A sermon preached today, Good Friday. In this sermon I largely follow the account of Jesus’ work and Jesus’ self-understanding as this is set out by N.T. Wright in his book Jesus and the Victory of God.
Approach the cross that is set before you on a hillside. Lift up your hands and feel the roughness of the wood against your fingers and your palms. This is not the lovely, sanded and varnished cross of a Christian sanctuary – this cross is coarse, weighty with grief. Run your fingers over the dark purple stains that mark the heavy knotted planks. See there on the ground the nails that pierced flesh – pick them up and feel their weight in your hand – the cold iron as cold as death itself, as cold as the grave that now holds him.
What is it you feel as you trace your hands over wood and feel the weight of nails?
You feel the reality and pain of exile. Exile. The people of Israel lived in exile in Babylon for generations – they were sent from their homes, sent from their land, split from their families. They were far from the land, the temple, the city, that made them who they were as the children of God. Of course their exile in Babylon was an event of the past in Jesus day, for they had returned to the Promised Land. Yet they live in exile still. The exile continues. Now they live under the imperial power of Rome in their own land – they live in their own land yet they are not free to embrace their identity and control their future. The exile is over but they are still waiting for an end to exile. They are waiting for one who will lead them out of exile, out of bondage and oppression.
What is it that you feel as you trace your hands over rough wood and feel the weight of nails? You feel the pain of exile. For Jesus enters fully into the exile of Israel. He enters fully also into your exile and my exile. For exile is the lot of the human. Exile is God’s judgment on human sin. We turned or back on God and God’s way, and exile is the price we pay.
We have made a mess of our lives. We have made a mess of our world.
We wanted to do it our way – we want to do it our way.
We wanted autonomy – we want autonomy.
We thought the future was ours to control – we think the future is ours to control.
The result is exile, judgment – self-imposed, if you will. Grief, pain, the cross.
The film Grand Canyon begins with a scene in which an attorney is stuck in a traffic jam in a major US city. He decides to try a detour off the main road, and his route takes him, with his expensive car, into neighbourhoods that make him worry. And as you would guess, his car breaks down. He manages to call a tow truck, but five young street toughs show up and start to threaten him with bodily harm as he waits. When the tow truck shows up and the driver starts to hook up car, the leader of the young toughs objects – the two truck driver is taking away their trophy. The tow truck driver takes the leader aside and says to him: “Man, the world ain’t supposed to work like this. Maybe you don’t know that but this ain’t the way it’s supposed to be. I’m supposed to be able to do my job without asking you if I can. And that dude is supposed to be able to wait with his car without you ripping him off. Everything is supposed to be different.”
Everything is supposed to be different. The words of the tow truck driver apply not only in a rough urban neighbourhood. They apply in all of our lives. Things aren’t the way they are supposed to be – in our relationships, in our communities, in the environment….things aren’t they way they are supposed to be. We all live in exile – and Jesus goes there with us. The rough, blood-stained planks of the cross, the death-cold nails, are a taste of human exile at its worst. Jesus Christ enters into the fullness of our exile. He goes to the place where it is more apparent than ever that things aren’t they way they’re supposed to be – the cross.
Come near to the cross. Lift up your hands and feel the hardness and roughness of the wood against your fingers and your palms. This cross is coarse, weighty with pain and grief. Trace your fingers over the dark stains that mark the heavy knotted planks. Pick up the nails that lie there on the ground – feel them as cold as the grave that now holds Jesus.
Why did Jesus go into exile? Why did Jesus go to the cross? Why did he choose this path as opposed to some other? There are so many ways to answer that question.
He went to the cross because the way of the cross is the way of the truly human life.
Not only did Jesus enter into exile with us. Not only did he taste our grief and our pain and our exile, on the cross. But as he entered into exile with us, he showed us that the way out of exile is not by violence or the exercise of power or through an emphasis on self-determination or autonomy. Many in Israel in his day wanted to take up arms in revolt against the Romans. Through violence, through power, through an insistence on their right of self-determination, through the taking up of arms, they wanted the exile to end.
But Jesus makes it clear, the way out of exile is not through violence or power or an insistence on our autonomy. Rather, we must live under exile, and respond to exile, with an attitude, and with actions, of humble service, in obedience to God.
Throughout his life, Jesus shows that the truly human way is the way of the cross.
He feasts with outcasts and sinners – those on the margins…
He preaches that we must turn the other cheek…
He says: blessed are the poor…
He rejects the self-righteousness of religious leaders…
He welcomes children, and invites us to become like them…
Ultimately, he goes to his suffering death…
We live in exile… we live in a world where things aren’t the way they are supposed to be. Jesus lives in exile with us. And Jesus shows us how to respond and live under exile. His vocation to humble service, his vocation to the cross, is a vocation to a truly human life. That’s why he went to the cross – to live the truly human life of humble service.
Was there more to it than that? Was there something else going on as he went to the cross? Absolutely.
Mark 8:31: Jesus said: The son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Mark 9:31: Jesus was teaching his disciples that the son of man will be given into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and that he will rise again three days after his death.
Not only did Jesus enter into our reality of exile on the cross.
Not only did Jesus show us what our lives under exile should look like, by going to the cross.
Jesus also believed that his own suffering and death would bring an end to exile. The people of Israel, and we with them, have been waiting for an end to exile; an end to the judgment under which we live; an end to the wrong-headedness that has characterized so much of our lives; an end to the grief and pain and fear. And Jesus believes that his own death will bring about the end of exile.
Within the tradition of the Hebrew Bible, and within contemporary Jewish thought at the time of Jesus, there was a conviction that the suffering of Israel, or the suffering of a representative of Israel, might bring forgiveness – an end to exile. This conviction is to some extent epitomized in our reading today for Isaiah chapter 53. “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. We all like sheep had gone astray; we have each turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Jesus goes to Jerusalem in the conviction that his own suffering might be redemptive, that his own suffering and death might lead to the end of suffering and lead to forgiveness – new and abundant life for God’s people. He would bear suffering and give the gift of life.
Come near to the cross on which Jesus has died. Lift up your hands and feel the hardness and roughness of the wood against your fingers and your palms. This cross is coarse, weighty with grief. Trace your fingers over the dark purple stains that mark the heavy knotted planks. See there on the ground the nails that pierced his flesh – pick them up and feel their weight in your hand – the cold iron as cold as death itself, as cold as the grave that now holds him. He is dead.
Was Jesus right? Would his suffering and death lead to redemption? Or was his suffering and death simply the final ‘No’ of God to the human?
We read in Genesis chapter 6: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings that I have created…’
On that rough hewn cross, Jesus went to his death hoping and trusting that his way of obedience, his way of humble service, would be vindicated; that his suffering would be for the redemption of Israel and the redemption of the world; that his suffering and death might mean the end of exile.
This is Good Friday. He is dead now. And we ask: “What will God’s word be to this Jesus, and to the whole human race with him?” Will God finally say no?
Is the silence of God, at the death of Jesus, the ‘No’ of God to the human?
Is the body of Jesus, pulled down from the cross, the ‘No’ of God to the human?
Is the body of Jesus, laid in a tomb, the ‘No’ of God to the human?
The theologian Karl Barth writes: “It might have been that God turned away His face finally from us. It might have been that God…now willed to take away [being] from humans, to let them perish with all their corruption and sin.” The death of Jesus on the cross; the pulling down of his body; the laying of his body in the tomb, might have been the triumph of Genesis chapter 6 – “And the Lord was sorry that he had made human beings on the earth.”
On the cross, Jesus enters into exile with us.
On the cross, Jesus shows us how to live the truly human life, even under exile. It is the
way of humble service.
On the cross, Jesus enters into the darkest place of human existence, trusting that his death might somehow mean the end of exile, might mean forgiveness and new life.
Was he right?
On this Good Friday, we sit for a moment not knowing the answer. On this Good Friday we dwell for a moment on the great risk of the cross. On this Good Friday we stay for a moment in the darkness.
As we do so, we remember that though he agonized over it, Jesus trusted that God’s final word to the human would be ‘Yes’ and not ‘No’.
To that trust we are invited this Good Friday.