Why Good Friday is “Good”
The Church of the Good Shepherd
Good Friday, April 19, 2019
Text: Numbers 21: 4-9 (New International Version); Psalms 107: 1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2: 1-10: John 3: 1-16
Hymns: 473 Lift High The Cross
John 3:16 is the one verse in the Bible that most Christians have memorized by heart or at least heard so often that it is permanently imprinted in their subconscious.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.
This one verse is so well-known that, some years back, a group traveled around this country visiting major televised sporting events. There they would take seats in the crowd at just the right spot for a sign that they carried to appear on camera. Their sign read “John 3:16.” The words of verse 16 were not included. Only the reference – John 3:16 – was written in bold lettering.
TV cameramen were cautioned by their producers to avoid filming the sign, and for the most part, they are successful. But the fact that the sign only carried a reference to the verse without its full text indicates the group’s belief that the content of verse 16 was common knowledge among the general public.
John 3:16 certainly captures both the depthof God’s love for us and the magnitudeof his sacrifice in our behalf. But I think that it is unfortunate that it eclipses the two verses that precede it because it is those two verses that explain why Good Friday is so very “good” for we Christians.
In verses 14 and 15 of the third chapter in John’s gospel, Jesus declared:
just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
Jesus alludes here to an episode in the Hebrews’ pilgrimage through the wilderness that few – if any – remember.
We don’t remember this event in scripture because we have likely never read about it, and we have never read about it because it appears in the 21stchapter of the second most boring book in the Hebrew Bible – the book of Numbers.
Unlike us, though, Jesus knew the book of Numbers well. His reference to Numbers 21 is part of a larger conversation that Jesus had with a man called Nicodemus. According to John, Nicodemus was a leader of the Jews. Well, John says that he was a leader of the Jews. But, as best Jesus could tell, he was no sage in matters of the spirit!
When Jesus spoke of being born of the Spirit, all that Nicodemus could say was: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? … How can this be?”
Jesus tried to explain this type of rebirth by referring to a story in the book of Numbers that Nicodemus should have known. After all, he, like Jesus, was a student of God’s word.
According to the book of Numbers, the Hebrews grew impatient as happened so often during their wilderness trek. They complained that they had no water and no food. Consequently, they began to speak against Moses and God saying,
“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?”
Well, God had had just about enough of these whining Hebrews. He had already led them with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. He had sent them manna from heaven on one occasion and quail in another instance when they had previously been hungry. He had even caused water to spring from a dry rock when they were thirsty.
So, God sent poisonous snakes amongst these ungrateful wanderers, and the Hebrews died when they were bitten by a serpent. This, of course, got the Hebrews’ attention, and they cried to Moses:
“We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.”
Interestingly enough, God did not remove the serpents. Instead, he told Moses to raise a pole in the middle of the Hebrews’ camp and place at the top of that pole the bronze image of a serpent. Then miraculously, any Hebrew who kept his or her eyes fixed on that bronze serpent was immune to the serpents’ venom.
We don’t know for sure whether Jesus’ reference to this account in Numbers 21 ultimately helped Nicodemus better understand the meaning of being born again in the Spirit. It has not helped Christians much apparently because verses 14 and 15 of the third chapter in John’s gospel have not enjoyed anywhere near the popularity of John 3:16.
In the Presbyterian tradition in which I was raised, I suspect that these verses are overlooked intentionally. This story in the 21stchapter of Numbers smacks too much of idolatry, and for Calvinists, there is no greater sin under the sun than the worship of a graven image – except perhaps a sin against the Holy Spirit.
According to John Calvin, all of us are subject to the sin of idolatry. We are individually and collectively little factories of idols since we are constantly making that which is not God into our personal god.
For this reason, I have no doubt that Calvin would have been appalled at the spiritual jeopardy that I faced as a child in Jackson, Mississippi.
You see, I was raised in a Roman Catholic ghetto.
Well, I say “ghetto.” It was not really a ghetto. There were no barbed wire fences keeping Roman Catholics in and Protestants out. The area where I lived was more a “ghetto of choice.” Right down the street from my home was a huge Catholic Church and an even larger Catholic school offering instruction in grades 1 through 12. The school and the church, of course, attracted Catholic families to the neighborhood. So many moved there, in fact, that I think that my home was the only household inhabited by Protestants in a five to ten block radius in any direction.
All of my buddies were Catholic! So, I grew up believing that everyone – outside of my family – ate fish on Friday, could only see movies approved by the Catholic bishops and had a crucifix prominently displayed somewhere in their home.
Those crucifixes! They bothered me. In Sunday school and during sermons in the Presbyterian church that my family attended, I was regularly vaccinated against the lethal virus of idolatry. Crucifixes were recognized as common carriers of the malady. So, I suppose that it was inevitable that I would wonder why my best friends put such great store in those images of Christ crucified on a cross.
It was not until much later in life when I was asked to lead a bible study on chapter 3 of John’s gospel that I realized that my old Catholic chums – or at least their elders – may have more fully grasped an aspect the gospel than my Presbyterian upbringing would admit.
It dawned on me that Jesus raised high upon a cross is, for we Christians, our bronze serpent.
After all, we Christians – like the wandering Hebrews – are prone to complain about our lot. We – like the Hebrews – regularly succumb to the cravings of our senses as it says in the letter to the Ephesians. We are vulnerable – as they were – to the physical wants and needs that tempt us to sin against our neighbor and/or our God.
Such temptations are legion. In fact, they are as various as the men and women sitting in this room and in the world beyond these walls. Individually, you or I may be immune to the appeal of this or that particular type of temptation. But none of us manages to rebuff allthe temptations that life sets before us.
There is always that one temptation. Isn’t there?
Always that one need long-neglected – that nagging desire that we have for some time craved to satisfy. And when the opportunity to address that hunger presents itself, our conscience may harbor questions about whether it is kosher to take a bite out of that forbidden fruit.
But when no one is looking, it just seems too delectable to pass up.
So, we indulge.
Why does God leave us vulnerable to such temptations as he left the Hebrews subject to the serpents in the wilderness? That, my friends, is a question above my pay grade. I am but a simple librarian. I will leave that puzzling question for our Rector to answer.
But I can tell you this! As the writer of Ephesians has said, “God … is rich in mercy,” and out of the great love that He has for us – even when we are dead through our trespasses – God can make us whole again and, therefore, alive together with Christ.
How does God work this miracle of redemption?
Well, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so God has lifted up His own Son on a Cross so that whosoever looks to him and believes may be saved from the death-dealing wages of sin.
And that, my friends, is quite simply why Good Friday is so very “good” for all who look to Christ on the Cross and believe.
Nicodemus can perhaps be excused for his confusion when Jesus compared his death high on a cross to Moses raising the serpent high on a pole for the Hebrews in the wilderness. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross lay still in the future when he spoke with Nicodemus.
But we Christians have no such excuse!
We know that Christ raised high on the cross on that first “good” Friday was then, and is today, the sacrificial antidote for the deadly bite of our transgressions – transgressions that poison friendships, destroy families, disrupt communities and undermine nations with distrust and harm.
We know that anyone who looks to Jesus Christ on that Cross, as the Hebrews looked to that bronze serpent in the wilderness, finds a mediator who has already paid the price for our sins – a mediator whose entreaties to God for your forgiveness and for mine His Father simply cannot deny.
For this reason, we may grieve that our transgressions made the Cross necessary. Tears aplenty should be shed over that fact! That is why the liturgy that we follow this evening is so somber. Tears are certainly appropriate on a night like tonight.
But tears of utter bereavement like those shed by Mary at the foot of the Cross? No, they seem not quite right for those of us who stand on this side of Jesus’s empty tomb! From our vantage point in history, the events of that fateful Friday look quite different.
We may have tears in our eyes. But they are tears of a mixed emotion – the tears of sober joy. After all, who can onlygrieve when one knows that the Cross was not the end to hope as it must have appeared to Mary and Christ’s first disciples?
There is reason for joy this evening, my friends! It is a joy certainly sobered by the knowledge that our sin – mine and yours – required such a sacrifice. But there is cause for joy nevertheless.
What do we do with this mixed emotion – this sober joy? Well, mixed emotions often immobilize those who experience them. But I would suggest, instead, that we do as Moses did. In the wilderness, God gave Moses a bronze serpent to lift high so that all who looked to it might not die. God has given to us so much more on this Good Friday. To us He has given his only begotten Son crucified on a Cross so that all who looked to him might neverdie.
So, let us not weep like Mary at the Cross. Let us not cower before the Cross with fear and trembling as Jesus’ earliest disciples did in the upper room. Let us not even mourn overly long because our transgressions required the sacrifice of the Suffering Servant.
No, let us take Christ’s Cross and lift it high. Lift high that Suffering Servant on a Cross by embodying Him in everything we say and in everything we do so that all might now look to him reflected – if only imperfectly – in us and find the life abundant that the crucified Son of God bought for all humanity.
It is, after all, a life abundant that neither sin nor death can ever end.
It is as well why Good Friday was so good long ago, is good today and will be good forever more.
Let us pray:
Lord God of Hosts, what can we say to you on this night of Your Son’s greatest gift to us? The majesty of His righteousness puts our paltry notions of holiness to shame. The mystery of His boundless grace redefines the nature of self-sacrifice for others. Humbled, thankful, chastened and hopeful we stand before you.
Teach us the way of the Cross, Lord. Strengthen us when our neighbors’ burdens call us to take them upon ourselves. Embolden us when sacrifice of self is required. Sustain us when temptation beckons us to turn away for easier paths. Make us witnesses, Lord – lifting high His Cross in our very being so that all might see, believe and find new life that has no end. This we ask in the name of Your Son, the crucified Christ. Amen.