Church Sermon

"God has redeemed my soul" (Job 33:1-18, John 19:28-42, Hebrews 9:11-14)

Rev John Bremner, 18/04/2014
Part of the Festival Sermons series, preached at a Good Friday service

Good Friday
Job 33: 1 – 18; John 19: 28 – 42; Hebrews 9: 11 – 14.

My friends, we here at this Church have been reading through parts of the Book of Job over the past few weeks. Some members of this congregation took up my suggestion at the start of Lent that they read a chapter of the Book of Job each day through until the Easter weekend. It has been said that the Book of Job is ‘not for the fainthearted’, and it has to be said that some started to read through the Book, but came to a grinding halt, unable to fathom its complex arguments and often confusing changes of tack. So often the reader feels like saying: “Yes, that’s true!”, only to find that a few lines later he is saying of the same speaker: “No that’s not right at all”. The Book of Job is not an easy book, due in part to that fact that it is never totally clear until the final few chapters whether Job is right when he claims that God is being unjust, or his friends are speaking the truth when they say Job is being punished for sins he refuses to recognise, or if neither Job nor any of his friends has really understood God’s ways at all.

For this evening’s purposes, however, we may look at a phrase from Elihu’s speech in chapter 33. Elihu is not one of Job’s close friends (his so-called ‘comforters’); he is a younger man who has sat on the sidelines throughout the various arguments and he is frustrated that Job’s claims to being righteous have not been adequately refuted by the older men. Just like the older men, however, Elihu says things which seem superficially to be right, and yet, once you start to look at his words in detail you soon come to the conclusion that he, like all the other characters in the book (apart from God!), is only telling part of the story; that is to say, there is more to be said, and it isn’t as simple as Elihu makes out. In a couple of phrases in verse 14 Elihu seems to get it absolutely right: “For God speaks in one way, and in two, though man does not perceive it”. Elihu’s point, as it turns out, is that although God often speaks initially in ways which are beyond man’s ability to understand, he uses man’s fear of the unknown, and then the fear produced when God’s message becomes clear, to turn man from his evil ways. “He keeps back (man’s) soul from the pit, his life from perishing by the sword” (v. 18). Yet, as we shall see, Elihu doesn’t hit the nail entirely on the head.

Elihu’s argument is that man’s salvation is brought about through means which man himself only vaguely understands, and this understanding comes only sometime later. In this he is absolutely correct. God speaks, or he acts – in Hebrew thought it is virtually the same thing – in ways which are beyond man’s ability to understand, at least at first. Only later, as the significance of what God has done sinks in, does man realise fully what has happened. He comes to understand the danger he was in; he comes to understand what God has done to rescue him from that danger; but all this understanding comes later, for at the time it is happening man does not perceive it.

And that is precisely what we find as we look at the cross of Jesus Christ. Here God is speaking; here God is acting; but not only do Jesus’ disciples not understand at all what is happening, we would also be wise to assume that we, like them, do not really understand much at all of what is happening when Jesus Christ dies on the cross. Even after many years of being a Christian, our perception of what the cross means can be so easily clouded. Our understanding can be blocked by a pre-conceived idea as to what it all means: that is to say, we are tempted by a pre-confected, nicely packaged explanation, a formulation to which we happily assent, but which is liable to be really only an opt-out when it comes to our having to dig deeply into the true meaning of these events; or our understanding can be blocked by the refusal to question human assumptions.

Or our understanding can be blocked simply because we do not realise the danger we are in: we do not know that our souls are headed for the pit; we fail to recognise that our lives are perishing – perhaps not by the threat of a physical sword, as Elihu may have intended, but certainly by the threat of the spiritual sword of God’s judgement which cuts through the web of our sinful lives, the web which we so carefully construct but which stands no chance whatsoever when confronted by the judgement of God. We do not perceive God’s speech, because we do not perceive our danger; indeed, the two perceptions will only arrive together: we can never understand one unless we also understand the other; as Calvin so rightly pointed out at the start of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536): “Nearly the whole of sacred doctrine consists in these two parts: knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Elihu got that right: man does not perceive God’s speech, God’s activity, without also perceiving his own true situation.

As we have already noted, however, human perception can often lag a long way behind events. God speaks, and acts: but our understanding is slow. For example, let us look at the events we heard portrayed in John’s Gospel. At the beginning of our reading, Jesus sees that all things are now complete – perfect, fulfilled. But what do human eyes see? They see a man dying on a cross; this doesn’t seem to be the fulfilment of anything that the human imagination might have wished for. A man dying on the cross is the exact opposite of what human beings would describe as perfection; it is certainly not the way in which we would like our lives to reach their fulfilling conclusion. The Gospel writer, in retrospect, sees what Jesus himself saw – that this was the fulfilling of the scripture, that is to say, God bringing to completion his age-old work: a work which started, we might say, with Abraham, though it might also be argued that God’s work of salvation begins with the act of creation itself. Perhaps even Jesus himself did not fully understand at that point, though he knew that he had done everything required of him – and, as the Word made flesh, perhaps that is all he needs to know.

What matters for us is that this final act (or what appeared to be the final act) of Jesus’ life was not understood by those who had condemned Jesus to that cruel death, nor was it understood by those who stood by and wept, nor by those who came later and took Jesus’ body from the cross and laid it in the grave. None of them understood what was happening. It is only later, with hindsight, and following events which, at this stage in the story, cannot have been conceived as possible by those who found themselves staring into the pit of utter despair, it is only later, much later, an eternity later, on Easter Sunday, that the cross begins to make sense to the human mind, and then only gradually, as the fact of the resurrection comes bit by bit into focus, though only becoming utterly clear in its implications at Pentecost. But that is still a long way off as Joseph of Arimathea goes to Pilate, and Nicodemus searches the market place for the wherewithall to embalm Jesus’ body. Neither of them know what God has accomplished by this death on the cross. And if they do not understand, then we would do well not assume to much about our own understanding!

But, hidden from our sight, the work of God, the work of salvation, goes on. Jesus Christ has spent his life in obedience. His blood has been poured out – literally, as we see in John’s account – and this means something more than the mere death of a human being. This self-sacrifice in obedience has unique value in God’s eyes. It has meaning which goes beyond the sad sight of a well-intentioned man who has come to an unhappy end. This death on the cross has nothing to do with offering us ‘an example to follow’ and everything to do with our salvation, accomplished despite everything we are, not because of anything we might be or anything we might achieve. It has nothing to do with offering us an example to follow, simply because Jesus Christ alone can accomplish what is accomplished here; we, in our state of sinful rebellion against God, a rebellion brought into the perfect light of God’s judgement by this cross, we, in our state of sinful rebellion against God can accomplish nothing that will lead to our salvation. Instead, we find here that the Son of God, dying in obedience to the Father, and, perhaps, even dying out of love for us, though why that should be is beyond our ability to surmise, we find that the Son of God purifies our consciences through his blood.

“For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the Eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb 9 vv 13, 14).

By the phrase ‘through his blood’ we understand not some gory rite, wallowing in the mire of human or animal remains, but his life. For in the Hebrew understanding, the life of a person or an animal is found in the blood and therefore we see here Jesus pouring out his life for us. And this is done because he is taking upon himself our sin, our separation from God. Yes, here is a mystery indeed! On the cross, God comes to understand fully, no, better, experience fully what it means to be separated from God (Psalm 22)! God takes upon himself our human situation, that, coming to be where we are, he may be our Saviour, our Redeemer, and bring us back to himself.

This is not something which we may do ourselves. We have nothing to contribute here. We do not know our own need, let alone what may be done to save us; we do not know our own need until the act is already done. Our Saviour, our Redeemer, comes to us, where we are. And all this at the expense of his life – and not just the human life of Jesus Christ but at the expense of his very being as the Word of God. Here we see God willing to sacrifice his very self for you and for me. And that is why Jesus Christ is our High Priest in the heavenly places: because he has fulfilled the eternal will of the Father. On the cross, the price of creation’s life – from start to finish – is paid by God himself. The cost to the Father is the life of the Son.

And it is only when we have understood the cost to God of our salvation that we can begin to understand the horror of the danger we are in: if our sin has cost the Son of God his life, then how terrible is our situation without the cross! We are, indeed, as Elihu puts it, on the road to the pit, to sheol, to hell, and we are indeed perishing, without any hope in this world or the next.

But all this is hidden from our sight as we watch Jesus die on the cross, as we see blood and water emerge from the spear wound, as we follow Joseph of Arimathea to Pilate’s palace, as we see Nicodemus (or more likely his donkey) carrying one hundred pounds weight of myrrh and aloes, to the garden in which there is this tomb where Jesus’ body will lie. As we watch and follow the events in the Gospel story we do not see what God is doing – has done. Only later will we understand – indeed, only, in the final analysis, at our own resurrection at the coming of Christ in glory, will we understand fully, even as we have been fully understood.

So what is God’s word to us this evening? What is our true situation as we stand before the cross of Jesus Christ, the empty cross, now that his body has been laid in the tomb? By ‘true situation’ I do not mean the feelings of sadness, or puzzlement, or even rejoicing which you or I may have in our hearts and minds this evening. That is not our true situation before God! That is only our own human reaction to what we think we understand of what has happened.

No, what is God’s Word to us this evening, other than a Word which states quite clearly that what has happened is not your doing or mine, not within your understanding or mine? Our faith, our hope, our love: none of these things can contribute to what has happened. It is God’s work and his alone which has achieved what has been achieved. And what was achieved through this death on the cross? Elihu tells us. Oh, he understood no more of it than you or I, but his words tell us what God has done: “He keeps back (man’s) soul from the pit, his life from perishing by the sword” (v. 18).
Yes, you and I are kept from spiritual death; you and I are kept from perishing as the sword of God’s judgement confronts us. That is what the cross means.

And that is why we may join with Elihu later in this same speech. At verse 24, Elihu speaks of God declaring man to be righteous, not because of man’s actions, but because of one who mediates for him, as, indeed, we read in the Letter to the Hebrews of Christ, our High Priest. Elihu’s tells of how the Mediator frees the sinner from judgement. And then at verse 26 he says:

Then man prays to God and he accepts him, he sees God’s face with a shout of joy and God restores to man his righteousness. The man sings before his fellow creatures and says – “I sinned and perverted what was right and it was not repaid to me. God has redeemed my soul from going down into the pit and my life shall look upon the light.” (Job 33 vv 26, 27, 28)


Tags: 2014, Good Friday

Job 33:1-18

1Wherefore, Job, I pray thee, hear my speeches, and hearken to all my words. 2Behold, now I have opened my mouth, my tongue hath spoken in my mouth. 3My words shall be of the uprightness of my heart: and my lips shall utter knowledge clearly. 4The Spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life. 5If thou canst answer me, set thy words in order before me, stand up. 6Behold, I am according to thy wish in God's stead: I also am formed out of the clay. 7Behold, my terror shall not make thee afraid, neither shall my hand be heavy upon thee. 8Surely thou hast spoken in mine hearing, and I have heard the voice of thy words, saying, 9I am clean without transgression, I am innocent; neither is there iniquity in me. 10Behold, he findeth occasions against me, he counteth me for his enemy, 11He putteth my feet in the stocks, he marketh all my paths. 12Behold, in this thou art not just: I will answer thee, that God is greater than man. 13Why dost thou strive against him? for he giveth not account of any of his matters. 14For God speaketh once, yea twice, yet man perceiveth it not. 15In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falleth upon men, in slumberings upon the bed; 16Then he openeth the ears of men, and sealeth their instruction, 17That he may withdraw man from his purpose, and hide pride from man. 18He keepeth back his soul from the pit, and his life from perishing by the sword. (KJV)

John 19:28-42

28After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst. 29Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a spunge with vinegar, and put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth. 30When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost. 31The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day, (for that sabbath day was an high day,) besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. 32Then came the soldiers, and brake the legs of the first, and of the other which was crucified with him. 33But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs: 34But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water. 35And he that saw it bare record, and his record is true: and he knoweth that he saith true, that ye might believe. 36For these things were done, that the scripture should be fulfilled, A bone of him shall not be broken. 37And again another scripture saith, They shall look on him whom they pierced. 38And after this Joseph of Arimathaea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave. He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus. 39And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight. 40Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury. 41Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. 42There laid they Jesus therefore because of the Jews' preparation day; for the sepulchre was nigh at hand. (KJV)

Hebrews 9:11-14

11But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; 12Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. 13For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: 14How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (KJV)

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