For Good Friday (and the Moments Like It)

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Good Friday + April 14, 2017

Reading: John 18-19

In 1928 Dietrich Bonhoeffer — just 22 years old and still too young to be ordained  — preached these words as part of a sermon:

On Good Friday let us not think right away about the fact that with Easter things were given a new direction. We want to think about how with the death of Jesus the disciples saw all hope dashed. Scattered from each other, they brooded in hopeless sorrow about what had happened. Only when we can take the death of Jesus just as seriously as they did, will we rightly understand what the resurrection message can bring.[1]

So I want us to dwell in this hopeless moment with the disciples for a while. They didn’t know would happen next. We may look back and say: they should have known; Jesus told them he would be raised from the dead. But would we have been able to believe that after the whirlwind of betrayal and violence? All the hopes raised by Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the people taking to the streets with palm branches to welcome him, shouting “Hosanna!” — all those hopes shattered just a few days later, after one of Jesus’s closest disciples led the police right to him, after the crowds of Jerusalem suddenly changed their cry from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!” It had all changed so quickly, and all the disciples’ dreams of following their beloved leader into a new world hung there on the cross with him, crucified by the same old cruel world that always had been and always would be. The disciples hid themselves away and let that truth dig its hopeless hole inside them: Jesus was dead. It was over. It had all been for nothing.

Good Friday is a holy time to reflect on this moment of hopelessness and the millions of other moments like it. Such times — when all seems lost — are tragically commonplace. We know them from history: people being captured and enslaved; stock markets crashing; boats sinking; trains of people pulling into internment camps; wars being declared and wars being surrendered. We know hopeless moments from the news: shootings; human trafficking; starvation; bombs dropping. We know hopeless moments from personal experience: job loss; a bad diagnosis; injury; depression; broken relationships; death.

And yet as Christians on this side of Easter, even in such hopeless moments, we hold on to hope. We call this Friday, where we remember Christ’s crucifixion, “good.” We believe that God is there in our moments of tragedy. Why do we hold on to hope? How?

We hold on to hope because we know what comes next in this story and in stories like it. We know stories from the Bible: Joseph was left for dead, sold into slavery, and then imprisoned; but then he became a powerful leader in Egypt and saved his family from a famine (Genesis 37, 39-45). Moses killed a man and ran away from Pharaoh’s punishment into self-exile, but during his exile he was called by God to lead the Israelites out of slavery (Exodus 2-3). We know stories from our own time: John Garrett suffered from a terrible heart condition, but he became a great spokesperson for organ donation. My grandmother was a fairly young widow, but in her widowhood she has learned to drive and overcome her fear of flying and made so many new friends. Your world probably once felt like it was ending, but you made it through.

Jesus was crucified, but the resurrection morning is coming.

As, in the Old Testament, Joseph said to his brothers, so we can say to the moments where hopelessness threatens us: “Even though you intended to harm me, God intended it for good” (Gen. 50:20). We believe that one day we will look back on the darkest moments of our lives and be able to see them as the blessed dirt out of which God grew new life again. Jesus taught us this in the Beatitudes:

“Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh” (Luke 6:21).

The Good Friday moment, which seem so senseless, which feels like it must be an ending, or a pit we can’t climb out of — God will helps us make meaning out of it and find the good on the other side.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote to a student who going through a time of suffering:

“So don’t be frightened, dear friend, if a sadness confronts you larger than any you have ever known, casting its shadow over all you do. You must think that something is happening within you, and remember that life has not forgotten you; it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why would you want to exclude from your life any uneasiness, any pain, any depression, since you don’t know what work they are accomplishing within you?”[2]

When Jesus was crucified, the disciples felt hopeless, afraid, left with nothing. Even Jesus felt abandoned by God in that moment. But we believe that God was there, suffering with them in the face of the world’s injustice and sin, but ready to use that evil moment for good. Ready to turn tragedy into a miracle, ready to turn death into new life.

And so we can remember in our moments of loneliness and loss, depression and hopelessness: even those moments are blessed by God with the promise of the future.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, sermon in Barcelona for the third Sunday in Lent, 11 March 1928. Quoted in God is on the Cross, trans. O. C. Dean Jr., ed. Jana Riess, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 102.

[2] Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet.


Good Friday: Abraham and Isaac Retold

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Good Friday + April 3, 2015

Do you remember the old story of Abraham and his son Isaac? How Abraham was so faithful that he did exactly what God told him, and he took the son he had been promised, the inheritor of all of God’s promises to his family, up the hill to make a sacrifice to the Lord? Abraham carried the fire and knife, and Isaac carried the wood on which he would be sacrificed. Isaac wondered to his father, “Where is the lamb for our offering?” And then Abraham tied down his own son, the promised one, strapping him down tight against the wood he had carried. And Abraham raised the knife over his own son’s throat.

And then God was faithful to Abraham and sent an angel to stop the falling of the knife before any blood was spilled. And Isaac lived. And together with his wife, Rebekah, he gave birth to Israel (Genesis 22).

But that’s not how it always works out.

Wilfred Owen was a young soldier during World War I. He lived and fought in cold, muddy trenches where war seemed endless and fruitless. He wrote poetry describing the constant scream of artillery shells, and the sudden bursts of poison gas that would send all the men scrambling for their masks. Those who were not quick enough looked like they were drowning in the thick green air.

Owen searched deep inside this life of war, but he could not hear the story of Abraham and Isaac ringing true on the battlefield. He wrote this poem, “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” and retold the old story as he saw it there on the front lines of the Great War:

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! An angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

When we hear the story of Abraham and Isaac, we are usually amazed by Abraham’s strong yet terrifying faith: that he would raise a knife against his own son at the command of God. But Owen’s reflections on the story lead us to look at things differently, to be amazed that Abraham actually listened to God’s messenger and stopped the suffering before it began.

Tonight, we focus on a different story, and yet it is the same story: the torture and crucifixion of God’s son, the Promised One. In this story I hear the same truth that I hear in Owen’s WWI poem. God has sent us messenger after messenger, and we have so often responded with killing, with sacrificing them and so many others on the altar of our own pride or power or love of the way things are. In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus stops on his way into Jerusalem, on his path to death, and cries out over the city: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Lk. 13.34). Even when God’s own Son came to us with words of peace and life, we were not willing to lay down under God’s wings.

Instead we made God’s son carry the wood, while we carried the hammer and the nails. And we bound him to the cross. And we sacrificed God’s son, God’s messenger, and God’s self, all on that one cross.

But no tragedy can stop God’s longing for us to live in God’s love. And so when we, the human race, killed God’s only son, God did not condemn us. God saved us. God transformed the sin of the crucifixion into the truth that sets us free from the power of sin. And this truth has two sides: first, that we are sinners who find it so hard to keep from sacrificing one another and Creation, and even God and God’s messengers. But the second side of the truth is this: that “God so loved the world, that God gave God’s only Son, so that whoever believes in him” — whoever trusts in him and his way of self-sacrifice rather than the world’s way of other-sacrifice — “will not perish, but have life in the world to come” (John 3:16). Jesus died because of us, yes – but Jesus also died for us.

The truth of the crucifixion reaches to the deep, hidden parts of us. Into the corners of our  heart where we tuck away our heartache, our sin, and our despair. The crucifixion tells us that God already knows our failings and our weakness and our darkest thoughts. And God is strong enough to see our sin and still hold us in unfailing love.

O love of God! O sin of man!
In this dread act Your strength is tried;
And victory remains with love;
For Thou our Lord, art crucified.*

*Faber, Frederick W., “O Come and Mourn with Me Awhile” (hymn, 1849).