There is the story about the man who was watching a two city employees at work in a local park. The first man would dig a hole and then a couple of minutes later the other would fill it back up with dirt. After this went on for some time, the man went over to the workers and asked why one was digging holes while the other was filling them back up. One of the workers spoke up, “Well, normally there are three of us, the man who plants the trees is on vacation.”
Some things really need an explanation and people want to know why, don’t they? And along that same line, people have questions about why Jesus had to die. And then not just die, why did He die such an excruciating and humiliating death? Those are good questions. And we hear answers. We hear that Jesus died for our sins. But didn’t Jesus tell us to forgive others their sins? Why doesn’t God just forgive our sins then? Why did He make Jesus die for them; why not just forget about the sins?” Others have said that the cross is the ultimate expression of child abuse, God the Father unleashing all his anger upon His Son. Who could imagine doing something like that to our own children? And then we hear that Jesus died in order to defeat Death. Well, hadn’t he already defeated Death by raising Lazarus from the dead?
So the question remains, why? Why did Jesus die on the cross? First it is important to realize that the whole Trinity was involved in the crucifixion. As Fleming Rutledge says in her book, The Crucifixion, “God is the Triune God. He is one God in Three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus of Nazareth was not a free-floating holy man. If he is not the second person of the Trinitarian Godhead and the only begotten Son attested in the Nicene Creed, then God’s self was not directly involved in Golgotha. If that were the case, the cross would be a random event of no more than passing interest.” But that is not the case, is it? Jesus is the only begotten of the Father. He is the second person of the Godhead. And God Himself therefore was suffering on the cross. This is not a case of God the Father simply being an abusive parent. This is God, in the person of God the Son, suffering.
Why did Jesus have to die such a horrible death? I have talked before about how intensely cruel the Roman crucifixions were. The crucifixions were deliberately designed to cause as much pain as possible for as long a time as possible with as much shame as possible. A man was fastened to a cross; there was no piece of wood for his feet to rest upon; the feet were placed on top of each other and then hammered into the wood so that the knees and legs were bowed out. The man would be stripped naked. The soldiers would keep his clothes. Hanging from his arms would squeeze his lungs so that he would be unable to breathe. In order to breathe then he would need to push up on the nails in his feet which would cause him agonizing pain. And so he would die gradually in agony in front of others. This death was designed to dehumanize the person; to show how much this person was despised, to show that this person being crucified was really a non-person, a sub-person. Jesus, the son of the living God died the death of a slave. Jesus, the one who had created the universe, died the death of a sub-person. But you see, as sinners, humanity had become the slaves of sin. Humans have become less than human in how we treat each other because of our selfishness and pride. Jesus died this way to show his union with us, slaves of sin and sub-humans in our behavior.
Do you notice the transition that Jesus made? All through his public ministry he was the God-man; he healed, he drove out demons, calms the storms, walks on water and raised the dead. He confronted his enemies, and exposes their hypocrisy. Yet, yet in the last day, as he left Gethsemane, he became us; He became the Man-God. He became the man who willingly took up the role of the slave, of the servant. He willingly became the sacrificial person. He did not answer, as we heard in the gospel, any of the accusations. Could he have answered—of course! He would have been brilliant. Could he have called angels to help him? Absolutely! He could have called thousands to come to his aid. But he stood willingly in the place of sinners. He stood in the place of fallen, enslaved humanity. He didn’t answer because as a broken and rebellious people we have no answer, no excuse, for our rebellion against God.
I suppose this really still doesn’t really answer why he had to suffer so much. He had to suffer because of Sin and Evil. People have asked, “Why can’t God simply forgive all the sin in the world?” It is because Evil needs to be paid out. There is a penalty that must be exacted. How can evil that has been done in the world just be overlooked? How can we, much less God, simply overlook the cruelty that has been done in this world? Can the Nazis who tortured and killed those millions of people in the concentration camps simply say, “I am sorry” and it all be erased? Assuming they would even be sorry. Can the cruelty of slave owners in our country and throughout the history of the world be simply forgotten and erased with an “I’m sorry’? Can the cruelty of Idi Amin’s regime where thousands of people were butchered or Stalin’s Gulags with their tortures of thousands simply be forgotten and ignored? What about the Turks and their attempted genocide of the Armenians? And these are only a few examples from our age. These are only a few examples of what is in our cultural memory. We have history as well. What about the cruelty of the Assyrians? They had mosaics that we can see today of the mounds of heads of people they had killed. They bragged about their cruelty. What about these horrible acts that have happened century after century? Who pays for this evil cruelty? How are the books balanced? Is there to be justice in the end? Can there possibly be justice for all this cruelty? Does God even care that these terrible things take place? Yes He cares. Yes it matters. And this is why Jesus came. This is why Jesus suffered the way he did. God Himself paid the price for the evil and suffering. Not only that, He paid the price for your and my reckless and thoughtless rebellion against God, He paid the price for your and my selfish and lazy behavior, our putting ourselves before God and others. This then is why He died this horrible death of crucifixion.
This is why this coming week is called Holy Week. Jesus knew what was coming. He knew and still He stepped forward. Humanity was desperate and there was no way we could save ourselves. There was no way we could pay the price for our sins or for the evil that has been done. We could not find our way to God and we had lost knowing what God was like. There was certainly no way any human could get past death. So God Himself went through death for us and as us in order to defeat death. God Himself paid the price for our sins. God Himself paid the price of all the Evil that has occurred and brought life to us. And this was the price He had to pay. Did you know that Christianity is the only religion in the world whose God dies and whose followers celebrate His awful and shameful death? Why would God endure this pain and shame? We heard why several weeks ago when Jesus was talking to Nicodemus. Jesus told him, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” This is why this death is celebrated—it show how much we are loved. We are loved with such a love that it is more than we can comprehend. And this love of God should make us respond with the desire to love God in return. And this love should compel us to want to follow Jesus. Jesus told his followers, “If anyone would follow me let that person deny himself.” Jesus calls us to leave those things that our world calls important. He calls us live our lives in obedience to Him instead of listening to our society. His ways, His teachings lead to life. Ironically, learning to die to self is what leads to true life. Jesus has shown us the way to life through His example and love. He has shown us who God is and what God is like though His life. Therefore let us love our Lord God in response to His love and then dedicate our lives to following Him. Amen