As we walk thru life all of us are going to have some good days, some average days, and some bad days.
One of my bad days happened on a day much like today—a Palm Sunday. I was invited to preach at a church in the city of Monument, a bedroom community of Colorado Springs. Per my normal routine, I spent Saturday evening reviewing my message, praying over it, and then I went to bed. But I woke up early on Sunday morning with a touch of the flu.
If you're filling the pulpit of a church without a pastor you can't call in sick. So, I drank some Pepto-Bismal, got in my car, and drove down the interstate 40 miles to the church. All along the way I felt nauseous, so just before I arrived at the church I pulled into a 7-11, bought a Sprite and drank it before going into the auditorium. Just to cover my bases, I finished off the small bottle of Pepto-Bismal I had brought with me.
Following the worship set, I got up to preach and the sermon began well. But about three minutes in, I started to get light-headed. I had never fainted before and I thought, If I don't stop, I'm gonna faint and fall down. Now this wasn’t a Pentecostal church where you get extra chips for fainting, so I apologized to the congregation for ending my message and then asked the worship leader to come up and close the service with a song.
Then I stepped away from the pulpit—and in front of 200 people I had never seen before—threw up all over. There was Pepto-Bismal everywhere. Fortunately, an exceptionally gracious and brave couple came over and helped me walk out of the auditorium to the restroom. As they pushed open the men’s door, the wife said, “I know what you had for breakfast!”
That church was incredibly gracious to me. They got me home, they paid me an honorarium and they even invited me to preach there again, although the next time they all brought umbrellas.
I’m guessing that like me you’ve had some bad days in your life but maybe some of those days didn’t have a happy ending.
Maybe it was the day that your boyfriend or your girlfriend—someone you really loved—ended your relationship.
Maybe it was the day you realized that your dream of going to a certain school, getting a certain job, or living in a certain place was never going to happen.
Or maybe it was the day you sat at the funeral service of a parent, spouse, sibling, or friend knowing that you would never see that person again—at least in this life.
If you’re a normal person and you go through a horrible day of heartbreak, sadness, and suffering, you begin to wonder where God is, what he’s doing in your life or whether he even exists at all.
In Matthew 27, we’re told about the worst day in the life of Jesus. He was betrayed, whipped, and then crucified on a Roman execution rack, naked before his enemies.
It was all so incredibly unbelievable, unfair, and unjust because Jesus was the only person who had never sinned. Jesus was the only person who always did good things. Jesus was the person who always accepted the broken-hearted and wounded; he was the one who healed the blind, the lame, and the sick.
Oh, friends, the day we call Good Friday was the WORST DAY of his life. As he hung on that cross, below him were the Roman soldiers who had just crucified him gambling for his clothes. On each side of him were two hardened, crucified criminals cursing him and above him hung a sign that mockingly said, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”
And over the next six hours, things only got worse.
(Read Matthew 27:39-44)
Jesus Was Rejected by Sinners
As we look at this text we see there are three different groups of sinners here.
First, there are the Ignorant Sinners.
They have no understanding of who Jesus is or what he taught and that’s revealed by their comments on his teaching. He did say that the temple would be destroyed and he would rebuild it in three days but he was referring to the temple of his body, not Herod’s temple in Jerusalem.
So, they walk by, wagging their heads at him, which was a sign of disgust and derision, and mock him to come down from the cross.
Second, there are the Religious Sinners—the pastors, teachers, and Seminary professors of their day.
These were members of the Jewish High Council, the Sanhedrin. Just days before Jesus had rightly accused them of being hypocrites, snakes, and vipers who stole widows homes and killed the prophets. So now, because of their hardness of heart and their religious pretense, they mock and ridicule him.
Third, there are the Condemned Sinners, those who were crucified on each side of Jesus.
The NIV labels them “robbers” but it’s probably more accurate to see them as Zealots, men who were guilty of trying to overthrow the Roman occupation by insurrection and violence. They too curse and insult Jesus.
These three groups who abused and rejected Jesus show us the breadth and the depth of our sinfulness as people.
Often without even thinking about it, we talk easily and glibly about sin. I know I do this and I’m guessing you do as well. We say, “I don’t lie” and yet we gossip. We say “I don’t steal” and yet we don’t give to the work of Christ. We say “I love people” and yet we act in a critical or controlling fashion. We say “We’re committed to doing good” but we don’t think about the needs of the poor and the homeless because we’re focused on ourselves.
The little things that we do—or don’t do—and then excuse and forget about, those are all part of a huge web of rebellion against God. Friends, we need to remember that there is no little sin because there is no little God to sin against.
Several years ago former Colorado Springs mega-church pastor Ted Haggard was on Oprah where he publicly discussed the sexual urges that brought him down. He told her “I kept thinking my problem was demonic but part of this process forced me to say, ‘This is not demonic. This is ME!’ And when I said, ‘This is ME,’ all of sudden everything started to change and that’s when I started to heal.”
Haggard originally did what we all do, he located the source of sin outside himself, so he didn’t have to face up to who he is and what he is. But that’s a dangerous, deceitful game to play.
At this stage of my life I’ve had a lot of experiencing in leading different groups, committees, meetings, teams, and people. You know who the most challenging person I’ve ever had to lead is? ME because by nature, I am a sinful person.
And for that exact same reason the most challenging person you have to deal with is you because you’re a sinner as well.
The Bible tells us that we’re all sinful people, just like the people who rejected Jesus. Their sin and ours caused the worst day of Jesus’ life.
And what’s really disturbing is that as he hung on that cross, enduring the searing scorn of his enemies, things only got worse.
(Read Matthew 27:45-46)
Jesus Was Abandoned by His Father
Matthew says that darkness covered the land from the sixth hour, which was noon, to the ninth hour, which was 3 p.m.
In the Old Testament, which Matthew’s readers as ethnic Hebrews would have been very familiar with, daylight being replaced by darkness was a picture of both God’s sadness and God’s anger. It was sign that he was bringing judgment to the Earth.
We know from the text that Jesus was crucified at the third hour, which is 9 a.m., and the scriptures tell us that in the first hour that he hung on the Cross he uttered three statements but over the next five hours he did not speak. Silence can speak volumes about what a person is experiencing and it’s clear—that on the worst day of his life—Jesus was experiencing enormous physical pain.
If you’ve ever felt the kind of excruciating pain that comes from giving birth, having a kidney stone, or dealing with a chronic health condition like migraines, you know that it has a way of capturing all your energy and grabbing all your attention.
My dad died from a series of strokes when he was only 57 but I remember him as a quiet and soft-spoken person, except on those occasions when he had to deal with my misbehavior. But a few years back I spoke with some of my dad’s cousins who had grown up with him and learned that when he was younger, he was much more outgoing. Tragically, when he was in his late 30s, he contracted rheumatoid arthritis and for the next twenty years he lived in great pain. I think he pulled inward and underwent something of a personality change.
My guess is that as Jesus hung on the Cross, he was in such profound pain that it captured his mind, emotionally isolating him from those around him, causing him to feel profoundly alone. But then, suddenly and without warning at three in the afternoon, which was the Jewish hour of prayer, Jesus cried out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
This was a quote from the opening words of Psalm 22 which is a psalm of lament. From childhood every Jew was taught to pray that psalm when they were times of great distress and darkness. When Jesus prayed this prayer he was lamenting his pain and suffering but there’s also something much more mysterious and profound going on here.
This was not just another Jew among thousands who had been crucified by the Romans. According to the writers of the New Testament Jesus was fully human but he was also the unique Son of God. As he hung there on that cross enduring the worst day of his life, he was abandoned by the Father, as God’s wrath for all the sins of humanity was poured out on him in both body and soul.
Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ shows with great pathos the physical suffering that Jesus endured. But no movie, book, or sermon can give an accurate description of the enormous mental, emotional, and spiritual suffering that Jesus went thru as he was separated from his Father.
No one forced Jesus to come down from heaven, become incarnate, live among sinful humanity and then go to the Cross. He willingly chose to do all that knowing that he would be abandoned by the Father as the payment for all the sins of humanity, including yours and mine.
This was the worst day of Jesus’ life because he was rejected by sinners and he was abandoned by his Father. And perhaps worst of all, he was also overcome by death.
(Read Matthew 27:50)
Jesus Was Overcome by Death
In our heads we all know that people and animals and creatures of this earth are mortal— that they’re going to die. But when we’re faced with death or when someone or something we really love dies, it breaks our hearts because intuitively we know that this is not how life is supposed to go.
As C.S. Lewis wrote after the agonizing death of his wife:
Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the disquieting symptoms. When you’re happy, so happy that you’re tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be – or so it feels – welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, where all other help is vain and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double-bolting on the inside. After that, silence.
That was never more true than in the case of Jesus, the One who came to give life and hope and help to all the men and women and children he ministered to. He was the One who told his closest friends, “I am the way, the truth and the life ….” But now on the worst day of his life he was rejected by sinners, he was abandoned by the Father, and he was overcome by the greatest enemy of us all, death.
The day we call Good Friday was a day of rejection, loneliness, and loss for Jesus and there’s no other way to wrap our heads around it than to say it was all unimaginably horrible. But ironically the Worst Day for Jesus was THE BEST DAY FOR USbecause on that day God was working out His plan for our salvation.
(Read Matthew 27:51)
On the Worst Day of Jesus’ Life, God Provided for Our Salvation
Matthew is referring here to the sixty-foot-high curtain that hung in the Temple in Jerusalem which separated the outer courts from the Holy of Holies. Once a year on the Day of Atonement, as prescribed by the Old Testament Law, the High Priest went behind the curtain into the Holy of Holies and offered a sacrifice for the sins of all the people.
But now, what had been done imperfectly and as a shadow for centuries, was done perfectly by the Sinless Son of God on the worst day of his life. When that curtain was torn from the top all the way down to bottom it demonstrated that there was no longer a barrier between a Holy God and sinful people like us.
In her magisterial book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ author and preacher Fleming Rutledge mulls over the question “Why did Jesus have to die by crucifixion?” It took her sixteen years to write the book, but she said she had been thinking about the question since she was twelve-years-old. She provides a variety of sophisticated and comprehensive answers to the question, and I want to share a bit of her argument to show us what the worst day of Jesus’ life means for all of us.
Three Implications of Christ’s Death
First, the debt for our sin has been paid. As Paul so eloquently wrote in 1 Timothy 2:5-6: “There is one God and one Mediator between God and people, the Man Christ Jesus who gave his life as a ransom for all.”
Sometimes in churchworld we have a tendency to take Christ’s atoning death for granted. I don’t want any of us to do that today because the debt we owed God was incomprehensible and doomed us to eternal destruction.
The national debt of the United States currently stands at $31.5 trillion (March, 2023). If you spend one million dollars a day from the day of Jesus’ birth up to March of 2023 you would spend around $920 billion, about $80 billion shy of a trillion. Our country owes 31 of those and yet the debt that we owed God is far beyond anything we can mathematically calculate.
On the worst day of his life, Jesus paid off that debt for us.
Second, his sacrifice means we can be changed. In 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul writes that “God made him who knew no sin to be made sin on our behalf that we might become the righteousness of God.” On the worst day of his life, Jesus became sin for us so that we could become God’s righteousness—meaning that we no longer need to live for ourselves but can live like Jesus did—for God and other people. At a very practical level, this means we can be change.
In Carol Dweck’s wonderful book Mindset she argues that there are two kinds of mindsets: those which are closed and convinced that we are who we are and we can’t ever change. And then there are those of an open mindset which says it’s possible to change and grow and move towards maturity.
Friends, all of us have a tendency towards a closed mindset that gets stuck in poor patterns of behavior such as an inability to control our tongues, a daily temptation towards lust, or a tendency towards stinginess and greed that’s rooted in our fear. Jesus endured the worst day of his life to set us free from all that and transform us into his sons and daughters who live for God and others rather than ourselves.
Third, God has proved his love for us. Romans 5:8 says that “God showed us love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Forty years ago, when the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial was being finished in Washington D.C., its proprietors took a Facsimile of the Wall on a tour around the country. I’ll never forget seeing one veteran on TV, with tears streaming down his face, fingering a name in that Wall when it came to his town and saying “I’m here today because he died for me. He died so that I could live.”
Every person here has in one way or another, at one time or another and perhaps much longer, felt deep down in our hearts that either we were unlovable or that no one loved us. But the Father called on his Son to endure the worst day of his life to show us how much he loved us from all eternity.
A long time ago, on a dark and horribly brutal day, Jesus was crucified. It was the very worst day of his life because he was nailed to a cross where he suffered terribly, was abandoned by his Father, and then experienced all the pangs of a dirty and filthy death.
But now, 2000 years later, that day is remembered as the most important day in history and that cross that he died on is the most widely recognized symbol in the world. That cross marks more graves, adorns more jewelry, and sits atop more churches than any other design. It marked the worst day of Jesus life but now it symbolizes the best day of our lives—the day of our salvation from sin and death and hell.
May you and I embrace that cross and hold it tight because it symbolizes the debt he paid on our behalf. May you and I take up our cross and follow Jesus because it symbolizes our willingness to be changed by him. May you and I promote that cross because it shows the love of God for everyone who believes regardless of their race, age, status, or nationality.
May we always remember that the worst day for Jesus was the best day for us and for everyone who believes in his name.
Scott Wenig is associate professor of applied theology at Denver Seminary in Denver, Colorado, and author of Straightening the Altars.