Famous Last Words
John 18:1-19:42 | 4/19/2019
An audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This Holy Week, we remember the famous last words of the condemned man, Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews. His ultimate utterances are profound. They are entirely consistent with the society-shaking, history-changing, God-revealing course of his entire ministry. In fact, his last words are the crowning moment of his life. They are not cries of desperation but declarations of victory. “Woman, here is your son,” says Jesus to his mother. “Here is your mother,” he says to a disciple standing beside her (John 19:26-27) (v. 28) It is finished,” he proclaims (v. 30).These are his last words, his famous last words. But for many people, their meaning is unclear. And how can it be said that they are profound, triumphant and entirely consistent with the course of his ministry? Also puzzling.Jesus said, “It is finished.” What did he mean?To understand Christ’s parting thoughts, we have to begin with his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and look at how Palm Sunday leads straight to Good Friday. Jesus doesn’t begin the week as a rock star and end it as a falling star. Instead, he starts the week in glory, and ends it in even greater glory ... in the shocking, surprising and scandalous glory of the cross.On what we now call Palm Sunday, Jesus enters Jerusalem, and the great crowd gathered for the Passover festival takes branches of palm trees and meets him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord — the King of Israel!” And Jesus finds a young donkey and sits on it, fulfilling the prophecy, “Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” (12:12-15).So far, so good. Jesus comes to town as the king of Israel. The crowd grasps this and they praise him, praying that he will become their national savior and restore God’s kingdom in their country. They see that Jesus is a triumphant king — something that even the disciples are still struggling to grasp — but of course none of the onlookers has any idea just what kind of king Jesus has come to be.Fast-forward to the end of the week. Here is where most Christians assume that the story takes a turn for the worse: Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested in the garden, put on trial and mocked, and then crucified and killed. But the gospel of John refuses to portray Jesus as a passive, silent victim, at the mercy of evil forces beyond his control. Rather, John makes it clear that it is the premeditated — if not painful — plan of Jesus, not the scheme of others, that leads decisively to his death.This is shocking stuff. It means that the crucifixion has a profoundly positive meaning, and that Jesus’ famous last words are words of triumph — not defeat. Biblical scholar Dorothy Jean Weaver points out that Jesus is anything but powerless during his passion, and engages in vigorous verbal exchanges — sharp commands, feisty challenges, penetrating questions, deep observations and poignant words of comfort — from the moment of his arrest to the final moments in which he hangs on a Roman cross. He orders Peter to put his sword back in its sheath, challenges the brutality of the high priest’s slave and engages Pontius Pilate in extensive philosophical discourse. On the cross, he offers words of comfort to his mother, and links her to his beloved disciple. Jesus is in control, even from the cross. When he says, in the first of his famous last words, “Woman, here is your son” ... “Disciple, here is your mother,” he is creating a new family of God, one that exists even in times of suffering and death. This is truly good news for us, for we are all part of this new family created by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.Then Jesus cries, “I am thirsty.” This is, for us, a reminder that Jesus entered fully and completely into human life, thirsting and hungering and suffering as each of us does. He certainly felt pain as he went to his death on the cross, and no talk of the positive meaning of Good Friday can eliminate this excruciating reality. But the fresh message for us in this famous last word is that Jesus is with us in all of our earthly agony. Nothing in all creation — neither death, nor life, nor things present, nor things to come, nor anything else we might face — will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39). Jesus is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, because he has been tested as we are; since he has walked in our shoes, he knows what we are going through, and can walk beside us on the road to his Father’s house. This last word of Jesus matches the mission of his life, and there’s certainly something comforting about this kind of consistency.Finally, Jesus says, “It is finished” — probably the most widely misunderstood of his famous last words. This expression is not a whimper of defeat or despair, but a shout of confidence in his completion of God’s mission in the world These words are the cultural equivalent of an emphatic, “Yes!!” — picture him coming off the cross, flexing the knees, bringing his arm around in an arc, pumping the air, throwing his head to the sky and shouting “Yes!!!” He stayed on the cross. He didn’t say “Yes!!” He said, “It is finished!” It is “completed.” He did what he set out to do. We have to remember that he knew what his mission was all about. A few months before his death, Jesus announced, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” It is finished! Much earlier, he said to Nicodemus, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (3:14).It is finished! And on Palm Sunday, Jesus predicted “when I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all people to myself” (12:32).It is finished! With his famous last words on the cross, Jesus completes the mission that God has given him to perform in the world. According to John, his death is not a terrible tragedy, nor is it an awful mistake; instead, it is an act of ultimate self-sacrifice, one which Jesus performs for the benefit of his followers and all the people of the world. When Jesus is lifted up on the cross, we are able to see, more clearly than ever before, the suffering, self-sacrificing love of God. AMEN
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