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Lenten Series - The Seven Last Words

The Sunday before Ash Wednesday and The Seven Last Words


Palm/Passion Sunday     John 19:17-19

(This sermon “sets up” the series, The Seven Last Words from the Cross.)

Golgotha: the place of the skull.

The text for today’s sermon is from John 19:17-19.  “They took Jesus. He was bearing his own cross to the place called the “place of the skull” which in Hebrew is called Golgotha, and there they crucified him with two others, one on either side and Jesus was between them.”

Use your imagination. Outside the walls of Jerusalem, I would say about 250 yards northeast of the old wall, or about 250 yards northeast of the Damascus Gate, is a rather large cliff.  This tall cliff is about sixty feet high. It seems to be made of old gray clay, embedded with rocks. In that cliff, 250 yards outside the old city wall, in that cliff are large indentations, three large indentations, almost like sockets, almost like eye sockets. They look almost like the face of a skull, if you use your imagination. It seemed to me there is a face of a skull in that cliff, with three large holes, looking like eye sockets and a mouth.  I saw the shape of the skull with my own eyes.  At the bottom of that cliff, there is a flat piece of ground. It is now a parking lot for buses. It is said today that this parking lot at the foot of the cliff was the place of Jesus’ execution on the cross. Right there, beneath this cliff, was perhaps the location of Golgotha.

It was about 1920, and there was a man by then name of Dr. Gordon who had been looking for the Place of the Skull.  Dr. Gordon was an archeologist. For sixteen centuries, people had believed that the place of Jesus’ crucifixion was inside the center of the city of Jerusalem, where the Roman empress, Mother Helena, had built a gorgeous palace for Christ. It was called the Holy Sepulcher.  The Holy Sepulcher was crafted of gilded gold, baroque style, and very ornate. This Holy Sepulcher had become one of the most sacred shines of Christianity.  I had the privilege of visiting that ornate temple in the center of the city.

But Dr. Gordon realized that a crucifixion could not have occurred in the city walls; a Roman crucifixion would not have been permitted in the city walls of Jerusalem. So Dr. Gordon, a British soldier and archeologist, began looking for the Place of Execution outside the city walls. One day, after twenty years of searching, he had searched enough and was going to finally give up looking for the Place of the Skull.  He was sitting in his villa about five o’clock in the afternoon, and he saw massive shadows on this cliff across the valley floor. He saw those eye sockets and his imagination went to work and he saw what he thought may be the Place of the Skull.  Upon further investigation, above that sixty foot cliff, was a large flat area, now a beautiful garden, about half the size of a football field. In that beautiful garden, were and are currently old olive trees and giant, old, old plants. Also in that garden above the cliff is an ancient tomb carved out of limestone.  In front of that tomb, believe it or not, there is a trough or trench, dug out by human hands centuries ago. In that trough or trench, is where a circular burial stone was rolled, to seal the burial cave. To the archeologists, this was obviously an ancient burial site, an ancient tomb, an ancient gravesite. Gradually, most scholars have come to the conclusion that this was perhaps the authentic site where Jesus was crucified and buried. It fits the Biblical record very well: outside the city wall, close to the city, near a place called “The Skull,” with a garden tomb nearby. John 19:41 “Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden and in the garden a new tomb…where Jesus was buried.” The stories of Good Friday and Easter occur geographically right next to each other.

While the members of our congregation were visiting there at this Golgotha, everyone spoke in hushed whispers, even though we were outside. Even though it was a beautiful day.  Even though there were beautiful gardens. Even though there were no signs that demanded, “speak quietly.”  With no signs suggesting silence, everyone was hushed and spoke quietly. We all whispered, like this was a sacred ground, like this was one of the holiest places of Christianity.

I ask, why?  Why?  Why Golgotha?  Why the Place of the Skull? People were noisy at Bethlehem.  They were noisy at Nazareth. They were noisy on the Sea of Galilee. They were noisy in the streets of Jerusalem. But when at Golgotha…(whisper), everybody whispered. Everybody whispered as if we were on sacred ground.  And I ask why? What is it about Golgotha? What is it about the Place of the Skull? What is it about the place of the cross? What is it about the cross and crucifixion that made people whisper?

As you may know because you have heard the story before, Jesus was crucified at Golgotha. The Roman means of execution was crucifixion. The Romans were professionals at crucifixions, did them by thousands, and recorded the dirty details of their executions in their history books. On the other hand, if Jews were going to kill somebody, they would throw rocks and small boulders and kill them. The Jews killed by stoning, but the Romans killed by crucifixion. Jesus was sentenced to die by the Roman courts and he was sentenced to die by crucifixion outside the city walls of Jerusalem. One more crucifixion wouldn’t bother the soldiers. It was all in a day’s work.

Therefore, as happened at other Roman crucifixions, the Roman soldiers whipped Jesus. We know from history books that those crucified received thirty-nine lashes across their backs. If you can imagine a man’s back that has been whipped or lashed thirty nine times, it is not a pretty sight. Jesus was then given a long wooden bar, about six feet long, like the one I have here today. The cross of execution was shaped like a letter “T.”  The vertical post was stuck in the ground.  The person being executed would carry only the horizontal top of the “T,” a six-foot board like this one. This six-foot board would be attached to the top of the vertical wooden pole stuck in the ground. The cross in the shape of a T is called a Tao Cross, pronounced “Dow” cross. After receiving the thirty-nine lashes, Jesus and other criminals would carry this heavy piece of wood through the streets of Jerusalem, narrow winding streets that were about twelve feet in width. It was about a ten-minute walk from the place where Jesus was sentenced to the Place of the Skull outside the city wall. It was a ten-minute walk if there were not crowds, but on that day, the crowds were crushing against one another as a badly whipped Jesus slowly carried that top piece of the cross to the place of his execution, the Place of the Skull. Jesus was exhausted by the pain that someone, a Simon of Cyrene, was picked from the crowd to carry the cross for him.

Jesus finally came outside the city wall to that cliff; with the eye sockets carved into the mud walls and those eye sockets made the cliff look like a skull.  There was flat ground below the cliff and the limestone gravesite directly above the cliff. Jesus came to that place of the skull. The Roman soldiers stripped him bare naked and then placed the cross bar on the top of the upright, vertical beam. The soldiers lifted the body of Jesus onto the cross. There was a small saddle of wood where they would put his buttocks. The soldiers then took some ropes and tied Jesus around beneath the arms and tied his body to the cross so he wouldn’t fall. With long heavy ten-inch spikes, they nailed his wrists, not the palms of his hands as is in all medieval paintings, to the cross, so he also hung by his wrists. They also nailed his feet to the bottom of the cross. Jesus was hanging there in agony, having no clothes, stark naked.  The watchers made fun of him. There was no way he could control his bodily functions. There was no way he could get rid of the flies. There was no way he could get down. And so Jesus and the other robbers would hang there for days until they died of exhaustion and suffocation. Normally, convicted criminals died of suffocation as their lungs collapsed.

Today, two thousand years later, there is still a fascination with the cross. People still want to hear the story of the cross and still want to hear the absurdity that the cross is the throne of Christ and that Christ still rules from the cross.

Why? Why?  Tell me why the crowds were so quiet above the Place of the Skull? Why is it that two thousand years later we still want and need to hear the story of the cross? Is it because we are human animals? We like to see violent pieces of art, in the same way that people want to go to the races in order to see nasty accidents and the nastier the car wreck, the better? Or is our fascination with the cross similar to our being fascinated with boxing matches and football games and people enjoying the “big hit?” Are we fascinated with the cross because we are sadistic? Why? Why are we drawn to Golgotha? Why is there a magnetism to this place? Why do people speak only in hushed whispers?

Intuitively, we sense that the cross is the central symbol of the Christian faith. We are drawn to the cross because we sense that the cross is the key that unlocks the whole Christian faith. The cross is the key that unlocks the mystery of God. The cross is the key that unlocks the mystery of our lives. We sense that in the cross.

The cross is the one strongest and most central symbol of the Christian faith, symbolizing both the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. The cross symbolizes the love of God through pain and suffering; the cross also triumphantly symbolizes the resurrection to new life forever. Good Friday and Easter. The tragedy and the triumph.  The humanity and the divinity. Both eternal messages are in the cross.

The cross? It is the throne of Jesus Christ. How absurd but Christians have believed that for centuries. Christ is king and the Gospel of John tells us that when he was crucified, he was glorified.

The cross? It is the pulpit from which Christ preached his most powerful sermon of seven words. Most people think that finest sermon of Jesus was the Sermon on the Mount, but we discover that the finest sermon of Jesus was the one he gave from the cross when he was in the midst of pain. 

The cross? It is the window through which I see the face of a loving God. You see, it is only in the cross that you see the face of God. I look into the cross and the cross becomes a window through which I see the face of a loving God. O, I look into the sun and I see the energy of God. I look into the stars and see the infinity of God.  I look at the atoms and see the complexity of God. But it is only in the cross that I see the face of God’s love.  It is only in the cross that I see a love so great that God was willing to die for me. It is only in the cross that I hear the statement, “no greater love is this, than a person is willing to lay down his life for his friend.” There is no greater love than a person is willing to die for another, and the cross states all this.

So, I try to think of examples from my own life where people are willing to die that others might live. You do the same. You think of examples from your own life where love is so great that others are willing to die that someone can live. 

For example, thinking about Christ dying in our place instead of us, I remember walking with our children down to the beach from our house. There is a very sharp curve on the way to the beach, a blind curve, and cars speed around it very fast, and you sense that a car on that curve could kill someone someday. Like other walkers on that curve, I always walk defensively, listening for the speeding car coming down the hill into a blind curve. I can hear them coming fast but they cannot see me. I always have the children walking in front of me on that curve and I am ready to push them out of the street and into the ditch so the speeding car wouldn’t hit them. In doing so, I perhaps would die instead of them.  The car would hit me, but I would have pushed them off the street from the oncoming car.  In other words, I would die instead of my children; in behalf of my children.  All parents who I know feel the same way. It is the way we are.

So we think of stories of parents wanting and being willing to die in the place of their children. I have been here at Grace for almost three decades now and I have heard these stories often, stories of elderly parents whose young adult children have cancer or leukemia and the parent always asks: “Why can’t I have leukemia? Why can’t I have cancer that my child has? Why can’t I die instead of them.” My first funeral here at Grace three decades ago was of the daughter of old Ester Furseth and she was the first one I met here who wanted to die instead of her daughter. That is the way it is with parents.

I remember when my cousin Lois was dying of cancer, and my Aunt Annie would visit her dying daughter, and Aunt Annie poured out her heart, as we were standing alone in the kitchen, “How I wish I could die instead of Lois.”  As a pastor, I have heard those words and attitudes many times by loving parents:  “How I wish I could die instead of my child.”

There are not only the parent stories, but there are also the war stories where a soldier dies so another person can live. There are numerous stories from war that illustrate this. From World War II, Korea, Viet Nam.  This is a story I read in the newspaper during the Viet Nam war. It was wartime in Viet Nam and I want you children to imagine war.  Everybody outside is shooting at your house, and you and your mom and dad and seven brothers and sisters are in that house that has been riddled with bullets. It is very scary. Your dad has a machine gun and he has been firing that machine gun ferociously, out from a window. The house has a secret cellar, and the father keeps on shooting, shooting, shooting. Your father commands his family, “Children, wife, go down into the secret cellar and be absolutely quiet so one will know you are there. I will cover the entrance to the cellar, so the enemy will only think that I was alone in this house.”  So, you and your family go down into the secret cellar and you hear shooting, shoot, shooting, and finally silence.  You hear soldier’s voices, the movement of feet, and then silence again. Your heart is wildly beating with fear  … Why?  You tell me why? You tell me why the father died instead of you? Why? Why?  Because the father loved you, that is why.

Most recently, there are the September 11th stories. Firemen running up the stairwells to rescue people in a burning inferno. Policemen rushing to the scene of the towers only to be killed while attempting to rescue another. A man overpowering a terrorist on an airplane and that terrorist was going use the airplane as a flying bomb to bomb another tower. These are all stories of people dying that others might live.

That is what the cross tells us:  God loved us so much that God was willing to die for us.

That is the message of the cross.  That is what the cross says.  It is only in the cross that we see the face of God’s love. Not in the sun. Not in the stars. Not in the atoms.  It is only in the cross. The cross is that glorious window through which we see God’s great love, a love so great that God was willing to die for you, that God’s son was willing to lay down his life for you and me.

And so we love our favorite hymns about the cross and we want our children to know and love those hymns about the cross as well. In childhood, I remember singing with gusto the hymn, “On a hill far away, stood an old rugged cross,” and that melody and its words are etched into my mind and spirit. During my college years, we sang “Chris Men, Cross Men, in dauntless quest, led by the Spirit of truth.”  We all knew that we were Chris- men and cross-men. Yes, the language was sexist, but the truth was not: we were all followers of the cross. More recently, within our own congregation, we sing triumphantly, “Lift high the cross, the love of God proclaim.”  We sing that grand hymn as an entry hymn during all the Lenten worship services and we bring in the processional cross and it is lifted as high as possible.  We feel the magnetism of the cross and want our children and all the younger people here today to feel the same about the cross as we do. 

We also wear crosses around our neck; we wear crosses on our ears as earrings; we have crosses on our desks or on the walls of our home.  Why the cross?  Why not some other Christian symbol. Why is the cross the central symbol of the Christian faith?

It is only in the cross that one sees the face of God. It is only in the cross that we know the heart of God. It is from the cross that we hear the voice of God who constantly and persistently says, “I love you. I forgive you. I am with you.”  You cannot stop God from saying these words to you. You cannot stop the sun from shining.  You cannot stop the ocean waves from rolling into the shore. You cannot stop the springtime flowers from blooming.  And you cannot stop God from the cross saying, “I love you. I love you. I love you.”

I’ll never forget that summer in Jerusalem.  While in the Holy Land and Jerusalem, I was impressed with many sacred sites, but I will never forget looking at that sixty foot cliff, and seeing those sockets that in my imagination and others imaginations looked like hallowed out eyeballs in that cliff.  The cliff looked like a skull.  I imagined the three crosses there, and looking behind those cross and up on top of that cliff, I saw an ancient garden tomb. I heard everyone whispering, and I thought to myself,  “Why? What is so sacred about this place? What is this place trying to say to you and me? Why is the place of the cross so holy in our lives?” Amen.

CHILDREN’S SERMON.  Ask the kids what flies in the sky on the end of a pole and is red, white and blue? They all say, “The flag.”  Ask the question, “Is America bigger than the flag?” Yes. The flag has become a symbol of the United States and the United States is so much bigger than the flag. … Ask the kids what is the most important symbol of the Christian faith. Answer? “The cross.” Where can they find crosses in our sanctuary? One child points to the cross in the chancel and also finds the five crosses on the Holy Communion table.  I ask the kids: “Where is there a cross on me?” They can’t see one until I pull out my key chain and there on my key chair is a cross that I always carry with me. … Encourage the children to have a cross or crosses somewhere in their home or bedroom or to carry one. The cross is the most important symbol of the Christian faith.

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