"What can I use for a Good Friday sermon next week?" my pastor friend moaned over the phone. "I'd like to focus on one of Christ's sayings from the cross, but many of my people will have attended a community service on the seven last words in the afternoon. What's left to preach about on Good Friday evening?"
My friend's dilemma is by no means unique. Almost every pastor has struggled with what to preach on Good Friday evening. To focus on any of the words from the cross borders on homiletical overkill to those of the faithful who have already heard the usual eight-minute meditations that afternoon. Yet Good Friday is too important an event to ignore or treat like any other day in the church calendar. May I suggest some alternatives?
Good Friday Characters
Narrative preaching has special ability to convey truth in a graphic way. Why not preach the passion narrative from the viewpoint of biblical characters whose lives intersected with Jesus of Nazareth on that first Good Friday? The characters are legion, and many of them are fascinating. A beginning list would include Caiaphas, Annas, Pontius Pilate, Herod Agrippa, the Roman Centurion, Judas, Peter, John, Simon of Cyrene, the Weeping Women on the Via Dolorosa, the Two Thieves, Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicode-mus. Take a different biblical character each year on Good Friday, and let your congregation see the passion narrative through that person. The effect could be potent! Try these for starters:
Caiaphas: The Schemer Who Succeeded—John 11:34-54
Judas: The Betrayer Who Felt Betrayed—Matthew 26:1-16,27:1-5
Peter: The Rock that Crumbled— Mark 14:26-50, 66-72
Pilate: The Politician Who Was Out-Maneuvered—Matthew 27:11-26
Simon of Cyrene: The Visitor Who Became Involved—Mark 15:16-32
Longinus:The Centurion Who Crucified Jesus—Matthew 27:45-54
First Person Preaching
An interesting variation on the biblical-character approach is to cast the sermon in the first person. First-person sermons are not easy, but if done well, they are memorable experiences for the congregation. The following guidelines may be helpful:
- Limit yourself to the language and worldview of a first-century person, leaving out any twentieth-century allusions or modern slang.
- Let the character become a part of you, and when delivering the message, stay in character.
- Let your application be indirect so that your character doesn't sound too "preachy."
Good Friday Texts
The epistles of Paul are a rich source of biblical Good Friday material.
■ Romans 3:21-26 and Romans 5. These passages provide profitable insight on how the death of Christ results in the justification before God of all who believe.
■ 1 Corinthians 1:18-25. In this passage Paul presents the cross as either nonsense or the ultimate answer.
■ 2 Corinthians 5:16-21. This passage from the apostle Paul fairly begs to be preached on Good Friday. Explore what reconciliation means, how it was accomplished through Jesus Christ, and move on to talk about our responsibility in sharing the good news by being "ambassadors for Christ."
■ Philippians 2:5-13. This passage deals with the humiliation and subsequent exaltation of Christ.
■ Colossians 1:15-23. The subject of these verses is the reconciliation to God of the created order—both the natural world and sinful human beings.
An obvious Old Testament text that lends itself well to Good Friday preaching is Isaiah's Messianic description of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53. When combined with the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, this Old Testament passage comes alive in a strikingly evangelistic way.
The apostle John shows unusual depth of understanding in interpreting the meaning of Christ's death on the cross. Such well-known texts as John 3:16,1 John 4:10, and the Good Shepherd passage of John 10 make excellent Good Friday sermons.
One of my favorite passages from John is the word of Christ to Nicodemus in John 3, especially verses 14 and 15. Preach this against the background of Numbers 21:4-9, where God sent fiery serpents to punish the grumbling Israelites. Moses was instructed to make a bronze serpent and lift it up in the midst of the Israelite camp so that anyone who looked at the snake in faith would live and not die. Jesus uses this Old Testament story as a simile of how he will accomplish his redemptive work. A possible sermon title would be "Life for a Look!" The passage speaks powerfully of justification by faith.
While all four gospel writers offer a wealth of material, Dr. Luke records an incident on the Via Dolorosa that no other gospel writer includes. A large company of women who followed Jesus were lamenting his plight as he carried his cross through the streets of Jerusalem on the way to Golgotha. Jesus turned to them saying, "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children" (Luke 23:28, rsv). Christ did not desire pity.
On Good Friday what is needed is not the quick tear of sentiment but the deep sorrow of conviction over sin. Jesus of Nazareth was more than a noble person facing an excruciating death. He was the Lamb of God offering himself for the sin of the world. This text calls for deep contrition and genuine repentance.
Hebrews 9:6-15 and 20:11-25. A curious event that occurred immediately after the death of Christ and is recorded by all three synoptic gospels is the tearing of the heavy curtain or veil separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place in the Jewish temple. Only Matthew speaks of an accompanying earthquake with the rending of the veil of the temple (see Matt. 27:51). The writer to the Hebrews alludes to Jesus opening a "new and living way" into the heavenly sanctuary and into the very presence of God. The symbolic meaning of the torn veil of the temple is a worthy Good Friday theme.
In his first letter the apostle Peter explores how Christ died both as our example and as our sin-bearer. The exemplary aspect of Christ's death is set in the context of Peter's instruction on how Christian slaves of the first century were to behave when treated unjustly (1 Peter 2:21). But certainly the crucifixion of Jesus is much more than just an inspiring example of how a brave man faced harsh and unfair treatment. Christ's identification with humanity also resulted in his being our sin-bearer. In your sermon seek to plumb the depths of what Peter meant when he said, "By his wounds you have been healed" (2 Peter 2:24 RSV).
The passages above are just a sampling of the many suitable texts you might select for Good Friday. The atonement of God's Son is a major scriptural theme, and the Bible is an inexhaustible treasure house in its treatment of this subject. The meaning of Good Friday is central to understanding redemption.
Paul said it so well: "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scripture" (1 Cor. 15:3,4 RSV).
Good Friday Resources
Let me conclude by listing a few books I have found helpful in preparing Good Friday sermons. Each pastor has his or her favorite authors and these are a few of mine.
For a vivid description of the crucifixion scene, books like Fulton Oursler's The Greatest Story Ever Told, Jim Bishop's The Day Christ Died, or William A. Emerson, Jr.'s The Jesus Story are helpful.
A refreshing treatment that combines archaeological and historical findings with sound evangelical scholarship is The First Easter by Paul Maier, Professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University and son of the late Walter A. Maier of Lutheran Hour fame. Don't let the title fool you. Published in 1973, this book is as much about Good Friday as Easter. Maier's latest book, Josephus: the Essential Writers (1988), gives invaluable help in grasping the political background and consequent maneuvering of Pontius Pilate and Herod Antipas in the whole crucifixion drama.
A recent book from a fine Australian evangelical is The Cross of Jesus (1988) by Leon Morris. Another recent author who is stimulating to read is Frederick Buechner. His Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who's Who (1979) contains provocative and illuminating descriptions of Barabbas, Caiaphas, Herod Antipas, Nicodemus, Peter, and Pilate, all of whom figure into the
passion narrative. In addition, the first twenty-four pages of Buechner's Telling the Truth (1977) feature a highly imaginative description of Jesus before Pilate that should get any preacher's creative juices flowing.
Several not-so-recent volumes still contain much helpful insight into Good Friday:
Brown, Robert McAfee. The Bible Speaks to You (1955), "The Place of the Skull"
Chappell, Clovis G. Faces About the Cross (1941)
Connick, C. Milo. Jesus: the Man, the Mission, and the Message (1963)
Guilebaud, H.E. Why the Cross? (1937)
Hageman, Howard. We Call This Friday Good (1961)
Lewis, C.S. Letters to Malcolm (1963), chapter 8
Luccock, Halford. Like a Mighty Army (1954), "Good Friday and a Toothache"
Stott, John RW. Basic Christianity (1958), "The Death of Christ"