Sermon: It’s All In How You Finish
Scripture: John 19:30 ; Luke 23:46.
Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “It is finished. Into your hands I commit My Spirit.” When He said this, He breathed His last.
All of this basketball that we have been exposed to during the last month or more has led me to recall my days of glory on the basketball floor. My claim to fame is that a few years back, I was the worst player on the worst middle school team in the greater Milwaukee area. And though it was a completely forgettable season, I do remember one game in particular. We traveled to play the Whitefish Bay team. And we got drubbed. Now we were a bad team, but we usually kept it close. But this game was an embarrassment even for a bad team. At half time we were losing 30-4. And we went in at half time figuring the coach was going to really let us have it. But instead he sat us down and he said this, and after all these years, I still remember it. He said: “Don’t worry about the first half. Go out there and finish this game well. They’ll remember you for finishing well. It’s all in how you finish.” So we went out for the second half with heads held high – ready to finish well. And we ended up losing 56-9. I don’t think that’s exactly what the coach had in mind when he talked about finishing well. But I have never forgotten what he said, and I have discovered that in so much of life, he was right. Most often people remember how well you finish. I think this year’s UK Basketball team is a great example. Before the SEC tournament, all people could talk about was how disappointing they were. Wasting all that talent. Maybe they weren’t as good as we thought they were. They were one of the few teams in history who began the season ranked number one and finished the regular season unranked. But then they turned it around. They finished well. And now instead of being remembered as a bunch of underacheiving “one and dones”, this team will be remembered as only the second team ever to make the final game starting five freshmen. And suddenly Cal is in the conversation for the coach of the year. And several of the players pro prospects are bright again. It’s all in how you finish.
And so we come to the very last words on the Cross. Now there is some confusion in Scripture about what those words actually were. Matthew and Mark don’t record any words. They both say that Jesus cried out in a loud voice and then gave up His Spirit. Luke and John put words to Jesus’ cry. But not the same words. Luke picks up on the Spirit theme in Matthew and Mark and says that Jesus cried out: “Father into your hands, I commit my Spirit.” But John says that Jesus just called out one word. And that word is “Finished.” And so often times, when we think about these words, we combine Luke and John’s account and say that Jesus said: It is finished. Into your hands I commit My Spirit. The final act is done. Jesus has finished. And now His Spirit is back with God.
So I’ve been wondering exactly what it is that is finished? Has Jesus really finished well, or is this just the end? Death on the Cross. Is that all there is? A painful, humiliating defeat on the Cross for God and humanity. Sometimes we assign that kind of meaning to the word finish, don’t we? We say we’re finished. There’s no way out. There’s no good outcome. Finished is often a term of defeat. I wonder if that’s how those who stood at the foot of the cross heard it? The darkness had closed in. Jesus had talked of being forsaken by God. Things have spiraled beyond His control. And now He’s finished. No one is going to save Him. No last minute reprieve like there was for Isaac when Abraham was ready to sacrifice him. The Angels weren’t coming. He’s done. There’s no way out. Finished. Defeated. Is that how we are to hear this word? He came to Jerusalem in triumph on Palm Sunday. Now He leaves defeated. Finished. The hope of Sunday turned to despair by Friday. Surely that’s not the enduring message of the Cross. No wonder Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t record this word. But there are a couple of things that may indicate that Jesus’ use of the word is crossways with the world’s understanding. First, Jesus does not use the personal form of the word. He does not say in resignation, “I am finished.” He says, “It is finished.” “It” is a word that points beyond the self, to something greater. And secondly, He doesn’t speak it in a tone of defeat and resignation. Though the Gospels don’t agree on what He said, they all seem to agree on how he said it. He shouted it for all the world to hear. He wanted His followers to hear it. He wanted the Centurions to hear it. He wanted the members of the Sanhedrin to hear it. He wanted the rest of the crowd to hear it. Perhaps he thought if he shouted it loud enough even Pontius Pilate and King Herod in their palaces could hear it. When we are defeated we don’t generally broadcast that fact for the whole world to hear do we? After the big win, the reporters go into the winner’s locker room to interview the winners. And it’s always loud and boisterous and joyous. And then there is always the obligatory interview with the losing coach. It’s usually just outside the losing team’s locker room. And the reporter speaks in hushed tones and the coach is quiet and subdued. We talk about defeat in hushed tones, muffled words. We don’t shout them out for the whole world to hear. In John’s telling Jesus turns the defeat of the cross into victory and he shouts it out for the whole world to hear. In fact in other places in his gospel, when John uses the word finish or finished, he’s talking about completing the task; being successful; being victorious. He talks about the “work”, the “mission” that will be finished, complete. John spells out Jesus’mission when He begins His gospel by saying:
In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things came into being through the Word. The Word was life and that life became the light of humanity. And the light shone in the darkness, but the darkness did not understood. He came to the Jews, but they did not receive Him. But some received Him, and believed in Him and to them He gave the right to be called children of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among all of humanity.
The Word became flesh so that God could adopt humanity once more. That was the mission. And on the cross it was finished. Complete. Victory. The darkness of humanity as displayed on Calvary would give way to the bright light of the empty tomb. Defeat becomes victory. The work is complete. Finished. Let’s shout it out for everyone to hear. And the Centurion (who I believe represents us in this drama) says: “Listen to that. Surely He was God’s Son.” It is finished.According to John, Jesus has proclaimed victory on the Cross. In his prayer at the Last Supper he transforms the Cross from an emblem of suffering and shame, to a symbol of His victory when He says: I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. And so it is done. It is finished.
So then how do we reconcile that with what Luke says were the final words of Jesus. Luke says this:
It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out in a loud voice, “Father into your hands I commit my spirit.” When He had said this, he breathed His last.
To the world those words have more the sound of surrender to them. “Father, I’ve done all that I could and still they don’t really get it. They still deny that I am your Son. So, I give up. Receive my Spirit back into Heaven.” The priests and Pharisees must have heard surrender in those words. They wouldn’t have to deal with this false Messiah anymore. They had won. We human beings don’t ever like to surrender, do we? We don’t like to admit that we have failed. In fact, some of our greatest heroes are those who refused to surrender against all odds. They become martyrs for the cause. We celebrate those who would rather die than surrender.
And so why did those who told Luke about Jesus’ last words on the Cross tell Him that Jesus spoke words of surrender as He died. John (who was there at the Cross) remembers Jesus’ final words as words of ultimate victory. But Luke the historian, records these words that sound like words of surrender. “Father I give you my Spirit back.” Well, let’s think about that for a moment and try to give a little context to these words. When I was a child, my parents taught me a prayer to say every night before I went to bed. It went like this:
Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. If I should live another day, I pray the Lord to guide my way.
Probably some of you learned that same prayer. And I have to confess that as a child, that prayer scared me. It made me fearful that I was going to die in my sleep. And I was just a kid. I didn’t want to die. They sounded a lot like words of loss and surrender to me. In my mind I never really got to the part about living another day and the Lord guiding me because I got lost in the fear of dying. But as I got older I came to understand that prayer simply as an affirmation that waking or sleeping, alive or dead, my soul belonged to God. With this prayer I was saying Lord, in all circumstances, I want to belong to you. Every night I prayed that. With that in mind, look at these words that Jesus speaks on the cross. When Jesus’ speaks these words, He is quoting the 31st Psalm which is a Psalm that is all about trusting in The Lord in all circumstances. “You are my rock and fortress” the psalmist says. “Redeem me.” “Save me” “Be merciful” “Great is your goodness” “You showed your wondrous love when I was under siege.” “Deliver me from my enemies” And why does all this happen. “Because,” the Psalmist says, “into Your hands I commit my Spirit”. And here’s the thing. This 31st Psalm was taught to Jewish children as a bed time prayer. Mary probably taught it to Jesus and now on the Cross, with His last breath, Jesus is remembering it. These, indeed, are words of surrender. But by speaking them at this moment, Jesus is crossways with the world’s concept of surrender. In Christ, surrender is not defeat. It is victory. Victory in Christ comes when we surrender ourselves, our lives and our Spirits to God. We become His Disciples when we surrender. But that’s a scarey thing, isn’t it? For the longest time I ran from God because I didn’t think that I needed Him in my life. I thought I was doing just fine thank you. But then one day I looked around and saw that all of those things that I was finding meaning in were fleeting, would not last. And I felt so empty. If I was to live life to the fullest, live the life that God created me to have, then I would need to surrender to God.
The writer of Hebrews writes: It’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.
One writer in commenting on that says:
It takes guts to give our most precious possession – our lives – over to God. It is a fearful thing to commend our spirits to God because, well, who knows what God will do with our lives? I think most of us, or maybe this is just me, but most of us spend our lives attempting to get our lives out of God’s hand and into our own. We achieve and work and build and hoard, we work out at the gym and watch our cholesterol. For most of us, if God wants my life, then God will have to come and get it. (I’m not going to give it to Him.)
These last words from the Cross call on us to live completely crossways with the world by surrendering ourselves. The beginning of faith comes when we surrender our lives to God. So many times I have heard people say, “preacher, I really want to be a Christian but I don’t know how.”From the cross Jesus is telling us. To be a Christian, to follow Him to the cross and beyond, we need to give our lives back to God. Surrender ourselves. These words are the prayer of Discipleship. “God, into your hands I commit my Spirit.”Ultimately all of Jesus words from the Cross are words of Discipleship. Disciples are those who forgive, and who claim their place in eternity, and who love unconditionally, and confess and who bring their thirsty souls to God. And why? Because Disciples are those who surrender their lives and spirits to almighty God. This prayer should be our constant prayer, in all circumstances and moments of life. Father I surrender. Take my spirit. Take my life. Adam Hamilton, in commenting on this final word, says this:
This was Jesus dying prayer. It was a prayer of absolute trust in God. (From the cross) Jesus had forgiven His enemies, offered mercy to a thief, prayed for His mother, come to a place where He felt abandoned, and expressed His physical thirst; but before His death, He declared the shout of triumph, “It is finished,”and offered this beautiful prayer of absolute trust in His Father. And then Hamilton says: On the cross, Jesus again was teaching us how to pray. When we’re facing darkness and despair, when we’re facing the valley of the shadow of death, when we’re facing the unknown, what should we pray? “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
Ultimately Jesus’ mission was to make Disciples –to show humanity how to follow Him back into relationship with God. And on the Cross, He finished His task. The reason that God had sent Him in human form to live among us was complete. He showed us the way back to God.“It is finished. I can now surrender my Spirit back to you in triumph.”For a moment the world thought He was defeated, but Jesus crossed them up, and declared the ultimate victory. And that victory is you and I. our lives and all of those who have been and are and will be His disciples proclaim His victory. His victory was John, there at the foot of the Cross, and Peter and Andrew and Thomas and the other Disciples and eventually the Apostle Paul and the Emperor Constantine through whom Jesus was able to have the victory over the Roman Empire that eluded the greatest armies of the world) and Martin Luther and John Wesley and Francis Asbury and you and I and all who have followed Jesus to the Cross, only to emerge victorious as His disciples. Because here’s the thing: The completion of Jesus task on the Cross, is just the beginning of our task, our mission. That’s what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote to the Philippians: He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion, until the day of The Lord comes. And so while Christ’s task was completed on the Cross, it is because of the Cross that our task has just begun. His task was to make disciples who would continue the work of reconciling humanity with God, the created with the Creator. And when we commit our Spirit, surrender our lives, we make His task our own. And so forty days after His resurrection, as He is preparing to ascend back into Heaven, He says: “You are my Disciples whom I love. Now go in all the world making more disciples in my name.”Until that day comes when we can say with confidence in a loud voice the words of victory: Your work in me is complete. Finished. Now take me into eternal presence with you. May those be our last words as we finally approach the Cross of Jesus. May we finish well.