Pastor Gary Wong April 10, 2020
27 Then the governor's soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. "Hail, king of the Jews!" they said. 30 They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. 31 After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. 32 As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross. 33 They came to a place called Golgotha (which means The Place of the Skull).
In the fall of 1849, a wagon train set out from Salt Lake City in search of gold. Knowing that anyone crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the winter could freeze to death, these intrepid travelers chose to take a southern route into California. But finding the pace too slow, a small party decided to split off and take an unproven short cut. They got lost and eventually exhausted their food supplies. To avoid starvation, they slaughtered their oxen and made jerky using their wagons as firewood. After weeks of wandering, they found a way out. Pausing at the pass, one of the survivors bid a not so fond farewell and said, “Goodbye, Death Valley!”
Death Valley is an appropriate name for the hottest, driest place in North America. With an average of 1.5 inches of rain per year and a highest recorded temperature of 134 degrees, Death Valley is one of the most inhospitable climates on earth. The sun bleached bones of animals that litter the desert floor lay as warnings to any traveler that this valley can be a place of death. Today, our forty day journey in Lent takes us to another place of death: Golgotha. St. Matthew tells us that Golgotha is an Aramaic word that means “The Place of the Skull.” We aren’t told how this place got its name. Perhaps this barren, rocky rise on the outskirts of Jerusalem’s walls resembled the top of a human skull (Calvary, the other name for this place, comes from calvarium, the Latin word for “skull”). Perhaps it got its name because of what regularly took place there. Rather than a peaceful garden like Gethsemane, Golgotha was a place of unspeakable violence. Golgotha was a killing field where the Romans crucified the worst criminals.
So, how and why did Jesus end up at Golgotha? In today’s lesson, Matthew tells us that early on Good Friday morning, Jesus was in the Praetorium, the Roman governor’s residence. So, what was Jesus doing at Pontius Pilate’s house? Was Jesus an honored guest at the governor’s mansion? Had Pilate invited Jesus to his house for a sleepover? Were Jesus and Pilate going to go to the temple and celebrate the Sabbath later that day? That would be absurd! The Gospel writers tell us that after the Jewish religious leaders had unjustly convicted Jesus of the charge of blasphemy, they brought Jesus, whom they had trussed up like a lamb to be slaughtered, over to the Praetorium in the predawn darkness. They rousted Pilate out of bed at the crack of dawn and demanded that he execute Jesus. (Note that only the Roman government had the power to carry out the death sentence.) Pilate wasted no time in interrogating and then passing judgement on Jesus. It didn’t take long for the Roman governor to figure out that this rabbi was innocent of all of the charges that had been levelled against him. Pilate wanted to release Jesus. Even Pilate’s wife implored him, “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man!” (Mt. 27:19). The mob, however, kept chanting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” (Lk. 23:20). Wanting to prevent a riot, Pilate caved in to the pressure and knowingly condemned an innocent man to death.
Pilate handed Jesus over to a squad of Roman soldiers who mocked, spit on and struck Jesus again and again. The soldiers then led Jesus from the Praetorium to the Place of the Skull. Even though it was only about a half a mile from the Governor’s residence to Golgotha, it was a slow, painful journey to the place where Jesus would die the most horrible death known to man. Jesus had been so weakened by the beating, the loss of blood, and the lack of water and sleep that Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry Jesus’ cross along “The Via Dolorosa”—The Way of Sorrows. When Jesus finally reached the summit, he was immediately crucified. It was about 9:00 am. Jesus would hang on the cross for six long, agonizing hours. In a very real way, Jesus’ journey had begun long before the day we call Good Friday. It had begun shortly before the creation of the world. Jesus’ journey to Golgotha was made necessary because of what happened in the Garden of Eden. You know the story of how Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s command not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Their disobedience ruined the perfection of God’s creation and brought sin into the world. God threw Adam and Eve out of his once perfect garden and cursed the ground. But the worst consequence of their sin was that they were going to die. God said, “You [will] return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19).
In the Garden of Eden, God pronounce the curse of death on all mankind. Because we have inherited a sinful nature from our parents, each of us deserves to die. Our sins separate us from God. Because of sin, the only relationship we had with God was that of being his enemy. By nature, we didn’t want to have anything to do with God; we didn’t want to listen to him and we certainly had no desire to obey him. We were only capable of rejecting him and trampling on his Word. Because we are sinners, we experience all kinds of headaches and heartaches such as broken relationships and broken down bodies. Every day we have to battle the devil, the world, and our own sinful natures. We had no peace because the Scriptures tell us that one day we are going to die and face God’s judgment.
So, how do people deal with the prospect of death? Some people down play it; they don’t want to think about it or talk about it. Others are scared and fight against it. Yet, whether we try to deny it, downplay it, or get angry about it, we cannot avoid it. Death comes to everyone because all of us fall short of God’s glory. The worst part of that is that we could not do anything about our situation; only God could. And he did! Because of his love for us, God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to save us. Jesus lived a perfect life in our place. He was completely obedient to God’s will. Even though Jesus was completely innocent, he willingly went to the Place of the Skull to die in our place. Jesus was nailed to the cross to suffer the punishment that you and I deserve. The gruesome details of Jesus’ physical suffering are graphically depicted in Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ.” While we recoil in horror as we see and read about the vicious beating that Jesus endured on our behalf, we cannot see or fully appreciate our Savior’s greatest pain: the agony of his soul. Even though he had been completely obedient to God’s will, his Father turned his back on him. Jesus was completely separated from God’s love. Out of the depths of darkness, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk. 15:34). After suffering the full measure of God’s wrath against sin, Jesus declared, “It is finished” (Jn. 19:31). With his work of salvation complete, Jesus gave up his spirit and died. After laying Jesus’ lifeless body in a tomb, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus rolled a stone in front of the tomb.
God’s prophets predicted Jesus’ suffering and death long before Good Friday—how Jesus would thirst on the cross, how he would be able to count his bones and yet not one of his bones would be broken, how he would be “numbered with the transgressors” and yet would be buried in the grave of a rich man. Every prophecy came to pass just as the prophets had said. The prophets had also said that Jesus would not remain in the tomb. Applying David’s words to himself, Jesus said to his Father, “You will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay” (Ps. 16:10). Jesus had told his disciples that he would be crucified, die, and rise on the third day. Every prophecy about Jesus’ death and his resurrection has come true. The tomb is empty! Our crucified Savior has risen from the grave, just as he said he would.
If Jesus had remained in the grave, we would not be calling this day Good Friday. If Jesus’ journey from Golgotha had ended in the tomb, there would be no reason for us to be worshipping today. As the Apostle Paul says, “If Christ had not been raised, [our] faith would be futile; [we] would still be dead in [our] sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). We would have had no hope, either for this life or the next. Yet, we know that Christ indeed has been raised. Jesus lives! He has won the victory over sin, death, and the devil. Now, Jesus did not live, die, and rise for himself. He did it for you and me. He did it to give us peace, joy, and hope. So, how do those blessings come to us? God gives us forgiveness, peace, joy, eternal life and every other blessing through God’s undeserved gift of faith.
Our faith sustains us in this life and gives us the certain hope of eternal life in heaven. The cross and empty tomb remind us that God has kept his promise about saving us from our sins and they assure us that God will keep all of his promises. When we are lonely, remember Jesus’ promise that he is with us always to the very end of the age. When we are worn out from work and worried that we won’t be able to make ends meet, remember his promise that he will provide for all of our needs. When our consciences are weighed down by guilt over how we have sinned against the Lord and others with our angry, hateful words, the Gospel assures us that God has forgiven us and has taken away our guilt for Jesus’ sake. When it seems as though we can’t find any relief, Jesus invites us, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 20:28). Because of Jesus, we have peace with God that surpasses all understanding. Everyone who believes in Jesus and puts his hope in him will be renewed. Everyone who believes in Jesus will not die, but live.
At times, our lives might seem like a perilous journey through California’s Death Valley. We might get discouraged because we know that we will die one day and our bodies will be in the grave. Yet David assures us that “even though [we] walk through the valley of the shadow death” (Ps. 23:4), we don’t have to be afraid. Jesus is with us and he promises that he will give life to our dead bodies on the Last Day. Our Lenten journey has taken us from the Garden of Eden to Golgotha. At many WELS churches, it is a Good Friday tradition to turn off the lights at the end of the service and then play a loud crash that represents the stone being rolled in front of Jesus’ tomb. That crashing sound is not the end of Jesus’ story. On Easter Sunday, we look forward to hearing how the angels rolled away the stone, revealing the empty tomb. Jesus lives! And so will we. On this Friday we call Good, we recall that Golgotha was a place of death that leads to eternal life. Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
“God Was There on Calvary” (CW 140)
Text and Tune: Kurt Eggert, 1923-1993
God was there on Calvary,
God the Father’s only Son
Dying that the world might live,
There on Calvary.
All the world on Calvary,
Crucified the Prince of life,
Pierced the hands of God’s own Son,
There on Calvary
Sin was there on Calvary,
All the sins of ev’ryone,
Laid upon God’s sinless Lamb,
There on Calvary.
Love was there on Calvary,
Streaming from the heart of God,
Reaching out for ev’ryone
There on Calvary.
Life was there on Calvary,
Flowing from his wounded side,
Spent that death itself might die
There on Calvary.
We were there on Calvary;
We were pardoned, saved, set free,
Saved to live eternally—