Vicar's Sermon - Wednesday of Holy Week
So ‘It is finished’. The last of our three words from the cross as reported in John’s Gospel. We have, this week heard Jesus address his mother and the beloved disciple: ‘Woman, here is your son. Here is your mother’. On Monday, we noted the filial duty of a son providing for his mother’s care and the creation of a new community as John and Mary were brought together at the foot of the cross. Last night we heard the words I am thirsty and we were asked ‘what do we most desire in life? What do we most long for, what do we thirst for?’ For Jesus, we saw that his deepest longing was for God Himself: In God alone I put my trust – over and above all else, even his most elemental physical needs at the point of death Jesus wanted God.
And now the famous cry ‘It is finished’. As those who have walked through many a Holy Week and heard many sermons abut Good Friday and the death of Christ you know full well that this word can be heard in many ways. It is, at one level, a basic expression of fact: Jesus dies. His life has ended. But the scholars have ensured that the word is also heard as a cry of triumph – the Greek word ‘tetelesthai’ – being associated mainly with the fulfilment of some task, its accomplishment. This is a cry of victory. For followers of rugby this is the team scoring the try that means that the opposition have no chance whatsoever of winning the match: to all intents and purposes the contest is over, the victory is one, all that is left is the playing out of time till the final whistle and then the victory celebrations can begin. You know these things so what else might we say?
Walter Brueggemann is an Old Testament scholar. He doesn’t often stray into commenting on the New Testament – at least not in his writings, though in his preaching who knows? But not so long ago he was asked to give the devotional addresses at a Good Friday ‘3 Hour’ service and his take fills them with more resonances to spark our imaginations and our prayers.
‘It is finished’ The first time we come across these words in the Old Testament is right at the beginning in the Book of Genesis. As the sun went down on the sixth day of creation and anew day began (evening and morning, a new day) God ‘finished His work and rested on the seventh day. The work he has done has been to bring order out of chaos, something from nothing. He has made possible a world that will freely live to His praise. He has created a world that is marked by his generosity and which has been entrusted to those who bear the divine image – a humanity that reflects His goodness in the way that it stewards the world. And now all things enter the Sabbath rest – the pinnacle of creation – life in the divine presence, able to worship and enjoy Him forever.
John’s gospel has, of course already echoed this first chapter of Genesis in its own first chapter. ‘In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth’ is transformed into ‘In the beginning was the Word’. The events of Good Friday have also echoed the creation narrative: in Genesis ‘man’ is created on the sixth day which (in Jewish terms is Friday). The one who bears God’s likeness is produced by Pilate early on Friday morning ‘Behold the man’ he says, not realising that the disfigured, battered, exhausted figure in front of him truly does show us what God is like. And here, with Jesus’ dying breath, creation is invited into the ‘sabbath rest’ for the second time. A new creation is coming to fulfilment. The first creation had fallen from its calling to live in God’s presence: now Jesus restores us to our rightful place as God’s children, the second Adam will breath God’s spirit into us and we can live the resurrection life as his ‘ransomed, healed, restored and forgiven’ people.
But the next time an echo of this phrase appears is perhaps less well known. It comes at the end of the Book of Exodus which has seen Moses leading the people out of slavery in Egypt and the nation coming into existence in the desert, learning the hard way how to be God’s people. There, in the desert, the people under Moses’ guidance construct a tabernacle (a great tent) decorated with beautiful yarns within and protected by rams’ skins without. This tent holds the Ark of the Covenant, the reminder of God’s presence with the people. In front of it there is an altar for sacrifice and a great basin for washing. Inside it there is the seven branched menorah (the candle stick) to light the sacred space, the table to carry the bread of the presence (the sign of God’s provision for his people) and the altar of incense (burned to speak of God’s holiness). And Exodus chapter 40 says that when all this had been prepared Moses ‘finished the work’ and then, upon its completion, a cloud covered the tent of meeting and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.
For Christians there is no ‘temple’ made with hands, no ‘tent of meeting’ or tabernacle. For all that we like to visit great churches and places of worship the primary meeting place with God is in and through a person, it is ‘in Christ’: He is the one in whom heaven and earth come together. It is ‘in him and through him’ that we find God and God finds us. His words from the cross, ‘It is finished’ herald the vision of God’s glory fully revealed. For John, Jesus’ hour of glory is this: his death, no wonder then that we remember this death every Sunday as we take bread and wine – here we come face to face with the Divine.
And finally, a third Old Testament use of our words, the completion of a task or great work. As the Old Testament people of God moved into the Promised Land it was divided amongst them – everyone being given their own place to lie securely and at peace with their neighbours. This takes place in the Book of Joshua and is completed by chapter 19. The division of the land takes place at the entrance to the tent of meeting at Shiloh and we are told ‘So they finished dividing the land’.
The first se of the words spoke of God completing His creation. The second showed us Moses completing the Tent of Meeting, the creation of a place where people might meet with God. This third use marks the provision for everyone’s needs and the provision of a home for God’s people. God provides for His people. Our security comes from Him and, incredibly, the cross will bridge the divides between people of many backgrounds and languages and give us a place with one another in that great multitude that gathers to worship Him. He prepares a place for us, a place with many rooms (or mansions as the older version says) just as his namesake Joshua prepared places for the ancient tribes of Israel. Through His work on the cross the way is opened for us to be with the Lord forever: his people entering a new Promised Land.
T is finished. The new creation. The place where we might meet God. The new family secure in the Promised Land. Well yes. But as Karen Carpenter sang many moons ago, as we look towards Easter, ‘Its only just begun’ for ahead of us lies the challenge to live lives that befit the new creation, that reveal God’s presence amongst us and that find space for all comers in the promised Land, the Kingdom of God.