March 17, 2024

Micah 4:1-4
Matthew 13:31-33
John 19:30

“What Is Finished?”

According to the Fourth Evangelist, the author of the Gospel of John, the very last thing that Jesus said before he died was a declaration: “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Most of us probably found that verse familiar, having come across it in the readings on Good Friday many times before. But I, for one, have never focused a whole Bible study or a sermon on that verse alone. But as we began to discuss it this week in our Lenten study groups, it quickly became clear that there was a lot to talk about.

After all, Jesus didn’t elaborate on that simple statement. After saying “It is finished,” he immediately dies. If his disciples were wondering what he meant, they didn’t get a chance to ask him as they had done after many other teaching moments that left them confused and wondering.

Likewise, we receive the words of Jesus in Scripture, but not a detailed explanation. But with the guidance of the Holy Spirit and in the community of the Church, we are invited to hear, and question, and think, and ponder together what Jesus’ words meant for those standing by to watch at his death and for us today.

I think that the Illustrated Ministry reflection on this text identifies the key question for us to consider about Jesus’ words, so I used that question as my sermon title today: “What is finished?”

Folks in our study groups easily identified some possibilities. First, they spoke about the pain and suffering of Jesus’ terrible death on the cross. Sensing that he was reaching his last breath, is it possible that Jesus was expressing a feeling of relief that this horrible ordeal was coming to an end?

Although none of us living people can really know what it’s like to come so near to the end of our lives, many of us have probably had loved ones who seemed to know that the moment was coming. And sometimes, like Jesus, they almost seem to choose the moment – willingly “giving up their spirit” and embracing the transition into whatever God has in store for them. Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when he said, “It is finished.”

Another possibility is that Jesus was still thinking about his friends and family standing by the cross. After all, just moments before this he had spoken to his mother and his friend John, encouraging them to take care of each other like family. He must have known how difficult it was for them to watch his unjust execution, and to have it drag on and on would have made it even worse. Perhaps his words were more consolation for them – this awful time is over now, it’s going to be okay.

Both of these ideas imagine that what is finished is the pain and suffering, and that’s a good thing for Jesus and a relief for those who loved him. But the other thing that was finished in that moment was Jesus’ whole life in the world.

Think about it – the amazing thing that God did in coming to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth – living as one of us, being a human in the world with all the physical experiences, joys, sorrows, needs, and wonders of human life… the ways that he taught, and healed, and welcomed, and challenged, and loved so fully and completely… that was finished. Jesus would return to God, and never live in the world in quite the same way again. This spectacular moment in history – the thirty or so years of Jesus’ life that would so radically change the world – were finished.

When I think about these two possibilities, I think that they both may be right. Have you noticed that they match up with the feelings we often have when a loved one dies. We simultaneously mourn the ending of something good that will no longer be, and we are comforted by the knowledge that whatever suffering they may have experienced through illness or injury has also come to an end. Our responses to death are rarely one or the other of those thoughts and feelings, but very often we hold both perspectives at once because they are both true.

Perhaps the most common interpretation of Jesus’ statement, “It is finished,” however, is to say that he was referring to his mission in the world. He’s not just saying that his life in the world is finished, but that he’s completed his work – what he was sent to do and to accomplish.

It’s the difference between a life being cut short and a life coming to an end after a person has completed everything they were meant to do. It’s not difficult for us to celebrate the life of a person who has lived to a good age and accomplished all the things they wished to do. But it’s hard to get our heads around the idea of something dying too young, with hopes and dreams and purposes unfulfilled.

In contrast to our typical experiences, Jesus was only 30-something years old. And yet, he seems to be saying that he’s completed the work that he was sent to do. The way that John’s Gospel explains Jesus’ mission it was to shine light into the world – to reveal who God is and display God’s love. In his life, ministry, miracles, and teaching Jesus showed the glory of God, invited people to believe, to draw close to God, and to love one another as Jesus loved them.

And his death on a cross is not a defeat or a sign of failure. Instead, it is the moment when God’s sacrificial love for human beings is displayed most clearly. Jesus is lifted up, and with arms outstretched, he draws all people to himself and to God. Before he gives up his spirit, he knows that in this very moment, his mission is complete, his work is done, it is finished.

This morning, I included two Scripture readings that I believe show a vision of the world that God intends for human beings to enjoy. The prophet Micah tells of a future time when the nations of the world will make peace with each other, and we will beat our swords into ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks. Everyone will live beneath our own vine and fig tree, and no one will be afraid.

Jesus describes the Reign of God that is coming as like a mustard seed that begins tiny. But when it is planted, and broken, and watered, it grows and grows. It becomes a miraculous tree (much bigger than a mustard plant would normally grow), so big and luscious that all the birds come and make their homes in its branches.

Sometimes when we read the stories of Jesus, we may wonder why those visions have not yet come to be. I mean, if Jesus has completed his work and mission, why does the world continue to struggle? Why is there still violence and war, battles over territory, and power struggles for control? Why are there people who still live with insecurity and fear, without the resources to live, without homes in which to rest and experience peace?

I don’t know the answer to that. But I’m not giving up hope, because the end of Jesus’ life in the world is not the end of God’s ongoing activity that will one day bring about the Reign of God that the prophets hoped for, and that Jesus promised us was coming.

Illustrated Ministry says this in answer to the question “What is finished?” by actually pointing out what is NOT finished when Jesus dies:

“What is finished?

“It’s not Jesus’ ministry – he’s trained disciples to carry that on.

“And it’s not his teachings – for thousands of years now, people have been retelling the stories he told.

“And it’s not his presence – he’d promised that whenever two or more people got together and remembered him, he’d be there among them.

“And it’s not his love – we’re assured that not life or death or anything in the world can separate us from his love.”

Christian theologians often say that we live in the in-between time… after Jesus inaugurated the coming Reign of God, but before its completion. Jesus’ work is done, but our work continues as the Body of Christ in the world today – to love one another, and love our neighbours, and welcome strangers, and even love our enemies. To turn our weapons into farming tools and build a world in which everyone has what they need to live in safety and peace.

As we make our small contributions towards this work day-by-day and year-by-year, may God give us courage and hope, trusting that Jesus has finished his work and it will come to be.