3/13/2016 Sermon – “Famous Last Words”

For the first couple Sundays of this month, we’re going to spend a little time thinking about famous last words.  Specifically, we’re looking at the last words of Jesus from the cross – scripture describes seven times he spoke.  In many places these words are heard during Good Friday services.  This morning, we’re going to hear two of those scriptures that describe the same moment from different points of view.

Matthew 27:45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ 47When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘This man is calling for Elijah.’ 48At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 49But the others said, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.’50Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.

John 19:28-30. After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

 Here are some “famous” last words:

  • Johnny Ace, an R&B singer, died in 1954 while playing with a pistol during a break in his concert set. His last words were, “I’ll show you that it won’t shoot.”
  • Charles Gussman was a writer and TV announcer, who wrote the pilot episode ofDays of Our Lives, among other shows. As he became ill, he said he wanted his last words to be memorable. When he daughter reminded him of this, he gently removed his oxygen mask and whispered: “And now for a final word from our sponsor—.”

In 1980, as I was about to head off to seminary, I went to visit my grandfather, who was dying.  From his hospital bed he whispered, “I’m proud of you.”  Those were his final words to me.  That blessing has stayed with me in a strong way and has encouraged me to say those words to my own children whenever I get the chance, as well as any younger person who is about to set out on a life-work.  Maybe those will be my final words to someone!  I hope I have enough energy and breath to do something like that.

People’s final words seem to have power.  Last words hang on in our memories, the last things people say before their bodies die.  Death is probably the most profound moment of life next to birth.  We know what everybody says when they are born – those first sounds are profound.  And when life is coming to an end, we seem to expect them to make a good summary of the meaning of everything they were, or maybe give us a final glimpse of their personality.  It’s usually enough if we hear someone we love say, “I love you.”

Let me put this into the perspective of an artist.  We all see those people on the education channels teaching us how to paint.  They show us how we can all make a work of art in a half-hour; you could call it McPainting.

In the last few years, you can sign up for painting experiences that involve drinking wine while you paint.  But everyone who makes a living from working in the arts knows how impossible it is to produce artwork with lasting value that way.  99% of the time, you just don’t sit down at an empty canvas and have a finished painting a half-hour later.

"Starry Night" by van Gogh, 1889.
“Starry Night” by van Gogh, 1889.

When you go to a museum to see works of art, virtually all of what you see had a plan.  If it’s a painting, the artist knew exactly how he or she wanted it to look before they started.  The sketches were done and the colors were mixed.  They knew what the size and proportions of the canvas needed to be.  A copy of the final sketch was drawn or traced onto the canvas before a brush ever touched it.  Coming up with the final product was a matter of putting all the pre-planned pieces together and the artist knew exactly when it was finished.  And this is still the way lasting artwork is made.  It’s a lot less spontaneous than we might think.

"The Storm at Sunset" by James McNeill Whistler, 1880.
“The Storm at Sunset” by James McNeill Whistler, 1880.

About a century ago, the American artist James McNeil Whistler was on trial.  He had been given a commission to paint murals and his employer was unhappy with how they turned out.  Do you know what an impressionist is?  It’s a style of painting – not so much attention to detail – swirls and blotches of color that give an impression of a scene.  Yes, van Gogh was an Impressionist.  For people who need accuracy, impressionists can be… sloppy.  The opposing attorney asked, “How long did it take you to paint these murals?”  Whistler answered, “All my life.”

According to the gospels, the death of Jesus was not a spontaneous event either.  He had been preparing for this moment from the beginning of his ministry, really from the beginning of his life.  God sent him to put our sins to death on that cross.

Of the seven words, the seven times Jesus speaks from the cross, the words that might be hardest to hear are the ones Jesus says when he quotes Psalm 22.

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  (Matt. 27:46)  These might be the most gut-wrenching words Jesus says from the cross.  Jesus quotes the feelings of David from Psalm 22 – when he was surrounded by enemies, feeling cut off from any hope.  As Jesus says these words, he is at the height of agony as our sins are dying with him on the cross.  And as much as we want to clean it up, it is not pretty to look at.  This is the part when we want to look away; we can’t watch this.  Don’t let the children see this.Raphael-Crucifixion - croppedThe image of the crucifixion is fixed in our minds, through the jewelry we wear and the religious symbolism in our church buildings.  Artists have tried to portray it for centuries, and over the years, it’s become art and our culture tends to want to keep the crucifixion sanitized for general audiences.  Rated G. Most of the time, the Jesus we see on the cross is looks like this, from a painting by Raphael about 500 years ago.  He is serene, more or less at peace with the awful thing that’s happening to him.  Not really in pain.  His arms almost seem to embrace what’s happening.  He almost looks like an Olympic gymnast being spotted by some helpful angels.

Grunewald crucifixion - croppedBut at the same time, there was a German artist to the north named Matthias Grunewald, who saw this moment in a different way.  His painting of Jesus on the cross, at this moment of feeling forsaken, hung in a monastery.  The monks at this monastery had a tradition of caring for the terminally ill.

The cross in this painting a rough piece of wood and the Jesus on that cross barely looks human, he is so beaten and maimed.  When you look at this painting, your attention is drawn to his hands.  His fingers are tense and stretched out.  He is in deep pain.

Just out of the picture, seated on the ground, are people who are dying.  They are also beaten, and maimed, and sick.  When I stand in front of that painting, I am one of the crowd, and I remember that Jesus has carried my pain and suffering to the cross.

This is the forsaken Jesus: the Jesus with a dying body, racked in pain.  This is the Jesus who walked straight into death and all it feels – and all it means.  Agony, separation from God.  Sin.  This is Jesus paying the penalty for sin that wasn’t his.

It’s not a pleasant scene.  We tend to think of it as barbaric, since people aren’t crucified today, are they?  Maybe in some places or maybe in other ways. Not all crucifixions are physical.  Through these images, and these words, we remember that through Jesus, God has been there.  He did it for us.

My God, my God, where are you?  Why did you leave me?  I’ve said that.  We experience the pain in different ways, but I think most faith, most depth of the spirit comes through pain.  It comes in that moment we understand how weak we really are.  Of all the seven last words, this is an expression of the worst of humanity, and the best of God.  The worst of our sin being put to death by a God who loves us too much not to stop it.  The miracle of Jesus is the life that came from this moment of pain and death.  Our reason for hope came from this moment.  Our reason for real peace, real joy came from this moment.

And at this moment, Jesus says, “It is finished.”  In John’s gospel, these are the last understandable words of Jesus before he died, and he said them when he was at the height of agony.  But as Jesus says these words, John would like us to understand that for Jesus, death was part of the plan.

At the very beginning of the gospel he has John the Baptist saying, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  (1:29)  Maybe the people who heard John say that had shocked looks on their faces and cornered him later to ask exactly what he meant.  It’s not a pleasant image.  At Passover time, what happens to the lamb?  The lamb dies in a Temple sacrifice ritual.  The lamb dies to atone for the sins of the people.  It’s a prophecy; it’s a plan.  Jesus is paying the price for the sins of the world – mine and yours included.  And now, Jesus says it’s finished.

“It is finished.”  If anybody else died and said that, what would it mean?  Maybe they would be talking about the pain of living, or the struggle to live.  Maybe they would be relieved that the fight to stay alive is over.  Maybe they are glad that the process of dying is over.  It is finished.  Last words. But for Jesus, and for the people who hear these words, and believe in him, they mean much more.  They open the door to new life.

This is happening on a Friday, a dark Friday, but Sunday’s coming.


God, we hear these words of Jesus, and they are painful words.  As he spoke these words, we know that you must have been in deep pain as you watched what was happening to your only son.  But we know that you sent him out of your deep love for us, and we know that through him, we have life.  Our sins are dead, crucified with him.  But more than this, the tomb is empty and Jesus is our living savior.  He is alive and we give ourselves to him.  With him, we can face the challenges of life.  We believe; help our unbelief.  Amen.