The story is told of boy in pee-wee baseball game. When this young boy got up to the plate he looked over to the coach, and he saw him give the signal to sacrifice bunt. He then promptly proceeded to take three big swings and strike out. The coach ran up to him and said: Didn’t you see me give you the signal to sacrifice. Yes, the boy replied. But I didn’t really think that you meant it.
Sacrifice is never easy. It is not easy for us nor was it easy for our Lord. We started today’s service with a celebration of Jesus entering Jerusalem to the shouts of praise and the waving of palm branches. That is on Sunday. But before the week is out, things change substantially.
On Monday he walked into the Jerusalem Temple overturning tables where money exchange occurred and driving out the animals being purchased for sacrifice in so doing made the chief priests and Levites furious at him. He practically caused a riot. On Tuesday Jesus taught in parables, he targets the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees and thereby the entire Jewish religious establishment is united against him. On Wednesday, the fourth day the Gospel writers are silent. On Thursday, the fifth day, in an upper room, Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples and washes their feet. Afterwards he went to Gethsemane where he was betrayed, arrested and condemned by the Jewish religious authorities. As Thursday night bleeds into Friday morning, the sixth day, he is condemned, beaten severely and finally sentenced to die by Pilate. By noontime on Friday he has been taken to “The Place of the Skull,” where he was crucified with two other prisoners. Monday to Friday, there was quite a change that took place wasn’t there?
At one point early in Julius Caesar’s political career, feelings ran so high against him that he thought it best to leave Rome. He sailed for the island of Rhodes, but en route the ship was attacked by pirates and Caesar was captured. The pirates demanded a ransom of 12,000 gold pieces, and Caesar’s staff was sent away to arrange the payment. Caesar spent almost 40 days with his captors, jokingly telling the pirates on several occasions that he would someday capture and crucify them to a man. The kidnappers were greatly amused, but when the ransom was paid and Caesar was freed, the first thing he did was to gather a fleet and pursue the pirates. They were all captured and crucified! Such was the Romans’ attitude toward crucifixion. It was to be reserved for the worst of criminals; it was a means of showing extreme contempt for the condemned. The suffering and humiliation of a Roman crucifixion were unequaled.
What exactly happens during a crucifixion? A medical doctor provided a physical description: The cross is placed on the ground and the man is stripped of his clothing and thrown backwards with his shoulders against the wood. The legionnaire feels for the depression at the front of the wrist. He drives a heavy, square wrought-iron nail through the wrist and deep into the wood. Quickly he moves to the other side and repeats the action, being careful not to pull the arms too tightly, but to allow some flex and movement.
The left foot is pressed backward against the right foot, and with both feet extended, toes down, a nail is driven through the arch of each, leaving the knees flexed. The cross is then lifted into place. The victim is now crucified. As he slowly sags down with more weight on the nails in the wrists, excruciating, fiery pain shoots along the fingers and up the arms to explode in the brain–the nails in the wrists are putting pressure on the median nerves. As he pushes himself upward to avoid this stretching torment, he places the full weight on the nail through his feet. Again he feels the searing agony of the nail tearing through the nerves between the bones of his feet. As the arms fatigue, cramps sweep through the muscles, knotting them in deep, relentless, throbbing pain. With these cramps comes the inability to push himself upward to breathe. Air can be drawn into the lungs but not exhaled. He fights to raise himself in order to get even one small breath. Finally carbon dioxide builds up in the lungs and in the blood stream, and the cramps partially subside. Spasmodically he is able to push himself upward to exhale and bring in life-giving oxygen.
Hours of this limitless pain, cycles of twisting, joint-rending cramps, intermittent partial asphyxiation, searing pain as tissue is torn from his lacerated back as he moves up and down against the rough timber. Then another agony begins: a deep, crushing pain deep in the chest as the pericardium, the membrane that surrounds the heart, slowly fills with serum and begins to compress the heart. It is now almost over–the loss of tissue fluids has reached a critical level—the compressed heart is struggling to pump heavy, thick, sluggish blood into the tissues–the tortured lungs are making a frantic effort to gasp in small gulps of air. Finally the exhausted body dies.
This sort of execution was made illegal under the Emperor Constantine some three hundred years after the death of Jesus. Crucifixion was a horrible, excruciating way to die. Why is it that we carry little crosses or wear them, display them and even put them on top of Christian buildings? Why is it that we commemorate this crucifixion? We do it because this one death was voluntary. This execution was not done because Jesus committed any crime; Jesus could have argued his case with Pilate; or he could have done a miracle and been released by Herod. Jesus had not committed any crime but he went to the cross because we, you and I have done crimes. Humanity had rebelled against God. We had rebelled against our Creator. Humanity had become enslaved to sins and enslaved to selfish behavior. And because of our sins and selfish behavior we, humanity, have been made a captive of death. On our own we cannot help but be selfish. On our own we cannot help but continue to sin and rebel against God and his commands. On our own we carry with us and in us the seeds of death and just condemnation.
It says in our gospel reading that when Jesus died the curtain of the temple was torn in two. This curtain was between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. In the Holy of Holies was where the presence of God was and no one had access to it—but now after Christ’s death—now there is access. Jesus went through all his pain so that you and I could have a relationship with God. He went through all the scourging and beatings so that you and I could be free from our selfish behavior and sinful ways, so that we would be able to love God and others. He went through the mocking and humiliation and torture so that you and I could have life, so that we could have eternal life and escape eternal death.
This is why we call this coming Friday, Good Friday. It is not because it was good for Jesus, or because this was a happy situation. It is called Good Friday because on this day you and I were redeemed. God bought humanity back from the power of death and sin. You and I were reconciled so that we can now approach God; we can come into his presence and call him our Father!
Sacrifice is never easy. It is not easy for us and it certainly was not easy for our Lord. But he did it willingly because he loved us. What should be our response to this overwhelming love? Our response should be to love him in return, to desire to obey what he has commanded and to love and forgive those around us. Amen