Last Sunday I tried to explain something of what Jerusalem may have been like on the first Palm Sunday. A small city 25-30,000 inhabitants receiving an influx of visitors at the three major Jewish Festivals, of which Passover is one. An influx of at least another 100,000 people all needing somewhere to stay, all needing to purchase what was required to celebrate Passover, all focussed on the temple at the heart of the city where their money could be changed and a lamb bought and killed. Narrow streets, cobbled perhaps? Noise, excitement, the occasional bad temper…and the smell and sound of animals…. thousands of them required for the sacrifice. So many that each group or family was allotted a special time when they could kill their lamb…row upon row of frightened creatures being brought to the temple where their throats would be cut. The iron smell of blood in the air, heat and dust, sand soaking up blood, urine and excrement, the aqueduct built to serve the city flooding the temple courts and washing all this mess away only for the next cohort of pilgrims to perform the ritual again… and again.
Maybe some of the confusion as to the exact day of Jesus’ death (Passover or not) comes from the simple fact that it was not possible to process all this death in one day: animals needing to be slaughtered, carried away to be prepared and cooked. All this requires huge effort. And in amongst it all a trial, a sentence and a death – or three deaths we should perhaps say (remembering the two crucified alongside Him).
And so we arrive at Good Friday and we read the Passion Gospel from beginning to end, we frame it with a reminder of Psalm 22 and we hear once more Isaiah’s description of the ‘suffering servant’. As Christians we read these words and ‘settle into them’. ‘Yes’ this is Jesus. We associate Isaiah’s words so closely with Jesus’ Passion. It is indeed all there. The humiliation and exaltation. The servant is a ‘man of sorrows acquainted with grief’. He is ‘taken away by a perversion of justice’, ‘despised, rejected.’ ‘Like a sheep before its shearers he does not open his mouth’. Somehow, he bears our infirmities and carries our sin. He is crushed. He is buried amongst the wicked although he had done no wrong and there was no deceit in his mouth. Why? Because ‘all we like sheep had gone astray and the Lord has laid in him the iniquity of us all.’
There may have been 10,000 or more sheep in Jerusalem that week but here we have the one and only Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. What does that mean? We struggle with ‘sin’. ‘Sins’ (in the plural) we find easier: we put into that category all the sins that other people commit, ours we prefer to call ‘mistakes’ or ‘errors of judgement’ because (after all) we are good people. ‘Sins’ include inappropriate expressions of anger, theft (of course), cheating and the like. Lying, untruth telling – it depends doesn’t it, ‘you have your truth I have mine let’s agree to disagree’. The seven deadly sins – far less deadly than they ever used to be, we can accommodate them all as and when.
But Sin with a capital ‘S’ is deadly. It works its way into the fabric of a society, a human soul and corrupts from the inside out without being recognised. And then we wonder why so many women and girls suffer abuse, why domestic violence is an issue or child abuse is endemic. There is a brokenness in this wonderful world that needs healing. There is a stain that needs to be cleansed, a wound that will deepen unless it is closed. The violence of the world is horrific. The pain immense, the suffering inconsolable. We can as people, at one and the same time, be incredibly generous and utterly hard hearted. Without realising it we find we are far from God, we don’t know we need to be reconciled to Him.
‘And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all, by His wounds we are healed.’ How does this happen? The New Testament struggles to find images to explain it: we speak of ‘redemption’, of ‘sacrifice’, ‘atonement’, ‘substitution’, ‘a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice and oblation for the sins of the whole world.’ We tie ourselves in knots as to whether Jesus had a choice or not to go to the cross and what it might say about God if He is such a vengeful Father.
Isaiah shows us a ‘righteous man’, a man who trusts in God’s faithfulness willing to bear all things in order to stay faithful to God. This man’s faithfulness is met with hostility and rejection amongst his people but receives divine approval and reward. ‘This is my servant.’ He carries the Sin of the world in his body and he leaves that sin on the cross. Sin loses its power and is defeated. God’s forgiveness is offered, and God’s faithfulness shown for this man’s death is followed by his exaltation. Here in the prophecy we find one who dies yet is raised. He poured himself out to death and was numbered with the transgressors but has been allotted a portion with the great and will make many righteous.
Good Friday has little meaning without Easter Day, we only know it to be Good because of Easter and so we worship. ‘To the One seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever. Amen’
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