good friday preaching

For twenty years at University Hill Congregation I was in the habit of preaching a Good Friday sermon every other year. We shared our Good Friday observance with St. Anselm's Anglican Church. On the years when we would visit our Anglican neighbours I would be privileged to preach. I consistently found this to be one of the most powerful and challenging preaching assignments of the year. Looking back, I recall three of those sermons in particular. Two have previously been posted on this blog: "Ecce Homo" and "The Seven Last Words". A third, titled "Despised" (from 2002), hosts the crucial passage from Isaiah 52:13-53:12 and is posted here ...

We are not surprised that on this Good Friday we read the gospel narrative of that black day. This is at the heart of the matter for us. Yet from the earliest days the church has looked elsewhere to make sense of it all. Remember, what we call the Old Testament is the only Bible the first Christians know. It is their ‘Word of the Lord’. When they tell the story of the mob and the judgment and the cross, they turn to the peculiar passage that bridges the fifty-second and fifty-third chapters of Isaiah. Recall the story of Philip encountering an Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza (Acts 8:32-33). This seeker asks Philip to interpret a key text in his Bible. Remember? It is from the ancient poem by Isaiah: “Like a sheep was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him.” Written in the humiliation of exile six centuries before Jesus’ final humiliation, Isaiah's prophesy becomes the interpretive lens for the church that gathers at the foot of the cross. It is no accident that four of the six texts used by George Frederick Handel to portray Good Friday in the oratorio “The Messiah” are taken from this very passage (Part 2 - Is 53:3-6; also in Part 3 - Is. 53:8). This is the church’s original interpretation of the events of Good Friday.

Yet it is not without trouble. Wander over to any theological school and you will discover that this passage lies behind huge struggles to wrestle a blessing out of the bloody cross. Perhaps you heard the trouble: “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all ... it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain.” How can this be? How can a loving Father treat his beloved Son with such seeming brutality. This is the ancient question that daunts apprentice theologians as they practice their scales in the halls of seminary. Well, it not only daunts apprentice theologians. This question of just how the suffering of the Beloved Son is, finally, redemptive haunts even the most skilled theologians of our time. The traditional formulations of this theological calculus seem not to add up any longer. Opening the ancient scroll we pray for eyes to see the good news that is hidden from sight on this dark day. But, to add to our troubles, the ancient text is itself a mystery. It portrays God’s own “servant”. Is this some long forgotten historical figure? Is it exiled Israel? Jesus? The Church? Isaiah does not provide an answer. As one renowned contemporary interpreter says: “Part of the problem is that the imagery is elusive. But the greater problem is that the Hebrew words are unusual and the text is seemingly disordered, so that every translation is to some extent speculative.” (Isaiah 40-66. Brueggemann, 141) The text is not without trouble of its own.

Of course, this is precisely how it us with the texted story of the cross. It is not nearly as neat and tidy as we wish it were. The story of the cross does not add up with the common sense theological formulas that we construct to make sense of our days. The imagery is elusive. The words unusual. Our translation of it in lthe living of our days always a risky speculation. We might wish it were otherwise, that the story of God’s entry into human history would be more straightforward and would fit our categories with ease. But it does not. Just pick up the newspaper. It is evident that the correlation between tragedy and beauty, between suffering and redemption is not readily discerned. Yet there is a hidden correlation. This is the daring claim of this text in Isaiah ... and of the gospel.

The text portrays a social outcast: “He was despised and rejected by others ... one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.” This Beloved Servant of God is not one of the beautiful people. This is one of the filthy people, one who is “numbered with the transgressors.” Do you hear how daring - how troubling - this is? It says that we - not some other, unruly and uncivilized crowd - are that 1st century mob shouting “Crucify.” It says that God’s servant is despised and rejected not only by the unbelievers who do not know better. It risks naming that God’s beloved is despised and rejected by the believers who assume that they know better. It dares to claim that the church and synagogue, the preachers and teachers and the theologians despise and reject God’s chosen. Last night our congregation held its annual “Walk through Holy Week”. At one point we found ourselves around a fire pit in the courtyard of the high priest as - three times -Peter denied having anything to do with Jesus. Standing in the courtyard outside the library of the theological school one could not help but reminded that Peter’s church continues to deny, deny, deny being associated with its despised and rejected Messiah.

The text knows this is how it is. It is not surprised God’s beloved is rejected, buried along with the hustlers, is - even in death - considered slime. But it knows something else. It knows that God has the capacity to “prosper” and “exalt” and “lift up” the very one that culture despises and the church rejects. It proclaims that what we know to be the tragic end of things is not the end of things with the LORD ("YHWH"), the maker of heaven and earth. But what is most confounding about all of this is that the text believes the new future promised to the unjustly slaughtered servant is also given to “us”.

The text never identifies “us”. But it assumes a communal audience like this one: “He has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases ... he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole ... All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned to our own way.” This is a social document, a commentary on a community that has forsaken God. It is no surprise, given our habitual inclinations to individualism, that we are tempted to imagine our sins are almost exclusively personal. This text challenges such a reading as false. It imagines the massive troubles in need of God’s redemptive power are communal in nature. But just who is this “we” and “us” and “our”? Here the text is at great risk. It moves beyond the religious community, beyond the good and clean and righteous, beyond the people who know what Good Friday is and who, today, stop shopping and working to mark it. Isaiah makes a startling universal claim: “Just as there were many who were astonished at him - so marred was his appearance beyond human semblance ... so shall he startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see ... Who has believed what we have heard? .... Therefore I will allot him a portion with the strong, because he poured himself out in death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession with the transgressors.” Imagine? An ancient Jewish prophet, living in humiliated exile in Babylon, hears an unheard of word from God. It speaks of the humiliation of God’s servant as the intention of God. But more, it dares to name this humiliation as the crack in human history where the huge power of God to create - “the arm of the LORD” - is revealed. And this creative, redemptive, healing power will be for the kings and the nations, the transgressors, the sheep that have gone astray by turning to their own way ... namely, not just for Israel and not just for the church but for the world God so loves.

How can this be? How can so much awful trouble, so much inexplicable grief, such an impossibly tangled history of revenge and unforgiven sin be made right? The healing of human history is beyond comprehension. The reconciliation of irreconcilably broken relationships is simply incalculable. We know the endless list that includes: Jerusalem, Belfast, Sarajevo, Pyong yang, Haida Gwaii ... not to mention the names of haunted families, longing still for impossible reconciliation ... perhaps your own. The text knows this huge, aching wound continues to weep ... it will not heal. But it knows more. It knows that the LORD ("YHWH") comes to “bear this infirmity, to carry these diseases.” The Servant is somehow the embodiment of God’s healing balm, the one whose life and death cures earth’s chronic violence. This suffering on behalf of God’s beloved creation is the vocation of God’s Beloved Son. In him we meet the awesome - even frightening - compassion of the One whose universe this is. Make no mistake. The trouble is real. The darkness and brokenness of human history will not be overcome simply by better reasoning or by more loving. Our world is sick to death. Faced with this trouble we will not be surprised in the least if the Maker of the universe leaves this little earth to its own sad devices. 

But, see, on the cross we are witness to a daring drama. Here the God of heaven and earth risks dying at the hands of evil that masquerades among us as good. Here the Beloved Servant carries in his body both our human predicament and God’s own life-giving self. In his death, in God’s death, we die to the way of the world. The old ways are dead. And, then, with him we wait. In the grave. There is no instant redemption. Resurrection to a new life, healed of our habitual violence, is not nearly as predictable as daffodils and butterflies. But it is God's promise. And the LORD ("YHWH") keeps promises. So we wait. We wait ... for the tremendous power that comes from beyond us to raise him to life. We wait ... for the tremendous power that comes from beyond us to reconcile us with one another. We wait ... for the tremendous power that comes from beyond us to redeem the earth from despair. We wait.

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