Choices at the Cross

Good Friday Tenebrae Service

INTRO.:  Good evening and welcome to our annual Good Friday Tenebrae Service which is the most somber and solemn service of the year.  Throughout the past 6 weeks in our mid-week Lenten services we have walked with Jesus as we have reflected upon the events of His Passion and some of the key places he found himself before he went to the cross.  This evening we walk with him again.  We walk a path that was crowded with multitudes of people, yet terribly lonely for Jesus – a path that is traditionally known as the Via Dolorosa (the Way of Sorrows) – a path that winds through the streets of Jerusalem and ultimately up a hill called Golgotha in the Aramaic language of the Jews and Calvary in the Latin language of the Romans.

As we walk this path tonight, we’re going to take note of certain choices that different people made along the way, most of them bad choices, one of them a good and wonderful choice, and one of them a choice perhaps yet to be made.  Before we begin, let’s go to the Lord in prayer:


Heavenly Father, we have come here tonight to watch a man die, but not just any man.  No, this was your Son, your Chosen One – the God-man, Jesus Christ.  He was the perfect one, the spotless one, heaven’s Prince.  How sad that one so beautiful and wonderful should have to die, especially under such horrible circumstances!  And yet it was all part of your loving plan – a plan that you devised to rescue sinful, imperfect people like us from eternal condemnation and judgment in hell.  May our hearts overflow with gratitude tonight, Father, as the shadows darken around us, and may that gratitude be reflected from this night on in all that we think and do and say.  In Christ’s name we pray.  Amen.

OPENING HYMN – 505, vv. 1,2,3 (LW)

  1. The soldiers’ choice

John 19:23-24When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.  “Let’s not tear it,” they said to one another. “Let’s decide by lot who will get it.”   This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled which said, “They divided my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.” So this is what the soldiers did.

MEDITATION #1:  It was customary back then for the Roman soldiers who were in charge of crucifixions to divide the garments of the crucified among themselves.  It was what we might call a perk of their profession.  According to one commentary I looked at, Jesus’ wardrobe would have consisted of 5 items:  a turban or head covering; an outer robe; a sash used to keep the outer robe in place; a pair of sandals; and a fairly long tunic, woven in one piece, that served as an undergarment.  The 1st 4 items would have been easily divided among the 4 legionnaires tending to the crucifixion.  But when it came to the 5th item, the seamless tunic, which was the most valuable article of Jesus’ clothing, they knew that it would be of no value at all if it was torn in 4 pieces, so they gambled for it.  And one of them walked away that day with this expensive article of clothing.  Which leads us to walk away with a question: Did those soldiers ever have any idea what they missed out on that day?

I mean, here they were, inches from Jesus who was God in human flesh.  They could have asked for anything from him.  They could have even asked for eternal salvation, like the penitent thief did later on.  But instead they were content to walk away with only a souvenir of the day.  Or to put it another way, the choice they made that day was to choose a covering for their skin over what could have been a covering for their sin.  Isn’t that sad?

And yet how true that is of people today – people who worry more about keeping up with the latest fashions; people who spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars just so that they can wear the latest styles, but who fail to take advantage of the glorious, yet free wardrobe that God offers anyone who will trust in Jesus as their personal Savior.  And that wardrobe consists of nothing less than his perfect righteousness that covers our imperfect sinfulness.  May I ask, which of these 2 wardrobes are you most concerned about tonight?  Indeed, which of these 2 wardrobes is most important to you – your material one or your spiritual one?  Let’s pray:

PRAYER:  Father, how easy it is for people today to make the same mistake those soldiers made.  Every year billions of dollars are spent by the advertising industry to get people to think more about the clothes they’re going to wear and the fashion style they’re going to follow than things that really matter in life, like our relationship with you and our eternal destiny.  May we never make the same mistake those soldiers made, but may we instead receive by faith the covering for sin that Jesus earned for us on the cross and be clothed in his perfect righteousness.  In his name we pray.  Amen.

HYMN – 368, vv. 1,4 (LW)

  1. The crowd’s choice

Matthew 27:15-18, 21-22 – Now it was the governor’s custom at the Feast to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him…”Barabbas,” they answered. “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” Pilate asked.   They all answered, “Crucify him!”

MEDITATION #2:  Here we find a choice being made by a crowd of people that would have to rank as one of the poorest choices of all time.  Just think about it.  On the one hand, there was Jesus – the one who had gone from town to town and village to village doing nothing but good; healing those who were sick; comforting those who were sorrowing; feeding those who were hungry; even raising those who were dead.  He was recognized as one who taught with authority, as one who proclaimed a loving and merciful God rather than the angry, vengeful God that the Jewish religious leaders spoke of.  He was the one who had a special place in his heart for the underdog: the poor and the needy, the outcast and the downcast, the small and insignificant people of society.

And then there was Barabbas.  And who exactly was he?  Mark calls him a rebel and a murderer in his Gospel.  Matthew denotes him as a notorious prisoner.  John calls him a robber.

Why would the crowd choose a man like that over Jesus?  Well, for one thing, Matthew tells us that the Jewish leaders who had had their share of run-ins with Jesus and who would stop at nothing to get rid of him persuaded them to demand the release of Barabbas over Jesus.  But I believe there was more to it than that.  I believe their choice that day may have had something to do with unmet expectations.  You see, the Jews were expecting their Messiah to be a great king, one who would lead the nation in victory over their enemies and restore Israel to its former glory.  And when Jesus, who claimed to be their Messiah, made no moves in that direction and demonstrated by his actions that he wanted nothing to do with that kind of kingship, they chose to have nothing to do with him.  They rejected him.

So the choice they made that day was that they chose a criminal of the state over the King of all creation.  They chose a cold-hearted, cold-blooded taker of life over the One who alone could give them life.  And so we pray:

PRAYER:  Father, how easy it is for us to see ourselves in that murderous crowd for often times we become upset with Jesus when he fails to meet our expectations.  We want money, material possessions, the perfect family, the perfect job, the perfect home, and perfect health.  And when things don’t always go our way, we question our Savior’s love and wonder if he even cares about us.  Forgive us when we do that, Lord, and help us to see his love prominently and permanently displayed in the cross lest we ever doubt that love again.  In his name we pray.  Amen.

HYMN – 115, vv. 1,3,4 (LW)

III.             Pilate’s choice

Matt. 27:24-26When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” All the people answered, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

MEDITATION #3:  I suppose if there was one statement that would best describe the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, that statement would have to be:  “So close, and yet so far away.” Few people ever found themselves in the position he found himself in on that first Good Friday.  Ordinarily Jesus was surrounded by crowds of people.  When he was away from the multitudes, he could be found with his chosen 12 disciples.  So to have a one-on-one audience with him was almost unheard of.  And yet that was Pilate’s privilege.  And even though he found no fault in Jesus during his interrogation, no reason whatsoever to condemn this obviously harmless and innocent man to death, he still did it, didn’t he?  So the choice Pilate made that day was to choose the pressure of the crowd over the Prince of truth.  And I am sure that he is spending eternity in hell regretting that awful choice.

And while it’s easy for us to sit here in our comfortable church pews and shake our heads in disgust at the poor choice Pilate made, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll have to admit that we’re no better than he.  For there are times when we too cave in to the pressure of the crowd, aren’t there?  There are times when we too allow ourselves to be swayed by the majority rather than by the Master.  There are times when the approval of people matters more to us than the approval of our Heavenly Prince.  And so we pray:

PRAYER:  O God, how ashamed we are for the times when we’ve played the role of the infamous Pontius Pilate in our daily lives and gone along with the crowd rather than taking a stand for you and that which we knew was right.  Forgive us when we’ve made that poor choice, and instill in us courage and boldness lest we ever be ashamed again of the One who was never ashamed of us.  In his name we pray.  Amen

HYMN – 97, vv. 1,3,4 (LW)

  1. Judas’ choice

Matt. 26:14-16 Then one of the Twelve–the one called Judas Iscariot–went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty silver coins. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.

MEDITATION #4:  I think we can understand, to a certain extent anyway, why the people that we’ve looked at so far this evening made such poor choices when it came to Jesus.  After all, the soldiers didn’t really know him.  Pilate and the crowd didn’t really understand him.  But now we come to Judas.  He knew Jesus personally.  For the past 3 years he had walked with him and talked with him.  He had heard him preach and teach.  He’d been privy to the most intimate conversations that Jesus had had with his chosen 12 disciples.  He had been an eyewitness to Jesus’ miracles.  Why would one who had been so close to Jesus, so intimately connected to him, turn his back on him the way Judas did?

That’s a question people have tried to answer for centuries.  And while many have said that Judas was trying to force Jesus’ hand and get him to lead a rebellion against Rome, I think it had to do with something else.  I think Judas simply suffered from the miserable malady of greed.  I say that because in John 12:6 we read that Judas didn’t care about the poor “because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.”

So crippled and blinded by greed, Judas made what would again have to rank as one of the poorest choices of all time.  He chose silver for this life over a Savior for the next life, and no doubt at this very moment he, like Pilate, is kicking himself in hell for making such a poor choice.  And lest we make the same mistake, we pray:

PRAYER:  Heavenly Father, help us to learn from Judas this evening.  Help us to never make the same mistake he did.  Though greed is certainly one of the chief characteristics of the culture in which we live, and money and wealth can be so attractive to us, may we choose instead to store up treasures for ourselves in heaven and surrender to you all that we are and all that we have.  We ask this in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

HYMN – 47 (HS)

  1. Herod’s choice

SCRIPTURE READING:  Luke 23:8-11 When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform some miracle. He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate

MEDITATION #5:  Herod fits into the same category as Pilate, whom we heard about before.  He too was so close to Jesus, and yet ended up so far away.  For as Jesus was brought before him, Herod wasn’t interested in any of the great teachings Jesus had proclaimed as he traveled the Judean and Galilean country-sides.  He didn’t want to hear about the messianic claims Jesus had been making about himself.  Instead, all he wanted was a show, some entertainment to add some excitement to his otherwise dull and boring day.  Apparently he had heard about Jesus’ miracle-working capabilities and saw this as a golden opportunity to personally witness one of those miracles.  But when Jesus refused to bow to his wishes, Herod quickly tired of him and sent him back to Pilate.

Now again, we can sit here and point a finger of criticism at Herod for choosing an opportunity for entertainment over an opportunity to meet with the Master, but that again is unfortunately one of the trademarks of the culture in which we live.  How many times don’t even Christian people miss an opportunity to meet with the Master in his house on Sunday morning and instead choose the golf course, the fishing boat, the mall, the football stadium?  Let me ask you something, my friends.  When you find yourself lying on your deathbed, do you really think you’ll be wishing you’d spent more time recreating than worshiping?  More time playing than praying?  More time sitting in a deer stand than sitting in a church pew?  I don’t think so.  So let’s pray:

PRAYER:  Father, how easy it is for us to make the same mistake Herod made – to choose fun over our faith and recreation over our relationship with you.  Forgive us when we have done that and help us to get our priorities in line.  Help us to realize that while there’s nothing wrong with recreation, we must be careful that we never place it ahead of you for you are the  one and only true God who alone is worthy of our worship.  Hear us, for we pray in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

HYMN – 29, vv. 1,4 (HS)

  1. God’s choice

SCRIPTURE READING:  John 3:16-17 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only 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.”

MEDITATION #6:  If you’ll recall, in my introduction this evening I mentioned that most of the choices we were going to look at tonight would be bad choices that people made about Jesus during his Passion.  But then I also said that there would be one very good and wonderful choice that we would examine and that’s our privilege now.  For in the beloved Scripture passage that I just read to you, we heard how God chose a dying and decaying and defiant world over his precious and priceless Son.

What would move God to do something like that?  I mean, I’m a parent and a grandparent and I’m sorry, but if this church were to catch fire tonight, my first thoughts of whom I would rescue would probably not be you, unless your name is Bethany or Kim or Maliyah or Brooklyn or McKenzie or Ryder.   And it’s not that I don’t like you or that I don’t respect you or that I don’t care about you.  It’s just that those are the names of my children and grandchildren and I couldn’t imagine sacrificing their well-being mush less their life for anyone else’s, especially if I had the choice. And I’m sure you feel the same way.

And yet that’s exactly what God did, didn’t he?  “God so loved the world that he gave hisonly begotten Son.”  Do you think you deserved that, my friends?  Do you think that you were just so good or so loveable or so incredibly irresistible that God just had to choose you over his holy, perfect, and precious Son?  Doubtful, right?

So why did he do it?  One word:  GRACE.  Or if you want 2 words, how about AMAZING GRACE?  Grace is simply God’s undeserved, unearned, unmerited love and favor that he willingly bestows upon us simply because that is his nature and that is his choice.  And all I can say to that is WOW!  What a wonderful God we have!  Let’s pray:

PRAYER:  How undeserving we are, Lord, that you would choose sinful, unworthy, imperfect people like us over your holy and perfect Son.  And yet how blessed we are to find ourselves on the receiving end of such amazing grace.  So from the bottom of our hearts and with all that we are, we simply say, THANK YOU.  Amen.

HYMN – 5, vv. 1,2,5 (HS)

VII.          Our choice

SCRIPTURE READING:  Matt. 27:22“What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” Pilate asked.

MEDITATION #7:  Tonight we’ve seen some pretty poor choices that different people made at the cross.  Let’s quickly review them.  Remember the soldiers who chose a covering for their skin over a covering for their sin?  And how about the crowd that chose a criminal of the state over the King of all creation?  Then there was Pilate who chose the pressure of the crowd over the Prince of Truth, and Judas who chose silver for this life over a Savior for the next life, and Herod who chose an opportunity for entertainment over a meeting with the Master.

But then we also heard of the choice that God made at the cross.  In his limitless love and amazing grace, he chose a dying and decaying and defiant world over his precious and priceless Son.

All of which leaves us with one other choice to examine tonite, and that would be yours and mine.  For you see, the words of Pilate that I read just a few moments ago echo across the centuries of time and demand an answer from each one of us gathered here this evening: “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?”  Please understand, my friends, that is the most important question you will ever have to consider for how you answer it will determine where you will spend eternity.

So how about it?  What will you do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?  Will you make the mistake of so many that we’ve heard about this evening and choose the things of this world over him?  Or will you, through the help and power of the Holy Spirit, say yes to Jesus?  YES, he is my Savior!  YES, he is my Lord!  YES, he is my God!  Let’s pray:

PRAYER:  Dear Jesus, where would we be without you?  What hope would we have if not for the hope that you give?  You are our sin-conquering Hero!  You are our death-defeating Savior!  You are our living and reigning King!  Help us now to be your loyal subjects, your faithful servants, your grateful followers.  Help us to say YES to you and to live out that choice each and every day until you call us home.  In your name we pray.  Amen.

HYMN – 126, vv. 1,4 (HS)

THE SLAMMING OF THE BIBLE TO SIGNIFY THE FULFILLMENT OF PROPHECY – read “Tipped Scales” in Passion with a Purpose booklet followed by Isaiah 53:5-6:  

CLOSING CHOIR ANTHEM – “At the Cross, Love Ran Red”