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The Sounds of Lent: Pounding Hammer,
Spurting Water and Blood, and Confessing

John 19:31-37


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Lent Service VI—March 24, 2010

“The Sounds of Lent: Pounding Hammer”

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

John’s Gospel says, “Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place called The Place of the Skull, which in Aramaic is Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on each side, with Jesus in the middle.”

Good Friday began as a day of gruesome, grim, routine for the Roman centurion.  In the regular rotation of officers’ duties in the garrison at Jerusalem, today it was his turn to command a squad in carrying out the most distasteful task required of a Roman solider.

Crucifixion was, on the one hand, the most cruel method of execution ever devised; and, on the other hand, a routine reality of Roman life.  Especially in the occupied provinces like Palestine, this harsh, public punishment was regularly meted out for all kinds of crimes and all sorts of criminals, such as the two thieves on either side of Jesus that day.  Crucifixion was the Roman way of maintaining strict control, especially over the multitude of conquered nations that they ruled.  In this way the Empire sent a clear and unmistakable message to keep potentially rebellious populations in line: Obey or else—or else this will be your horrible fate.

Crucifixion was also the Roman way of toughening their soldiers and desensitizing them to killing and death.  That was why they had to take their turn rotating on this distasteful duty. 

For each condemned man there was a crucifixion detail, made up of a centurion in charge of about four soldiers. The centurion checked out from the quartermaster some very valuable army equipment that must be returned at the end of the day or his pay will be docked: the iron spikes, which were used to nail the condemned men to the cross. 

That was the worst part, the nailing to the cross.  Surely even the toughest soldiers had nightmares about that, haunted by the horrible sound of the hammer striking the nails, as they were cruelly driven through victims’ hands and feet.

But, although it was a gross miscarriage of justice, although it was a shameful rejection of the Messiah, although it was horrible blasphemy by humanity against the Son of God, it was actually the fulfillment of God’s plan for the salvation of the world.  As Peter says in Acts, “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.”

Jesus prophesied his crucifixion, and explained its purpose: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself. . . the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned.”

It is the custom in some churches to erect a large, rough-hewn wooden cross in the sanctuary during Lent.  And on Good Friday the parishioners write on a slip of paper a sin that is troubling them and nail it to the cross.  That symbolizes what Christ has done for you by being nailed to the cross, as Paul says in Colossians, “He forgave us all our sins . . . he took it away, nailing it to the cross.”

Amen.

[Hymn Interlude]

“The Sounds of Lent: Spurting Water and Blood”

John’s Gospel says, “The next day was to be a special Sabbath.  Because the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down.  The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other.  But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.  Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.  The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: ‘Not one of his bones will be broken,’ and, as another scripture says, ‘They will look on the one they have pierced.’”

An important part of the centurion’s duty that day as the officer in charge of the crucifixion detail was to confirm the death of the victim.  It was not uncommon for crucifixion victims to linger on the cross for three or four days.  That was one reason for the severe flogging they received prior to crucifixion, to weaken them and shorten their time on the cross, so that a centurion and squad of soldiers weren’t tied up for three or four days guarding a lingering victim in a round-the-clock vigil while he slowly died.

On Good Friday there was a special urgency in getting the job done.  Because the point of crucifixions was to serve as a warning to the local populace, they were conducted in the most public, highly visible place.  It Hebrew it is Golgatha, in Latin Calvary; both mean, “The Place of the Skull,” an apt name for a horrible place of execution.  It was probably located just outside the main gate to the city, which was called the Joppa Gate because it was the main road into the city from the port of Joppa.  So, instead of visitors being welcomed by a cheery chamber of commerce sign saying “Welcome to Jerusalem,” they were confronted by a gruesome place of execution, which is exactly what the Romans wanted.

But, this was Passover week, the Hebrews’ high holy days.  The next day was to be a special Sabbath, which according to their custom actually began at 6:00pm on Good Friday evening.  For both religious and political reasons, they did not want the pilgrims flooding into Jerusalem to pass by the spectacle of Roman soldiers watching over Jewish execution victims hanging on crosses.  That would be not only distasteful religiously during the Passover celebration, but a humiliating reminder to all those pilgrims of the subjugated status of their Hebrew nation.

“Because the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down.”  In addition to flogging before crucifixion, breaking the legs of the victims was the other common way of hastening their death.  The weight of the body pulling down on the arms makes proper respiration impossible and results in slow suffocation.  The victims hanging on the cross would try to counter this effect by pushing up on their legs.  But, once the legs were broken, death came quickly.

“The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other.  But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.”  From a physical perspective, Jesus probably died more quickly because of the extreme, unending torment he had endured all through the night and day.  And, spiritually, he was bearing the burden of the sins of the whole world.  As he told the disciples the night before the Garden of Gethsemane, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”

“One of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.”  The centurion did this not as a final wound against Christ, but to confirm his death.  As an experienced executioner, he knew that the shallow breathing caused by crucifixion led to a buildup of fluids in the pericardial sac around the heart, resulting in congestive heart failure.  It was this pericardial sac that he expertly pierced with his spear, so that he could officially confirm Jesus’ death by the spurting out of the accumulated blood and water.

The water and blood flowing from our Savior’s side also have a symbolic significance: the waters of Holy Baptism, and the blessed stream of our Savior’s blood in Holy Communion.  As the hymn “Rock of Ages” puts it:

Let the water and the blood from thy riven side which flowed

Be of sin the double cure, cleanse me from its guilt and power.

Your sins have been washed away by the river of blood flowing from your Savior’s side.  Be cleansed and soothed by the water and the blood which in the Sacraments continue to flow from your stricken Savior’s side.

Amen.

[Hymn Interlude]

“The Sounds of Lent: Confessing”

What an unusual day it has been for the Roman centurion and his squad of soldiers.  They have never before conducted an execution like this one, or seen such amazing things.  The condemned man crowned with thorns and declared by the sign above his head to be a king.  The ominous darkness over the whole land for three hours.  The prisoner crying out for his tormentors, even as he being nailed to the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

What effect do all these events have on the Roman centurion?  In a surprising twist at the end of the Passion story, the Gospels report the centurion’s confession of faith in the crucified: “Seeing what had happened, the centurion praised God and said, ‘Surely this was a righteous man.  Surely he was the Son of God!’”

But, if he was a righteous man, if he was the Son of God, then why?  Why did Jesus suffer so, and die such a horrible death?

The Roman philosopher Seneca lived about the same time as Jesus.  This is what Seneca wrote about crucifixion:  “Can any man be found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree?  Can any man be found who would waste away in pain, dying limb by limb, losing his life drop by drop?”* 

Seneca didn’t know it, but a thousand miles away in the Roman province of Palestine there was indeed found a man willing to be nailed to the accursed tree, willing to waste away in pain, dying limb by limb, losing his life drop by drop.  There was indeed found a man willing to endure all this torment, for you.  “No one takes my life from me,” Jesus said, “but I lay it down of my own accord. . .  For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Why did Jesus suffer so, and die such a horrible death? He gave himself for you, taking your sins upon himself, dying in your place. As Paul says in Romans, “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement . . .  he was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.”

“Seeing what had happened, the centurion praised God and said, ‘Surely this was a righteous man.  Surely he was the Son of God!’”  As you ponder the events of Good Friday, like the Roman centurion praise God that his righteous Son died for your salvation.

Amen.

*Freely quoted from Martin Hengel, “Crucifixion” (Fortress, 1977).  The entire quote as given by Hengel is as follows: 

“Can anyone be found who would prefer wasting away in pain, dying limb by limb, or letting his life out drop by drop, rather than expiring once for all?  Can any man be found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly weals on the shoulders and chest, and drawing the breath of life amid long-drawn-out agony?  He would have excuses for dying, even before mounting the cross.”

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