Imagine with me that you had a dream. Now, you may have to work at it, but I want you to think of the times that you’ve had a really vivid, realistic dream, the kind that you think is so real that you wake up with your heart pounding and beads of sweat on your forehead.
In your dream, you’re walking down a very long, very dark, corridor, with open doors on either side. You are compelled to walk this corridor and look into each room that presents itself, first on the left, then on the right. As you slowly pass each room you can barely make out a set of rails, like for a roller coaster. In each case these rails disappear into a black hole in the floor. You approach the next doorway and reluctantly peer into the dimly lit interior. In the blackness of this room you can just make out that on the rails sits what looks like a small roller coaster car with one seat. Above the car you notice a placard with writing on it. You’re filled with a sense of foreboding as your eyes strain to make out the letters in the darkness. As you take a step further into the room, you realize that it’s your name that appears on the placard. Underneath your name are printed the words “Destination: Hell”. Your blood freezes in your veins and the hairs stand out on your arms. You mouth the word, “No”, but no sound comes out. You find that you’ve taken another step toward the car, and you make an attempt to walk backward toward the door, but your legs will not move. Suddenly, your eyes are drawn to a movement in the darkness to the right of the car—and you become aware of a figure in a black robe facing you. Your heart begins to race as fear grips you. This figure and another one to your left now move slowly toward you, one hand pointing to the car, and the other reaching out to take hold of you. Though you try, you cannot make your legs move. You open your mouth but no sound comes out. In the reality of your dream your mind desperately fights the thought that you are about to spend eternity in hell.
Then, as often happens in frightening dreams, you wake up. Your heart is pounding. Your breathing is rapid. It all seemed so real! The relief you feel is overwhelming.
During our season of Lent we contemplate Christ’s passion. Martin Luther writes that we should view his suffering and death with terror-stricken hearts and despairing conscience, recognizing that it is our sins which have put him on the cross. Lent is a time set aside in the church year to look into that black and gaping hole that leads to hell and God’s eternal punishment and know that, rightfully, this should be our fate. The placard above the car is correct. Our destination as one who is a sinner should be hell. Luther quotes from St. Bernard (born 1090 A.D.) who says, “I regarded myself secure; I was not aware of the eternal sentence that had been passed on me in heaven until I saw that God’s only Son had compassion upon me and offered to bear this sentence for me. Alas, if the situation is that serious, I should not make light of it or feel secure.”
Lent leads us to Passion Week and Good Friday, where we see the seriousness of our sin resulting in nails and wood, thorns and blood, and the precious Son of God bearing God’s wrath in our place. Because Jesus bore our sin, God has changed the placard. In place of our names, God has written Jesus’ name. The sentence of condemnation passed on us has been transferred to Jesus. The punishment that was due us has been placed on him, so that Isaiah writes that, “[Jesus] was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53).
Contemplating Christ’s passion and the sacrificial substitution that God made for us brings us also to a better understanding of and appreciation for Easter and what it means that God raised Jesus from the dead. As baptized and forgiven children of God, we stand in awe as we contemplate also what it means that Christ “Died for our sin and rose for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). The relief that we have in waking up from a bad dream and realizing it was not real is completely eclipsed by the joy we have in knowing that the condemnation that was rightly ours has been removed from us and borne by another. All that Jesus was and did and said, culminating in his final cry, “It is finished!”, was affirmed by God the Father when he raised Jesus from the dead. You and I are justified before God by the precious blood of God’s own Son, who suffered our punishment in our stead. Had his sacrifice not been sufficient, God would not have raised him from the dead. But Christ is raised! All glory be to God the Father and to the Lamb!
May your journey through Holy Week bring you to a new and clearer understanding of the love that God has for you, demonstrated in the cross and the empty tomb, and may you rejoice more and more as you bask in the reality of that wonderful love.