A Terrifying Event (Good Friday)
Topic: Christ's Crucifixtion Scripture: Matthew 27:45–27:54
Tonight, we observe and reflect upon the darkest and most terrible of moments within the entire story of the people of God. Spanning centuries, those who devoted themselves to the Lord were subject to shocking and awful events. The atrocities of war, the emptiness of famine, the despair of exile. God’s people would be victims of ignorance, mocking, and violence. Oppressed by brutal leaders, rejected by once-allies, and always pursued by our relentless and supernatural enemy and the spiritual forces of darkness. And yet, no event or encounter can compare to what we observe on Good Friday.
We call it “good” only because we have the luxury and blessing of approaching this day of remembrance from hindsight. We read the most troubling chapter of God’s story already knowing how the story ends. And perhaps that is why we still observe and take time to reflect on these events. History and memory can be tools for much good but they can also foster the soil for complacency and hubris. We gather this evening as a people saved, redeemed, and spoken for. But recalling and experiencing and processing what the cost of that identity was is a task we are called and honored to endure as the people of Christ.
Approaching the events of Christ’s final hours before death is a full and burdensome task. And over the decades’ Christian leaders have been compelled to recount those events in a number of ways. No one way is more right or wrong from another as long as they remain close to the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. I’ve heard and experienced a variety of methods. I’ve watched the Passion of the Christ and seen visually a representation of the physical brutality and graphic violence that fell upon Christ that day. I’ve walked the stations of the cross, and in the space of contemplation and prayer, walked those final steps of Christ moment by moment. I’ve heard moving and powerful songs describing how on-lookers and witnesses experienced those events.
Tonight, I want us to explore the closing moments of Christ’s life and the cataclysmic impact His death had on everyone and everything around Him. When we look to Scripture for an account of what happened, we witness nothing short of a terrifying event. We are going to read Matthew 27:45-54. The events of this text occur after the public trial, after the beatings, and after Jesus has been nailed to the cross. The Son of God has been brutally fixed to the cross for several hours.
*Read Matthew 27:45-54*
This brief text is a cascading series of events in response to the most tragic loss of life humanity would ever witness. We as a race shudder when we see innocent life harmed or taken. I believe it’s one of the elements of the image of God in us that is the hardest to obscure or snuff out. Not impossible – that’s obvious with recent events in the news displaying the monstrous actions of some. But for most, the loss of innocent life is a breaking point. And so it was on the hill so many centuries ago.
But it wasn’t just the followers and devoted friends of the Savior that cried out that day in response to what they witnessed. All of creation did as well. John Calvin speaks of this and says, “Thus the majesty of Christ was attested by the obscuration of the sun, by the earthquake, by the splitting of the rocks, and the rending of the vail, as if heaven and earth were rendering the homage which they owed to their Creator.” Calvin’s words describe well what we read in this text. The fabric of creation is reacting to what takes place on the cross.
This terrifying event begins with darkness. Appropriate in that darkness is often a common fear for many. Appropriate because the light of the world is slowly being extinguished. As we consider each element of this terrifying event, it is important to remember that these are not merely coincidental occurrences. They are a divine and reactionary response to the death of Christ. The darkness that blankets this event is revealing the heart of God. With every moment the life of Christ fades and so does the light for and of the world. The snuffing out of that light portends the horrors occurring on the cross and those yet to come.
William Hendriksen describes it this way: “The darkness meant judgement, the judgement of God upon our sins, his wrath as it were burning itself out in the very heart of Jesus, so that he, as our Substitute, suffered most intense agony, indescribable woe, terrible isolation or forsakenness. Hell came to Calvary that day, and the Savior descended into it and bore its horrors in our stead.” Every cataclysmic action taking place in our text has a physical terror and a spiritual one. The darkness falling and remaining over the area both mourns the loss of true light and screams of the terrible happenings within the soul of the Son of God.
Next we hear of the curtain or veil in the temple being torn from top to bottom. This would have been a thick piece of cloth around 60-feet high and noticeably thicker than the fabric worn for clothing. It was a standard and constant in temple design and worship, dating all the way back to the Old Testament. And it served the purpose of veiling or hiding the holiest place of the temple from the common sight of worshippers. Both for their protection and for the sake of holy tradition.
The tearing of the veil represented the removal of the barrier between the holy of holies and the rest of the temple. That which kept the presence of God at a safe distance was removed. This has two meanings. One is joyous and is the symbol that no longer is there any separation between humanity and God. Christ has erased the lines of that boundary. The way into the presence of God is open. The gate is removed, the barrier abolished. But this is also a terrifying event. Now the fullness and totality of God’s anger and judgement can fall onto the temple and the people that have crucified His son. What is the warmth of God’s presence for some is also the scalding, scorching heat of His wrath to others.
The final trifecta of natural disasters that we read of are the shaking of the earth, the splitting of stones, and the rising of the dead. What is summed up in a single sentence would be enough to rattle society to its core today. An earthquake forced every human being to feel the terrible throes and convulsions of grief and pain now felt by the Triune God. None would be immune to the paralyzing fear and immeasurable sorrow striking the heart of the Almighty.
The rocks split. Just as Christ, the cornerstone, had his very flesh split and broken open so too did the stones of the area split under the terrible pressure of death that was overtaking the Son of God. Rocks that had remained fixed and constant for generations were being reduced to fractions of their once steady size. Our Savior, the hope for all, being reduced and fractured by the execution meant for a criminal.
And then, perhaps the most bizarre of all, the tombs break open. Death itself, simultaneously the most natural and unnatural aspect of the created order, shudders and reacts to this event unfolding on the cross. Just as the power of light is banished and the strength of stones broken, so too is the grip of death rendered inert. In what can only be described as a horrifying foreshadowing for the rise of Christ, we find the natural order completely negated and those who had followed God before death being brought back.
To describe the events of our text as anything less than a terrifying event is to either engage them with a flippant ignorance or to erroneously attempt to explain them away as mere elements of a fantasy and myth. They took place as surely as the death of our true Savior took place. And they force us to consider a question of dire consequence: What response does our own heart have in light of what we know happened to our Savior?
How do we, as a people who know the end of this story, react to what took place? If these events were powerful enough to counter the light of the sun, rend the fabric that divides the created from the Creator, shake the very earth, shatter stone, and raise the dead…what effect do they have in the hearts of everyday people? To answer that, we read our final moment in the text.
When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!” Amidst everything that takes place in this text, Douglas Hare remarks that “The scene’s real climax comes in the response of the Gentile soldiers.” In the response of the centurion and soldiers who witnessed the death of Christ, we witness a supernatural event in and of itself, and the breaking of something nearly as invulnerable as steel. Perhaps the most stubborn and unbreakable substance of all, the human will and heart. Stronger than woven fabric or solid stone. In the sight of Christ’s lifeless body on the cross, the violent wills of these men are melted and recast by the truest terror and into most honest praise of Jesus Christ.
As we prepare to depart from this place of worship, it is my prayer that you would reflect this evening and tomorrow on the events of the cross. As they say, “Sunday is a coming.” But before Sunday there must be a Friday and a Saturday. Before a resurrection, there must be a death. May our hardened hearts split like the rocks. May our doubts be eliminated as they were in the centurion. May we be forced to stop and reflect on the terrifying event of the cross and may we be changed by it.