Ten Angles for Preaching on Christ's Death
Ten ideas to keep your Good Friday sermons fresh and engaging.
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The Gospels are Passion narratives with a long introduction. Someone somewhere wrote that. One-third of the synoptics and one-half of John are devoted to the last week of Jesus' recorded ministry. Consider how odd that proportion would be if a biography of Theodore Roosevelt or Florence Nightingale were devoted to the final week of their lives. There is an embarrassment of riches when preaching about the Passion.
There is the Old Testament witness. Evangelicals consider the death of Christ to be the Rosetta Stone to symbols and types, promises and institutions, and much more in the Old Testament. The late Edward R. Dalglish presented a striking metaphor for all Old Testament foreshadowing of his death. Standing on a sea shore you may see starkly silhouetted against the horizon the mast of a ship. You cannot see the ship but you do see the mast. Seeing the mast assures you there is a ship just below your sightline. So also Abraham's ram in the bush, the Passover lamb, the scapegoat, Isaiah 53, and a multitude of other suggestions come to mind. Even the arrangements of the tribes around the Tabernacle, could they have been seen from above, form the shape of a cross. One need only review Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament.
Consider the Passion predictions in the synoptic gospels. Beginning about six months before his Cross, the Savior predicted his coming Passion. Each of these predictions grew more detailed and added texture to his prophecies about his own death. One approach to preaching these predictions is to contrast them with the fatuous, vague, and sometimes flat wrong predictions of Nostradamus, Jean Dixon, and other would-be soothsayers. You can discover the profound and the hilarious among wrong-headed predictions versus the pathos of Christ's predictions about his own death. Compared to contemporary soothsayers and self-made prophets the sayings of Jesus stand out for their dignity and accuracy.
You may wish to take an artistic approach to preaching the death of Christ. Rooms and walls of the great art museums would be empty without the paintings of the Cross. Rembrandt painted his own face on one of the soldiers lifting up the Cross. Salvador Dali arrogantly painted the Cross from above with a bloodless Christ hanging on the Cross without any nails holding him. Jean Gerome painted only the shadows of the three crosses backlit from the westering sun as if the scene could not be painted, only suggested. The light is breaking in from the midnight at midday. One sees the stark shadows of the Cross as if the scene were too sacred to see directly. Francisco Raibolini painted Job at the foot of the Cross as if Jesus were the answer to Job's questions.
Perhaps you may preach on the events around the Cross by identifying with characters on the edge of the scene rather than center stage. At Gethsemane Jesus left eight of the disciples at the edge and took the inner circle with him. What did it feel like to be the eight on the edge? Sometimes we have to stay at a distance, tremble, and wonder what is going on at the center. What about the dream of Pilate's wife? A little reading in Karl Jung and the interpretation of dreams might give a whole new angle of vision. What about Malchus whose ear was cut off and restored by the compassionate Savior? You may find new ways into an old story by preaching from some of the extras rather than the marquee players.
Fertile ground is found in those silent witnesses to the Passion. The sun darkened, the veil rent, the earth quaked, and many dead saints came from their tombs, went into Jerusalem, and bore witness to many. The latter have seldom been the object of sermons on the death of Christ. The venerable and voluble R.C.H. Lenski gives the fullest treatment of this bizarre episode that I have found. When words were not enough, God turned out the sun, rent the thick curtain in the temple, shook the earth, opened the tombs, and gave harbinger of the resurrection to come. Consider who these saints were, Old Testament or early New Testament saints such as Simeon and Anna. Use your imagination to present a resurrected Simeon appearing before Caiaphas witnessing to the Christ Simeon saw as a babe.
How many litigating lawyer shows are on television now? The trials of Jesus catch the current preoccupation with litigation. Jesus did not have one trial but six trials, three religious and three political. The estimable late Raymond E. Brown in his magisterial two volumes on The Death of the Messiah does a particularly apt treatment of Jesus before Pilate. He traces the action outside before the mob and inside when Jesus and Pilate are alone. This is an excellent way to organize a sermon on that dramatic confrontation between the Procurator and the Savior. Behind closed doors Pilate is on trial before Jesus.
Of course Good Friday presents the opportunity to preach the Seven Words from the Cross. One might note that the first three words were for others and the later words for the Savior. As always, he thought of others. One might preach an O'Henry or surprise package sermon on "Father forgive them for they know not what they do." The surprise package sermon takes an unusual twist at the end. After a typical exposition of this saying the sermon might take a turn: Jesus would not pray that today. Jesus cannot pray that today in this city. There is a church steeple visible anywhere in the city. There are 24/7 religious broadcasts and millions of Bibles. We know exactly what we are doing today. Or consider the assignment of John to be the son of Mary. Years ago the able expositor D.L. Lowrie gave this passage the title "A Substitute for the Substitute." While Jesus died as a substitute he appointed a substitute to care for his mother. This is an engaging title.
The thieves on the cross present another example of preaching on secondary characters in the Passion. One might consider the thief on the right, the thief on the left, and the Savior in the middle. Develop the story of the penitent thief, the impenitent thief, and the response of Jesus. A Flemish engraving and other paintings present a sideways view of the three crosses which thrust one of the thieves closer to the viewer than the Christ and the other thief. Using this as a projected image could be the backdrop for a sermon asking the congregants to identify with the thief closest to them. Which one is he? Who are they, the listeners?
An unusual but creative approach might focus on Mary, the mother of Jesus. Far from being the Queen of Heaven, Mary is pictured as the ideal disciple by Luke. The last places you see her are at the foot of the Cross beneath her Son who is now her Savior and in the Upper Room waiting for the same Spirit that conceived him within her to fall upon her as a believer.
Finally, consider some of the hymn stories around the Cross. John Bowring's hymn, "In the Cross of Christ I Glory" is just one hymn with an engaging back story. All such stories may be found in the resource cyberhymnal.org. A number of hymns of the Cross feature arresting occasions for the composition of the lyrics. Singing the hymn in connection with the sermon, even in the midst of the sermon, may create a word and song event.
Dr. Joel C. Gregory is Professor of Preaching at Truett Seminary, Distinguished Fellow of Georgetown College in Georgetown, KY, and the founder of Joel Gregory Ministries.