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The Seven Last Words

Katie Roelofs, our minister of music, first suggested the idea of a series on the seven last words of Christ on the cross. It quickly caught on. Like many preachers at churches who have switched from having a Good Friday to a Maundy Thursday service, I find myself in an interesting, if a bit uncomfortable, position—I don’t get to do much preaching on the passion of Christ as it is given to us in two climactic chapters of each of the gospels. In my case, preaching to a church that had long ago dropped the Sunday evening service meant still fewer opportunities to do that. Preaching through the seven last words of Christ enabled us to spend more time in contemplation at the foot of Jesus’ cross.

One challenge is to avoid having each Sunday in Lent become, in effect, a Good Friday service, with all the emotional intensity of such a service. Since each of the “Words” opens up numerous possible directions for preaching, we were able to experience a variety of moods for each of the five Sundays of Lent, plus Palm/Passion Sunday and Maundy Thursday.

—NS

Week 1: The First Word

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” —Luke 23:34

Service Notes

Jesus is praying for us. He’s praying for our forgiveness: not for vindication, not for deliverance, but for forgiveness—first of all for his executioners and then for all of us. The basis of his petition is that “they do not know what they are doing.” We are ignorant of the true dimensions of our wrongdoing. It’s much bigger than we thought. What we do—the good and the bad—all has great consequence to God. It matters! We don’t really “get” the depth of evil at work in the world, in humankind, and in our hearts. Ignorance doesn’t excuse us, but Jesus sympathizes with us. God hears and answers the prayer of his beloved Son. And here’s the great thing: When we pray for forgiveness our prayer is sure to be heard and answered, for we are praying along with Jesus; our prayer is wrapped up in his prayer. Our desire for forgiveness matches his desire that we be forgiven.

Jesus teaches us to pray, by word and example, for the forgiveness of others. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” The cross of Christ has great power. It is a Tree of Life, bearing the good fruit of forgiveness year after year in our lives.

Service Outline

Call to Worship: John 1:29

Opening Hymn: “What Wondrous Love” (st. 1, 3) CH 314, PH 85, PsH 379, SFL 169, TH 261, WR 257

To Be Reconciled to God

Song of Preparation: “I Love the Lord” (st. 1- 2) SNC 227

Call to Confession

During his whole life on earth, but especially at the end, Christ sustained in body and soul the anger of God against the sin of the whole human race (Q&A 37). In response to this sacrifice, we confess our sins to God.

Sung Prayer of Confession: “Ah, Holy Jesus” (st. 1-4; soloist sings st. 1-2) PH 93, PsH 386, TH 248, WR 262

Assurance of Pardon: 1 John 2:1-2

Song of Response: “Before the Throne of God Above” CSW 28

Prayer of Dedication

Father, we turn to you with amazed joy as forgiven people because Jesus prayed on the cross for us, for all people, for his enemies—those who were mocking him, beating him, and crucifying him.

And yet he prayed for forgiveness for us too. Lord, thank you!

Give us your Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, so that this forgiveness will flow through us to others: those we live with every day, those who have especially wronged us, those we are tempted to fear or to hate. In the name of Jesus, who prayed for us.

Amen.

Hearing God’s Word

Hymn of Preparation: “Forgive Our Sins As We Forgive” (st. 1-4) PH 347, PsH 266, TH 494, WR 382

Scripture Reading: Luke 23:24-25, 32-34

Message: “Father, Forgive Them”

Prayer of Application: concluding with “O Christ, the Lamb of God” PsH 257, SFL 44, SWM 158

Week 2: The Second Word

“Today you will be with me in paradise.” —Luke 23:43

Service Notes

The request of the thief on the cross was “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” To be remembered by Jesus: this is salvation. To be kept in Jesus’ thoughts. To be remembered and not forgotten. We sing Isaac Watts’s versification of Psalm 90: “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, soon bears us all away; we fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.” It’s a terrible thought. But with Jesus there is no forgetting. You are not forgotten by Jesus; you are remembered and cherished. You are in his thoughts, in his hands, for all time. Along with the thief on the cross, you are remembered before God, and you are saved. Whatever else we find in paradise, we will find Jesus, and we will be with him. Not even death can separate us from his love.

Service Outline

Poem: “Paradise Promised” (see box below)

Paradise Promised

Imagine that you can think your own death

only to where you’re in endless darkness and cold,

and then, dying, you hear that old promise

called Paradise. That misty, unreal story

might remind you of what you always half-knew:

 

that “the dead of winter”

is an old deception, a lie,

undone by swelling twigs

and pregnant bears asleep,

by the oily smell of the

baseball glove in the closet.

Winter is a girl who skips

over patches of dirty slush

with bright barrettes in her hair.

Winter makes (yes!) spirit visible

in the very steam from our mouths.

 

Call winter a certain hope,

it finally raises from the dark

that stranger hope of a second coming

of the hanged man who says the promise,

the very One who hung out the stars

at the world’s beginning, coming

not to scourge and burn

and blow up the world

and nail it to our failings

but to embrace and infuse it,

lighting up our recall

of Eden and who we are,

bringing us back to where

we can help to make the bright world right again.

—Rod Jellema

(The last two stanzas of this poem are excerpted from Rod Jellema’s poem "Come Winter" in Incarnality: the Collected Poems (Eerdmans, 2010). © 2010 by Rod Jellema. Used by permission.)

To Be Reconciled to God

Sung Prayer of Confession: “Your Mercy Flows” SNC 68

Assurance of Pardon: 1 Peter 2:24

Prayer of Gratitude

Lord Jesus, remember us, we pray; remember us now, today, and remember us when you come into the fullness of your kingdom. Thank you for the encouragement of your response to the thief on the cross: the promise of paradise, the promise of your presence—that we will be with you forever and that with you there is no forgetting. Amen.

Song of Response: “There Is a Redeemer” (st. 1-3) CH 308, SNC145, SWM 128, WR 117

Hearing God’s Word

Scripture Reading: Romans 8:1-4, 33-39; Luke 23:39-43

Song of Response: “Jesus, Remember Me” PH 599, PsH 217, SFL 168, SNC 143, WR 285

Message: “Today You Will Be with Me in Paradise”

Prayer of Application

Song of Response: “The Power of the Cross/Oh to See the Dawn,” Stewart Townend and Keith Getty

Week 3: The Third Word

“Woman, here is your son. . . . Here is your mother” —John 19:26-27

Service Notes

Jesus is concerned about others, in this case his mother. He is a faithful son. At the same time, Jesus is creating the new covenant community—an expanded family that transcends all the normal human bonds of blood and kinship. That family is the holy catholic church to which this congregation belongs.

The clue: Jesus addresses his mother as “woman.” A bit of distancing is going on here, no doubt painful for Mary. At the wedding in Cana, Jesus says “Woman, what have you to do with me?” Mary says, “Do whatever he tells you to do.” The way to get things done, especially if you’re aiming for joy and blessing, is to do whatever Jesus says. Who are the true mother and brothers of Jesus? “Those who hear God’s word and put it into practice” (Luke 8:21).

Jesus takes the place of all his disciples—and the whole world—on the cross. He turns to one of the disciples and sets him in his own place as the son of Jesus’ mother—establishing a new community right there at the foot of the cross.

Service Outline

Call to Worship: PowerPoint presentation—Creation Psalm (see box below)

Creation Psalm

The Creation Psalm was a “fill in the blank” psalm written by children’s worship leader Sara Bos and completed by the children in children’s worship as part of a response time activity (see text below). She says, “Kids chose the images (public domain) from Google images. We used the images they had chosen, along with the text of the psalm, in a PowerPoint presentation (available at www.reformedworship.org) as our Call to Worship.”

 

In the beginning it was dark nothing. Only you were there—

God, who is mighty and loving, powerful and compassionate.

Suddenly, you wanted to make the beautiful, blinding light!

You made gentle, calm rivers

trickling waterfalls

and raging oceans.

You made scorching deserts

and tropical islands.

I can see that you are in charge!

Because you are king, you can make

pine, oak, and palm trees

and daffodils, roses, and marigolds.

When I look at the sky, I am amazed that you could make the sun.

My favorite animals are chimpanzees and snow leopards and grasshoppers. You made them all!

I especially like to hear cicadas.

Everything you make

is always good.

Always.

I think you are the most powerful and greatest.

Thank you for everything!

Song of Praise: “For the Beauty of the Earth” CH 793/182, PH 473, PsH 432, SFL 90, SWM 54, TH 116, WR 40

To Be Reconciled to God

Song of Preparation: “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power” CH 334, PsH 552

Silent Prayer of Confession

Assurance of Pardon

Song of Response: “We Have Been Told” (st. 1-3) SNC 136

Guide for Grateful Living: Matthew 22:37-40

Song of Response: “Ubi Caritas/Live in Charity” SNT 242, WR 399 (choir sings through 2x, then congregation joins)

Hearing God’s Word

Scripture Reading: John 19:25-30; Luke 8:19-21

Message: “Here Is Your Son. . . . Here Is Your Mother”

Prayer of Application

Thank you, Lord God, for the good work that Jesus was performing even on the cross, creating a new community of love—the church;

a community bound together by the saving blood of Jesus, transcending all the barriers of national boundaries, of race, of culture, of language—one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.

May we be true to Jesus’ good work on the cross, loving and caring for one another in your church, whoever the brother or sister in Christ may be. In the name of Jesus.

Amen.

Song of Response: “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” Keith and Kristyn Getty

Week 4: The Fourth Word

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” —Matthew 27:46

Service Notes

It was high noon but the sun refused to shine. Some say to show God’s displeasure; some say the whole cosmos joined in grief. Or we could think of the darkness as an opportunity for God to go to work in a hidden way . . . as on Mount Sinai, in the midst of the smoke and the thick darkness.

But there’s yet another way to think of this deep darkness: when God is absent, the lights go out. Jesus is working in a hidden way, in the darkness. It’s hard work, arduous labor. Hammer and nails; bone and flesh; blood, sweat, and tears; and pain, agonizing pain. Jesus is paying the high price—his own blood—for my sins, for your sins, for the sins of the world.

“My God!” Before it was “Father”—again a distancing, this time between Father and Son. Jesus felt the gap that opened up between them: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21). Still Jesus says

“My God.” As Frederick Dale Bruner says, faith at its deepest level may be believing in God, but still crying out to him when we don’t feel his presence.

Service Outline

Choral Call to Worship: “Lenten Meditation,” Douglas E. Wagner (Shawnee Press)

To Be Reconciled to God

Call to Confession

Sung Prayer of Confession: “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” (st. 2-3) CH 316, PH 98, PsH 383, TH 247, WR 284

Lament

Jesus expressed his own lament on the cross with the words of Psalm 22. The psalms provide us language with which to express honest lament as well as trust and hope. Together we remember Jesus’ lament—his ability to express our own experiences of pain and identify with us in our suffering.

Song of Lament: “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” (st. 1-3) PH 363, SFL 214, SNC 130, TH 611, WR 506

Assurance of Pardon: Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 52

Prayer

What wondrous Love is this: O my soul, that Jesus would take our place on the cross, experiencing the curse, the abandonment, the God-forsakenness warranted by our sin. Thank you, Lord, that Jesus experienced God-forsakenness for us so that we will never be forsaken by God but will always enjoy God’s nearness and blessing. In the name of our precious Redeemer, amen.

Hearing God’s Word

Song of Preparation: “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” Stuart Townend and Keith Getty

Scripture Reading: Psalm 22; Galatians 3:20; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, 18-21; Matthew 27:45-49

Message: “My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?”

Prayer of Application

Week 5: The Fifth Word

“I am thirsty.” —John 19:28

Service Notes

Jesus is thirsty—certainly because of his humanity, his suffering on the cross. But he is also thirsty for God (Ps. 22:14-15; 69:3). The rich man of Luke 16 was thirsty too: “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.”

The rich man is in hell, and on the cross Jesus has allowed himself to take our place—those who are lost, those who do not have eternal life. The Living Water thirsts in our place.

A soldier offers Jesus, who changed water into wine at Cana, cheap swill to drink (v. 29). But then they pierced his side; from the wound came forth water with his blood. Because of Jesus’ thirst on the Cross, the healing stream begins to flow. And we may drink deeply from it.

Service Outline

Call to Worship

Poem: “Take This Cup” (see box below)

Take This Cup

The bright flash of red he poured in their cups, squeezed

from flesh of bursting grapes in proud Judean vineyards,

was wine passed among them for centuries

in joyful celebrations, with dancing and music—

and he called it “my blood.”

And he said, “Remember me.”

 

Remember me, he surely meant, always,

but also a few hours from then, when they,

humanly drowsy and falling asleep in nature’s night,

cannot help him pray his way free

from the thought of a more terrible cup,

a cup thick and bitter enough to gag on.

 

Right now, as he hangs by his wounds from a Roman cross,

that’s a cup he might settle for, a cup of anything,

a thimble, a stick to suck. Struggling to cry out

from a swollen throat scorched by God’s anger—

anger not with him who hangs there but with us—

he rasps only two cleave-tongued words: I thirst.

 

Two words from Immanuel, from “God-with-us,” two words

that are shaped by human flesh. The redemption is heavy—

it comes not by our heavenward flights but by his having

come down. Not the spirituality of humans but the humanity of God.

 

Well, it’s Friday. Two more days and we can choose

to shout and raise our cups, click our glasses

brimming with full-bodied earthy wines that smack of soul—

miracle wines that sing and make us sing.

—Rod Jellema, © 2010. Used by permission.

Response: Psalm 42:1-2

Prayer

O God! It breaks our hearts to think of the suffering and torment that Jesus went through on the cross. Jesus, the Living Water, suffering thirst—for us.

Jesus, the Righteous One, suffering the pangs of hell—for us.

May we on this day, again and again drink deeply from the well of living water that began to flow when Jesus’ blood was shed and his body was broken,

so that our lives may be refreshed even unto life eternal. Amen.

Choral Song of Response: “Surely He Has Borne Our Griefs,” George Frideric Handel, Messiah

To Be Reconciled to God

Sung Prayer of Confession: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” (st. 1-4) CH 321/324, PH 100/101, PsH 384, SFL 166, TH 252, WR 261

Assurance of Pardon: Colossians 2:13-15

Song of Response: (choose one)

“Amazing Love (You are My King),” Billy James Foote

“Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone),” Louie Giglio, Chris Tomlin, John Newton

Hearing God’s Word

Song of Preparation: “I Will Sing of My Redeemer” (st. 1-2) Hyfrydol: CH 309, PsH 479, WR 356; My Redeemer: CH 517, TH 650

Scripture Reading: John 19:16b-30

Message: “I Am Thirsty”

Prayer of Application

Song of Response: “As the Deer” CH 548, WR 471

Week 6: The Sixth Word

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” —Luke 23:46

Service Notes

As a child, I prayed every night “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take.” Did you notice the similarities between that prayer and Jesus’ last prayer before he died?

  • It is the prayer of a child—the Son of God—to his Parent.
  • It is a learned prayer, memorized from Psalm 31. The Bible teaches us how to pray.
  • It is about dying. Blessed is the child whose parents teach him or her this prayer from Psalm 90: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” When I prayed this prayer as a child I felt secure in the hands of God: “If I die, I’ll be with God.”
  • It is a prayer of deep trust, of seeking and finding a refuge in God. God will always love us and accept us as his children for the sake of his Son. Always!

Service Outline

Choral Call to Worship: “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna” CH 297, PH 89, PsH 378, WR 267

Song of Praise: “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” (st. 1-3) CH 300, PH 88, PsH 375/376, SFL 161, TH 235, WR 265

To Be Reconciled to God

Call to Confession: “Man of Sorrows, What a Name” (st. 1-3) CH 311, PsH 482, TH 246, WR 301

Prayer of Confession and Assurance of Pardon: “Psalm 31” SNC 131

Hearing God’s Word

Scripture Reading: Luke 23:44-49

Message: “Father, into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit”

Prayer of Application

Father of Jesus, our Father for Jesus’ sake, we pray that the childlike awe and trust Jesus exhibited on the cross would become ours also. We pray that we will trust you no matter what, knowing that in your good, strong hands, we are eternally secure. In the name of Jesus, amen.

Song of Response: “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” Keith and Kristyn Getty

Week 7: The Seventh Word

Maundy Thursday or Good Friday

“It is finished.” —John 19:30

Service Notes

What is finished? Whose work is completed? It is the work of Jesus and of his Father. “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34). Now, at the cross, that work has been completed.

“It is finished.” The work is complete. No one can add to it. No one needs to try. We just lift up the cup of salvation and bless the name of the Lord.

God’s glory shines through Jesus here, now, in full strength; shining brightly even into the darkest places of our world today.

Service Outline

Scripture Reading: John 13:1-2; John 19:28-35

Meditation: “It Is Finished”

Prayer

Lord God, with Jesus’ work finished, accomplished, completed on the cross, what is left for us but to give ourselves in gratitude to you?

And so we give ourselves to you, Lord—body and soul, all that we are, all that we have—as a living sacrifice of praise. Into your hands we commit our spirits and our lives.

Receive us, accept this offering in the name of Jesus.

Amen.

Song of Response: “The Power of the Cross/Oh, to See the Dawn,” Stewart Townend and Keith Getty

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