Once upon a time, when I was a pastor in a very small town, the Ministerial Association decided to have a Good Friday service. They invited me to preach. Six others, and me.
I had declined to join the Association, since I was new, busy enough, and saw real no purpose in it. As I recall, it featured a Mormon clergyman, a female clergytype, a Roman Catholic, an Episcopalian, and a few others. Nice enough folks, I suppose, and you could argue this way and that -- but I just saw no reason to join.
Nevertheless, they asked me to preach at a sunrise service, and I said "Sure." Again, later, they asked me to preach at this service. I said "Sure!" My philosophy of preaching is this: if someone asks you, do it. If I can preach, I do it. Anywhere, anytime. I can only recall choosing to turn down one invitation, and that was both a special case and a very hard call for me.
Their plan was actually to have a preach-a-thon. Seven clergy preaching on the seven last words of Christ from the cross. One saying per preacher.
I could not have been more delighted with my assignment: John 19:30 -- "When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, 'It is finished,' and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit." Tetelestai -- I was praising God!
So comes the night of the preachapalooza, and it's all flowing along well enough. I mean there were no explosions, no bloodshed. In fact, I don't remember anything about the sermons preceding mine -- except for one.
The sermon was on this passage:
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, "Woman, behold, your son!" 27 Then he said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother!" And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:26-27)To whom did the assigner, in his wisdom, allot this text? To the Roman Catholic priest. (I imagine that he, in his way, was just as happy with his assignment as I was with mine.)
Now, "Father" Chester was a very nice man. We had dinner once, and enjoyed a nice talk. I had the opportunity of telling him the Gospel. It was as if he had never heard it before. In his fifties, from the Old Country, Roman Catholic priest -- yet no sign that he had a clue about the Gospel.
But on this night he spoke of something clearly very dear to his heart, something he did know well, something for which he had great enthusiasm: the adoration of Mary. From this text, Chester drew the application that Mary is mother to all of us, for Jesus entrusted us to her, and her to us. As we keep a picture of our mothers in our wallets, we should keep a picture of Mary in our wallets. And, if we have needs, we should tell them to Mary. It will work now just as it did on earth: we tell Mary what we need, Mary tells Jesus what to do, and, like a good Son, He does it.
As Chester preached, two things happened:
The audience grew very quiet.
And I re-composed my sermon.
When I came to the pulpit, I had a brand-new introduction. It went something like this:
...and a few other thoughts. The temperature lifted a bit, and a few "Amen"s were heard.
I love to hike in the Sierra. One time recently I was on a hike, by myself. I had gone four or five miles back to a beautiful lake. Circling around to the back side of the lake, I took some pictures. Up the rocky shore, I saw a spot that looked like it would be a perfect vantage point for a great picture. So I started to make my way across the rocks to this spot -- when suddenly the bank gave away under my feet! The rocks tumbled and rolled, and so did I. In a flash, I found myself dunked in the lake.
I was fine, but what a terrible feeling it was. It's a terrible feeling to trust yourself to something, to put all your weight on it, confidently, and then find that it can't hold you. It's a terrible feeling when your support collapses from under you. It's a terrible feeling when the very ground gives way beneath you, and you fall.
To what shall we trust our souls? To whom? Who or what can bear our weight, the weight of our sin and guilt, of our immortal selves? If we trust our souls to any mere mortal, no matter how holy or saintly, no matter how godly -- they are sinners, too, and they cannot hold us. They will collapse. Joseph cannot hold us. He would collapse. Mary cannot save us. She would give way. No mere child of Adam can hold the weight of our sin and need. All would dissolve into rubble beneath us.
Only Jesus can support us. He shows us this in His cry from the Cross: It is finished!
Know well: this is no cry of despair. Jesus does not say, "I am finished." No, it is a cry of victory. The Greek tetelestai means that it has been brought to consummation, to perfect completion. The word was used of bills that had been "paid in full."
When our Lord cries thus on the Cross, He is signifying that He, He Himself, He alone in His own person, had fully paid every last farthing, every penny, of His people's debt to God. He had left nothing undone of what the Father's plan of salvation required. Alone, unaided, hanging on the cross, under the holy wrath of God for sinners, Jesus Christ made full atonement for all the sins of His people.
And now we believe Jesus, or we do not. If we look to "Jesus-and" -- to Jesus and our pastor, to Jesus and Mary, to Jesus and any other mortal or any other sect or any other practice or any other thing -- then we do not believe Jesus. We do not accept His word, "It is finished."
We must look to Jesus, to Jesus alone, for salvation. We must trust ourselves to the One who cried "It is finished!"
Chester lived next door to me. A few days after the service, he waved to me. "Pray for me, the sinner!" he called out. "I do," I answered.
But as far as I know, he stayed with Rome.