For Good Friday 2017 at St. Peter Lutheran Church, our service began with a responsive reading from Isaiah 52:13-53:12, then moved into a Tenebrae service with the Passion story from John 18 and 19, with responses from Psalm 22.
This brief sermon came between the Isaiah reading and the Tenebrae service. You can find the full Good Friday Tenebrae service order here.
Last night on Maundy Thursday, we heard part of the story of Jesus’ journey towards the cross, about Jesus’ love for his disciples and his command for them to follow his example of foot-washing, his command to serve one another and the world in love. Last night’s worship service ended in silence, with the stripping the altar as a symbol of Jesus’ abandonment and the consequences of betrayal and sin.
Tonight, we continue the story as we descend into the darkness of the crucifixion, into the reality of a God whose love for us leads to death.
We’ll be reading tonight from John’s version of the Passion story, beginning in the garden after the Last Supper, and continuing through Jesus’ arrest, trial, and death, ending up in another garden, where, not to spoil the story for you, Jesus’ body will be laid to rest in a tomb.
I encourage you tonight as you hear the story to listen for the details. I’ve heard this story many times, and I keep noticing new things. John puts so much detail into the way he tells it.
For example, when the soldiers come to arrest Jesus, he asks them who they’re looking for, they say Jesus, and he answers, “I am he.” And they step back and they fall to the ground. Do they recognize something of his identity as God the great I AM even as they arrest him? Do they have any idea what they’re doing?
Do we have any idea what’s really going on here as Jesus is betrayed, arrested, and condemned?
The classic question of Good Friday is “Why do we call this day, ‘good’?” Why, when we hear about Jesus dying, when we hear about the Son of God unjustly suffering, do we call this good?
But it is good, because it is on the cross that God’s love for us is revealed. This is for you. As we heard from Isaiah, he was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities. God loves you enough to die for you, to redeem you from the power of sin and death.
Remember, Jesus is God in the flesh, God coming to dwell with us, and God doesn’t do things half way. God comes to experience everything involved in being human, even suffering and death. God comes to bear the consequences of our rebellion.
The power of God’s love is revealed not in the parades and the apparent victory of Palm Sunday’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, but on the cross, in the moment of defeat, in the scandal of God dying.
On the cross, Jesus takes the sins of the world on himself and puts them to death. Everything we do wrong, all the suffering in the world, Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial, even your suffering, my suffering, everything is put to death on the cross.
And we know how the story ends. The darkness doesn’t win. Death does not get the last word. Because of the resurrection we’ll celebrate on Sunday, the cross itself is transformed from a symbol of suffering, execution, and death, to the chief symbol of our faith, of the hope we have, to the image of God’s love.
Tonight, we participate in a Tenebrae service. Tenebrae is simply the Latin word for darkness, or shadows. As we hear the story of Jesus’ suffering and death, we see the result of our sin.
After each part of the reading, we will respond with words from Psalm 22, reflecting on the darkness in the world, and in our lives. The Psalm responses reflect on the separation between a perfect God and us, the sinful, rebellious creation. God appears infinitely far away, and we feel abandoned.
But those responses contrast with the story we celebrate tonight, the story of God who refuses to abandon us, who has instead come to suffer with us, who has taken what separates us and put it to death on the cross.
As we picture the darkness of the reality that required God to come and die for us, we’ll extinguish candles, moving farther into the darkness.
Our service tonight concludes in silence as we both ponder Jesus’ sacrifice for us and anticipate Easter and the coming resurrection.
We know what’s coming on Easter. We know the rest of the story, and that’s good. We need that hope of resurrection. But tonight, I encourage you to live into the darkness. Don’t jump ahead to Sunday. Come along with the disciples as they experience the events of that weekend.
Reflect on the scandal of God dying on the cross, innocent, yet punished for us as a criminal. And reflect on the love of the God who has died for you.
We begin the passion story, according to the Gospel of St. John.