I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.
Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.
(Isa 50. 6&7)
As the narrative of Jesus life draws to its climax and close, all four gospel writers slow down the pace, and give us great detail of these last days and hours, leaving no room for doubts about the significance of what is happening. I get the impression of a spotlight growing increasingly focussed on the one figure on stage, and the surrounding scene growing dim. The background music becomes more and more urgent, full of tension, apprehension and even horror as events unfold.
On Palm Sunday, the scene is full of light and hope, colour and rejoicing. Many in Jerusalem think that they are greeting a potential leader who will deliver them from Roman rule – although his choice of a donkey as a steed must have made them wonder!! But as the week goes by, and Jesus continues to confront the religious authorities, orchestrating their opposition and determination to bring him down, the light begins to fade. The crowds in the background are beginning to wonder about this Messiah and just what kind of redemption he is offering.
Jesus is walking steadily towards a long-desired goal, his face set like flint and his will holding him on course. He is the long-awaited and only true Lamb of God, come as the Baptist had said to take away the sins of the world. And there was only one way in which that could be done.
From the very beginning of God’s dealings with humankind, it had been clear that only by the shedding of blood could the abhorrence of sin be truly dealt with. A price must be paid, the highest possible – as represented in temple sacrifices by spotless or perfect animals. The anger of a holy God against sin could not be turned aside with soft words, there was no justice in that, and it would make a mockery of his purity. If God is God, utterly holy and utterly just, then in order to receive sinful humanity back into his family, their offence against him has to be paid for. And we cannot ever pay that price – our chronic sinfulness makes it impossible that we should be the perfect sacrifice.
So Jesus came. The spotless one who would live the life we could not live, and die the death we should have died, so that we might live again as new creatures, no longer stained and abhorrent to God, but welcome and beloved. It is beyond the power of words to tell or music to express the greatness of such love for the unlovely. We can and must simply fall in worship, aghast that such agony was necessary, but also amazed with gratitude that it was offered and sufficed!
As I watch Jesus walk into the darkness of Good Friday, with the stormclouds of evil gathering around him and his friends fleeing in terror – as I surely would have done too – I am overwhelmed with pity, and grounded by grief and shame for my own part in his suffering. His trust in his father was absolute, it was the ground beneath each step towards the cross, and the breath behind every word he spoke in preparing his disciples and answering his accusers. Was there ever such courage? Where shall I find another hero like this one? One who would dare all for my sake, even to the extreme agony of separation from his father as the weight of sin finally descended upon him.
There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin;
He only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.
(C.F. Alexander 1818-95)
May I be filled once again with a sense of the debt I owe, that I might surrender over again to this relentless, redeeming love, holding nothing back from my Lord who held nothing back for me.