Sermon: “The Final Word” (April 3, 2015)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Final Word” (John 19:30)
Good Friday: April 3, 2015
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The last words people speak often reveal their character—and more importantly, their heart. With that in mind, here are the last words of some famous people:

The brilliant yet tortured writer Edgar Allen Poe moaned, “Lord, help my poor soul.”

In his final breath the genius writer James Joyce asked a haunting question, “Does nobody understand?”

On a darker note, Joan Crawford, the iconic actress, spoke her last words to her housekeeper, who had begun to pray for her, “Don’t you dare ask God to help me.”

Finally, the last words of the nineteenth clergyman and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher were, “Now comes the mystery.”

On this Good Friday I am preaching on the last words of Jesus in John’s account of his passion, words that reveal his character and his heart—“It is finished.”

“It is finished.” Like so many of his words these words of Jesus can be understood on multiple levels. What was finished? His earthly life was finished, his unspeakable suffering was finished, his enduring the hollow mockery of those who gloated over him was finished—but at that moment on Good Friday something else was also finished…Jesus’ mission to save us.

Article XXXI of the Thirty-nine Articles, entitled “Of the One Oblation of Christ Finished upon the Cross,” puts it this way:

“The Offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone” (The Book of Common Prayer, 874).

In his death on the cross Jesus dealt once and for all with all the sin of the world, both our original sin—our unceasing bent inward toward sin and selfishness—and our actual sins –the things we have actually done in thought, word, and deed that have offended God, hurt others and hurt ourselves. Jesus dealt with all of it.

When Jesus Christ, the sinless Son of God, the One who was tempted in every way like we are yet did not sin, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, died on the cross, he made total and complete satisfaction for the sins of the world; as scripture tells us, “For our sake (God) made (Jesus) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

But make no mistake about it, we will never be able to grasp or internalize what Jesus suffered on Good Friday. It will forever be beyond us.

In his stirring account of Pickett’s Charge toward the entrenched Union forces atop Cemetery Ridge at the Battle of Gettysburg, Shelby Foote writes:

“‘Such a tornado of projectiles it has seldom been the fortune or misfortune of anyone to see,’ one of Pickett’s veterans declared…‘Great big, stouthearted men prayed—loudly too.’ Stretcher-bearers were kept on the run, answering the sudden, high-pitched yells of the wounded up and down the sweaty, mile-long formation. One of Kemper’s men, attempting later to describe what he had been through, finally gave it up and contented himself with a four-word description of his ordeal by fire: ‘It was simply awful’” (Stars in Their Courses, 209-210).

And similarly, the “tornado of projectiles” Jesus endured on Good Friday in his battle for the eternal salvation of all humankind, including you, a battle he won ironically by surrendering his life, likewise “was simply awful.”

And we were to blame.

Yes, the religious leaders falsely accused Jesus of blasphemy and yes, the Roman soldiers put him to death—but it was we who crucified Jesus—as Johann Heermann accurately wrote in his moving hymn Ah, Holy Jesus:

“Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee
I crucified thee” (Hymn 158).

And as Jesus, whom God the Father had proclaimed as the Beloved, the One in whom he was well-pleased, uttered his last words, “It is finished,” it broke the heart of God the Father.

The Oscar-winning 1980 film, Ordinary People, depicts the unraveling of the Jarrett family after the death of the oldest son, Buck. One autumn afternoon Buck’s father, Calvin, played by Donald Sutherland, is out running with a friend, who is blithering endlessly about various stock quotes while Sutherland, still grieving Buck’s death, pretends to listen.

Eventually his friend veers off and Calvin begins running alone through a park, only to trip suddenly over a root hidden under some fallen leaves, and stumble to the ground. Calvin is so overcome by grief that he is unable to get up. He just sits there, staring at nothing, weighed down by the unspeakable grief of the death of his beloved son. It is a heartbreaking scene.

In 1983 Nicholas Wolterstorff, the distinguished philosopher and theologian, lost his twenty-five year old son Eric in a tragic mountain climbing accident. A few years later in his book, Lament for a Son (1987), he wrote about how he felt at his son’s burial:

“I buried myself that warm June day. It was me those gardeners lowered on squeaking straps into that hot dry hole, curious neighborhood children looking down in at me, everyone stilled, wind rustling the oaks. It was me over whom we slid that heavy slab, more than I can lift. It was me on whom we shoveled dirt. It was me we left behind, after reading psalms” (42).

God the Father felt the very pain Calvin Jarrett and Nicholas Wolterstorff did, on an infinitely grander scale, and yet even though he knew his heart would break on Good Friday, he still gave Jesus to die on your behalf, because he loves you that much.

And it was not just the love of God the Father that led Jesus to give his life for you on Good Friday, it was the love of Jesus himself—“I lay (my life) down of my own accord,” Jesus told his disciples (John 10:18). In his powerful book, The Cross of Christ, John Stott observes:

“We must never make Christ the object of God’s punishment or God the object of Christ’s persuasion, for both God and Christ were subjects not objects, taking the initiative together to save sinners” (p. 151).

In his last words, “It is finished,” Jesus revealed his character and, more importantly, his heart—and that is why the youthful disciple John, who stood at the foot of the cross on that Good Friday and recorded these last words, would years later simply write: “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

“Lord, help my poor soul”—Jesus died to do just that.

“Does nobody understand?”—Jesus does—he understands us better than we understand ourselves.

“Don’t you dare ask God to help me”—Jesus died to help you whether you asked for help or not.

“Now comes the mystery”—and Jesus reveals the mystery of the saving love of God, a mystery none of us will fully experience until we too die.

What will your last words be?

Only God knows the answer to that question, but regardless of what your last words will be, the good news of the gospel is that the final word does not belong to you.

The final word belongs to the One whose death has saved you, to the One who still bears the scars from Good Friday, to the One who is Love.

The final word on your salvation belongs to Jesus Christ—“It is finished.”

Amen.