Good Friday: A Sermon

She was sitting up front, near the choir, on Good Friday. The last reading had been read and the last candle had been extinguished. In the near-dark of the sanctuary, the congregation joined together, singing the words “Were you there when they crucified my Lord” as the pastors recessed by the center aisle, turning off the last of the dim sanctuary lights as they crossed the threshold of the sanctuary doors. When the singing finished, from the back of the church, the pastor read about Joseph of Arimathea, and Jesus’ burial, and the sealing of the tomb. At the conclusion of the reading, he dropped a large book onto the tile floor – the loud thud of the stone being rolled into place over the mouth of the tomb – and turned off the narthex light – the last remaining source of light. And then…silence. They all sat in darkness, without even the dim red flicker of the eternal flame left in the sanctuary, it having been taken away during Maundy Thursday’s stripping of the altar.

And she sat there in the darkness, her mind and heart feeling the anguish of the disciples. In the darkness, there was no spark of resurrection, no remembrance of Easter. In that moment, in that darkness, in that silence, she could feel only grief over Christ’s death. And in one instant, a question flashed across her brain: “What if this is it?” What if there were nothing more than this, Christ’s death? Like those disciples who ran off and hid in an upper room out of fear, she felt the cold sting of death and rejection, that the Christ who was her savior had died, that in the darkness and silence, there was nothing to feel but grief.

Forget, for a moment, that you know the end of the story. Forget the eggs you dyed and the new clothes you bought for your children and the lilies that you dedicated to the memory of your loved ones. Forget the empty tomb and the brass quartet and the white paraments. Because the glory of Easter, the unspeakable joy of the resurrection, the reality of life and salvation – none of these mean anything without first experiencing the reality of death, the reality of silence, the reality of grief.

The poet Dylan Thomas, watching his father grow weak and frail in his old age, composed a poem urging him not to give up his life without a fight – telling him, “Do not go gentle into that good night:”

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

When we hear these words, it’s hard not to think of John’s portrayal of Jesus’ calm bravery through his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. In John’s gospel, moreso than other gospels, we have a Jesus who is fully aware of exactly how his death is going to come about. Moreover, we have a Jesus who knows why his death is going to come about: for his glory and for the Father’s glory. In John’s account, there is no prayer of “father, take this cup from me.” Rather, Jesus walks out boldly in the garden into the hands of his accusers after praying “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you.” And throughout his conversation with Pilate, Jesus keeps control of the conversation: neither admitting to the charges against him nor denying the charges, but rather speaking simple words of truth. We get the picture that Jesus is not going gentle into the good night, and that he is raging against the dying of the light in a particular way: by walking bravely to his death and to his glorification.

But this poem is also our prayer. As we journey with Christ toward the cross, we lament his inevitable passage from life into death, and we desperately want to rage against the dying of the light – the dying of Jesus Christ the light of the world. And as we ponder the ways that he was abused and mocked along the way, we also want to echo the poets words: “bless us now with your fierce tears, we pray,” hoping against all hope that his suffering is not in vain.

We’re just a few days past the five-year anniversary of the war in Iraq. Some of the worst moments of this war have been the reports and images of prisoner torture that have come through the media. It is terrifying to think that people could be capable of such a terrible range of demeaning, cruel, and unusual actions. I feel sick to my stomach just talking about it – and I think that it is part of our instinct as people of faith and people of compassion that we want to outright reject such senseless acts of physical, mental, and emotional torture. And rightly so! Which is why it’s so hard to really hear John’s descriptions of Jesus’ suffering:

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and striking him on the face…And Jesus came outside, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to the crowds, “Here is the man!” When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” And we read that Jesus was handed over to them to be crucified: So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull.” And the soldiers continued to mock him as they crucified him, hanging a sign above his head “This is the King of the Jews,” and offering him nothing but sour wine when he was thirsty, and dividing up his clothes, even gambling to see who should get his tunic.

Images of torture horrify us, whether they have to do with war or with Jesus’ death. It is exceedingly difficult to hear about Jesus’ suffering, because it’s not the Jesus that we want to remember. We want to remember his miracles, his teachings, his resurrection…and we give a nod to the fact that yeah, he had to die, and that it happened on a cross…but we don’t like to stay there very long.

But Good Friday is that one time a year when we are asked to spend some time in these dark places. When we are asked to remember exactly the sort of death that Jesus died – a death that one theologian calls both scandalous and tragic. And it’s true: Jesus’ death is nothing short of a tragedy! An innocent man whipped and beaten and buckling under the weight of carrying his own cross. The injustice is a scandal, Christ’s death is a tragedy. Good Friday doesn’t ask us to try to explain away the tragedy or to whitewash it. Good Friday doesn’t even ask us to try to explain it. But Good Friday does ask us to grieve it.

We grieve alongside the disciples who were with Jesus in the garden. They were shocked and angry and distraught and absolutely heartsick as he was arrested and sentenced to death.

We grieve alongside Peter in the courtyard, so afraid and confused that he would deny his savior three times. Luke’s gospel tells us that after the rooster crowed, Peter went out and wept bitterly.

We grieve alongside Pilate, who tried in vain to convince the crowds and the authorities that Jesus should be released.

We grieve alongside Jesus’ mother, standing near the cross. Our hearts break when we hear Jesus – from the cross – handing over care of his mother to one of the disciples. An anonymous poem written by an Irish monk nearly 1000 years ago responds to this moment:

At the cry of the first bird
They began to crucify Thee, 0 Swan!
Never shall lament cease because of that.
It was like the parting of day from night.
Ah, sore was the suffering borne
By the body of Mary's Son,
But sorer still to Him was the grief
Which for His sake
Came upon His Mother.

When we think about Christ’s suffering and death – when we really think about it, it makes our hearts ache. And at various points in the story, we want to say “that’s enough!” Because we know that Christ suffered and died for us. And as we journey with Christ through his pain and sacrifice, don’t you want to say “stop already – you’ve suffered enough – I’m not worth all of that pain!”

And that is when Paul’s words in Romans enter into our heads: “Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” The truth is, we are sinners. And because of that, we aren’t worth of all of the pain Jesus suffered on our behalf. And somehow, in an amazing reversal, that adds up to good news. We aren’t worth it, but God did it anyway. God loves us so much that he would offer us grace and redemption and salvation not just in spite of our sinfulness, but precisely because of our sinfulness. God wants to reconcile us to himself, to bring us back from death to life, to bring us from brokenness to wholeness, to bring us from mourning into joy.

And we can take comfort in knowing that we have a savior – a God – who knows what it feels like to be in pain. Who knows what it feels like to bear the weight of suffering and humiliation. Who knows what it feels like to grieve. I don’t know about you, but as for me, I need a God who can grieve.

When we are going through dark times, we have a God who is willing to go through them with us. When we mourn the loss of loved ones, God mourns, too. When we feel heartsick about injustice and oppression in our world, God feels heartsick, too. When we suffer physical pain due to illness or injury, God meets us in our suffering. When we despair of the future, God comes to find us.

Because the body broken on the cross is the body given for you. And the blood shed on the cross is the blood of the new covenant, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sins. And this is precisely why we come together as a community of faith, and why we worship, even in the darkness of Good Friday – even in the face of death. Because without real death, there can be no real resurrection. Without real death, there can be no real forgiveness. Without the tragedy of Good Friday, there can be no Easter joy.

It’s humbling to think about everything that Jesus suffered for our sake – for my sake and for your sake and for the sake of the world. The great paschal mystery is this: that Christ died so that I might live. It doesn’t readily make sense. It leaves us feeling a bit unsettled. It leaves us with a tenuous hope and the dull ache of grief. Tonight, I want to give you permission to feel unsettled. I want to give you permission to rage against the dying of the light. I want to give you permission to approach the foot of the cross, empty-handed, and pray the last verse of the hymn we are about to sing:

“Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee, I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee; think on thy pity and thy love unswerving, not my deserving.”

This is Christ’s body, broken for you. This is Christ’s blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This we do in remembrance of him.

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