Thursday, April 5, 2007

The promise fulfilled

John 19:28-42
After this, Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished, in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, "I am thirsty." A jar full of sour wine was standing there; so they put a sponge full of the sour wine upon a branch of hyssop, and brought it up to His mouth. When Jesus therefore had received the sour wine, He said, "It is finished!" And He bowed His head, and gave up His spirit. The Jews therefore, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. The soldiers therefore came, and broke the legs of the first man, and of the other man who was crucified with Him; but coming to Jesus, when they saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs; but one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately there came out blood and water. And he who has seen has borne witness, and his witness is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe. For these things came to pass, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, "Not a bone of Him shall be broken." And again another Scripture says, "They shall look on Him whom they pierced." And after these things Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one, for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate granted permission. He came therefore, and took away His body. And Nicodemus came also, who had first come to Him by night; bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight. And so they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had yet been laid. Therefore on account of the Jewish day of preparation, because the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
“Thou dost know my reproach and my shame and my dishonor; all my adversaries are before Thee. Reproach has broken my heart, and I am so sick. And I looked for sympathy, but there was none, and for comforters, but I found none. They also gave me gall for my food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”

One thing all four Gospels agree on, as far as what happened to Jesus on the cross, is that He was offered sour wine to drink. They jabbed a sponge on the end of a long stick and dipped it in wine gone bad, wine that has begun turning to vinegar, possibly mixed with myrrh for taste or perhaps some sedative. It wouldn’t be a pleasant thing to drink. In fact, the words I just read to you from Psalm 69 speak of Christ receiving gall or poison along with the vinegar. Only John tells us Jesus asked for it. John is speaking of Psalm 69 when he tells us Jesus said, “I thirst,” in order that Scripture might be fulfilled. They didn’t just happen to offer it. He asked for it, so all that God’s Word had said about his suffering would be fulfilled. Even when he didn’t have enough spit in his mouth to wet his lips, the Son of Man was guiding history on its proper course.

One more thing he did to fulfill Scripture. He stopped living. He didn’t hang around until the soldiers came with their leg-breaking clubs. The men who died with Jesus were lucky. If it hadn’t been for the Jewish Sabbath, they could have hung slowly dying for days on end. But to hasten their death for the Sabbath, the soldiers considerately smashed the men’s legs so they couldn’t push themselves up and grab a breath. They dangled from their ruined hands, no longer supported by their ruined legs, and finally asphyxiated. But Scripture had said of Jesus, “Not one of his bones will be broken.” Thus, so that should also come true, Jesus didn’t wait for the bone-crushers. Having seen that all the promises were fulfilled, having made full atonement for sin, He said, “It is finished!” and bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.

His words, “I am thirsty!” are awesome enough. What they express could fill a whole sermon. For God and Man in one Person hung there, and his suffering was no mere show. His pain was real, his bleeding real, his shame and distress oh, so horribly real. And his thirst too was real, a result of that thirsty work, bearing the punishment for all sin. He thirsted for our salvation, he thirsted for justice, but that we may know this isn’t just a folk tale or a shadow-play between heaven and earth, in the most real and human and fleshly way he was simply thirsty. Part of his misery was to be given only the vilest and nastiest beverage to slake his thirst—if he could slake it, with only a damp sponge pressed against his lips for a moment or two. He found pity from no quarter, he was cruelly given bile-tasting vinegar for drink. “My strength is dried up like a potsherd,” David prophesies in Psalm 22. “My tongue cleaves to my jaws, and Thou dost lay me in the dust of death.”

But this misery, this helplessness, was part of a great undertaking. Jesus did not begrudge it; he did nothing to stop it, though he could have escaped at any time. He did not complain, he did not chide. He patiently suffered, and asked for a drink only so that Scripture might be fulfilled. Jesus had a job to do, and Winston Churchill’s phrase “blood, tears, toil, and sweat” doesn’t begin to describe it. Burdened with all our guilt, condemned by God and man, Jesus had every possible evil inflicted on his body and soul: all to redeem the world from its own evil. And even while loaded with such a cosmic task, even while suffering physically and spiritually beyond all comprehension, Jesus showed concern that every syllable written about Him should be fulfilled.

God had made a promise, and in Jesus the Nazarene God kept that promise. Remember the promise in the Garden of Eden, the promise to Abraham, the promise to Jacob and his sons, the promises to David and through David in the Psalms, the promises through the prophets. Remember, for instance, what Isaiah wrote in tonight’s first lesson. He was despised and forsaken, full of sorrow and grief, an object of shame, despised, unregarded. He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows; he was regarded as stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted—you know how that goes: “If God’s on his side, why does he let all this happen to him?” He was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, chastened for our peace, scourged for our healing. The Lord dropped all our sin on Him; He was oppressed and afflicted, silent and uncomplainingly led to slaughter. By oppression and judgment He was taken away—that is, by tyranny and a miscarriage of justice. He was cut off from the land of the living, on account of the transgression of the people to whom the stroke was due. He was crushed, put to grief, rendered as a guilt offering, assigned a grave with the wicked, yet laid in a rich man’s grave. All this though he was innocent and pure. And the promise goes on: “As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will be satisfied; My Righteous Servant will justify the many, and He will bear their iniquities. He poured Himself out to death, was numbered with transgressors; yet He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

Promises, promises. What are they worth? Not much, these days. All marriages begin with a promise to love each other until death, but how often are those promises broken? All loans, credit card purchases, and checks involve a promise to pay for them in good faith. How many borrowers default, how many checks bounce? Every child learns, at an early age, not to take his parents’ promises seriously. Every parent learns just as quickly not to trust his or her child’s word. New Year’s resolutions are as easily broken as treaties with the Indians. No one expects politicians to come close to keeping their promises. Anyone with sense knows better than to trust promises made in advertisements. And even the threat of prison doesn’t prevent witnesses in court from breaking their oath against perjury.

Our whole world is a swirl of broken promises, from the promise of youth to the promise of a clean break from bad habits. It began when the first man and woman broke their promise not to eat the fruit of a certain tree. And though God always kept His promises to Israel, they always broke their promises to Him. Considering how fickle they were, it’s a wonder there was even a Jewish nation for the Messiah to come to! But God painstakingly saw to it that all the conditions of his promises were met, every detail was in place, and in the fulness of time He sent forth his Son to keep the most amazing promise of all: that God Himself would shoulder our burden, bleed for our sins, and die for the life of the world.

So when Jesus had received the sponge of sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” and breathed his last. Promise fulfilled. Redemption completed. Jesus Christ had kept all of man’s obligations to God, perfectly and completely. And then He stepped in the way of the hammer of God and took it on the chin for us. He not only kept our obligations by rendering service to God and man, but also by facing the music for our sins.

Now I didn’t just say “promise kept.” I said “promise fulfilled.” Jesus’ last words, according to John, were not “We’re on our way,” but “It is finished.” Not “Hang in there, we’re still working on it,” But “It is finished.” Not “Stage one complete,” but “It is finished.” Not “That’s enough for today,” but “It is finished!” So this isn’t just a further example of God keeping his promises. This is the fulfillment of all God’s promises; filled up, perfected, completed, drawn to a point and made good, once and for all. It is finished: promise fulfilled!

The rest is post-mortem. In order that every word of Scripture should be fulfilled, the soldier pierced his side and the blood and water pouring out bore witness that he was dead, so not one bone of him should be broken. In order that every word of Scripture should be fulfilled, the rich man went to Pilate and secured custody of Jesus’ body—so what Isaiah said could be true, both that his grave was assigned among robbers and that he was buried in a rich man’s tomb. In order that the last shred of promise should be fulfilled, they lay Him down for a Sabbath rest, from which like Jonah he would emerge after three days.

But all these things were a foregone conclusion when Jesus bowed his head and gave up his Spirit. He said, “It is finished.” Whatever pertains to your salvation is done. Whatever needs paid for your redemption is paid in full. Whatever debt you owe to God, whatever guilt you bear, has been atoned for. The Lamb has been slain, his blood has been sprinkled, God is satisfied, and you are delivered from sin and death. “I am thirsty,” in order that the promise might be fulfilled; “It is finished,” to signify that it has been fulfilled. Somewhere in between those two words, the chains fell away, the darkness lifted, the grave and hell were sealed up never again to threaten you. Heaven smiles; the enemy flees. You need not add anything to the redemption Jesus made for you; nor can you. It is finished. The promise is fulfilled.

The British have a strange saying. When one king and gives way to another, they say, “The king is dead; long live the king!” Of course in the first place they’re talking about the old king, in the second place about the new. But we can say about the King who died on good Friday: God has died; praise the living God. We mean the same God, for there is but one. Oh sorrow, for in Christ God is dead; oh joy, for in Christ we have peace with the living God. Jesus has been broken to make us whole. He has been emptied, so that God’s promise might be fulfilled.

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