Not during Matins, but during our other services a little piece of Scripture text called the Gradual goes between the first and second readings. The Lenten Gradual is from Hebrews 12. “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the founder and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” This, along with the Gospel lesson is our text for today.
If I asked you to describe the death of our Lord, you would probably use words like “sad” or “tragic,” “difficult” or “painful.” You might say it was the only way to save us from our sins. Most likely you would not think to use such a happy word as “joy”. Yet the theme of joy runs through many hymns of Holy Week. The book of Hebrews says this is why Jesus endured crucifixion by sinners for sinners. So what joy that kept Jesus going?
In the midst of His way of sorrows, our Lord’s ongoing joy is you and your salvation. It is near impossible for us to understand the level of God’s love – that He would send His Son to die for people who treat Him as shamefully as you and I do. Sometimes we imagine God is like a stern old man who just barely lets us squeeze into Heaven. Nothing could be farther from the truth. His passion for your salvation is His greatest desire! From the very beginning, the world’s Creator wanted you to live in eternal bliss with Him and all the saints in Paradise. He knew already back then that you would stumble and fall – and He knew He would come to save you.
Notice the evidence of His heart for you in the events of Good Friday. Christ’s silence before Pontius Pilate tells of His love for you loud and clear. With divine might, Jesus could have walked away freely and no Roman soldier could have stopped Him. With just a word, legions of angel armies would come to His defense. After all, what do you do when people tell lies about you – and what would you do if you had God’s unlimited power? Yet what the Lord most wants is to have you in love – and He cannot gain that by violence. Therefore, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, Jesus did not open His mouth, like a lamb before its shearers is silent.
Image via WikipediaFurther evidence of the Lord’s love is heard when Pilate asks the crowd why they want Jesus crucified. “What evil has He done?” (Matthew 27:23). The answer is none. Pilate’s wife is right to say Jesus is a righteous man – the only righteous man who has lived without sin, perfect in every way. Yet there Christ goes, shouldering your sins and mine to His cross and grave. The guilty one is set free and the innocent Jesus is condemned to death – for us men and for our salvation.
More evidence of His love is found when He hangs in unspeakable pain on the cross. He endures what you and I cannot. He suffers real separation from God. In the words of Psalm 22, He loudly asks, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In part, this is answered a few sentences later, when the Temple curtain is torn in two at our Lord’s death. In order to remove the separation between God and man, the Son was separated from His Father – experiencing the Hellish punishments in our place, as our substitute and Redeemer. How often have we denied Him, betrayed Him, or fled from Him? Yet Jesus has not fled from serving and saving you by His steadfast, holy obedience. Why was Jesus forsaken? So that your graves will open and you and all believers would be raised to eternal life - and we get a sample of that in the mysterious earthquake, the tombs opening, and the dead saints raised back to life by Christ’s death.
Finally, in the midst of everything else that looks wrong, a bit of relief comes as something goes right. The centurion on guard at the Cross and those with him are filled with awe. They make the great confession, “Truly this was the Son of God!” Truly indeed!
As we enter Holy Week, let these thoughts prepare you to receive God’s gift on Maundy Thursday and next Sunday at His Supper – His guarantee first given the night He was betrayed to death, the promise that God is with you and for you, that God forgives you, the pledge that God will join you together with Him in an everlasting covenant. A covenant of life, not death. A covenant of peace, not hatred and war. A covenant of forgiveness, not shame.
Brothers and sisters, fix your eyes on Jesus this week – and every week for that matter. When difficult days, scary, painful and trying times come upon you, endure them the same way Jesus endured His suffering – trusting that the future is in God the Father’s hands. Have this same mind of Christ among you, with faith in His Word of love. Submit to His will. Be obedient even to the point of death. For Christ has already done these things out of His love and desire for your salvation. After Jesus humbled Himself, God exalted Him – and He promises to exalt you, because God has baptismally given you the name of Jesus that is above every name. With your eyes fixed on Jesus, you know for certain no matter what happens today, tomorrow is safe. With heaven in your future, the things of this life cannot permanently hurt you in Christ.