(Isaiah 53:4-6; Psalm 22; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; John 18:1-19:42)
Isaiah chapter 53 echoes loudly the story of Good Friday. Its poetry speaks of misunderstood events; of one undergoing great suffering misinterpreted as God’s anger toward the individual; of the surprising and sobering discovery that this punishment was taken on behalf of us.
‘All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have all turned to our own way,
And the LORD has laid on him
The iniquity of us all.’ (Isaiah 53:6)
The Bible describes this ‘iniquity’ in a number of different ways: rebellion against God; a turning from God; disloyalty; an ungrateful forgetfulness of relationship. It is something like getting dirty; an aimless wandering from a path; the violating another’s property; a breaking of law; the failure to achieve a standard. Most sadly, it is a falling short of God’s destiny for us. This reality described in so many different ways is universal. It is a problem, a challenge, for us all.
As yet, scholars have found no evidence that this passage in Isaiah was ever linked to the Jewish expectation of the long hoped for Messiah. A broken, battered, and suffering Christ was a contradiction in terms, an unimaginable scandal. The expectation was that the coming Messiah would conquer Rome and scatter Israel’s enemies. No one associated the Messiah with anything that looked so much like defeat or imagined his winning a freedom from something so close to home as this ‘iniquity of us all’.
Perhaps something similar could be said of Psalm 22. Who would ever think of the Messiah adopting such words of agony and abandonment as his own? ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ sits uncomfortably in the mouth of the one from heaven. If the descriptions above are taken seriously, Jesus is experiencing something of the natural consequence of our turning from God.
Today we enact once again the events of Good Friday. We rehearse the story of Jesus’ crucifixion: His garden betrayal and arrest; his trials before Annas, Caiaphas, and Pilate; Peter both following and denying him, and; guards viciously applying their scourge and mock crown. Before us Jesus stumbles Jerusalem’s streets and is crucified among thieves. We see again his clothes divided and his mother given to another. We recall his thirst, his final cry, his death. We gaze as his limp body is taken down, perfumed, and buried.
Together we have looked again upon the cross on which the one so many have come to call ‘Saviour’ gave his life. It is surely foundational – even if not the last word – for our understanding of God and God’s action on our behalf: the death of Jesus to secure our freedom from our rebellion.
Our New Testament reading has the Apostle Paul rearticulating his conviction that this message of the cross constitutes both the ‘power of God’ and the ‘wisdom of God’. Paul is questioning the Corinthian tendency to add to God’s action their worldly wisdom, scribal arguments, and philosophical ideas.
It would seem they want something more than merely Jesus.
But Paul is insistent that this is not how the gospel – this grand news of God’s restoration of relationship with us – has either come to Corinth or spread beyond her borders. Rather this most radical message found roots, grew, and produced fruit through the apparent foolishness of the telling of what God had done: Paul’s ‘proclamation of Christ crucified’.
To be sure, this divine message is for some a stumbling block, and for others a fruitless pursuit of fools gold. But there are also those who hear in this proclamation the very call of God. They see in the humble crucifixion of Christ a power and wisdom so different and unique that it could only come from heaven itself. As the commentator, Gordon Fee, has stated of this passage:
‘No mere human, in his or her right mind or otherwise, would ever have dreamed up God’s scheme for redemption – through a crucified Messiah. It is too preposterous, too humiliating, for a God.’
But in Corinth it is through this very proclamation of the death of Jesus – this conviction, this foundational reality – that God is proving to be wiser, stronger, and more transformational than all the other ideas, philosophies, and options.
The call of Christ crucified portrays God in self-sacrificial humility. Similarly, accepting this as the means by which God is saving both us – and the entire universe – demands of us a healthy dose of humility. This violent outworking of our dark, poorly hidden, deeds causes us to shy away. It is confronting to discover that God’s solution to the plight of our world is not sourced in our own wisdom, influence, power, or nobility.
Rather, it is sourced, from beginning to end, in the unexpected, humble action of God on a cross. Here, as nowhere else, we see God so graciously and sacrificially securing the freedom we lost.
On the cross we see God-logic. This community, and others like it, have come to believe that the events of Good Friday constitute the very foundation from which God acts, in time, space, and heart. The mystery of the cross reveals God’s character, God’s purposes, God’s humility, and God’s example more starkly than any other event.
According to Paul, the cross amounts to the very ‘call’ of God to those ‘who are being saved’. The pinnacle of Paul’s argument here is not the inadequacy of the scribe and debater of his age. Rather, it is this ‘call’ of God upon this community of faith. As Paul concludes:
‘[God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”’
Paul’s ‘righteousness and sanctification and redemption’ sounds like lofty holier-than-thou language to the modern ear.
But this language depicts nothing more or less than God’s renewing work among us. It amounts to perhaps the greatest argument for the power of the cross: a community gathered, in humble faith and trust, around God’s gracious,sacrificial, and transforming life.
If it were any different there would be room for our own ‘boast’. But this is God’s work and we are, amazingly, invited to align our lives with the freedom God won for us at such cost.
To do so is nothing more, or less, than the response of faith.