This is a difficult day. That we call this Friday “Good” is somewhat ludicrous, until we contemplate what we believe it accomplished…until we know the end of the story.
But the first disciples did not know the end of the story. At this point, all they know is terror. Could we bear to stand on Golgotha and watch him suffer and die? Some of the women did (the men were in too much danger). I don’t know if I could bear it. But I can bear reading the story again, and contemplating what he is said to have spoken from the cross in the gospels.
Hear again the “Seven Last Words”. Which is speaking to you today in these strange and, for many, frightening times?
Luke 23:32-38 Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’
Is there someone you are struggling to forgive? Someone you judge harshly? Is it time to look again, with the eyes of love, to seek to understand, to release yourself from the offence? Forgiveness is a journey; it takes time. Where are you on the journey?
Luke 23: 39-43 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
Does it offend you that a criminal was forgiven on the spot, with the promise of paradise? Why? Are you entirely deserving of all the forgiveness and love that you have received?
John 19:25b-27 Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.
Who has God given you to love?
Mark 15:33-38 When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
Have you ever felt forsaken? Does it surprise you that Jesus did? What does it show us about the humanity of Jesus?
John 19:28-30a After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’
For what do you thirst?
Luke 23:44-49 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent.’ And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts.
At the end, he is said to have commended himself to God, even though feeling abandoned by God. We believe; help our unbelief. May we breathe our last surrendering to the Great Love that will take us Home.
I am struck this year by Jesus’ sense of being abandoned by his Abba, the One who had led him to this place. How easy it is to feel forgotten when we are going through the worst times of our lives. Where is God? we may ask when the terrible thing happens, when disease or senseless death strike, when the job ends or the business fails. Or we don’t even bother to ask; we just turn away.
The biblical witness is that, in such times, the faithful practice is to rail at God. The Book of Psalms is filled with personal and communal laments; one-third of the book are laments. People say the most outrageous things to God in some of those psalms (recall 137:9 –dashing children’s heads against rocks!). They give God the full brunt of their anger, fear, resentment and revenge fantasies. And God can take it. Our relationship with God is just that, a relationship. And it will flourish –as all do- with honesty and vulnerability.
Jesus is in the biblical tradition when he cries out My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? He is reciting from Psalm 22. Here it is in its entirety. Note where it ends up.
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
3 Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4 In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
6 But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
8 ‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’
9 Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
10 On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
12 Many bulls encircle me,
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
13 they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.
14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
15 my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.
16 For dogs are all around me;
a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shrivelled;
17 I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
18 they divide my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.
19 But you, O Lord, do not be far away!
O my help, come quickly to my aid!
20 Deliver my soul from the sword,
my life from the power of the dog!
21 Save me from the mouth of the lion! From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.
22 I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
24 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.
25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live for ever!
27 All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
28 For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
29 To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.
30 Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
31 and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.
Psalm 22 is a plea for help and a song of faith, a psalm that acknowledges that feelings of abandonment are normal but that God’s purposes will nonetheless be fulfilled. For those who knew the psalms, on Jesus’ lips that simple, heart-wrenching sentence (Ps 22:1) evoked the whole of it: the pain and the promise. What was happening in that moment, Christians came to believe and to profess, would accomplish the deliverance (salvation) of a people yet unborn.
And so we stand before the horror of the cross, and let it instruct us again. Living a Christ-shaped life – eyes to heaven, feet rooted in the earth, arms stretched wide to embrace the whole world – may (will?) bring great pain and broken-heartedness as well as fulfilment and exquisite joy. That is how salvation is accomplished.
We now may be in what will become a time of great pain and broken-heartedness (as it already is for some). This we know, through it all God’s purposes will nonetheless be fulfilled. We do not know what or how that will be. But in the moment, today and the next day and the next, we will sing our song of faith. We will turn to our God, crying and railing if necessary, and God will meet us where we are. We will draw strength from the One who has gone before us and who has borne the worst that humanity can inflict. And when the time comes, we will gather in the great congregation to vow our praise.
God bless and keep you on this holy day and through these challenging times.