Since Christmas I have been slowly reading a collection of John Webster’s sermons, The Grace of Truth. It includes twenty six homilies given between 1999 and 2005. I have been I long-time admirer of John’s work and had the privilege of studying at Aberdeen, so I scooped this volume up as soon as it appeared. I was not disappointed; here is a first rate Protestant theologian at work: careful attention to the text, wise theological reasoning, and all the while the lived existence of the Christian church kept in view.
The following sermon was preached on Good Friday at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, in April 2001. The sermon was titled “The Triumph of Divine Resolve,” and its text was Isaiah 53:6, 10.
We end these thoughts on Holy Week where we began: with the central truth that what has taken place in the week that has passed, and what has taken place supremely at the event of the crucifixion is the outworking of the will of God. To the participants and bystanders, no doubt, everything seemed very far from that, just another muddle in a place inflamed with strife. And to the followers of Jesus, the little rag-tag caravan of men and women who found themselves attached to him, it was nothing short of disaster. Yet Isaiah speaks of the putting to death of the Lord’s servant as God’s will – as the outworking of the eternal purpose of God, as no accident but rather the placed where we are to learn to see God’s resolve, undeflected, undefeated, utterly effective. How can this be so? What is this divine resolve which is set before us here, in the affliction and grief of the servant of God?
It is the eternal resolve to be our reconciler. What is enacted in this miserable little drama is God’s plan and purpose to live in fellowship with us – God’s will that he will be our God, and that we will be his people. Fellowship with God is what human beings are for. That is, we flourish as human beings if we live in free and joyful and humble relation to God. To be human is to be in relation to God; and that relation to God is not a sort of added extra, something to supplement our lives: it is the core of being human; it is the way in which we are properly alive. We are alive and truly human as we live in and from that fellowship.
For this fellowship God makes us. But at the core of Scripture’s presentation of this fellowship is the devastating fact that it has broken down: the life-giving bond between God and his human creatures has been smashed to pieces; we have chosen to try and live outside fellowship, and so estranged ourselves from God. Fellowship is replaced by alienation, God’s friendship with God’s wrath. Isaiah puts it thus: “we have turned – every one – to his own way” (53:6). That is, there has been a great turning in human life, not a turning towards God but a contrary turn, a swerve away from God and towards ourselves, a veering away from fellowship and towards a way of living which is of our own making. We chose what Isaiah calls “our own way.” [...]
All this is what we make of ourselves – it is our iniquity, our transgression. And it is our misery: we get what we want – we want life without fellowship with God, and that is what we get, only instead of giving us life and freedom, it turns out to lead to our destruction. We make ourselves; and precisely in making ourselves we destroy ourselves. Now the passion of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Lord’s servant, is the way in which God says no to this whole chaos which we have unleashed on ourselves. At the cross of Jesus Christ, God arrests the whole course of our sin; God sets aside finally, once for all, the entire mad project in which we try to be our own masters; God overthrows sin. God does not leave us to our devices; God refuses our refusal of him; above all, God maintains and re-establishes with us that fellowship in which alone we can live and flourish. God alone can do this. We cannot help ourselves. But God can, and does, come to our assistance….God takes flesh, our fallen, sinful, accursed existence as sinners, and takes our lot upon himself. [...]
How does this change the course of human life? In this way: by becoming one of us, by absorbing into himself the full extent of our sin, God destroys sin. God sets aside a whole world, the world we have made for ourselves, and God puts in its place a new world, the world of the new creation. In that world, we are set free from sin, and set free to live in fellowship with God. Good Friday, and its final outworking on Easter Day, is the new creation, the re-creation of the world. It’s the point at which the world and all humankind are made new. We can’t do this; we can’t undo the knot we have tied. But God can: God has power and authority to make new, and in the passion of his Son performs this ultimate act of mercy, bearing our iniquities and so setting us free. And for us, this means that we become righteous. That is, we are put back in relation to God. Fellowship, friendship with God, is restored – not by us, but by God himself. We no longer turn to our own way; God himself turns us back to himself.
Good Friday is thus the triumph of grace, the triumph of reconciliation over enmity, the victory of life. On this day, in the hand of Jesus the Son and servant of God, the will of the Lord prospers.
We may not, however, leave matters there. For these things of which we read and speak and not the business of other people only: they are our business. These matters concern us. The Lord has laid on him not just others sins, but sins of us all, and therefore our sins. What took place there and then is comprehensively true; its claim and its effectiveness are universal; none of us is free to think that we are passed over in this affair. The gospel addresses each of us: “You, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death” (Col. 1:21-22a). If that’s true – if it really is true that in the passion of Christ God has reconciled us to himself – then the most basic act of human life is simply to acknowledge that this is so. We are not at enmity with God; we are not trapped by wickedness; we are not under condemnation; we are reconciled to God.
Part of us, of course, refuses to acknowledge that, because we don’t want to be reconciled to God. We prefer, still, to turn to our own ways. However absurd and lifeless and hurtful it may be for us, we prefer to pretend that we are not reconciled to God. Another part of us dare not acknowledge that we are all people are reconciled to God – we cannot conceive that the gospel can be so good that it will deal with our sins, too. But the unbelief or guilt or fear that hold us back, count for nothing. God has taken from us the power to live apart from him. We will not stop him prospering. The Lord’s Servant will see his offspring. And of all that – that unbelievably gracious promise – Easter Day is the promise and security. Jesus Christ, God’s servant, reigns – at his cross, and on the day of his resurrection, and now as he is preeminent in all things. And that is why we call this Good Friday.