He said to them, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.” They said to him, “Who are you?” Jesus said to them, “Why do I speak to you at all? I have much to say about you and much to condemn; but the one who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.” They did not understand that he was speaking to them about the Father.
So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me. And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him.” As he was saying these things, many believed in him.
One of those Nicorette commercials caught my attention the other day. You know the ones for nicotine gum or patches or pills that help people quit smoking. They have some real-life former smokers tell stories about why they finally decided to kick the habit. There’s one where a guy misses his kid’s game-winning basketball shot because he had to run outside for a smoke. There’s another one where a woman realized how crazy it was that she found herself hoofing it through a snowstorm, just for another cigarette. And there’s one where a young, new dad is on the floor playing with his baby girl. They all describe their respective “aha” moments as their own, personal “why” that convinced them, finally, to quit smoking.
And the tag-line at the end of each commercial suggests that “every great why, needs a great how.” “Every great why, needs a great how.”
I think there’s some truth to that – especially if you’re looking for a nicotine replacement therapy. And I think it applies to our spiritual life, too, in some ways... “Every great why, needs a great how.”
But when it comes to Good Friday and all that brings us here, we focus too much on “how” too much of the time, if you ask me. For lots of reasons, we are captivated and fascinated by the “how” of this night. I’m always glad for and impressed and surprised, frankly, year after year by the turnout we have for Good Friday worship, this occasion where we gather very deliberately to get as close to death as most of us are comfortable getting – unless or until we have to, anyway.
Now, I imagine the reasons that draw us here – like everything else – are as varied as are the people in the room, and a lot of that has to do with the “how” of Jesus’ crucifixion. And I’m right there with you. Many of you know I love a good, gory - preferably true - crime story, as much as the next guy. My wife and kids are a little creeped out by my Netflix history, to be honest, which includes a lot of that sort of thing: Making a Murderer, Abduction in Plain Sight, The Keepers. That new Ted Bundy documentary is fantastic, by the way.
And the “how” of tonight is like a lot of that – blood and guts and gore, I mean. We’ll hear again about the whips and the thorns and the spit and the screaming. And we can get carried away with all of it, if we’re not careful. (I read a story just this week about a youth pastor in an Ohio suburb who encouraged his high school students to spit on him, whip him, and even cut his back with a knife as a Holy Week exercise. And the senior pastor watched it all happen, before some wise and frightened parents stepped in to stop it!) Like I said, we can get a little carried away with the “how” of what happened to Jesus at his crucifixion.
But what’s more important tonight for a million reasons… the thing that matters for God, in Jesus… isn’t so much the “how” of all of this, as it is the “why.”
Because, honestly, if you’ve been around awhile – or if your Netflix history looks anything like mine – you know that crucifixion, as horrible as it was for Jesus and others who suffered it, might not even be the worst way to go. I’d have a hard time convincing a holocaust victim of the concentration camps and gas chambers that their suffering was preferable to what Jesus endured. I’d have a hard time explaining to a black boy in America’s Jim Crow, 1950’s south that his lynching was any easier than a crucifixion in 1st century Palestine. And I’ve even heard people wonder if the long, slow, painful death march of a loved-one’s cancer or Alzheimer’s disease wasn’t as ugly and painful and twisted a way to die as anything the Romans might have come up with.
So it can’t be the how that matters or captivates our imagination in all of this. The “how” of tonight isn’t the point, so much as the “why” that brings us here. So, in the case of Jesus and all that compels us to call this fateful Friday “good” – the “how” we’ll hear about in a moment better come with a pretty darn good “why.”
And it does. And some of you won’t be surprised to know it all comes down to this thing we call grace, around here.
The “why” that drove God, in Jesus, to the Cross of Good Friday is that God already loved the world and that God already loved us – way back when.
And that’s something we can’t here too much or be reminded of often enough.
I think if we were to ask Jesus about his “why,” on that first Good Friday, he might have said, “Because I love you, already.” God’s promise and proclamation, in Jesus’ death on the cross wasn’t some cosmic guilt-trip meant to coerce our obedience; it wasn’t some kind of tit-for-tat transaction; it wasn’t some sadistic sideshow of suffering where God said “look what I’ve done for you, you better shape up, or else.”
It was nothing less than the heart of God, burdened by the brokenness and corruption and ugliness and injustice and inequity and greed and sin of the world’s people – the children of God whom God already loved. God’s heart broke – Jesus died – because God already loved us – not because God was trying to make us love him back.
It’s something I’ve recently started trying to say to my boys on a regular basis – “I love you already” – and something I think we all need to hear more frequently than we do, on behalf of our creator. “I loved you already.”
“I loved you already.” Before you won the game. Before you passed the test. Before the grades were posted. “I loved you already.”
“I loved you already.” Before that sin. Before your confession. Before you felt the forgiveness, even. “I loved you already.”
“I loved you already.” Before the addiction. Before the divorce. Before you lost the job.
“I loved you already.” Before the infidelity. Before you stopped coming to church. Before you started coming back.
And I think this is the simple, sweet, sacred message of God’s act, in Jesus, on Good Friday. Why? Why all of this darkness, despair and dying? “Because I loved you already.”
“I loved you already,” even though you can’t understand it; or wrap your brain around it; or possibly ever live up to it.
“I loved you already,” and there’s nothing you can do but marvel at it; be humbled by and grateful for the truth of it.
“I loved you already – and so much – that it killed me.”
“I loved you already – and so much – that I died for your sake and for the sake of the world.”
“I loved you already. And, come Sunday you’ll see, I love you still, and will forever.”