Sermon for Good Friday, Year B

Based on Isa. 52:13-53:12 & Jn. 19:17-30

By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

"Suffering Servant"

In both our first lesson and gospel readings for Good Friday, we are confronted with the reality of suffering and death. In the Isaiah passage, which is known as the fourth servant song, we heard those familiar words about a suffering servant. This suffering servant was "despised and rejected," he was treated in a most cruel manner, he was punished and killed.

His pain, suffering and death are viewed by the biblical writer as a vicarious atonement. That's a fancy theological term, which refers to someone taking the place of another; someone who functions or acts on behalf of and in the place of another. The cruel suffering and death of the suffering servant was for the sins of many.

In the Fourth Gospel, we learn that Jesus is, in the view of the writer, the True, Perfect, Suffering Servant, who suffered and died for the whole world. The suffering and death of Jesus Christ is, for this writer, The Ultimate, Most Meaningful Event And Reality For All Of Life. In John's Gospel, Jesus is glorified and lifted up On The Cross. Or, to put it another way, the enthronement and coronation ceremony of King Jesus takes place in the Fourth Gospel NOT on the day of resurrection; NOT on the day of ascension into heaven; But On Good Friday; On The Day Of Crucifixion.

This point is driven home most clearly when Jesus victoriously declares his last words on the cross: "It is finished!" For the writer of the Fourth Gospel then ~ as is the case for the writer of the fourth servant song ~ There Can Never Be Life Without Suffering And Death! Suffering And Death Are Always Connected With The Ultimate, True Meaning Of Life. We Cannot Celebrate Easter Sunday Unless We Celebrate Good Friday!

How difficult it is for us to celebrate Good Friday! Our Western civilization is totally preoccupied with pleasure and youth. We spend a great deal of time and effort making life easy for ourselves. We pamper ourselves to death with all sorts of new-fangled gadgets and the most up-to-date technology. We go on all sorts of odd-ball diets; we buy all sorts of skin cremes, oils and ointments to hide the wrinkles; we buy recreational toys and play on them to keep young; we place old people and dying people in special institutions which many of us rarely visit. Our healthcare systems and medical technology have isolated many people from suffering and death to the extent that some people almost falsely believe that they have a right NOT to suffer and die. Even a few medical doctors have serious problems dealing with the reality of pain and suffering, precisely because they've never experienced it first-hand themselves. Some patients who experience suffering and know that they're dying complain that their doctors avoid them or spend very little time with them.

There are far too many people in our Western civilization who die without dignity ~ abandoned by their closest friends and family members. In her book, All for Christ, Diana Dewar declares, "The 20th century may account for more martyrs than the sum of preceding centuries." Yet, the tragedy remains that perhaps the 20th century was more preoccupied with the denial of the reality of suffering and death than all other previous centuries.

Life has no meaning for many people today precisely because they deny or belittle the reality of suffering and death. There are many people who live in fear and hopelessness because they refuse to talk about, deal with, or accept the reality of suffering and death. However, as Christians, the meaning and purpose of life is always intrinsically tied to suffering and death.

In Alan Paton's brilliant novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, one of the main characters, a black, South African pastor named Kumalo returns to his village after a long and heartbreaking search for his son and his sister in Johannesburg. When Pastor Kumalo returns home, one of his close friends greets him and the pastor talks to him about the meaning of suffering.

Pastor Kumalo looked at his friend and said: "I believe, but I have learned that it is a secret. Pain and suffering, they are a secret. Kindness and love, they are a secret. But I have learned that kindness and love can pay for pain and suffering. There is my wife, and you, my friend, and these people who welcomed me, here in Ndotsheni ~ so in my suffering I can believe." Pastor Kumalo's friend turns to him and says: "I have never thought that a Christian would be free of suffering. For our Lord suffered. And I come to believe that he suffered, not to save us from suffering, but to teach us how to bear suffering. For he knew that there is no life without suffering."

A theologian from Asia, C.S. Song, in his book, The Compassionate God, has this to say about the meaning of suffering. "The suffering of Jesus the messiah has removed all human barriers. It makes God available to human beings and enables them to be part of the divine mystery of salvation. The depths of God's suffering ought to be the place where all persons, despite their different backgrounds and traditions can recognize one another as fellow pilgrims in need of God's saving power."

Song goes on to observe that: "To be human is to suffer, and God knows that. That is why God suffers too. Suffering is where God and human beings meet. It is the one place where all persons ~ kings, priests, paupers, and prostitutes ~ recognize themselves as frail and transient human beings in need of God's saving love. Suffering brings us closer to God and God closer to us. Suffering, despite all its inhumanity and cruelty, paradoxically enables humans to long for humanity, find it, treasure it, and defend it with all their might."

Song is correct when he makes the connection between God's suffering in the person of Jesus and our suffering as human beings. We discover our true humanity and God's true humanity in suffering. God is not only a God who suffered beyond our human comprehension on that first Good Friday. God also Continues To Suffer Now. This point was made by Paul Tournier, the Christian medical doctor and writer, in his book, A Listening Ear: Reflections on Christian Caring.

"Do you know" ~ Tournier says ~ "that Christianity is the only religion of the suffering God? All religions have aimed at portraying God in the most attractive, the sublimest possible light: a God of perfection. Christianity is the more astonishing because it presents a God who suffers, who suffers with each sick person, who accompanies each sick person in his or her suffering, who suffers with the suffering of each sick person."

"This is the great Christian message for the sick: God suffers from your sickness. Those who say "I cannot believe in God when I see all the horrors in the world" fail to understand that the one who sees all the horror most clearly is God himself, and that he suffers from all the evil and all the suffering of humanity. With Jesus, it is not only the God who suffers because of the suffering of others, but the God who suffers himself."

The suffering servant God hanging on a cross is the clearest demonstration of the height, depth, width and length of God's love. In him we are given the precious gifts of abundant life, health, healing, wholeness, forgiveness. He is our Source of life, hope, peace, faith and love. Without him we are nothing. Without him we can do nothing.

May the power of our crucified suffering servant God be with us now and always. May we be so in touch with and closely connected to our crucified Messiah that all of our thoughts, words and actions might serve and honor him. May we discover the true meaning in life through the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.

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