Good Friday is the strangest of days. We want to look at the cross, but only because it is so awful—like Scrooge being forced to look at his own grave. We want to remember, and even “celebrate” it somehow, but it is also our shame: “he had no beauty that we should be attracted to him” (Isa 53:2).
Why should this cross be preached? Not to learn how to pity Christ or sympathize with his suffering. We do not preach the cross, as Luther liked to say, “to make old women cry.” If you haven’t learned yet how to empathize with another human being’s sufferings, the light won’t come on with Christ hanging on the cross.
Why bother with Good Friday, then? Everyone comes to Christ’s cross expecting to demonstrate that they are not at fault. I think I have a case to make for my own righteousness before him. True, it is a weak case that comes to this: “Jesus, I know how you feel, I too have suffered. We are sympatico!” Instead of preaching Christ’s, I exalt my own suffering. But where does this end up? Trusting my own death, and this is no good!
So, the first thing on Good Friday is to distinguish your sufferings from Christ’s. Christ’s suffering atones—yours does not. Your suffering remains behind (along with the bromides of this world: If you are patient, goodwill come! Suffer now, reward later!). Don’t exalt your own suffering—endure it; yours does not eliminate sin, only Christ’s does.
The second thing is to learn why your suffering doesn’t save you: you can’t bear your own sins, to say nothing of getting rid of them. Thankfully, Scripture does not tell you to bear your own sins. Instead, it tells you to lay them on Christ. That is why John the Baptist takes his long, bony finger and points: “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). He got that sermon from Isaiah: “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa 53:6). It’s time for you to learn where your sins belong.
This little sermon is harder than you think. It doesn’t take an episode of Law and Order to understand Jesus was wrongfully charged. How can the sinless bear sin? Worse yet, he doesn’t just “have sins” but “those are our sins, my sins, up yonder!” Christ doesn’t want your pity; he wants your confession: those sins are mine! Thus ends the fanatic, self-righteous humility and “sour looks” of the Christians who convince themselves they have felt the passion of Christ.
When sins become obvious to us (and others), we try to own them. We try as a johnny-come-lately to be responsible for them just as the law says. But suddenly, Christ is hanging on the tree and telling me he possesses my sins. Is nothing sacred? What about copyright? We say to Christ, “this sin smells too bad for you; let me keep it.” But all of that is putting lilies on the cross, trying to empathize with suffering Christ. He won’t have it.
The cross offends so much that the only way for it to free you is to stop looking at it and have it preached. Then Christ says, “those sins are mine; they do not belong to you anymore.” Peter wouldn’t give up. He wanted to “help Christ,” but only denied him—thrice. When Christ suffers the cup in the Garden, he knows they are not his sins, but ours. Nevertheless, he took them in obedience to the Father (not the law); my sins are now his. Just so, the last sin is the one that says, “Look at all the good my sin has caused! Look at Christ, keeping the law intact by paying my debt. Good thing I started the process with my little contribution.” But it is not the law that is saved, and it is not your sin that contributed to the great atonement. Instead, the cross is preached so that you say: “mine, mine, mine, my sins.”
Yet, even that confession is not what saves you. Even Judas was shamed and confessed his sin, yet no priest would absolve him. Meanwhile, even on the cross, Christ begins absolving. This means you need two things on Good Friday. You need to hear: 1) “your sins,” and 2) Christ defeated them in his body! Unless this is believed, it is worse than anything, since the victory over death is doubtless wonderous—but is Christ’s, not yours. You yourself need a death to die in that you cannot provide for yourself. Only death is the end of the law with its total judgment of your sin. Moreover, you also need a new life to live in; a life without sin. Christ alone is able to forgive the sin totally and completely—withholding nothing. There is no, “Now don’t mess up again.” His absolution of your Deicide is once, for all. It kills and makes alive without awaiting your response, reform, acceptance, agreement, preservation, or completion.
On Good Friday you will not survive without a baptism: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-4). Without this baptism, Christ’s death on the cross would be unbearable. You would necessarily twist it into some form of your own suffering in order to produce a good work from it. But when you know what Christ did with your sin, and how death ends in resurrection (walking in new life), then we can stop looking through the cross, above it, and behind it, and hear these two things: That is my sin on Christ! Defeated!