Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

"Jesus leads the way..."

Good Friday 7:30 pm - at the beginning of our Tenebre Service

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.

They handed him over to be crucified. But first, before they crucified him, Jesus was mocked, beaten, spat on, and had a crown of sharp thorns thrust on his head. Before they crucified him, He carried his own cross-beam up a hill to where he was to be executed. Before they crucified him, they stripped him and cast lots for his only worldly possession. Before he was crucified, those who condemned him and also passersby made fun of him. AND THEN they crucified him.

Here was a man, cut off from every imaginable means of support. Here was a man who had ripped away from him everything in his life that grounded him. Here was a man who was truly left with nothing to hold on to.

As theologian Charles H. Spurgeon once said, “[Jesus] leads the way along the path of sorrow, and you could not have a better guide.”

Last night, as Jesus broke bread with his disciples in his last meal before his death, he ate with his own betrayer. In Gethsemane, he prayed in agitation and dread of this very day. His closest friends could not keep awake with him, and later deserted him altogether. His betrayer, Judas, one of his hand-chosen twelve, handed him over to the respected religious leaders who sought his death. These chief priests and scribes, in turn, handed him over to their Roman government oppressors, who in the end were all too willing to put him on a cross.

Here was a man, abandoned by his people, abandoned by the rule of law, abandoned by his own friends, abandoned even by his God.

Even in his cry of pain from the cross, Jesus is misunderstood. Jesus cried out the “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – The first line of Psalm 22 - and those around him misunderstood, and thought he was calling for the prophet Elijah. Others, either to help him or to quiet him, gave him sour wine, bitter like vinegar, from a sponge on a stick. Then, with the bitter taste of death in his mouth, Jesus cried out and took his last breath.

To have Jesus utter such a despairing word, even from the bitter suffering of the cross, is shocking to us. It is hard for us to hear God’s son, the anointed one, the Messiah, beloved of the father, accusing his Abba in such a manner. But then again, it is Jesus who is the one having to die on a cross, after all that Jesus had done.  Wouldn't anyone wonder the same thing? “Why has God forsaken me?”

Jesus did everything according to the will of his Father. He preached. He healed. He taught. He fed. But he made enemies. He rocked the boat. He changed the way “we’ve always done it.” He called into question everything that people had always thought about God. And he got into deep trouble for it. But he did not waver, even then. He did everything God wanted him to, and he was still meant to die.

It does not seem fair, not one bit. What kind of a God would do this, would allow the murder of an innocent man, his very own son? Shouldn’t being born Son of God, obedient in all things to the will of his Father, mean getting a few benefits at least? Could not at least his obedience have earned him a death is a little less agonizing and torturous?

Even Jesus struggled to understand this, despite in his complete and ultimate obedience. In Gethsemane, Jesus prayed in great distress for the cup to be taken from him. He received no answer, nor did he receive any peace or comfort whatsoever from his Father. And so perhaps it is not so surprising that on the cross, Jesus did cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Hoping against hope for an answer. But no answer comes. Only death.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus’s words can and often are our words, too, echoing like a taunt in our hearts. Many of us has felt what it’s like to cry out to God by day and night, but receive not answer. Many of us have felt more like a worm than a person, poured out until we have nothing left, pushed past our limits, and attacked by those who would eagerly rip us to shreds. Many of us have cried out, “Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is no one to help!” when it feels like there IS no one to help. Our friends betray us, our family abandons us, and God is nowhere to be found.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  “Do not be so far from us, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.”

But there is someone to help. It is the one who has tread this lonely and forsaken path before you did.

“[Jesus] leads the way along the path of sorrow, and you could not have a better guide.”
Behold the life-giving cross. Because there hangs the salvation of the world. He is the one who went before us. He is the one abandoned by his friends and attacked by his enemies. He is the one scorned and humiliated, crowned with a crown of thorns and a bloody purple robe. He is the one who was mocked and taunted, even by those crucified with him. He is the one whose body was beaten and broken on the cross. He is the one whose life was poured out for us. He is the one who faced utter abandonment in death, when no one was there to help him.

When you are suffering and in unbearable pain, Jesus is already there.

When you have been abandoned by everyone you love, Jesus is already there.

When you have been forsaken by God and can get no comfort from prayer and your faith has dried up into dust and blows away… Jesus is already there.”

Jesus lost his life so that our lives might be saved. When Jesus told his disciples to deny themselves, to take up their crosses to follow him, those were not just idle words. When Jesus calls us to follow him, he bids us to “come and die.” And so, to show us the way, he went first, alone taking up his own cross upon his bleeding, beaten shoulders. He cleared the blood-stained trail that he calls us to follow. And we can find comfort in the fact that this hard road has been traveled before. Even from the cross, we hear Jesus give us words of comfort.

“[Jesus] leads the way along the path of sorrow, and you could not have a better guide.”

Jesus traveled that path, so that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

That is why we call this day of pain, suffering, and demise of our Lord “Good Friday.” Because it was good, good for the disciples who ran away and are hiding. Good for Peter, who is weeping in shame. Good for the women, who stood near the cross and later stood outside the tomb in hopelessness, waiting for a Sunday they didn’t yet know was coming. Good for us, gathered here tonight.

So let us stand with them this night, and behold with them the life-giving cross, on which was hung the salvation of the world.

Eating with Sinners

Maundy Thursday 4-2-15

Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, Amen.
Think for a moment about your favorite story, the book or movie that you could never get tired of watching or reading. Is it set in an exotic local you would love to visit someday? Is the plot fast-paced and exciting, keeping you guessing until the very past page? Are the characters memorable and complex, so real you feel like you've known them for years?

The true mark of good story, I think, is this – no matter how many times you've read the book, no matter how many times you've seen the movie, you cannot stop yourself from wondering how the story is going to end. And the very best stories are the ones which sweep us up into take part in the story as if we were there. Where we feel the pain of the characters, their every heartbreak, and every time, we hope against hope that certain heartbreaking moments turn out differently.

Tonight is no exception. Tonight we hear again the story of the events leading up to Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Tonight we hear again the story of the night before Jesus died, and we hope against hope that perhaps, maybe, just maybe, THIS time the story will turn out differently.
Just maybe, this time, the other disciples will catch on to the assassination plan of Judas and the chief priests and scribes, and will act to stop it in time.

Maybe this time, Peter, James, and John will actually stay awake while Jesus prays in Gethsemane, and they will be supportive friends in his hour of dread and anxiety.

Maybe this time, Judas “come to his senses” and have a change of heart before giving Jesus the kiss of betrayal.

Maybe, this time, the rest of the disciples won’t flee in terror, leaving Jesus utterly alone.

Maybe this time, someone on the religious council will see the charges against Jesus for what they are – trumped up excuses to murder an innocent man just for political gain.

Maybe this time, Peter will be steadfast like his nickname – Peter the Rock – to fulfill his promise to stay with Jesus, even to death, to proudly and publicly claim his identity as a Jesus-follower.

It could have happened differently… but not this time. These events never change, no matter how often we hear it, no matter how much we want them to.

The chief priests and scribes do convince Judas to betray Jesus. Peter, James, and John are unable stay awake with Jesus and keep vigil. The rest of the disciples do flee. And Peter, blustering and brave Peter, though he at least follows Jesus a little farther along his journey to the cross, in the end he too denies Jesus, as Jesus foretold just hours before.

And we cannot forget Judas, of course - the most famous betrayer in the history of betrayals. Judas does betray Jesus, bringing a crowd, not waving palm branches and cheering, but instead brandishing weapons and threatening violence.

But the other disciples, part of Jesus own hand-chosen twelve, betray Jesus too. Not intentionally, like Judas did. They, rather, don’t seem to be able to help themselves. The spirit might be willing, but the flesh is oh so weak. And they very thought of hurting the one we love is, of course, distressing. When Jesus predicts their future unfaithfulness, Peter tried to hide his anxiety by assuring Jesus that though all the OTHERS might have it in them, surely he does not. It’s not like we've never done that before. And we all know how that went for Peter in the end.

It is really too bad for Peter and the rest that their flaws and weakness have been immortalized forever. But really, the night before Jesus died was neither the first nor the last time that Jesus has been betrayed by his followers. We too, can find ourselves at the table and in Gethsemane. Tonight is a story that is also about US.

We all know what it feels like when those we love and trust fail us – when our best friend reveals something we wanted to keep secret. When a family member makes a promise and doesn’t come through for us. When someone we thought cared about us doesn't show up for us when we are in need. We've all been on the receiving end of betrayal.  And it hurts. It hurts a lot, and often the thought of forgiveness is the last thing we ever want to think about.

But we've all been on the other side. We've all been the betrayers, too. When that happens, it can be so easy, so tempting to rationalize. “I just did what I had to do to protect myself.” “I was so overwhelmed, I just couldn't help it.” “Things weren't going the way I though they should go, so I had to take matters into my own hands.” It’s part of our survival instinct to shield ourselves FROM ourselves, or we too might run away in distress or break down grief at how we have failed one another.

Jesus is on the list of those we have betrayed. Perhaps not as dramatically as the disciples or Peter, but we have, just the same. Probably every single day. We, like the disciples, over-stress our devotion, only to fall short of our promises, or we fall asleep on the job when we are needed most, or we even run the other way from Jesus. We find excellent excuses, airtight explanations, and solid defenses. We do not even have to say, as Peter does, I do not know this man. Our actions too often say it for us, loud and clear.

Nearly forty days ago, on Ash Wednesday, we confessed our excuses, using words that perhaps hit a little too close to home: We have shut our ears to God’s call. We have let our lives become infected with envy, apathy, pride, prejudice, and hypocrisy. We have inattentive in prayer, neglectful in loving our neighbors, and careless in our care for the earth.

We deserve to eat of the dry dust of our repentance, and to drink of our own bitter tears.

Perhaps we ought to eat dust and drink our tears, but that is not what we are given by our Lord Jesus. Instead of dust, in the night in which he was betrayed, we are given the life-giving body of Jesus. Instead of tears, we are given Christ’s life-giving blood of the new covenant. Instead of what we might deserve, we are given a place at the Lord’s Table, gathered together with other betrayers, deniers, deserters, and sinners.

Every week we hear what Jesus said to his disciples the night before he died.  The words never change, thank God, it always begins the same way:  “In the night in which he was betrayed.” It begins there, but it does not end there.

Knowing what was to come, knowing he was to be betrayed, deserted, and denied, Jesus took bread, said a blessing, and then shared it with his disciples. Knowing his death was near, he shared his last hours with them. And even when facing his own betrayer, Jesus never stopped showing us how to follow him.

In the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus offers to us the strength we need for this journey – his life and his presence. We are given this strength through the breaking of Jesus’ body and the pouring out of his blood, strength so that our lives can also be poured out for others – for other betrayers, deniers, and deserters, sheep of God’s own flock, sinners of God’s own redeeming.

Tonight, the night in which he was betrayed, we beheld Jesus undeterred by betrayal. Tomorrow, on the Friday we call Good, we will remember how Jesus suffered and died. Tomorrow, on the Friday we call Good, we will remember how his life was poured out for us.  Tomorrow, we will behold the life-giving cross on which was hung the salvation of the world.