Sermon: “Standing Near the Cross of Jesus” (March 25, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Standing Near the Cross of Jesus” (John 19:25)
March 25, 2016 (Good Friday)
Dave Johnson

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

This year Good Friday falls on the same day as the Annunciation, March 25, the date on the church calendar when we commemorate the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she would bear Jesus, the Son of God, to save us all of us from our sins.  “Do not be afraid, Mary,” the angel Gabriel told her, “for you have found favor with God and…you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus…He will be called the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:30-32).

It is rare for the Annunciation to fall on Good Friday.  In fact the next time this occurs will be in the year 2157, so unless you are cryogenically frozen this will most likely be the last time this happens in your lifetime.

The Annunciation and the crucifixion are connected—Jesus was born to die.

The collect for the Annunciation points to the cross, “O Lord, pour thy grace into our hearts, that we who have known the incarnation of thy Son Jesus Christ, announced by the angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought unto the glory of his resurrection” (The Book of Common Prayer 188).  Jesus’ birth and death are closely connected in God’s gift of salvation.

In his classic hymn, “Ah, Holy Jesus”, which we sing at Christ Church every year on Good Friday, Johann Heermann (1585-1647) personalizes and individualizes this connection between the Annunciation and the crucifixion:

For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation
Thy mortal sorrow, thy life’s oblation
Thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion
For my salvation
(Hymn 158 in The Hymnal 1982).

When Mary and Joseph took their eight-day old son Jesus to the temple to be circumcised according to Old Testament law, the priest Simeon, holding the infant Savior, praised God, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation.”  But then he looked at Mary and said something quite sobering, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed…and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:29-30, 34).

And Simeon’s prophesy came true—Jesus indeed was destined for the rising and falling of many in Israel—the rising of the lame from their mats and the dead from their graves, and the falling of those who refused the gospel and rejected him.  And in spite of the many signs he did demonstrating his identity as the Son of God, Jesus was himself the Sign who was opposed—opposed to the point of death.  And on Good Friday as the nails pierced Jesus’s hands and feet and as the spear pierced Jesus’ side, no doubt, just as Simeon prophesied over three decades earlier, a sword pierced Mary’s soul too.

In John’s account of Jesus’ passion, after Jesus had been crucified with the sign “The King of the Jews” affixed above him, John lists several women who were there at the foot of the cross—“Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (John 19:25).  The first person John mentions is Jesus’ mother Mary, which is noteworthy because John was the only apostle at the foot of the cross.

On Good Friday Mary was “standing near the cross of Jesus.”

Over four centuries ago, in 1608, the Annunciation also fell on Good Friday, and one of my heroes, the Anglican priest and poet John Donne (1572-1631) wrote a moving poem in which he brilliantly juxtaposes the Annunciation and the crucifixion.  The poem is entitled “Upon the Annunciation and the Passion Falling upon One Day, 1608” and begins:

Tamely frail body’ abstain today; today
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came, and went away;

He then further describes how Mary had seen Jesus at both ends of his earthly life:

She sees him nothing twice at once, who is all;
She sees a cedar plant itself, and fall,
Her maker put to making, and the head
Of life, at once, not yet alive, and dead;
She sees at once the virgin mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha.
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty, and at scarce fifteen.

He then connects the words of Gabriel to Mary at the Annunciation with Jesus’ words to her at the crucifixion:

At once a son is promised her, and gone,
Gabriel gives Christ to her, he her to John;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity,
At once receiver and the legacy;

Donne concludes the first part of this poem by connecting the universal power of Jesus’ redeeming blood to Gabriel’s first word to Mary, “Hail,” and Jesus’ last words from the cross, “It is finished”:

All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
Th’ abridgment of Christ’s story, which makes one
(As in plain maps, the furthest west is east)
Of the angels’ Ave, and Consummatum est.
(John Donne: The Complete English Poems, 328-329).

Jesus was born to die, and as he did so, Mary was standing near the cross of Jesus.

Consummatum est—“It is finished”—those are the last words John records Jesus as saying before his final breath.  What was finished?  The atonement for the sins of the world—including yours and mine—all our sins, each and every one.  Article XXXI of the Thirty-nine Articles 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).

I once heard a preacher tell a story about a hitchhiker, weighed down by an overflowing backpack, slowly trudging along the side of the road with thumb held out.  A pick-up truck pulled up next to him and the cab was full so the driver invited the hitchhiker a ride in the bed of the truck.  As they were going down the road the driver noticed in the rearview mirror that the hitchhiker, squatting down in the bed of the truck, was still bearing his backpack, straining under the load.

When they stopped at a gas station the driver stepped out of the truck and saw the hitchhiker still squatting down and grimacing under the load of his backpack.  “Excuse me,” the driver asked, “why are you carrying the backpack instead of just laying it down in the truck?”  The hitchhiker replied, “I’m just trying to do my part.”

Maybe on this Good Friday, in spite of all Jesus has already done for you, some of you are still just trying to do your part.  But when it comes to atoning for your sins, you cannot and you need not do a single thing to supplement what Jesus has already done on the cross.  There is no part for you to try to do.  His blood is enough.  Consummatum est—“It is finished.”

And ultimately you will find yourself on death’s doorstep, either suddenly or gradually.  It may be on a Tuesday morning or a Thursday afternoon, or even on a Good Friday.  And at that moment there will be no “just trying to do your part,” you will only be able to trust in what Jesus has already done for you.

But in that hour may you find yourself with Mary, standing near the cross of Jesus, for as Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676) wrote in “O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded”:

My days are few, O fail not with thine immortal power
To hold me that I quail not in death’s most fearful hour
That I may fight befriended and see in my last strife
To me thine arms extended upon the cross of life
(Hymn 168 in The Hymnal 1982).

In the meantime, on this Annunciation Day and Good Friday, remember that Jesus was born to die for you.  And as you join Mary, standing near the cross of Jesus, it may be time for you to lay your backpack down.

Amen.