Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Friday We Call Good

(A word: I did not originally intend to preach nearly identical sermons at both our 12:30 and 7:30 Good Friday Services - it just sort of happened that way. In the 12:30 I included the phrase "here is the man" repetitively because of the John reading, but took it out for the 7:30, and added the paragraph in italics. This is the 7:30 version)

Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts by acceptable in your sight, O Christ our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

For nearly every great person of history who is no longer alive today, remembering the time and place of their death is a vital part of telling their story. Especially if that person was cut down in the prime of their life while working for the cause of justice and peace. What biography of Abraham Lincoln would be complete without mentioning the tragic night at Ford’s Theater? What account of Martin Luther King Jr would be worth its salt if did not include a chapter set that hotel balcony in Memphis Tennessee? And, though Malala is still alive, any future biography of hers will surely include her nearly successful assassination while fearlessly crusading for education for women in her native Pakistan.

Often we remember great men and women by the last words they spoke before their death. Dr. King allegedly spoke these last words to a musician just before he was shot: "Ben, make sure you play 'Take My Hand, Precious Lord' in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.” The last words said by Martin Luther, reformer of the church and for whom our denomination is named, were “We are beggars; it is true.”

But we can safely say that no other death in the history of all people is as important as the death of a Palestinian Jewish peasant who live and died on a cross over twenty centuries ago. At the time, he was nothing more than another failed messiah, yet another victim of senseless violence sacrificed at the altar of the Empire of Rome. Here is a man who claimed to be a king, and look at what they did to him.

The area of Judea and Galilee at the time of Jesus were already under the thumb their fifth or sixth succeeding empire. Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and not Romans, with a few minor empires scattered in between, with hardly a break. Oppression and subjugation were old hat to the Jewish people. They groaned from one generation to the next, longing for deliverance, looking for the day when the Messiah, the holy one, anointed by God, would take up the cause and forever send all empires packing.
And Jesus, at least for a while, seemed to be shaping up to be a pretty decent contender for the title of Messiah. He healed people of their illnesses, cast out demons, miraculously fed people, flouted authority, both empire and religious. True, he also had some disturbing quirks like eating with sinners and talking to women and children and talking too much about the kingdom of God. But as long as he is the Messiah, those might be overlooked. As long as he kicks out the Roman Empire, much can be forgiven.

And this week also started out so well – the people crowding around and showing their support in the “Jesus parade,” as Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem, the headquarters of power in the region, presumably to take it by storm and finally route the Roman oppression.

But that didn’t happen. Almost a week later, Jesus is hanging on a cross. No revolution, no overthrow of the oppressive government of Rome, no political victory. A failure in the eyes of his people. A failure in the eyes of history, presumably doomed to obscurity, yet another failed king who did not obtain greatness.

But Jesus didn’t come to be a great king of history. He wasn’t born to be prince over an earthly government, wielding power and influence. He wasn’t born to be great. He was born be good. He was born, lived, and died to show that the goodness of God is for all people, not just the rich, not just the rightous, not just the powerful. And that is why we call today Good Friday. Jesus chose what was good for the entire world, even though it led to his own suffering, torture, and a cruel and humiliating death.

While Jesus was still in the garden, praying that this cup of suffering would be taken from him, Jesus still had a few options left open to him. He could have called on his disciples to fight for him – one would already chop off an ear, why not try to do more? Or he could sneak out of the garden and become an elusive hermit. He could have called those legions of angels to his aid and proven beyond a doubt who he was. He could have struck an agreement with the religious authorities and worked to reform the religious institutions from the inside.

But Jesus did none of those things. He didn’t fight, or hide, or amaze, or bargain. He decided to obey God, even unto death. He decided to die. He chose the cross.

Just a few weeks ago we heard about Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, where Jesus says the most famous line in all of scripture, the most quoted Bible verse in all of history: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Jesus was talking about himself, and he was talking about this moment. He was talking about death. He was talking about the cross. Here is that man, that moment, that cross.

The cross was not always one of them most recognized symbols in the world. The Roman Empire intended it to be a sign of intimidation, a deterrent, a sign that reads clear as day “This is what happens when you go up against the “powers that be” and lose. Because you WILL LOSE.”

 On this Friday that is called Good, though, the symbol of an instrument of torture and humiliation and death is transformed into a symbol of life and repurposed as the sign by which God wants to be known in the world. It is transformed into a sign of a divine love that holds nothing back, even if it means suffering and death on a cross.

Today on the Friday we call Good, we remember that we worship this suffering God, and we follow this crucified man. Jesus shows us that God is willing to take on the worst the world has to offer, to experience it in a human body that can feel pain and can bleed and can die. Jesus is willing to take on the worst that WE have to offer – our selfishness, our fear, the broken mess we’ve made of our lives – to transform that too into something beautiful and precious and to be repurposed as beloved by God.

Even when the night has fallen, all hope is lost, and it looks like the darkness will win in the Fridays of our lives, death cannot win, not forever. We cling to hope. We cling to the cross. And we wait for the light that shines in the darkness.

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