Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sermon: I Believe in Jesus Christ... he was crucified, died, and was buried Matthew 27:15-61

As we come to the next section of the Apostles’ Creed, it might seem that we’re stating the obvious. ‘I believe in... Jesus Christ... He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead.’ Just like that. Surely it’s a simple stating of the facts.

After all, if we know anything at all about Jesus or about the church, then we’ll know that there’s a cross involved, that Jesus died upon the cross. Each of the four gospel accounts tell us the same thing, in vivid detail, that Jesus suffered, was crucified, died and was buried. Plus, we know that everyone dies, so it wouldn’t be any surprise that Jesus had died.

So why is it that the Apostles’ Creed goes through all this detail? Why does it set out clearly and simply the facts? I think it’s pointing us to the significance of the death of Jesus - the centrality of his death for the Christian faith. We’ll see this as we consider our reading from Matthew’s gospel, and think about the words of three people.

First up, we come to one of the few people named in the Creed - Pontius Pilate. Pilate was the Roman governor of the region of Judea at this Passover, and as such, had to decide on Jesus when he was brought before Pilate.

Having examined Jesus, heard the accusations from the religious leaders, and watched as a near riot kicked off in front of him, Pilate is caught in a difficult position. He knows that Jesus has done nothing deserving death. In fact, he knows that Jesus has never done anything wrong. We see that in his words in verse 23. ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ The answer is none. Jesus has done no evil, and is entirely innocent. He doesn’t deserve to die, let alone the death of the cross.

But as we’ve seen, Pilate is trapped, fearful, and so submits to the will of the mob, the will of the Jewish leaders. He tries to portray himself as innocent in the situation, when really there is only one innocent person standing there that day. As he washes his hands, he declares ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’

Innocent? When the very next line tells us that he ‘released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.’ He suffered under Pontius Pilate - undeservedly, totally innocent, yet receives the scourging of a criminal.

The words of the next man are echoed repeatedly, and further help us understand the cross. Jesus has been mocked by the soldiers, beaten as the King of the Jews, and taken to the place of the skull. Jesus is crucified, and as he hangs on the cross, dying, even that isn’t enough for the passersby, the chief priests and the elders. They continue to scorn him, shouting out mockery.

It’s the words of verse 42 I want to focus on. Do you see what the elders say? ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, I am the Son of God.’

He saved others, he cannot save himself. Such irony, because they speak truer than they know! They get it spot on, yet they use it as a taunt. Make no mistake - Jesus could indeed have come down from the cross and saved himself. He could, as he said to Peter, call down twelve legions of angels, but had he done that, he could not then save others. It’s like a catch 22 situation - to save himself, he cannot save others. To save others, he cannot save himself.

What wonderful love of the Saviour to go to the cross in order to save us. He could have refused, but he went willingly and obediently. By remaining on the cross, Jesus shows that he is the true King of Israel, the promised Christ, the beloved Son whom God delights in, exactly where the Father desires him to be.

He saves others precisely because he did not save himself. He willingly gave his life for us. I’m reminded of the gallantry of William McFadzean in the first World War. His regiment were in the trenches preparing to go over the top on 1st July 1916. A box of grenades were being opened, when they spilled, and some of the pins came out. William immediately jumped on top of the box, covering the bombs and taking the full blast, saving the rest of the men in the trench. He gave himself to save his comrades. His sacrifice, in a small way, points to what Jesus has done.

But you might still be thinking to yourself, but why the cross? Why did Jesus have to die on a cross in order to save us? Why can’t God just accept us? We find it all tied up in our final saying tonight. We’ve already seen that Jesus is innocent, has done nothing wrong. We’ve seen that in order to save us, he could not save himself.

Ever since Eden, we have been separated from God because of our sin. The close communion has been broken because of our rebellion. In order to bring us near to God, and reconcile us to God, Jesus had to deal with our sin, bearing the punishment of separation that we deserved.

So as Jesus dies on the cross, the beloved Son, the one who from all eternity has been in perfect relationship with the Father, he cries out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Do you hear the force of these words? The one who was in the bosom of the Father is cut off, separated - in the darkness it is as if the Father cannot even bear to look at the Son because of our sin he carries.

I wonder if you’ve ever had a really close friend, someone you spent every day of the school holidays with, or someone you saw every day of your life. Then suddenly, they cut you out of their life, for seemingly no reason. It hurts, doesn’t it? It’s hard to deal with, isn’t it? That, in a small way, is what, in a much larger way, Jesus was enduring on the cross - separated from the Father because of our sins.

But how do we know that his death was effective to take away our sin and reconcile us to God? How can we be sure that we can come with confidence? The answer comes in the amazing things that happened at the moment Jesus died.

Look at verse 50. Jesus yielded up his spirit. At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. This wasn’t just a curtain on the windows of the temple, a bit of interior design. It wasn’t a bargain offer from Harry Corry in a floral print. It was the curtain that stood at the entrance of the Most Holy Place, where God’s presence dwelt at the heart of Israel.

The curtain was about 60 feet high and four inches thick - this was a seriously heavy duty curtain! And it’s message is clear: Keep out! No entry! Only the high priest once a year could pass through on the Day of Atonement. Suddenly, as Jesus dies, the curtain is ripped in two - top to bottom - we have access to God, we can boldly come through the death of Jesus. Separation has been reversed, reconciliation and welcome has been achieved.

We see another reversal in verse 52. We’ve seen how sin brings separation from God and death. ‘The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.’ As Jesus dies, the reversal begins, which brings the dead to life, as Jesus gives life to his people.

No longer does the sentence of death hang over us, Jesus gives life through his death and resurrection. It really is the great exchange:

I’m forgiven because you were forsaken.
I’m accepted, you were condemned.
I’m alive and well, Your Spirit is within me
Because you died and rose again.
Amazing love, how can it be
That you, my King, should die for me? (Newsboys)

This is why we declare in the Apostles Creed that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, that he was crucified, died and buried. The cross, the place of agony and death, is, for us, the tree of life, which brings us peace. It is the good news.

It’s the heart of our message - which we believe, and which we are sent by the risen Lord Jesus to take to the whole world, starting with our neighbours and friends. It’s so easy to stand in church and declare it, but will we tell it this week to our friends, to those who need to hear it?

Life, not death; acceptance, not condemnation; and all in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, and was raised for our justification.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 19th June 2011.

No comments:

Post a Comment