Much of life is spent running around looking for it. On the few trips we’ve made out west with church groups, and we’ve stopped at the ubiquitous tourist shop filled with authentic native American blankets for $4.99 made in China or Mexico, Jim Munns will go up to someone and ask, “Have you found it yet?” “Found what?” “It,” he will say. Just “it.”
“It,” you see, is whatever you’re looking for.
What do you think the disciples of Jesus were looking for? Beyond the fishing nets and tax tables, the daily responsibility of living in that particular place in the world in that particular time in history, they were obviously looking for something or they never would have hooked up with Jesus in the first place. What do you imagine they were looking for? One day Jesus of Nazareth comes along, and seemingly without a lot of introduction, they drop what they are doing and start following him. They spend the next three years or so looking for it. What was their it?
And what kind of overworked imagination gave them the idea that they, simple people from that dusty, plain part of the world, could possibly be at the center of God’s in-breaking kingdom of heaven? Was Jesus that good a salesman?
Well, truth be told, their pumps had already been primed. I mean, it’s all the priests ever talked about. When they weren’t sacrificing animals or interpreting the law, the religious leaders were always talking about the day when the Messiah would come and bring vindication against their enemies. Everybody who went to worship was looking for that day when the Messiah would come and free them from the oppressive rule of the hated Romans. “When the Messiah comes.” It was the daily mantra of all first-century Jews. “When the Messiah comes.” All good Jews were looking for it.
So, there is a sense in which it is what you don’t have at any given moment. Like good health. When someone is in the hospital and I pay a pastoral call, we will discuss the person’s illness or injury. Will there be surgery? What’s going on? What is the doctor saying, what’s the prognosis? That sort of thing. But there’s always the proverbial elephant in the room, the it.
What is it? Will I get well? Will the surgery restore me to a healthy way of life? What is my greatest fear about all this? If I’ve done my job, which is not my favorite way of describing what I do but just may be the only way to put it, we acknowledge the elephant and get the it out in the open, discuss it, and hopefully deal with it redemptively and as positively as possible. We have to get to the it.
Jesus had an it, didn’t he? He said it himself. “It is finished.” It’s interesting that it takes us three words to say it, but in the Greek there is only one word – tetelestai. “It is finished.” Nevertheless, one word or three, we are left wondering just exactly what “it” is. “It is finished.” What is it? Let’s take a few moments and explore that, shall we?
Don’t you imagine there had been those times when, as the young Jesus worked beside his father Joseph in the carpentry shop, they had constructed a piece of furniture together? I can see Joseph assigning his son a particular task… perhaps to cut this piece of wood or that. “Remember, son, measure twice, cut once.” Maybe it was to sand a piece of furniture down to a smooth finish. It could be that Jesus was required to clean it thoroughly, to get all of the dust out of the wood grain, before applying several coats of oil to give it a nice finish. A wise father would have let his son finish the piece so he could have a sense of accomplishment about what he was doing.
Though we know quite little about Joseph, we can’t help but think he had that kind of wisdom. I would imagine there were a number of times when Jesus looked at Joseph and said, “Look, father, it is finished!”
Jesus learned at a young age what it meant to bring tasks to their completion. Surely he heard the word tetelestai, or its Aramaic equivalent, many times. It was not a new word to Jesus nor to those who heard him utter it as his final word from the cross. Perhaps it referred to the task Jesus’ heavenly Father had sent him to accomplish. Perhaps it means atonement.
But not atonement found only in the cross; atonement found in his life as well.
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Mark Heim asks a question about atonement. He wants to know… “Is the story of Jesus mainly about his death and a life that leads to it, or is the story of Jesus mainly about his life and a death that flows from it?”1 He admits his question could be two ways of looking at the same thing, or… the difference could be as great as night and day.
I’m not sure we can answer the question, but I do believe this: Jesus died as he lived but he also lived as he died… a good thing for us to remember, I believe, on this Good Friday. Jesus’ sacrifice is found not only in what he did on the cross, but in all that his heavenly Father wanted him to do. Everything said, everything done… it all added up to it.
But this is Good Friday, and it is impossible for us not to focus on what happened that dark day at Calvary. And what he did that day was to die.
Maybe that’s the it.
Ernest Hemingway, the famous novelist, once wrote a brief play called Today Is Friday. It consists entirely of the conversation of two soldiers in a bar on the Friday afternoon following the crucifixion of Jesus. One line is repeated over and over again: “He was good in there today. He was good in there today.”2 Yes, he was. But there is more to Jesus than just his death on a cross. Jesus of Nazareth knew more than just how to die. He also knew how to live.
Wednesday we said goodbye to our friend Mabel Ellis. Ninety-seven years, three months, and five days was the length of her earthly life. I was reminded of something once again. There is a temptation, when someone lives to a long age, to reflect only on the final years of that person’s life. If he or she suffered a debilitating illness, we tend to think only of that. It is tempting to frame the person’s life solely on recent memory.
If a person suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, we focus on the vacant look, the inability to comprehend or remember. But we ourselves have forgotten something… we have forgotten those days when he was so quick with a quip. We fail to remember those times when she was sharp as a tack when it came to remembering names.
If a person was crippled in old age we fail to recall the days when he could hit a 250-yard drive or she could dance the night away. We think only of recent times when life was hard and sometimes bitter. In doing that, we do a disservice to this person. Life needs to be remembered in all its wholeness, not just the last chapter.
Sometimes we tend to think of Jesus only on the cross. It is a natural thing to do, especially on Good Friday. But even as we envision Jesus on the cross dying for us, let us remember the times when he took the children into his arms and blessed them, or when he lifted up the limp hand of one who had died and brought him or her back to life, or demanded the evil spirits to be removed from a poor soul’s body. Let us recall those times when he gave sight to the blind and the ability to walk to those who had crippled limbs.
Even on this Good Friday, think not only of Jesus on the cross but on the mountainside telling his wonderful stories of the kingdom of heaven.
“Is the story of Jesus mainly about his death and a life that leads to it, or is the story of Jesus mainly about his life and a death that flows from it?” I don’t think I’ll try to answer that for you today. Rather, I’d like for you to take that question with you and let you reflect upon it, especially during this time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
* * * *
It is my hope that this Lenten season has given us all an opportunity to reflect upon Jesus’ claims for our lives. May I share with you what the atonement of Christ has once again come to mean to me?
You see, I’m a pretty self-sufficient kind of guy. If I can do it on my own, I do it. I don’t wait for someone else to do it for me. That’s why most of my secretaries over the years have loved me… I prepare my own letters and type my own sermons! The personal computer has a lot to do with it, but frankly, I got into this habit long before the advent of the computer.
I also figure that if I can get a particular job done as well or better than someone else, rather than count on that other person to do it, I do it myself. I must confess that this self-sufficiency is built as much on stubbornness and conditioning as it is on self-confidence. I suspect the same is true of many people, especially those of my particular profession. Besides, by the time I explain it to someone else, I might as well have done it myself. After all, time is precious, you know.
But needless to say, that doesn’t work when it comes to atonement. As simple as it sounds, it is so very hard to accept. Atonement is God in Christ doing for me what I cannot do for myself. Try as I might, I cannot bring salvation to myself. It may sound simple, and in a sense I suppose it really is, but it took a life as only Jesus of Nazareth could live it, and a cross as only he could endure it, for that kind of atonement to take place. We have been died for, yes, but we have also been lived for. And, at its most basic, this is called atonement.
Break down that word into its three syllables and you come up with at-one-ment. The Apostle Paul said it just right: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). God was and is in Christ enabling us to be one with him. And in that regard, the cross of Christ was not something done to him but something he willingly took upon himself.
We see something in John’s gospel that is not as clearly revealed in the other New Testament accounts of Jesus’ life. Jesus doesn’t merely yield his life to those who would take it from him; he gives it away. “Jesus is totally in charge. Jesus himself rather than Simon of Cyrene carries the cross. Jesus speaks and acts not out of need or desperation but to fulfill Scripture. There is no crying out to God as one forsaken… He… says that all is now complete or finished, and gives up his spirit.”3 Who knows, maybe Jesus typed his own letters too.
Jesus really could have come down from that cross, you know. Better yet, he could have hightailed it out of town prior to Gethsemane and just laid low until things cooled off a bit. He did not have to finish his work the way he did.
Jesus doesn’t simply suffer on the cross; he brings his work to completion. Remember when we said that Jesus’ death on the cross is defined by his life? By the miracles – or signs, as John liked to call them – the stories, the teachings? I’d like to think that this – his life, the purpose for which God sent him to us, the things he did and said – that this is the it.
But having said that, there is a sense in which it is not finished… that you and I are now the ones to carry it on, to be the continuing presence of Christ in this world for which he died. Is that what it means for us to take up our cross and follow after him? If so, today is as good a day as any to decide to do that. “As good a day as any.” Maybe that’s why we call it Good Friday.
On this Good Friday, let’s determine, in each of our hearts, to get it done. Shall we?
1S. Mark Heim, “Cross Purposes: Rethinking the Death of Jesus,” The Christian Century, March 22, 2005, p. 20.
2John Killinger, A Sense of His Presence (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1977), p. 120.
3Fred B. Craddock, et. al., Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year A (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992), p. 218.
Copyright 2005, Dr. Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.