Ecce homo!: A sermon for Good Friday

John 19:5

Good Friday

Anybody who’s seen the movie "Fat Man and Little Boy" will remember the incident.

Dr. Michael Merriman and the other scientists of the Manhattan Project were excited. A critical experiment was about to be performed which, if successful, would prove that the atomic bomb was a practical idea. A plutonium sphere was being surrounded by neutron-reflecting tungsten carbide blocks, which reduce the mass necessary for the plutonium to go critical. That’s just a fancy way of saying that they were putting that chunk of plutonium on a hair trigger, to facilitate a small-scale experiment it ordinarily would have taken a much larger and more dangerous chunk of the stuff to perform.

As the last brick was being lowered into place, everybody leaned forward in expectation. One of the scientists had been drinking a cup of tea. He set it down next to him- not realizing that he was putting it on the very edge of a chair. The cup fell- and shattered. The man lowering that last tungsten-carbide brick into place was startled- and dropped the brick directly onto the plutonium core.

Immediately the entire room was filled with lethal radiation. Everyone froze- except for Michael Merriman. He reached down into the core and pulled the block out with his bare hands. Then he glanced at his watch and had everyone in the room draw an “X” on the floor where he or she had been standing when the accident happened. He did some calculations on the blackboard. And then, with a remarkably calm voice, he announced, “All of you should be all right. As for me- I haven’t got a chance.” He died a slow and horrible death of radiation sickness three weeks later.

And on a hill outside Jerusalem two thousand years ago, the eternal Son of God did something remarkably similar. What He took into his hands, though was something far more lethal even than plutonium. It was the concentrated retribution of the ages. It was the guilt of the Holocaust, and of every war crime ever committed. It was the moral weight of every murder, every rape, every act of wanton cruelty in human history. Those nail-pierced hands seized hold of the curse that is born by every lie, every blasphemy, every wrong.

There is no evil either too big or too small to have been included. The slightest peccadillo of the most virtuous of all the other human beings who had ever lived- or ever would live- was included. So was the horror of every genocide ever committed. The guilt of the seventy-six million people murdered by the most bloodthirsty regime in history- Communist China- was included. So was the guilt of the fifty million abortions performed in this country since 1973.

There is no sin you have ever committed- or ever will commit- that was not included. There is no sin that any human being, anywhere, has ever committed, or ever will commit- that is not included. And just like Michael Merriman in the story, Jesus Christ took the full brunt of all that guilt- its full weight; its full gravity; its full lethality; its full horror- onto Himself so that it might not fall upon us.

Ecce homo. Behold the Man! Take a good, long hard look at that bleeding carcass, hanging there on the cross. It is surely a pity that so many Christians have a prejudice against the crucifix. There is no other sight imaginable that can so completely sum up the full horror of human sin- or, more specifically (and more to the point) of your sin and my sin than the sight of that bleeding, dying carcass on the Cross- and the knowledge that He Who hangs there is the one whose Word called the universe into being.

Ecce homo! Behold the Man! Behold Him and see the thoughtless words, the petty cruelties, the “harmless” lies that we dismiss so easily in their true light. Behold the Man- and see the horror of what we let ourselves do and think so easily, and dismiss so lightly.

But whatever you do, don’t stop there. To stop there would be to miss the whole point. Just as there is nothing that sums up the sheer horror of sin- the sheer horror of your sin, and mine– as the sight of that Man on the Cross, so there is nothing that expresses the unspeakable depths of the love of God so much as that very sight. A chorale for Good Friday our choir in high school sang- one written, as it happens, by a former member of the Concordia, River Forest faculty- expressed it well:

O love of God! O sin of man! In this dread act, your strength is tried! The victory remains with Love: Jesus, our Lord, is crucified.

One might well believe that every time a person who was in that room at Los Alamos thought of Michael Merriman, the thought would go through his or her head, “He died so that I might live.” Well, the same is true of that Man on the Cross. Every man and woman and child who has ever lived, and who ever will, can say as much about Him.

Do not seek out God, as He is in Himself, Luther warns us. Do not wish to encounter Him in his glory, and least of all in His holiness. You and He are natural enemies. Like Moses, who once presumptuously asked to see His face, you cannot look at His face and live. And if you should be so unfortunate as to meet Him, run. Run for your life! Nothing less holy than He can survive His presence.

And how casually- how presumptuously– we speak of Him as a buddy, a pal, a casual companion! But where can we run from the One Who fills the universe? Or where- which is finally the same thing- can we flee from what and who we are, as revealed in all its horror on the Cross?

The answer: to that very place. To the Cross. Seek him clothed in His promises and Our humanity. Seek Him in the Crucified- the horror of whose suffering is the only true measure of the horror of our sin, it’s true, but also of the eternal and infinite depths of the love of the One Who bore it all, that we might live.

As it happens, Michael Merriman is a fictional character. It was, after all, a movie. Merriman was actually a composite of two real Los Alamos scientists- Harry K. Daghlian, whose death was a solitary accident, and Louis Slotin, a Canadian scientist who whose death was just as heroic as- Merriman’s death in the movie, if not quite as melodramatic.

But your sinfulness is as real as your every breath, and so is the condemnation due your sin. But rejoice- because so is the forgiving love and the cleansing grace that was so broad, so deep, and so inexhaustible as to send the Creator of all things, seen and unseen, to a hill outside Jerusalem long ago, to bear the guilt of it all, and die that we might live. What is there to say in the face of such love? As little as it is- as much more as is demanded- what, finally, can one say but “Thank you?”


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