A Sermon for Good Friday (10/04/20): Why Can’t Jesus Come Down from the Cross?

Why Can’t Jesus Come Down From The Cross
Matthew 27:33-54



Jesus’ death is a puzzle to us. Even though we know Jesus dies. Even though we have been told, and try to tell ourselves, it was always part of the plan. Even though we know that in three day Jesus will rise again, that it turns out alright in the end. Jesus’ death bothers us. It raises questions, which when we ask them we find hard, if not impossible to answer. We end up feeling like the resurrection is a correction of what went wrong on Good Friday. Deep down, for all our belief in the power of what God accomplishes through Jesus’ death, deep down we harbour a nagging suspicion that really Jesus shouldn’t have to die. We would probably deny it, but we probably share with most of Jesus’ contemporaries the view that the Messiah really ought to win. That if Jesus is the Messiah it should have been possible for him to come out victorious and not end up on the cross. We suspect there must have been some other way for God to accomplish God’s will without a cruel death. 
This certainly was the expectation of Jesus’ contemporaries, both his followers and his opponents. If Jesus is the Messiah; If he is the Son of God; If he is King of the Jews; For those titles to mean anything, in a conventional sense, Jesus has to win.  He has to thwart the chief priests. And ultimately he has to overthrow the Romans. He definitely can’t die. Winning means not dying. He has to get to the end of the contest, the one between God and the powers ranged against God which we might call Empire, he has to get to the end of that contest and still be alive. By that measure, the cross and Jesus’ on it is a defeat. And if this is God’s plan then it is a puzzle, a mystery.

It is clear from the words that were hurled at Jesus hanging on the cross, that this was the view of those who saw him there. They viewed Jesus crucified with a mixture of disappointment and contempt.Those who had heard him teach in the Temple said:
“You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself. If you are the Son of God come down from the cross.”
They clearly assume that the Son of God should not and cannot die. And he certainly should not be dying in this humiliating manner and at the hands of those they were expecting him to liberate them from. Their assumption is that one who has the power to destroy and rebuild the temple, must also have the power to avoid crucifixion. And therefore they reason, since Jesus is dying, he cannot possess that power. Much to their disappointment and hence irritation it is clear to them Jesus is not who he claimed to be. Hanging on a cross he cannot be the Messiah. One of the last temptations which Jesus faces and resists, is the same as the first. Like turning stones into bread, the temptation is to use his power for his own benefit. To do his own will, particularly to use it to avoid suffering, rather than stay his course and allow God’s will to be done through him.  
For the Chief Priests of course, this is exactly as they had intended. Along with the scribes and the elders they regard him with contempt and mock him:
“He saved others yet he cannot save himself, let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe him.”
For Jesus’ fiercest opponents this is their moment of vindication. They were right. He was wrong. Him hanging on a cross is the conclusive evidence of that. They like everyone else are convinced that the Messiah could not fail in this way. The Son of God cannot die.  Jesus is not who he claimed to be! Yet there is, even among the Priests and the elders and the scribes, a hint of wistful disappointment. Part of them, even Jesus’ bitterest enemies, part of them longs for the Messiah, even if it is Jesus, just so long as he could lead them to victory. Again Jesus is offered a temptation that he had faced and resisted at the beginning. His enemies, unsurprisingly, speak with the voice of Satan. Like leaping from the highest pinnacle of the Temple and surviving the fall, coming down from the cross could be seen as a convincing display of divine power. Yet such a display would still be unconvincing, and not actually accomplish the new beginning God is looking for.
Even as Jesus dies, some in the crowd expect things to turn out differently. With his penultimate breath Jesus cries out in the words of the Psalm:
“My God, My God why have you forsaken me”
Words which were misunderstood by those who heard them. So Matthew leaves us with the untranslated Aramaic which Jesus spoke:
“Eli, Eli lema sabachtani”
He does so to show us where the misunderstanding comes from. Some of the bystanders misunderstood Jesus’ appeal to God and thought he was asking for Elijah to come and rescue him:
“Wait let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.”
Perhaps what they expected to happen was that Elijah would come. Elijah was the greatest prophet of old who was so loved by God that, in contrast to Jesus, he was taken directly into heaven without dying. Perhaps what they expected was Elijah to arrive on God’s chariot of fire, wielding a flaming sword of righteousness, and bring Jesus down from the cross, and with that power establish God’s reign. Again their misunderstanding reveals their real expectations. It perhaps could almost be called a Freudian slip. They reveal what they really hoped for from Jesus and God’s kingdom. They expected that it would be established in a war of conquest. Once again one of the temptations which Jesus had faced and resisted in the wilderness is embodied at the foot of the cross; that God’s kingdom could be established like any other kingdom of the world. But God’s kingdom is nothing like those other kingdoms. And it cannot be established in that way.

Curiously what everyone in fact appears to do is underestimate the power of God. Death is the limit of all human decision and action. It is the final boundary of human power. Strangely everyone seems to place the same limit to God’s power. They assume that death must mean defeat, since it must mean an end to decision and action. Yet no such limit exists for God’s power. God’s power to decide and act through Jesus is not ended by his death. And what is more most of them should have known this. It was what God had been promising all along, that on the last day the righteous would be raised. Only the Sadducees rejected the resurrection and placed death as the formal limit of God’s power. That perhaps explains why the Priests who were mostly Sadducees thought that killing Jesus would work. But it doesn’t explain why everyone else failed to recognise what God might still do.
Yet the question remains. Given God’s unlimited power, why did Jesus die? Why was it that another path to the establishment and victory of God’s kingdom not taken? Why couldn’t God save, except through the terrible suffering inflicted on Jesus on the cross?
The answer in fact is quite simple: Jesus dies so that no one else has to. 
Now this is true in some fundamental theological sense. To say, “Jesus dies so that no one else has to” is one way of putting into words what the cross accomplishes between God and the human race as a whole and forever. But it is also true in a much more immediate and historical sense. Jesus died so that no one else had to.
It is easy to imagine what would have happened if the Priests’ or the bystanders implicit expectations had been fulfilled. Jesus’ descent from the cross, or Elijah’s arrival in a fiery chariot would have resulted in death. The first group to die would have been the detachment of soldiers guarding the cross. Their sworn duty was to ensure that the execution was carried out. They would have to defend the assertion of Imperial power with their lives. For Jesus to live would have required their deaths. But it would not, and could not have stopped there. Both the religious establishment of the Priests and the power of Empire were committed to Jesus’ death. A lethal conflict would have ensued. Violence would have spiralled out from the foot of the cross until it consumed the whole world.
It is in the infinite grace and mercy of God that God chooses a path to salvation, to the establishment of victory of the kingdom of God that involves no one else’s death, apart from the death that God chooses to take on himself. In contrast to the human use of power, God uses his power in a way that doesn’t destroy what he is trying to save. With God there is no collateral damage. Jesus dies so that no one else has to.

The path to the establishment and victory of God’s kingdom begins with those who would have been the first victims had any other path been chosen. The path to the kingdom of God begins with the Centurion and the soldiers at the foot of the cross. They were witnesses to Jesus’ death and the terrifying events that accompanied it, the darkened sky and the earthquake. When they had seen it all they testified:
“Surely this man was God Son.”
It is a confession made by those most directly and immediately responsible for Jesus’ death. It is made by the men who drove nails into his hands and his feet and who thrust a spear into his side. But they are also the first to recognise that it is indeed possible for the Messiah, for God’s Son to die. It is a confession which needs to be made by all those who have opposed God. It is a confession which needs to be made by all those who have been held captive by the world’s system of oppression and violence. It is a confession which needs to be made by those trapped by the religion of the Priests and the politics of Empire. It is a liberating confession. It is the confession which leads to the establishment of God’s peaceable kingdom in those who make it, and in the world. Painful as it is to accept, Jesus did not come down from the cross, he dies so that no one else has to.
Amen.
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Why Can’t Jesus Come Down From The Cross by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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