE: Luke 23:33-34
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 29 March 2013

32Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. (Luke 23:32-34)
TV Commercials are full of special sales, displaying and publicizing their Easter bunnies and the chocolate eggs. Community centers (and even Churches) put the play and fun into special Easter egg hunts and children's events to simply have a good time. Many around the world are more than happy to have a long weekend, so that they can take a break from work and routine. I ask myself, "What is so good about Good Friday?"

Is it the extra holiday we can get? Is it about the resurrection of Christ? Is it about fun jumping with the bunnies, hunting the hidden eggs, and gobbling up all the candies we can find? Certainly not. Just like Jesus who needs to suffer and crucified before he can rise from the dead, we cannot fast-forward the painful events leading up to "Good Friday" and replace them with happy and joyous celebration of Easter Sunday. Just like there is not much meaning in simply watching the last half hour of any movie, we cannot skip Good Friday and go straight to Easter Sunday. For the road to Easter must go through Good Friday. There is no short cut. There is no quick fix. For if Christ has not died, how can he rise again from the dead?

A) What's So 'Good' About Good Friday?

If you have seen the movie, the Passion of the Cross, there is little that is 'good' when you see blood and gore, sweat and tears, whippings and tormenting, suffering and pain, all inflicted upon a totally innocent man. The man is good, but the punishment is cruel. How can we say that it is good?

We see how Jesus got betrayed by Judas Iscariot, a disciple trusted with financial matters. We note how disappointed Jesus had been as he looks at the disciples who slept as he prayed, ran away as he got arrested, and retreated back to their former occupations when he died. Nearly everyone doubted what he had said. The disciples, the women, and literally everyone, lived on as if what Jesus had prophesied, were mere tales, not reality.

Can we really say that it is "good?" Scotty Smith, founding pastor of Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee, describes this accurately in his prayer.
"I've always felt conflicted about calling the day of your crucifixion 'good.' It seems quite a bit insensitive and self-serving. That there had to be a day when you, the God who made us for yourself, would be made sin for us is no good at all." (Scotty Smith, Everyday Prayers, Baker Books, 2011, p110)

Perhaps, there is another way to look at it. Instead of seeing it as "insensitive and self-serving," although confession is a good thing already, we can look at the goodness of self-sacrifice, how Jesus exemplifies humility and innocence, purpose amid the pain, endurance all because he seeks to obey God the Father's will. Good Friday is good not because of good feelings or worldly celebrating. It is good simply because it is a complete act of obedience to God the Father. It is good because Jesus considers his own life nothing to be gained, and everything to lose. In doing so, he has saved the whole world, and at the cross, he has completed the race, fought the good fight, and kept the faith. For the road to Easter Sunday must pass through Good Friday.

B) The Road to Easter

One hymn that has often captivated my attention is this: "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?" It comes in three stanzas that describe the crucifixion, the death, and the burying.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree? Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree? Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree? Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb? Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb? Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb?
You can watch the moving rendition here.

The words of the hymn describe very aptly the whole mood of Good Friday. It is a negro spiritual with three simple stanzas, each describing and helping people remember the excruciating pain and suffering of our Lord.  It causes us to wonder at the amazing love of God. It makes us pause as we are invited back to the last moments as Jesus breathes his last. Slowly, surely, and soberly, we let the words grip our hearts, and our hearts grab upon emotions evoked as we ponder at the cross of Christ. From crucifixion to the cruel nails; from the bleeding to the dying; and from the dying to the burying; the world pauses as Good Friday approaches. I like for us today to ponder upon this: "The Road to Easter Must Go Through Good Friday."

(From: NIV Quick View Bible)
C) Three Thoughts for Good Friday

Let me offer three thoughts for Good Friday. Firstly, it is a Friday, just before the day of the Jewish Sabbath.   It is a remarkable look back at the creation week, where God rested after all the work have been done in the past six days. Just like the seventh day completes the entire work of creation, Good Friday completes the task of Jesus, as we remember Jesus emphatically saying in John 19:30 that, "It is finished." All the work, and all the ministry, culminates in this one historical event, the Cross of Christ. It is the Cross of Christ that finishes the necessary work of saving the world from sin. At the cross, Jesus paid it all. At the cross, Jesus carried all the burdens of the world. At the cross, Jesus offered forgiveness for the world, for all the wrongs the world had committed in thought, word, or deed. For it is on Good Friday, Jesus rested completely, for his work on earth has been done.

Secondly, the old rugged cross represents the centrality of the gospel of Christ. When we celebrate something, we need to ask ourselves what are we celebrating from? As we think about Resurrection Sunday, we ask ourselves what is Christ rising from? When we think about victory, we need to remind ourselves what we are winning from? Without Good Friday, there is no meaning in Easter Sunday. The late John Stott has written passionately about the three central things accomplished at the cross, namely, to save sinners, to reveal God, and to conquer evil. In one sweep, all three things are accomplished to perfection and to God's complete satisfaction. Stott also notes that the Acts of the Apostles are less about the resurrection of Christ, but more on the centrality of the cross of Christ. From Peter to John, Stephen to Paul, it is the cross that gives the early disciples the power and the reason to live. For if the cross is the existential reason for our work and ministry as Christians, the resurrection builds upon this as our faith and hope for the future.

Thirdly, Good Friday is the culmination of the horizontal and vertical relationships of mankind and creation. The Cross is a visual symbol of a vertical reconciliation with God. It is also a horizontal reconciliation with fellow people. At the cross, Christ embodies the essence of love, and the greatest commandment of God. Stott says that "the cross enforces three truths - about ourselves, about God and about Jesus Christ." These three truths essentially nail down the reality of man, the divinity of God, and the humility of Jesus. The Cross represents so many things that it can be easily misunderstood. That is why I think it is an apt summary of what reconciliation is all about. Only through the cross, we can be saved from our sins. Only through the cross, God is revealed through the greatest act of love. Only through the cross we get to overcome evil. Only through the cross, we understand the significance of the Resurrection.

D) Don't Rush

The Cross Reconciles God - People and People - People
In conclusion, let me urge my readers not to rush. Everyone knows that Today's Friday, and Sunday is coming. It teaches us to be patient, just as Christ is patient. Can you imagine Jesus skipping Holy Week, and goes from Palm Sunday straight to Easter, just like the "Get Out of Jail" card in the game of Monopoly? No. I cannot imagine Jesus ever wanting to take the short cut? If he has taken the short cut, where is the meaning behind Jesus' coming? How are we going to appreciate a God who has not taken on human form and endured human suffering? What are we going to make sense of the cross in the first place?

Without Good Friday, there will be no cross. Without the cross, there will be no resurrection. Without the resurrection, there will be no Christianity. Without Christ, there will be no faith.

Thanks be to God for Good Friday. The Cross is the reason for Good Friday. As we reflect on these thoughts, and how Jesus died, go back after service. Keep a low profile. Pray silently. I know Sunday is coming, but the road to Easter must first go through Good Friday.

THOUGHT: "I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as 'God on the cross.' In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in Godforsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross that symbolizes divine suffering. 'The cross of Christ . . . is God’s only self-justification in such a world' as ours. . . . " (John Stott, The Cross of Christ, Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006, p326-7)


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