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Friday, April 3, 2015

A Different Good Friday

This year's Good Friday was very different than the Good Fridays of recent years. In Sweden, Good Friday is a public holiday so most are off work. This enabled us to hold our worship service at 15.00. People appreciated that. And for us, the entire day was geared toward the Good Friday worship service which helped us to focus more clearly on the significance of the day. Maybe that's why today felt like Saturday most of the day. It was such a "normal" day. We knew we were going to go to a church service tonight, but the rest of the day was just business as usual. We took Tanner for a long walk and ran errands. It was a good day in which we accomplished many things and yet...I found myself thinking of the Good Friday service at Immanuel and wondering how it was unfolding. I was missing being part of it. We often did something creative on Good Friday and we found it meaningful to do so. We heard from some folks that it was a good day...powerful choir, great readings, good message, good crowd. My heart longed to be there. 

So tonight we left for a service in Palm Springs that had been advertised as a Tenebrae service, which is what I wanted for Good Friday. The word Tenebrae means shadows in Latin. A traditional service takes you through the events of the crucifixion with the light in the worship center progressively growing darker and darker until at the moment of Christ's death, the congregation sits in total darkness, mimicking what happened on Calvary when Christ was crucified. The service ends abruptly, unfinished in a sense. While some of Christ's last words from the cross are, "It is Finished" we know that Christ's story doesn't end on the cross. But Good Friday is intended to help us live with Christ's death for just a bit and not rush to finish the story in a rush. 

Well, tonight's service was a disappointment. The Presbyterian church we attended was scantily attended and the readings were all together too short. The hymn choices were good and I was grateful for that, but someone sang How Great Thou Art as a solo and that seemed utterly inappropriate and the final reading was from John 1, how the light of Christ shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it, which is a hopeful and necessary message, but not for Good Friday. It's OK to leave us hanging one day a year. It's OK to mention that it was our sins and our transgressions that led to the events of Good Friday. We weren't sorry we went but we were a little sorry that it was such an unfulfilling worship service. 

And so again, my mind wandered to Immanuel where we had shared in so many meaningful worship services. 

My point is not to judge. We were glad to join with others in walking through the passion, however abbreviated it was. At least it did finally end in total darkness. But I would've enjoyed a bit more substance.

And so I came home and read the sermon that I had written last year. I remember extinguishing the black candles and the solitary red rose on the altar. And so today, as Good Friday is coming to a close, I offer my thoughts from last year, to myself perhaps, but to others still needing to connect with the events of Good Friday as we now wait for a glorious Easter to emerge. But let's just sit tight for a little while longer with the betrayal, denial, and death of Christ. Let's sit at the foot of the cross and understand who we are in that place. 

Good Friday: 2014
     We have gathered here at the foot of the cross today because we know that we stand in need of a savior. We are here today because we are seeking a love that is unconditional, compassionate, forgiving and redeeming and we know that we can only find that at the foot of the cross.
     There are several others who stood at the foot of the cross. One was a betrayer. Are you a betrayer? It was Judas who worried about the money.  It was Judas who thought the woman who washed the feet of Jesus foot with expensive perfume was extravagant and wasteful. It was Judas whose kiss could be bought. To think that an act of affection could be turned into such an act of treachery is appalling, until I consider the ways that I do the same. I want to follow Jesus and yet I want to follow my own way. I want the sacrifice that Jesus has given to me and yet I don’t want to make sacrifices in my own life.  The fear that lurks in my soul today is this: if given the chance for selfish gain through the betrayal of my Lord, would I say yes or no?  And so that is why I am here at the cross.  Because on the very night that Jesus was betrayed, he took the bread and the cup, gave thanks and shared it with those closest to him.  He gave them a glimpse of how his brokenness will heal ours, how the shedding of his blood will shed our shame and wash us in grace.  Yes, I am here at the foot of the cross today because I need his brokenness to heal mine.
     Another standing at that cross was a denier. It was Peter who followed Jesus with almost reckless abandon. Eager to be on the front lines, Peter was appalled when Jesus predicted that he would deny him. Peter believed with all his heart that such an act of treachery was impossible, beyond his ability. And yet, later, that same day, Peter does deny Christ.  Of course, he’s not the only one, but his is memorable.  I can certainly find myself in this narrative as well.  In my core I want to be a zealous, committed, follower of Christ.  I want to stand out from the crowd with my enthusiasm for our Lord.  And yet, when that causes others to be uncomfortable with me, when they push away because they find it so odd that I would choose Jesus, when they challenge my faith choice, well, then I find that standing alone for Christ becomes quite isolating. And I choose to tone it down a bit to fit the circumstances.  I am tempted to want to fit in more than I want to profess Christ.  I want to go with the way of the world instead of following the way of Christ because at times I don’t want to be counter-cultural, at times I want to be swept into a crowd who praises me and honors me and lifts me up. Sometimes it’s hard to relinquish my place of honor for the place of honor that Christ deserves and so I deny him his place as Lord of my live and instead allow the world to carry me on their shoulders.  Yes, Christ’s darkest hour revealed Peter’s darkest side and in most human instances that darkness would’ve hovered forever between them.  But we know that that later Jesus restores Peter and even asks him to try again.  He invites him to feed his sheep and to share the good news of who Jesus is with others.  Yes, Jesus assures Peter of his deep and abiding love for him by asking him to love him once again.  I too need to hear that Jesus loves me and to affirm that I love him and to be restored to a place where I can be empowered for ministry as well.  And I know it takes Christ hanging on a cross in order for me to receive those gifts. So I am here at the cross today because I am in need of a second chance.      
     We know there were accusers present at the cross, those who only see the way in which Jesus broke tradition instead of realizing that he was ushering in a whole new way of being faithful. Maybe some of us are same, seeking to keep rituals more than living out the gospel? Carefully following the rules but severely missing the heart of the gospel? Jesus’ accusers reveal how far away they are from understanding the gospel of grace.  They are trapped in a system where simply performing the ritual becomes much more important than honoring the core value of the rituals.  We see in John’s gospel that when Jesus was first taken to Caiaphas’s house, the accusers did not want to follow him into the Roman courtyard, for this would’ve defiled them and they would’ve been unable to celebrate the Passover.  As if this is the only thing in their lives that is defiling them!  I can’t get over how concerned they are with the ritual of “remaining clean” while clearly handing an innocent man over to be killed for crimes that he has not committed.  Makes me wonder where in my own life I am keeping rituals instead of following Jesus with love in my heart.  Am I reading scripture yet not allowing it to shape me?  Are my prayers simply uttered out of obligation so that I will feel better instead of truly believing that Jesus hears my prayers and longs to answer them?  Am I attending church, worshiping God, going through all of the right motions, yet privately shunning Jesus in my day to day life?  Is my own righteousness rooted in following the letter of the law rather than allowing a spirit of grace to motivate and guide me? Because the accusers cannot defend their actions, they instead weave their own story about why they are there.  When asked what charge they are bringing against Jesus, they simply scream that he is guilty, as if it becomes truer if they shout it louder.  When asked to take responsibility for their actions, unable to get the death warrant on their own, the people demand that the governor give them what they want just because they want it, not because it has any basis in justice or righteousness or truth.  We watch as Christ’s innocence is twisted into guilt.  Here I feel anguish as I see myself in this story.  God asks me questions about my own life and I deflect them with answers about others.  God asks me to take responsibility for actions, to justify my demands, but I find myself wanting others to do my dirty work for the outcomes that I desire, however sinister or selfish they may be.  My business is often so rooted in this world, yet Jesus reminds us His kingdom is not of this world, and that he was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what he says is true. But sadly, sometimes we don't love the truth. And that is why at the cross today I am in need of the truth.  I need to be reminded that Jesus’ kingdom is not of the world, but is about wholly different things.  I need to encounter the truth and have the falsehood in my life washed away.  I am here at the cross today because while the accusers took Christ’s innocence and twisted it into guilt, what I need is for my guilt to be transformed into innocence.
     I am here at the cross today because I stand in need of a savior.  I know this because as we read about how Pilate had Christ beaten and sentenced to be crucified, the deep places within my heart where I know I’ve been the one to sentence Jesus, stir.  Are you the one who has sentenced Christ to death on a cross?  
     We all are.  Yes, we flinch when we read about the flogging.  Of course, we hate the pain and the torture that Jesus experienced.  We know his death is unjust.  We know that those who sentenced him knew that he was innocent and yet when offered a well-known criminal, Barabbas, the crowd still wanted Jesus to be the one killed.  
     Yes Herod, yes Pilate, you are both right.  Jesus is innocent and does not deserve die. You are guilty, we are guilty and we are the ones who deserve to die and yet we cannot face that possibility.  So we ask Jesus to do it for us.  And Jesus, all the while knowing that we will die if he does not, chooses to not fight back but instead subjects himself to the worst kind of death.  And Pilate and Herod and all who have gathered to make these accusations against Jesus must now realize that it is Jesus, the innocent man, who stands in for Barabbas and it is Jesus who stands in for all of the guilty ones who surround him with their lies and their deception and their conniving.  It is Jesus who pays the price for all of the sin that abounds. And so in the midst of these rabid cries to crucify Jesus, we see how desperate our need really is.  For Jesus, who is sinless, takes on our lies and our deception and our conniving and nails it to the cross so that we will never have to face the sentence that he has endured on our behalf.  I am here at the cross today because I too am Barabbas.  I know that I am saying crucify him instead of me. I know I am guilty but I can't face the punishment. Set me free Jesus. Die for me.
     I am standing at the foot of the cross with my sins exposed.  Is that why you are too are here?
     And as they pound the nails into his hands and feet, through his pain and anguish, Jesus pleads with his father to forgive us.  He takes on our ignorance and excuses our inability to understand what is happening.  And still, the crowd responds with scoffing even as Jesus now hangs on the cross.  Little do they know that their taunts and questions about his being the Messiah, their King have deep truth embedded within. They do not grasp that while they ask him to prove himself to be God by coming down off the cross, it is only through his staying on the cross that we will see that he truly is the Son of the God. One of the sinners has realized this…his confession from his own cross reveals the depths of Christ’s compassion…the criminal asks to be saved and Jesus assures him that that very day, he shall be with him in paradise.  And we too are that criminal hanging next to Jesus crying out to be saved. And no matter the kind of cross we feel we are bearing, no matter the places in our lives we where we feel there is no way out, no matter the places where we feel that only death and destruction that await us, we are invited to turn to Jesus and ask that he save us and be granted the promise of a life in paradise with him.  That is why there can be a quiet joy at being a sinner at the cross. Jesus knows that it is finished.  Jesus knows that he must entrust his spirit into the Father’s hands.  He knows that it is time for him to die. His death comes, the darkness covers, the mourning begins. And in the sadness of that dark moment, we hear a soldier finally willing to offer the truth, this man surely was the Son of God.       
     Yes, we too are sinners at the foot of the cross who, with limited understanding, embrace the reality that the death of Christ leads to everlasting life.  Yes, we are more sinful than we dare believe; and yet also more loved than we dare hope. 
     I am a betrayer and a denier. I am an accuser and yet, remarkably, also a believer. I do confess that Jesus truly is the son of God and therefore can embrace him as my Savior and that is why it is good to be gathered at the foot of the cross today.  Perhaps you too are a betrayer, a denier, and an accuser, but in spite of that, all that matters is if you one of the believers.  So if you are here today in need of a savior as well, then believe that Christ has died for your sins and wants you to live as one who joins him in paradise. Know the beauty and the truth about Christ today, here, at the foot of the cross upon which Christ died. Thanks be to God that through the power of Christ's death on the cross, it is we, who find life. Amen.