They came to the place which is called The Skull. It’s known also to us as Calvary. As Golgotha. A pious legend says that this elevated place was the same small mountain as that where Abraham prepared to offer up his promised son, Isaac. But that seems unlikely, for the temple was built on the only significant nearby high point. One of my seminary professors speculated that it was more probable that crucifixions took place on what was essentially the city dump. Much as it may bother us to think that Jesus died amidst the garbage of humanity, it makes a certain amount of sense.
After all, why not kill the criminals in an undesirable place? A place where the smell and sight of rotting flesh being picked over by birds and rats wouldn’t be all that bothersome to people living in the more inhabitable real estate? Yet even amidst such stench and squalor, shamed by His nakedness and suffering from His beatings, His whippings, His crown of thorns, and the burden of bearing the cross from the center of the city, Jesus continues to pray for you: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
Yes, He’s praying for you. Not just for the Roman soldiers who are hammering the nails into His wrists and feet. Not just for the mocking Jewish leaders. Not just for His frightened, fleeing disciples or the crowds of curious onlookers taking in the gruesome spectacle. He prays for you, too.
For you—who constantly turn away from Him. You—who want to decide on your own what is right and wrong, often choosing the wrong on purpose—and often being wrong, even when you think you are right. For you—who despise preaching and His word, only dragging yourself to church when it’s not inconvenient, not in conflict with something you’d rather do, or when it’s forced upon you, or is an expectation born out of habit or tradition, not faithfulness. For you—who leave it to others to keep the church running, you who horde your income and give but a pittance because, after all, we must have our comforts. We must impress others by maintaining certain appearances.
Yes, Jesus prays to His Father and your Father, for your forgiveness, for all those times when you know not what you do—and even for all those times when you know full well exactly what you are doing, and sin anyway. Lord, have mercy.
The Second Word
The Fourth Commandment, kept from the cross. Even as He is raised up from the earth like the bronze serpent of Moses, drawing all men to Himself as He prophesied, Jesus honors His mother. In His obedience unto death, even death on the cross, He honors His heavenly Father, too.
But that’s not all. We’re told in Luke’s gospel account that Jesus was submissive and obedient to His earthly caretaker, Joseph, also. He does not despise or anger His parents or other authorities, though they sometimes were sinfully angered with Him for no valid reason.
Instead, He honors, serves, and obeys them; loves and cherishes them. He listens respectfully to the teachers in the temple when He is twelve years old, amazing them with His knowledge of the Scriptures.
But how could the Word made flesh not know the Word? He keeps the entire Law—moral, civil, and ceremonial. He renders unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and pays His temple tax, too.
Have you kept the Fourth Commandment today? I didn’t think so. Did you keep any of them? No, me, neither. And if you said otherwise, on top of all your other sins, your pride is added to them. And because of that, Jesus must turn over the care of His mother to the only disciple who did not run away and hide in fear.
And now, as He suffers pain and humiliation, He honors His mother. The chosen vessel of God, the virgin rendered to be with child by the Holy Spirit, is commended into the care of the evangelist St. John. Like so often happens in Scripture, the Lord speaks, and a new reality is created. To His mother, He declares: “Woman, behold, your son!” and to John: “Behold, your mother!”
It is a declaration no less real, no less effective than, “Let there be light,” or “thou shalt not.” Though it has no eternal implications for them, for Mary and John, Jesus’ command is nevertheless just as significant in its own way as “Go, therefore, unto all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” But it ranks well below His declarations to you: “I forgive you all your sins,” and, “Take, eat, this is My body; take drink, this is My blood, for the forgiveness of all of your sins.”
The Third Word
It wasn’t the first debate in the Scriptures between believer and unbeliever. It wouldn’t be the last. It wasn’t even the first disagreement between the Truth and the Lie within the past 24 hours, was it? Two criminals, crucified with our Lord, one on His right; one on His left.
Who were they? What are their names? Why doesn’t Scripture tell us? “We want to know!” our curiosity cries out. No, you really don’t. For those two individuals—one rebellious and mocking; one humble and trusting—are you, rightly put to death for your crimes against God and man.
On the one hand, you the sinner rail at God in a loud voice. Even as you are brought low, suffering the consequences of your sin, you make no mention of your guilt. You demand that He prove Himself to you with a miraculous sign, giving you what you don’t deserve, and doing it in the manner you specify. Don’t hold your breath, waiting. He’s God; you’re not.
On the other hand, you the saint realize that you are in no position to make demands. You know that you deserve only death for your deeds—and the thoughts and words that preceded them. You look to Christ, acknowledging that He has done nothing wrong, but is the spotless Lamb of God being offered up for you. You plead for His grace and mercy, knowing that with a word, He can change everything.
And He does: “Truly, truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” You trust the promise of the suffering Savior, knowing that in His death and yours, you will be united with Him. At the very moment of your death, time will cease to be for you. Your next conscious experience will be to stand in front of the Lord, to be declared His own, justified and forgiven for His sake. Paradise awaits him or her who trusts this Word.
The Fourth Word
From the sixth hour to the ninth hour, there was darkness over all the land. But from the tree of the Garden to the tree of the cross, there was a far deeper shadow: The impenetrable blackness of sin and death, brought on by our ancestors but fully, even willingly and sometimes enthusiastically, embraced by each and every generation which followed.
Even on this side of the cross—and perhaps even because of our knowledge of it—we do no better. We alienate ourselves from God and man, pushing each of them away with our hatred, arrogance, self-centeredness, spite, bitter words, and violence. Is it any wonder that others abandon us? Is it any wonder that we, who have abandoned God time and time again, sometimes feel the false emotion that He has abandoned us as well?
He never has, of course, for apart from His fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, you would cease to be. Without the continual presence of the Holy Spirit—the Lord and Giver of life—you are nothing more than lifeless dirt.
But Jesus experienced true abandonment. He who had told His disciples, “I and the Father are one,” finds Himself severed from the fellowship of the Holy Trinity. He who knew the perfect love that can only be shared in both directions within the Godhead finds Himself unloved. Abandoned. Forsaken.
It is because of sin. Not His sin. Your sin. The holy, perfect God cannot tolerate it. It cannot exist in His presence. It must be destroyed, rendered nil. And so Jesus is left to die, all our sins upon Him. He who knew no sin became sin for us. He who was pure love, pure good, became pure hatred and evil, so that it could not escape His death.
So, when you are feeling worn down by life, that God is being inattentive to your needs and wants, the question is not, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It’s, “Dear Lord, why did you suffer all this for me, a rebellious, selfish, unfaithful sinner?” It is love amidst the hate, obedience amidst autonomy, hope amidst despair. It is Jesus, crucified for you.
The Fifth Word
Jesus thirsts. And He says so. Why? The text tells us: Jesus knows that all has been fulfilled. He knows this because He is fully God. He knew—going in—just what it would take to redeem the whole world from the clutches of sin, death, and the devil. So, having borne the awful load, He speaks the words, “I thirst,” to fulfill the Scripture. All He does; all He says; all He is—is to fulfill the commands and the promises of God.
If that’s the why, then what is the how? How did Jesus thirst? It’s because He who is fully God became like one of us—fully a human being, born of woman, born under the Law to keep the Law. And human beings, when they have been beaten, whipped, scratched with thorns, wounded by large nails, and hung outdoors naked, suffer. They bleed. They sweat. They get dehydrated.
No matter what pain you have suffered in your life; no matter what physical trauma—impact, penetrating, or cutting—it’s not like Jesus. Car accident, war wound, surgery, childbirth, slipped disk, kidney stone; they just can’t compare to the pain He suffered, for His pain had to balance out the ledger of all the harm done by all the people of history—the harm done to one another, and the harm done to their relationships with God.
What’s more, as we already learned, He had to suffer the abandonment of His heavenly Father and the Holy Spirit, who could not be corrupted by the filth of our sins. Think you’ve suffered emotional pain? Yes, you have—we all have, there’s no denying that. But the torment that He surely suffered, all alone on that cross, immeasurably exceeds that.
Were you abandoned by a parent? So was Jesus, but He was abandoned by His heavenly Father—so it was far more severe. Were you abandoned or abused by a spouse? Jesus was abandoned by His Bride, the Church—and not only in those hours of suffering and death by those who were His disciples. Time and time again, we individually and collectively fail to remain faithful to our patient husband, Jesus Christ. Have you been forgotten or rejected by your children? We, too, all stray from our loving Father as well as our Good Shepherd, over and over, and yet God continually seeks after us. He does not force us back, but waits patiently, beckoning, calling us in love.
Jesus thirsts for you, but do you thirst for Him? Do you earnestly desire to hear the heavenly Word made flesh? Are you eager to have it proclaimed to you, declared to you, read to you, explained to you, fed to you? Or do you thirst for the worldly water that does not satisfy? The water of ambition, of greed, of shallow, empty, passing pleasures? Seek the living water, the inexhaustible spring which flows from His pierced side, fulfilling the Scriptures for you and for all.
The Sixth Word
And what is their answer to His thirst? How did they satisfy Him who was there when the waters were divided by the firmament? Him who caused the four rivers to flow out of Eden? Him who caused the rains to fall and the fountains of the deep to spring forth for forty days and forty nights? Him who parted the sea so that His people could escape? Him who caused water to flow forth from rocks? Who walked on the stormy sea?
They give Him sour wine. Was it payback, a final insult? Was it humanity’s ironic way of leaving a bitter taste in the mouth of Him who left a bitter taste in theirs with His strong words of condemnation at our hypocrisy; our unfaithfulness; our sin? We would do it, too. We want to keep the good stuff for ourselves, and foist off the less desirable things on others. Especially on God.
And yet, had we listened, He also spoke words sweeter than any ever spoken. Words of love and grace and mercy and truth. Words like, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” Words like, “Peace, be still!” Words like, “Go and show yourselves to the priest.” Words like, “Arise, pick up your mat, and go home,” and “Little girl, I tell you, arise,” and “I tell you, your child will live,” and “Lazarus, come out!”
There are sweeter words, still: “Take heart; I have overcome the world,” and “Your sins are forgiven.” And yet, after all those words—and you have heard them and read them far more often than those to whom they were spoken but once—you still fight against them. You still hunger and thirst for the unrighteous. You go and show yourself to the world. You don’t pick up your mat and go home, healed; you pick up your ball and run away, pouting that the game isn’t going the way you want it to. You try to overcome the world on your own; a hopeless effort because the world is even more corrupt than you are, and that’s really saying something.
But in spite of all that, cling to these words: “Your sins are forgiven.” They are drenched in the blood of Christ and bleached whiter than snow; they are washed away in a torrent of water more powerful than the great flood, because they are accompanied by the efficacious Word.
Jesus speaks, and things change. God’s Word goes forth, and it does not return empty, but accomplishes His purposes. The Spirit conveys Jesus to you, and Jesus has spoken: “It is finished.”
What is finished? Everything that matters: The Law is fulfilled. Redemption is accomplished. Sin, death, and the devil are defeated. Your old, fallen nature is overwhelmed, turned into a gasping, desperate spasm, struggling to survive but overwhelmed by a new and right spirit within you; your heart cleaned by forgiveness. The strife is o’er; the battle won: “It is finished.” Amen.
The Seventh Word
Luke, like Matthew, tells us of the darkness. The Light of the World was going out. To those who had believed, it seemed as if hope itself was dying with the Lord Jesus. Yet this passage from Luke tells us more: The curtain of the temple was torn in two, rent asunder by divine action. Not an ordinary curtain, thin and easily ripped. This curtain was substantial. It was almost a carpet—a fabric barrier several inches thick, hung vertically between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. A protective barricade to separate man from the presence of God, lest the lesser creature accidentally be exposed to Yahweh and—in his sinfulness—be destroyed.
But now, in the final moments of the man-God’s earthly life, it is not man who is destroyed by God, but God who is dying at the hand of man. How can this be? O, blessed mystery! O, love divine, all loves excelling! Creator dies for creature; the sinless for the sinful; the righteous for the unrighteous. The Great Exchange is complete.
The One who was abandoned by the Father still trusts; the One whose hands and feet and body are ravaged by human cruelty loudly commits His spirit into the loving, waiting hands of God. His mortal breath leaves Him, assumed back into the divine Spirit. The Lord of heaven and earth passes away; the Lord and Giver of Life receives Him and brings Him back to the Father. God has died, yet God remains.
So it will be for us. When we breathe our last; when we finally get what we deserve and what Jesus never did, the Holy Spirit will take us, too. We will be brought before the judgment seat of God, and our sentence will be declared: “Not guilty, for Jesus’ sake!” How can this be? What does this mean?
It means that Jesus has done it all. It means that you, who cannot by your own reason or strength believe in your Lord and Savior, or come to Him, are redeemed by His holy, precious blood, and His innocent suffering and death. It means, “It is finished!” It means you have a new beginning. Joy to the world; the Savior reigns!