What Is Finished? (March 28, 2021)
John 19:30; Luke 23: 44-46
What Is Finished?
Today we are concluding our sermon series on the last words of Christ, the seven phrases that Jesus spoke while hanging on the cross in any of the Gospels. Today, since Lent is only six Sundays in length, we will actually look at two of those phrases; the final, final phrases of Jesus from the cross. And we begin that look with the line “it is finished.” The question is: what is finished?
Most Christians that I know hear this phrase from Jesus hear this phrase as a cry of triumph, a cry of victory. “It is finished” means that Jesus won whatever it was he was doing. He completed it, and the cross did not stop him. But the question is what did he win and what was actually finished? What work was he doing?
In churchy terms, the work of Jesus was “atonement.” This is actually an older Jewish word, but in English it is “at-one-ment;” it is the work of making us “at one” with God, forgiving our sins and restoring our relationship with the divine. And this is the word that we ascribe to what Jesus is doing throughout his ministry, but especially to what Jesus is doing on the cross. How that works is less agreed-upon (that’s the primary purpose of the book study that we have been doing on Wednesday nights); rather each illustration and thought can teach us more about part of what Jesus was doing to make us one with God.
Today, I’m going to focus on one aspect: that is that as Jesus died there was a massive event, usually an earthquake, and the curtain in the temple was torn in two. This is extremely important to my personal understanding of what Jesus is doing on the cross and in his ministry, what God is doing to bring the world to be at one with him permanently. And it’s one of the best images, I think, for the work of the church and the work of God.
So to get into a little bit of what makes that important, beginning with the design of the Temple. The Temple was designed after the tabernacle, which is outlined in the book of Exodus. And it was to be the dwelling place of God on earth. And because it was going to be a place where the holy would reside, special things had to be done for it. So it was made out of a special kind of cloth, this is fine woven, intricately woven, with purple color for royalty and gold intertwined within it. It was double layered and thick. And there were walls within it, leading up to the place that God was going to be. This was done in order to protect the unholy world from the holy God, so the rules were that only a certain group of people could get beyond those walls, with each wall having fewer people. And then as we get into the temple, they add some more walls as needed, to where we get this this kind of situation by the time Harod’s temple is built.
I wish I could just show you a little bit better, but I’ll try to explain. Herod’s temple was built on this massive foundation that we call the Temple mount. And most of that room, probably over half, was what was called the Court of the Gentiles. And here, anyone who wanted to worship God, no matter who you were, could come and worship. Now, if you didn’t want to worship God, if you had malice in your heart or nefarious purposes, you took your life into your own hands. Anyone who crossed a barrier who wasn’t supposed to cross that barrier risked the wrath of God. Risked literally being smited by God, being struck down on the spot, or so the belief was.
And by the way, that wasn’t an idle worry. Throughout Scripture we have small moments where God punishes people for coming into his presence incorrectly. They’re few, but they’re present. Particularly we see the story of Aaron‘s sons, two of Aaron‘s sons are corrupt in their priesthood and God kills them right on the spot in front of the whole congregation. Also, when David is trying to bring the Ark of the Covenant from where it was to Jerusalem, now that Jerusalem has been captured, they bring it on a cart. And the Ark starts to sway on the cart. So someone who is walking beside it reaches out to sturdy the Ark and keep it from falling; and they are struck dead because they have dared to touch the Ark of the Covenant without proper cleansing. This is serious stuff.
So, the idea with the design was that as you got closer to where God was in the Most Holy Place, or the Holy of Holies, then you needed to be more holy. So eventually, only Jews could go, and then only priests, and then only selected priests, etc.
For our purposes, we care about the main building and the final two places. The building itself consisted mainly of two rooms. There were some storage areas around, but mostly they were these two rooms. The first was the Holy Place, and the second was the Most Holy Place, or the Holy of Holies. The holy place was where incense was being burned. It was a special oil, and the special oil was fed into the incense basins, so that incense would be burned at all times before God. Every day there was one priest that was chosen by a lot, and that priest would have the honor of going into the Holy Place and refilling the incense burners, making sure that everything was OK, and making sure that the incense burns for God continually. They would have to perform a ritual cleansing before daring to enter that close to God.
You may remember the story of Zachariah. Zachariah receives a visit from the angel Gabriel that his wife Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist, and that he would be Elijah, announcing the coming of the age of the Messiah. That happens in this room. Zachariah had been chosen by lot to go in and service the incense. So you can understand, given where he was, given how close to God he was and the risks involved there, how scared Zachariah was at seeing an angel meet him, and why Gabriel‘s first words have to be “do not be afraid.”
That brings us to the final room: the Holy of Holies. This room was separated from the Holy Place not by a wall or a gate, but by a curtain. The curtain was designed off of the design of the tabernacle back in Exodus: one giant, thick, woven cloth of purple interlaced with gold. That one curtain there to protect the world from God, who was said to reside behind it. Only one person was allowed behind the curtain, and that was the high priest. And he was only allowed behind that curtain one day out of the year: the Day of Atonement (hey, there’s that word). This is a Jewish festival where the whole nation we gather together, and they would offer together as one an offering for the sins they didn’t know they committed. They approached the Lord asking forgiveness for those sins that still kept them separated from God. Their prayer was to be “at one” again. On that day, the high priest would undergo 24 hours of ritual cleansing to prepare him to enter into the presence of God. Encountering the holy divine was dangerous, and approaching God required a great deal of preparation and intention.
And so to me, as I read the Scriptures and I study the beliefs, that curtain was not there to protect God, that curtain was there to protect an unholy world from the presence of the holy divine. And so when I turn to the Gospels and I read that the curtain has been torn in two, that the seal is broken; that means something. It means that the world has been made holy through the actions of Jesus to the point where God can interact with the world. Throughout the Old Testament you see the Spirit of God at work, but in very small places: the Spirit enters into one person and a prophesies, for example. But 50 days after Easter, the Spirit comes into the room full of the church and falls on everybody. Because the work of God has made the entire world holy, so the curtain is no longer needed. This is what the work of Jesus was. Jesus sought to make the world, not just the Jews but everyone, “at one” with God. And not just for one year, but for eternity.
Finally, when all this is done, Jesus looks up and states “Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit.” This journey on the cross begin with a prayer, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they’ve done.” It included another prayer beginning “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” a prayer from Psalm 22. And now it concludes with a prayer “Father, into your hand I commend my spirit.” Coincidentally, also a quote of a Psalm: Psalm 31, verse 5.
In his suffering, Jesus is teaching us how to pray once again. And furthermore he’s reminding us particularly, in this generation, that you don’t have to have flowery prayers full of “thee” and thou, you just have to pray. And sometimes, praying is as simple as opening up a Bible and reading what is on the page, and recognizing that what is on the page is applicable to your life.
Jesus did a great deal on the cross. And through it all he sought to bring all of us, from those sitting at the foot of the cross to you and me today, to bring us together and make us “at one” with God, not just through making the world holy enough that the Spirit can come and the Spirit can work with us and teach us, but also to help us go through life after we are saved. Jesus is also seeking to teach us how to live in his death. And I hope that through this series you’ve learned the value and the lessons that can be seen from the cross if you sit at the foot of the cross and experience what Jesus has to teach you. They’re far too often we as Christians go from Hosanna to Hallelujah, from Palm Sunday to Easter, and we skip over all of the uncomfortable stuff in the middle that we don’t like. If you’ve learned anything over this series of sermons, I hope it is that the stuff that’s in the middle is where the lessons are. And I hope you’ve gained some of those lessons over these last few weeks. I would encourage you to come on Friday, and experience the cross in order to prepare yourself for Easter by remembering all of it. And may God yet teach you something new. Amen.