Sermon: The Fifth Sunday in Lent (B) Choral Evensong – 22nd March 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 6pm

Readings: Psalm 143; Isaiah 63:1-16;  Luke 23:26-49

No one likes to be reminded of his or her worst moments; times when we hurt someone else, when we stole something, when we denied everything we believe, or when we betrayed a friend. Luke’s passion narrative is filled with such painful memories. It continually confronts us with the underside of human sinfulness and its awful consequences. The innocent suffer (Jesus, the women, and their children), and terrible as were the events of the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, greater suffering lay ahead.

The lament over tragic violence and suffering is an important element of Luke’s passion narrative. God could not spare Jesus from the cross, and Jesus could not spare Jerusalem the destruction that lay ahead. Instead, Jesus joined with the women who were wailing for him, lamenting their suffering.

Here is a moving aspect of the meaning of Jesus’ death. Jesus had warned the crowds and his disciples of what was coming; both for him and for Jerusalem. He had called for repentance and wept for the city. When his pleas were not heeded, however, he joined himself to the plight of those who suffer the ravages of violence, dying with criminals on a cross.

We may rail against God for the tragedy, suffering, and loss that we experience, but God did not turn away from our plight or miraculously deliver Jesus from his suffering. Knowing that he could not stop the judgment that Israel (indeed, humanity) had brought upon itself, Jesus went to the cross lamenting that although he was about to die he could not deliver Jerusalem from its fate.

Jesus’ lament, like the passion narrative itself, is a call for us to see that our only hope is to trust in God’s faithfulness. Apart from repentance and commitment to the kingdom of God there is no hope for an end to violence and suffering. The suffering of the innocent, the death of Jesus and the suffering of the women and the children is an indictment of the institutions and means of human vindictiveness and a call to turn from our sinful inclinations and accept the new order of God’s mercy. In many instances people cry out where is God in all this tragedy, but what they should be asking where is humanity in this horror, such as the inhumanity shown in the massacres in the Middle East conflicts. Otherwise, “if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

The inscription above Jesus: “This is the king of the Jews.” So filled with pathos is the death of Jesus that one must respond with either derision or confession. Luke’s account of the crucifixion itself contains no meaningless details. Every element of the story serves to declare Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, the significance of his death for the salvation of the world, or the fulfilment of Scripture in the events of this scene.

The role of Jesus as the focus of the passion narratives is as inherently right as it is restrained. We are spared graphic accounts of Jesus’ agony and the details of his appearance. Instead, Luke makes the point that the death of Jesus is important not because of how much he suffered but because of who he was and how his death was connected to both his life and the redemptive acts of God in the history of Israel. For this reason, the allusions to Scripture and to scenes earlier in the Gospel convey the themes by which we can make sense of the event.” “ Without themes, there would be no way to deal with event.

We can scarcely do better when interpreting the crucifixion of Jesus in to portray Jesus as the Christ, God’s chosen one, whose death fulfilled the Scriptures and brought salvation to the lost.

With bitter irony, Jesus is one who brings good news to the poor, but at his death the people watch, the soldiers’ mock, and one of the criminals beside him blasphemes. God’s vindication of Jesus through the resurrection will mean God’s validation of Jesus’ message. In the interim, however, Jesus is, as Isaiah predicted, “numbered with the transgressors” and bears “the sin of many”.

Luke does not defend any particular theory of the atonement. The traditional theories generally fall into one of the following categories: sacrifice, ransom or moral influence. Luke never calls Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” those are John’s words. It is in Mark’s account that Jesus says, “the Son of Man came … to give his life a ransom for many”. At most, Luke reports the two disciples on the road to Emmaus report, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel”.

No proof text says enough in these matters, but the absence of even such references as one finds in the other Gospels underscores the extent to which Luke relies on the account of Jesus’ death to carry the message of its significance. How one chooses to explain it, after all, is quite secondary to the confession that Jesus is the Christ, our Saviour.

Sometime during the seventh or ninth century, Celtic Christian, St. Angus, came to Balquidder, a beautiful valley surrounded by forested hills in the Scottish highlands. Moved by its beauty, he said it was “a thin place”. It was a place where the separation between heaven and earth was very thin, so he built a church there that has survived to this day. .

The death of Jesus is “a thin place”. Indeed, the heavens become dark, and on earth the veil in the Temple is rent in twain. So thin is the separation that Jesus talks to God from the cross, and those who hear his prayers are moved to confession and contrition. The one who was hailed by a chorus of angels at his birth and was designated by an angel visitor as the Son of God commits his spirit to God as he dies. The holy one dies a common criminal’s death and speaks of Paradise to the criminal beside him.

Each of the Gospels presents the death of Jesus in a different way, as is evident from the observation that only the cry of dereliction appears in two Gospels (Matthew and Mark). Six “words” of Jesus from the cross appear in the other three Gospels, and none in more than one Gospel. Mark depicts Jesus dying in agony and abandonment. In Mark we see the depth of Jesus’ suffering. Matthew follows Mark closely but adds a description of the opening of the tombs and the resurrection of the saints. In Matthew we see that the death of Jesus leads to life for all who trust in God. John portrays the cross as ironic exaltation. Jesus is “lifted up” in mock coronation as the King of the Jews as he returns to the Father. The giver of living water thirsts as he dies. In John we see the Logos completing his mission of revelation and the Lamb of God taking away the sin of the world.

The divergent colours that the evangelists use to paint the crucifixion scene call us to read each one individually and appreciatively. In Luke we stand with the crowd of the people watching while Jesus is crucified by those who taunt him with mocked pleas that he saves himself and others. Jesus’ death, therefore, confirms who he has been throughout his ministry. The authorities pronounce him innocent. The taunts derisively hail him as the Messiah, God ‘s chosen one, and the King of the Jews, but Jesus prays for forgiveness for those who have rejected and crucified him.

He assures the penitent criminal of blessing in Paradise and dies with the prayer of one who trusts God even in death. Jesus has faithfully undertaken the work of redemption, lifting up the lowly and preaching good news to the poor and it has cost him   his life. Ironically, though, his death also signals the inevitability   of the completion of the other side of the redemption of the humble, judgment upon the proud and bringing down “the powerful from their thrones”.

The people leave place called “The Skull” beating their breasts. How terrible that God has sent “the Saviour” and we rejected him and crucified him on a hill outside the city. At his death, even a hardened soldier was moved to confess that he was just. If we have rejected the Saviour, God ‘s only son, what hope is there? What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them upon his return?

Perhaps it is good not to dispel the darkness of the death of Jesus too quickly. We naturally move on to wonder at the love of God revealed in the death of Jesus or to translate it’s meaning into sacrificial terms or to press on to the resurrection. However, part of the power of the gospel is that it calls us to tarry at the cross and then return home beating our breasts with those whose hopes seemed to have died there. Only by witnessing the darkness of his death and the despair of the loss of hope can we fully appreciate the joy of the resurrection.

God’s purposes for Jesus, the Saviour, however, will not be defeated by the power of darkness. Jesus came “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death”. Therefore, those who see the light in the darkness can join those at the cross who confessed Jesus, beat their breasts in grief and contrition, and then went away to serve as witnesses that they had been at the “thin place” where the design of the God of the heavens was revealed on earth.

Through the centuries, human beings have looked for “thin places” in many ways. Some have climbed mountaintops; others have meticulously observed cultic rituals; some search religious lore’s; and others look within through prayer and meditation. Where is God to be found in human experience? Where can we see God revealed through the veil that surrounds us? Who would have thought that “The Skull” would be the “thin place”?

At such a place we can only confess our wretched unworthiness of such love as this.[1]

 

The Reverend John Cornish

 

[1] This sermon based upon material found in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, Abingdon Press, Nashville1995

 

 

Sermon: The Fifth Sunday in Lent (B) – 22nd March 2015

St Aidan’s Anglican Church West Epping  8.30am

Readings:     Jeremiah 31:31-34;  Psalm 119:9-16;  Hebrews 5:5-16;   John12:20-33;

In John’s account of Jesus’ ministry up to today’s reading has been in Galilee, though John tells us he has been to Jerusalem twice before. Today’s reading has him there for the festival of Passover. It will be his last. As we head toward his last three days and the celebration of the Christian Passover, we have the opportunity to reflect on Jesus, what he thinks, knows and does (the choices he makes and why) as he moves deeper into his reason for being. He is heading home.

Until now, when Jesus is called upon for special action, or when he escapes various threats, John explains it by telling us that Jesus’ “hour had not yet come”. But on this return to Jerusalem, Jesus has just raised Lazarus from the dead, and many of the Jews believe in him. Many, not all; some go to the Pharisees to report on what Jesus has done. The Pharisees, rather than be awed, are threatened and report it to the chief priests. Together, these religious leaders convene the ruling religious council and decide that Jesus must be destroyed and Lazarus with him. Otherwise, the whole world will soon believe in Jesus, and Rome will come and destroy not only their temple, but also them as a people.

Now, as if in fulfilment of the council’s fears, two Greeks come asking to see Jesus. Are they proselytes, converts to Judaism, or simply nameless “God-fearers?” A number of Gentiles living among Jews were drawn to their ethics and traditions. Called God-fearers, they honoured Torah, tried to keep its precepts but for whatever personal reasons, did not convert. There were many such Greeks in the Galilean district from which Jesus, Phillip and Andrew came. They have come to Jerusalem for Passover, and approach Phillip, who has a Greek name, saying, “Sir, we would see Jesus”. When Jesus hears of it, he responds, “The hour has come for the son of man to be glorified”.

How does Jesus know that? How long has he known that? Over and over again the New Testament tells us that Jesus was just like you and me. In other words, no matter what we mean when we call him God’s Son, he had emptied himself of any divine attribute to become fully human. As it says in Hebrews, just before our reading, he was “in every respect … tested as we are, yet without sin.”

Without sin: what does that mean? Sin is something that separates us from being aware of God’s presence. It keeps God obscure and veiled. Jesus, however, was determined to allow nothing to do that. From the moment he first became aware of the presence of the One he called “Father”, Jesus was steadfast to the relationship, allowing nothing to separate him from his Father.

Second, sin is a matter of falling short of the mark of who we were created to be. Somewhere in his thirst for God, it began to dawn on Jesus that his heavenly Father was calling him to do and be more than he or anyone around him had ever imagined: his reason for being. He would not allow himself to fall short of that.

His reason for being, how did he know that? Because he nurtured the dimension of the divine in his life, in prayer and in studying the Scriptures, he came to know whom he was and what it was he was to do.

How do you and I know who we are? How was it you became you? Better still, what are the things shaping you in your own becoming? What are the input, the forces and choices that impinge upon your growth? This faith community, or your family; scripture or the Sydney Morning Herald, prayer or conversations with those you think have succeeded, or someone as equally confused?

Have the decisions all been your own, or do you find them being made around you by forces, some joyfully serendipitous, some sadly disappointing, but often beyond your control? For Jesus it emerged out of his intimate prayer life with the one he called Abba. Out of that, Jesus realized he was being called to take upon himself a role that the ancient prophecies described sometimes as work reserved for God alone, and, at other times, as the work of God’s special servant.

Jesus had wrestled with his calling for God only knows how long. Now, somehow, he knew he was to be the one through whom God’s act to renew Israel, and through Israel the whole world, would take place. God’s new covenant with Israel, promised by Jeremiah, would emerge because of him. But that said, we should not think he had an easy passage through life, much less to Jerusalem because of his conviction. We must put away those childhood notions that he knew every moment what was coming next, that because of his divine dispensation he was different, that he did not suffer pain or doubt. He was just like you and me if it were not so we are not saved.

Our reading from Hebrew’s today tells us that as his vocation became more and more clear to him, he “offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death … “ He objected, he wrestled, he tried to leave it behind. He struggled with his vocation the way you and I struggle with our calls to be sisters and brothers of Christ, daughters and sons of God. He objected to the calling as you and I do. And because of his reverence for God, he was heard. But it did not change his reason for being; it did not save him from the cross. Hebrews says, “Although He was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered”.

What an extraordinary assertion! It is the only place in all of scripture that gives us any insight into how Jesus came to know who he was, through his suffering with it. Suffering can teach us many things, and comes in many ways. He suffered the rejection of the religious community. He suffered the rejection of his family; remember, they thought he was mad. And there must have been moments in his life, especially as the scope of his vocation became clearer, when he had to consider the possibility that he was mad. He learned through suffering: not the physical suffering that had yet to come, but the suffering he went through as he tried to remain true to his Father.

We should also note that even Jesus had things to learn on his way to becoming who he really was, if he was to do what he had been sent to do. He did not come with an instruction manual other than the one you and I have, scripture. He had to sort it out, as you and I try to sort it out for ourselves.

But by the time the Greeks arrive he knows “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”. His life will not bear the fruit for which he was born into this world without his death. God has said “No!”

God says “No!” to his beloved son and we complain about the times God says “No!” to us! Knowing what it is he is called to do and who is doing the calling, he says, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life”. The word “hate” does not mean despise. It simply means realizing that his life is no more his own than yours or mine are our own because they belong to the One who brought us into this world. So, what should he say, “Father, save me from this hour?”

It is for this reason that he has come, “Father, glorify your name.”

We are told that everyone else around him simply heard a clap of thunder, though some thought it might have been an angel. He heard his Father say, “I have glorified it … ” the affirmation of his choice. He is doing what he was born to do. “And, I will glorify it again”, God’s confirmation that it is time to come home. The world is about to experience the beginning of God’s judgment. The rebellious one who rules it, who promises power, success, riches and fame to those who fall down to serve him, and who brings suffering, pain, hardship and death to those who resist, is about to be driven out.

It will be a paradoxical moment. At first it will appear that evil has won. It will look like anything but victory, a crucified Messiah. But because he steadfastly refused to fall short of the mark for which he was born, because he was faithful unto death, he awakened in that tomb on the other side of this life. But more than that, he is again filled with such divine life and power that now that he has been lifted up, he has become the source of salvation and life for all who follow him. He has power to save now, power to give new life now, power to enable us to discover our reason for being in God’s world now.

Not one of us is an accident; each of us is here for God’s good reason. What is it? He has the power to turn us toward home ourselves now, as part of his new creation people. What is your reason for being? How does it serve God’s purposes?

Jesus is in his home, preparing a place for us. He is designated by his Father to bring an end to all that tries to separate us from God, and is empowered to bring all who truly want to, to come home, just as he is home.

Isn’t it time for us to turn toward home?

 

The Reverend John Cornish