“It is finished” - John 19:30
“Put your pencils down and pass your papers to the front.” Do you remember hearing those words when you took exams in school? It seemed to me that there were always at least a couple of questions on every test that I wasn’t quite sure about. After answering what I knew, I’d go back to those questions and turn them over in my mind. But any consideration, any deliberation was over when the teacher uttered those dreaded words, “Put your pencils down and pass your papers to the front.” It didn’t matter if your work was incomplete; you were finished. Tough luck.
In the gospel of John, Jesus’ final words (as they are translated in most of our English bibles) are: “It is finished.” But that’s not necessarily the best translation. After all, I may only be “finished” with something because time has run out; like it or no, “time’s up.” Put your pencil down.
In John’s gospel, Jesus refers to his ministry as “work.” In chapter 4, Jesus enters into conversation with a Samaritan woman while he is sitting by a well. In the course of their lengthy conversation, Jesus reveals his identity to her; it is the first time he has openly spoken to anyone about who he is. When the woman heads back into town to tell her neighbors about Jesus, Jesus’ disciples try to offer Jesus something to eat. Jesus’ answer is odd. He says to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.”[i] It’s a statement that baffles the disciples. They may have only been concerned about his blood sugar dropping; but clearly Jesus has something else in mind when he speaks of food.
Jesus picks up this thread once again in chapter six. He had (most recently) miraculously provided food for a hungry crowd of 5,000. But Jesus tries to put things in proper perspective giving them a response that goes something like this (my paraphrase):[ii] You are hunting me down just to get another free meal. Forget about wasting your time working on that. Work on pursuing something that really matters. Work on putting your trust in me.
Jesus, throughout John’s gospel, makes clear that he is working God’s plan. Over the course of the gospel, Jesus explains that plan: he will lay down his life by being lifted up on a cross to die. That’s the plan and Jesus has been working it from the start; always aware of what lies at the finish line.
And so, when he reaches the cross, his work is finished. But it is more than finished; it is complete. In fact, that would be a better translation of the Greek word: It is complete. No loose ends; no unanswered questions. Jesus didn’t lay down his pencil; he laid down his life. And when he did, he did so knowing that his work was complete.
[i] John 4:34
[ii] John 6:25-40
Fifth Word: I am thirsty
I heard a curious story on NPR the other day. We are all aware that California has been experiencing a dreadful drought in recent years. But in recent weeks, they’ve received a good deal of rain… frankly, more than the scorched earth can handle. Anyway, who knows how long the rain will last but finally, at long last, California’s reservoirs are… well, starting to look like reservoirs again. But here’s where the story takes an odd turn… A century and a half ago – long before our modern scientific weather forecasting capabilities – a law was passed in California. If reservoirs exceed 60% capacity, they are required to release their water and reduce it to 60%. Otherwise, if a major storm caught them unaware, the reservoirs would overflow and there’d be flooding. But right now, the law is useless. California would love to fill up its reservoirs, but no can do. What a paradox.
Likewise, it is so strange to hear Jesus, hanging on the cross, say “I am thirsty.” Back in chapter four of John’s gospel, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well and informs her that he is the source of living water. Later, in chapter seven, Jesus says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” And now on the cross, the self-proclaimed endless source of life-giving water, cries out “I am thirsty.”
Now without a doubt, Jesus would have been thirsty. All that his body underwent likely caused dehydration. John makes clear to us: this was no walk in the park for Jesus. He was fully divine; but he was also fully human and we human creatures suffer terribly when we’re deprived of water. It is excruciating. This “Word [that] became flesh and lived among us”[i] wasn’t any different from our flesh in that respect.
But Jesus is also divine and nowhere more so than in the gospel of John. In John, Jesus embraces his coming death. He is not running away from it. He is running toward it. They’ll be no “if it is possible, let this cup pass from me”[ii] for John’s Jesus. No, he takes that cup firmly in his hands. He is ready to drink from it.
In chapter ten of John’s gospel, Jesus likens himself to a Good Shepherd. He says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…I lay down my life… No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord…”[iii] Later, in chapter 18, Jesus is praying in the garden when Judas brings the authorities there to arrest him. Peter responds in his usual impetuous fashion. He draws out his sword. But Jesus admonishes him, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?”[iv] You see what I mean?
Jesus has always known how this would end. He understands what he must do and he is ready to do it. And so, when he says he is thirsty, perhaps the meaning goes deeper than his parched lips, his dry mouth, and a yearning for fluid to assuage his dehydration. Perhaps, he is thirsty to complete his work. After all, his final word from that cross will be “It is complete.”[v] Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “’I am thirsty’ is what [Jesus] says, but what he means is, ‘I am ready.’”[vi]
The introduction to John’s gospel tells us that Jesus has made God known to us.[vii] So, here at the end of his earthly life, hanging from a dreadful cross, just what is he teaching us about God? Well, that God will suffer anything to draw you into the fold because that is just how much God loves you.
[i] John 1:14
[ii] Matthew 26:39.
[iii] John 10:11, 17-18.
[iv] John 18:11
[v] John 19:30
[vi] Thirsty for Heaven from Home By Another Way by Barbara Brown Taylor. Cowley Publications; 1999. Page 102.
[vii] John 1:18
Fourth Word: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46
I love scripture. I love studying scripture. I love teaching scripture and, most of the time – thanks in part to my husband who is a bible scholar – I can help people learn, through scripture, new things that deepen their relationship with God. For a pastor, that’s a rewarding and exciting experience. But I’ll tell you what’s not rewarding: to be asked a question about scripture and have no answer; none whatsoever. There are just a few passages of scripture that defy our best, most studious and devout, efforts to explain. In Mark’s and Matthew’s accounts of Jesus’ death, Jesus only speaks one discernible sentence: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” By their accounts, his ministry doesn’t end on a high note.
Read as many books as you’d like and, if you take the time to really break down their theories, no one will have given you a satisfactory answer for Jesus’ expressed feelings of abandonment as he hung on that cross.
Some say it’s because Jesus took on all of our sin when he was nailed to that cross and the heavenly Father couldn’t bear to look at it or at him. That seems like a pretty lame answer to me.
Some remind us that this passionate question from the cross is the opening line of Psalm 22 and that 2/3’s of the way through, the psalmist changes his tone when he begins to affirm God’s responsiveness, saying: “For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.”[i] And yet, if that was the part of the psalm Jesus meant to communicate, well, why didn’t he just say so?
And so I confess, once again, I have no good explanation for these words from the cross that, in the company of atheists, frankly become a little embarrassing.
But here’s one thing I’m sure of: this question is a direct address… which means it is a prayer and it is not a prayer to some impersonal deity. This is an intimate prayer for Jesus says, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is personal. Some might be offended that Jesus comes off sounding pretty demanding when he speaks these words… which leads me to the conclusion that there is still faith behind these words.
Perhaps there has been a time in your life when God has seemed unresponsive or distant. What did you do? I hope you did not berate yourself. And if you were angry with God, I hope you did not try to talk yourself out of it. After all; God knows what you’re feeling whether you acknowledge it or not. Every good relationship requires honesty. And Jesus wasn’t afraid to speak honestly to his heavenly Father when he was hanging on that cross that day. And, I would say, that teaches us a lot about prayer.
[i] Psalm 22:24
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