And so we come to it, the cross. This Sunday is not only Palm Sunday, but the Sunday of the Passion. It is the last Sunday before Easter. It begins Holy Week. Our solemn remembrance of Christ’s passion – his suffering, his crucifixion, and his death. The Gospel reading today from St. Matthew takes us to the cross. There we stand, virtually, through the Word of God, at the foot of the cross. There we see Jesus and all that happened to him. We become witnesses, through the Evangelist, of the darkest day, the day of God’s wrath, the day in which creation itself mourned the death of God’s Son. But also a very necessary day for our salvation.
Today I’d like to walk us through this text, and hold up various moments and details, many of which are worthy of a sermon in their own right. Consider with me, St. Matthew, and all Christians everywhere, as we go to the cross with Jesus.
First, consider that Jesus is crucified between two thieves. Numbered with transgressors. Now of course this fulfills the prophecy of Scripture. But there is more here. From his very incarnation, the Holy Son of God is numbered with transgressors. In taking on human flesh, he makes himself one of us, though he himself had no sin. In his baptism, he does the same, now publicly, baptized to fulfill all righteousness, though he had no sins of his own to wash away. Now, he hangs on a cross, condemned for crimes he did not commit, and for supposed blasphemy and sedition, and for who knows what trumped up reasons. But he is numbered with sinners for God’s highest purpose, to take the place of sinners under God’s wrath. To save sinners from themselves, from death and devil. That cross is your cross, sinner. And Jesus takes your place. So that you, forgiven by his blood, take a new place at his side in life and in glory.
And speaking of blasphemy, that’s another thing that happens here. But it’s not Jesus – it’s his enemies. They mock and deride him by their foul words. Wagging their heads and tongues at him. Sneering and chiding. Just look who joins in the jeering: those who passed by, also the chief priests, the soldiers who stood watch, and even the criminals who hung beside him. It’s as if the whole world is united in the devlish revelry. There is no veneer of polite pleasantry. There is no sham sympathy for a dying man, or even common decency. The gloves have come off. The true wicked nature is revealed. The world is united against the Son of God. The devil has his day.
But those enemies of Christ stand in for all the enemies of God. All of us who bear the sin of Adam and the forked tongue of a sinful nature – we have spoken ill. Our own mouths have mocked and derided the Holy One in various ways. We are just as guilty.
But Jesus rather offers kind words. He utters saving words. He brings promises and forgiveness even to those who ridiculed him then, and speak foul things now. His word is a better word. His word of grace has the last word.
And at the sixth hour darkness falls, until the night hour. From noon to three. Some churches mark this on Good Friday with a 3 hour service called a Tre Ore. Jesus marked it by crying out with the words of Psalm 22, acknowledging the sheer agony he faced. The worst of it wasn’t the nails, the thorns, the mockery or shame. It was being forsaken by his Father. This is the true suffering of the cross. Bearing the sins of the world. Enduring the scorn of Holy God. That he who knew no sin was made to be sin for us. The object of all punishment, wrath, and condemnation. A spiritual reality we cannot even fathom. A depth of sorrow, by God’s grace, we will never know. Oh, dearest, dearest Jesus who did this for us.
They filled a sponge with some sour wine and gave it to him (for he had said, “I thirst”) and he wet his tongue for one final declaration, “it is finished” and then to commended his spirit to the hands of the Father. And the Lord of life died.
This had no small effect.
The temple, that focal point of Israel, of Jerusalem, really of the world – the place God had promised to dwell in his Holy of Holies – something quite strange happens. The curtain is torn in two. The curtain – that thick fabric barrier that separated the Holy and gracious presence of God from anyone but the High Priest – and then only once a year – the curtain that stood for the separation between Holy God and his now unholy and fallen people, the curtain is torn in two. The veil of separation rent asunder. The priests standing in the temple must have gasped and fainted at the sight. But to us the meaning is clear. The separation of God and man is no more. At the death of Jesus, God tears the curtain – it was torn from the top down, you see. At the death of Jesus, God is accessible to his people again, even heaven itself is re-opened.
The creation itself also reacts. The sun had already darkened. Now the earth quaked and rocks split. An earth-shattering something had just taken place, and even terra firma gave witness. This is a foretaste of the final destruction of creation that will happen when Jesus comes at the end of time. But the cross has now guaranteed it.
Similarly, we get a foretaste of the resurrection with this strange detail – that the graves of many holy people opened up, that their bodies were raised, and that after Christ’s resurrection they also appeared to many in Jerusalem. Another preview of something greater to come – when all the dead in Christ are one day raised – when all of us will appear before him, as he appears in the flesh before us. And the cross has now guaranteed it.
The effects of the cross ripple through space and time, forward and back, touching all people of all times and places. The cross is the crux of all history, the focal point of Divine justice and mercy, the most important, most central event for all and forever – and for you. He did it for you, dear child of God.
And not all mocked and jeered Christ’s death. The centurion gave witness, perhaps in spite of himself, that this man truly was the Son of God. Powerful words from a pagan. Perhaps even repentant words from one who had a hand in what just happened. But the cross of Jesus can do that too, bring sinners to repentance.
And not all the Jews mocked Jesus either. Finally Joseph and Nicodemus came and showed honor to the body of Christ. They anointed him and buried him with respect. It took courage so to do. And these two wise Jewish leaders who brought him gifts of honor, in a way parallel the visit of the wise men, who also brought fragrant gifts to Jesus. At his birth, and at his death, honored and recognized by the wise. So we do well to honor Christ, and recognize him by faith, from our own cradle, to our own grave.
The two Marys witnessed the burial. Here is an important detail. They knew exactly where Jesus was. They knew the grave. They saw the stone. This sets the stage. For these women will return to the tomb on Sunday to finish the burial customs. And what a joyous surprise they will find. They will become witnesses even to the apostles, that the Jesus who died is alive.
To further set up the great cliff-hanger of history, the Jews pay Jesus one final insult. They ask Pilate for guards to secure the tomb. They heard Jesus well enough to know the promise of the resurrection, and they feared it. The bitter irony of their own self-deception that shut their hearts more tightly than that sealed grave. They rejected who Jesus was and what he said he would do. It wasn’t that they didn’t hear or understand him, they didn’t believe him.
But you and I know different. Jesus is who he says he is, and he does what he says he will do. None of this suffering and crucifixion, nasty business as it was, should have surprised anyone. For Jesus had told them it was coming. The gospels say he spoke of it plainly, and repeatedly. And Jesus also spoke as plainly about his resurrection on the third day, for which we now wait to celebrate with bated breath.
It may be, that for a time, friends, our churches are as locked and sealed to us as that borrowed tomb. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be with Jesus. It doesn’t separate us from his cross. It may feel as if the guards are on watch, keeping us at bay. But Jesus will not be deterred or held back, by a stone, by Roman guards, or even by death itself. For your life he has destroyed death. And by his life, he brings life and immortality to light. So even the crosses of this life, which we bear as we follow him, are only temporary, they are all passing, and there’s life on the horizon for you and me, too.
His words are always true. And his promise to be with you always, even to the end of the age, transcends the boundaries of time and space and quarantine.
In the Name of Jesus. Amen.