50. Sermon Text - "Sunnyhill" Herne Bay Evangelical Free Church

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50. Sermon Text

Special Service
OT Reading:       Ps.31:1-24
Reading:              Lk.23 :44-49
The Final Hours
I’m sure your experience is the same as mine. Time seems to move at different speeds. You’ve been waiting a long time for a special event to take place and how the time seems to drag! It may be a holiday or it may be a family reunion, and yes, I do know that’s a bit hard to even imagine these days. But finally the day arrives. You get to your destination and you meet up with that group of friends or those family members but then the next thing you know it’s all over, over almost before it had begun. How time seems to fly when you’re really enjoying what’s going on!

And of course it’s rather different when things are not going so well. How time seems to drag then! Perhaps you know what it is like to wake in the middle of the night and sleep has deserted you. You look at the clock – it’s 3am and far too early to get up. You turn over and toss and turn wondering whether you’ll ever drop back off to sleep. After “hours” of this you decide to look at the clock again and what do you find? It’s now a quarter past 3. It felt like hours but in reality it was just 15 minutes – how time seems to slow right down at just the wrong moment.

And for the men hanging on those three crosses outside Jerusalem time would have felt as though it was hardly moving at all! Two of them were paying their debt to society for the crimes they had committed but the third was suffering for our sins.

As we rejoin the scene of that momentous day those men have already been there nailed to their crosses for three long hours and there are more to follow. Jesus was paying a heavy price to save you from your sins.

The executions had begun at 9am (Mk.15:25) and it was now noon. The sun was at its highest, shining with its greatest force – normally you could expect the temperature to continue to rise for the next three hours, but this was anything but a normal day. Luke has a number of extraordinary things to tell us.

Instead of bright sunshine at midday that day, something else happened. It was dark. Indeed there was a profound and widespread darkness. Darkness wasn’t restricted to one mound outside Jerusalem it covered the entire land. Luke mentioned it because it was unusual and it was significant.

Why was it dark? What caused this darkness? Luke doesn’t waste his ink on going into great detail but simply records the facts. It was dark because the sun’s light failed or was darkened.

Oh, yes, someone says I know what it was, it was an eclipse.

But think again. How long do eclipses last? If you remember hearing about one on the radio you know you’ll have to be quick if you want to see it because they’re soon finished: a total eclipse may last as long as 71/2 minutes but most are much shorter than that. But on the day that Luke is describing the darkness didn’t just last for 71/2 minutes it went on and on for three hours.

No, this wasn’t an eclipse – in fact it couldn’t have been a solar eclipse for they can only occur when there is a new moon. Those executions however took place at the time of the Feast of the Passover and that feast only occurred when the moon was full.

It wasn’t then an eclipse but the sun was darkened – the explanation is not to be sought in the realms of what is normal. It took place because God was involved.

But what does it mean?

The Bible frequently refers to darkness as a spiritual condition, for example, men in their rebellion against God live their lives in darkness.

But darkness is also used to describe divine displeasure as God acts to deal with the problem of sin in judgement.

We read back in the OT prophet Amos the following words concerning such judgment as he describes the Day of the LORD:

Amos 5:18, 20 “Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! Why would you have the day of the LORD? It is darkness, and not light... Is not the day of the LORD darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?”

Later in his book Amos adds more detail:

Amos 8:9 “And on that day,” declares the Lord GOD, “I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight.”

The prophet Zephaniah has a similar perspective:

Zep.1:15 “A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation,  a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness,”

The truth of the matter is that the time had come for God to deal with sin as he poured out his wrath upon the sin-bearer. Jesus wasn’t a sorry victim of circumstances, an unhappy innocent wrongly condemned, he was a voluntary sacrificial offering.

Isaac Watts wrote movingly about this darkness in one of his hymns as he described the reaction of nature to the gravity of what was taking place. This is how he put it:

Well might the sun in darkness hide,
and shut his glories in,
when Christ, the mighty Maker, died
for man, the creature’s sin.
This was the hour for which he had come and been preparing all his life and it was an immensely serious and terrible hour. How the darkness highlighted this – there would be three long, painful and intensely distressing hours during which time hell came to the central cross on Calvary. So awful were the sufferings that it was towards the end of these hours of darkness that Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying:

Mt 27:46 “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This was the price that Jesus paid that you might be pardoned. This is the price that sets you free. This is the price that Jesus paid that you might never be called upon to pay it yourself.

What a marvellous Saviour he is! How compassionate and good and kind! How amazing the grace of God is! Have you realised that? Have you embraced the Saviour as your own? He was lifted up on a cross to die in order that he might draw men to himself and so deliver them – has he delivered you?

If he has I’m sure you’ll want to shout aloud with me “Hallelujah, what a Saviour!”

Yes, extraordinary things took place that day at Calvary!

The Temple Curtain
The darkness was not the only extraordinary event of that day. Luke also tells us about another highly significant thing that took place. I’m referring to the tearing down of the great curtain in the Temple.

If Luke’s gospel was the only account we had we might be tempted to think that this event preceded Jesus’ death but Mark and Matthew help us see things more clearly. The curtain’s destruction is tied closely to the death of the Lord Jesus immediately following that death if not actually occurring at the very moment of that death.

Now we may want to ask whether this event really is of any importance at all. Well, the answer is yes because of the significance of that curtain.

The temple was the place where God had told his people that he would make his presence dwell amongst them. However because of his holiness and his people’s sin it was impossible for just anybody to draw near. The deeper into the temple you went the more access became restricted. Finally before the Holiest place of all, the Holy of Holies, a great curtain hung protecting the access. The high priest might be able proceed beyond that curtain to represent the people but even his access was limited. The curtain was necessary because the people were contaminated by sin and the curtain served to keep sinful people away from God.

If people were to be able to enjoy a close relationship with God the curtain that restricted access would have to be removed but until sin was properly dealt with it couldn’t be removed. When Jesus died on his cross he did deal with the problem of our sin and that was dramatically demonstrated with the tearing down of that temple curtain.

Both Matthew and Mark add the detail that the curtain was torn from top to bottom indicating that this was no normal act of wear and tear or something caused by human activity – God was at work showing his approval of what Jesus had achieved! God tore down the curtain as his Son died – he wants sinners to be saved and brought into his family!!

Later in the NT the writer to the Hebrews refers to the spiritual realities that lay behind the literal physical destruction of the curtain:

Heb.6:19-20 “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf,”

Heb.10:20 “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh,”

An Extraordinary Cry
Jesus had been brutalised before he was ever crucified. He had been nailed to his cross at 9 in the morning and he was still hanging there 6 hours later. He was dying.

Now as a man dies he grows weaker and his voice usually diminishes to a barely heard whisper. But not in our Lord’s case.

Luke tells us that the last time Jesus spoke he did so with a loud voice. You see even as he dies Jesus remains in total control. Life doesn’t simply slip away from him – no-one takes his life from him but rather he uses the authority he had received from his Father to lay down his life of his own accord. And in doing so he entrusts himself into his Father’s care:

v.46 “Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.”

These words are adapted from some of the words of the Psalm we read earlier, Psalm 31. There in v.5 we read the following:

“Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God.”

If you compare this carefully with what Jesus called out you’ll see that there are three things to note:

1.       Jesus retained one part
2.       Jesus added another part
3.       Jesus omitted an inappropriate part

The entrusting of himself into another’s care remains the same but importantly Jesus added something that the Psalmist hadn’t – Jesus deliberately entrusted himself into the hands of his Father. Although he had suffered for a long period on the cross and cried out as the Father turned his face away his faith in his Father never faltered. Finally, how could he pray about being redeemed for he himself stood in no need of being redeemed? How useful Scripture proved to our Lord at this time and he demonstrates even in this extreme situation an intelligent understanding of the OWrd of God.

It was indeed a remarkable thing to be able to cry out with a loud voice at such a time and he certainly did so in order that others might hear what he had to say. His trust in his Father’s love and care was undiminished. His God who had turned his face away when he bore the sin of his people was still his Father and still worthy of his trust.

Extraordinary events call out for a response, a reaction, and Luke in continuing his account of this eventful day records three different sets of reactions : the centurion, the crowd and Jesus’ acquaintances. We will consider them in turn.

·        The Centurion
Luke prefaces his remarks about the centurion with these words:

v.47 “Now when the centurion saw what had taken place...”

Presumably the centurion had been present throughout the day and seen everything that had taken place. He would have seen and heard Jesus interaction with the crowds as he was taken to the site of the crucifixion. He would have heard Jesus praying for the forgiveness of those who didn’t know what they were doing. He would have seen how he coped with the mockery and the insults. He would have doubtless listened with astonishment as Jesus promised the thief crucified alongside him a place in Paradise that very day. Then he would himself have experienced that strange darkness that covered and remained upon the land for three hours and finally he would have heard the Saviour’s confident entrusting of his spirit into his Heavenly Father’s hands.

He had never before seen anything like this! Maybe if he hung around a little at the crucifixion site he would have heard of those strange events in the Temple as word would quickly have spread about what had happened to the curtain.

And how did he respond to it all? Plenty of folk when confronted with extraordinary events just carry on as though nothing had happened – don’t understand and not bothered either. But that was not true of this man. Confronted with serious evidence he came to serious conclusions and acted decisively. I hope you have done the same sort of thing in your own encounter with Jesus.

Firstly, this centurion praised God. Many of your neighbours never do that. They are far more ready to blaspheme than they are to glorify the name of God. How much did this centurion understand of what was really taking place in the eternal plan of salvation that day we can’t exactly say but we can say that he understood enough to praise God.

Don’t focus upon what you don’t yet understand but surely you have understand enough to begin to praise God. Is such praise a part of your life?

Secondly, this centurion had come to a formed opinion concerning Jesus Christ crucified. He didn’t regard him as an obvious failure, just another misguided fanatic who paid the ultimate price for his folly. Not a bit of it. He looked at what he saw and came to the conclusion that Jesus was an innocent man who certainly didn’t deserve to die. Indeed his words actually imply more than mere innocence: he declared Jesus to be a man in right standing with God and that despite every appearance there might have been to the contrary.

What is your assessment of Jesus Christ? What conclusions have you come to concerning this exceptional character? And what have you done about it? This centurion went public with his praises and declarations, have you? The appropriate way to respond to Jesus is with repentance and with a public confession of faith which is normally accompanied by the obedience of water baptism. Are you falling short in your response to Jesus? If you are when are you going to do something about it?
·        The Crowd
Next Luke turns to consider how the crowd of on-lookers reacted to the events of the day. He describes them as those who had turned up to watch a spectacle – why is it that an execution always seems to draw the crowds? Perhaps this crowd was made up of a wide variety of different characters some with a more genuine interest in the man from Nazareth than others. Well they certainly got more than they were expecting that day!
They too saw and heard the same things that had so moved the centurion but their general reaction was not the same. We don’t read of them praising God or making declarations of faith instead we find that they went back to their homes “beating their breasts.”

That act can imply a number of different things. It can mean they went to their homes lamenting what had happened – what a shame that this sort of miscarriage of justice can occur in our country! Or it could mean that they returned to their homes mourning the loss of such a man. Or again it might mean that they were more deeply affected still and returned guilt-ridden to their homes. Maybe they beat their breasts as a demonstration of self-reproach as they tried to deal with that sense of guilt that engulfed them.

The death of Jesus Christ is a fact of history that has intensely emotional implications. The individuals in the crowd were deeply affected but I hope they didn’t stop with a mere beating of their breasts, I hope they went on to exercise genuine faith and trust in the Lord Jesus too. I hope that whatever your reactions have been to this Jesus that you won’t stop either until you have come to exercise a genuine faith in him too.

·        Jesus’ Acquaintances
The final group that Luke directs our attention towards concerns people who did already know Jesus to a degree. We don’t know exactly who Luke had in mind but we do know that he wanted us to recognise in particular that this group included those women who had followed him from Galilee. Doubtless one of the reasons Luke speaks of them here is to prepare the ground for the account he would go on to give concerning the resurrection morning for some of those women would have a prominent role to play there too.

But here they are at the site of the execution. They’re standing at a distance and they’re watching.

Was it too dangerous for them to come closer? Had they been closer but subsequently withdrawn, We just don’t know but they were still there and they were still watching and they seem to form a group that was quite distinct from the wider crowd. How important to associate with God’s people – they could offer mutual support and encouragement in what must have been a very trying time for any follower of the Lord Jesus. It would later be important for them to know what had really gone on and so now they stood carefully watching. They would have a role to play in the future.

Which of them, I wonder, passed on their accounts to Luke as he made his enquiries into the Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah?

For the moment life was tough for a follower of Jesus. Their Lord had died – yes, he had conducted himself with such an extraordinary calm confidence but he was dead now after all. And they weren’t expecting anything more. What was next in store for them?

Well, we have the tremendous advantage of already knowing what happened next. We know that the death of Jesus meant the end of our sins and our alienation from God but it most certainly didn’t signal the end of Jesus! Easter Sunday was to follow Good Friday. The upheavals of the events of that first Good Friday would be trumped by the early morning earthquake of Easter Sunday when an angel would descend from heaven to roll the stone away from the tomb. And he would do so not so that Jesus could come out but that we might see he had already gone, that he was already raised to life.

If you have already placed your faith in the Lord Jesus you have so much more cause to praise our God and Saviour Jesus Christ than that centurion way back then. But if you haven’t yet trusted him you have reason to beat your guilt-ridden breast more than the crowds that day for you too know more than they.

Jesus really died upon the cross because you and I are really sinners who need saving and this is God’s way of doing it. When we come to see that it becomes marvellous in our eyes. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.

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