Once upon a time, a prophet named Martin Luther King said: “There is no crown without a cross. I wish we could get to Easter without going to Good Friday, but history tells us that we got to go by Good Friday before we can get to Easter. That’s the long story of freedom, isn’t it? Before you get to Canaan, you’ve got a Red Sea to confront. You have a hardened heart of a pharaoh to confront. You have the prodigious hilltops of evil in the wilderness to confront.”
On this solemn day, it is hard to wrap our minds, let alone our hearts, around Jesus willingly being humiliated and put to death. We live in a culture that doesn’t like talking about death because it takes us to a place of darkness and grief too difficult to bear. We deny it, ignore it, and do all in our power to avoid it. There is a tendency in our culture to pursue happiness at any cost. However, if we want to follow Jesus, we must confront death.
Imagine for a moment that you are there, that you are part of the scene. You’ll see a small group of courageous women gathered at the foot of the cross bravely witnessing the suffering of Jesus. Can you imagine Mary the mother of Jesus, watching her son in pain, being tortured, humiliated, and unable to reach out to him and ease his pain? I cannot imagine her anguish. The pain and the heartache she must have felt.
Twenty-two years ago, a shooter entered my daughter’s school. She was 12 years old. One adult was killed. One adult was physically injured. Many adults and children were emotionally injured. For the next few days afterwards, I wanted to keep my daughter close. It was with fear and courage that I sent her back to school reassuring her that it was safe.
I believe that the Mary we first read about in Luke’s gospel was a brave, young woman, who was willing to risk her reputation, her very life in order to obey God when God asked her to be the one to bear God’s son. I believe that God specifically chose her because of her bravery. Like any parent, Mary did not know what she was getting into, how her life would unfold and how the life of her child would turn out. Yet, when the shepherds came to see the baby Jesus lying in a manager praising God in the highest, Mary treasured their words and pondered them in her heart.
If and when we ever face heartache like Mary, the parents, spouses and children at Columbine or Sandy Hook or Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, we can look to the courage of Mary and bear witness to the suffering. In those moments of anguish, we have a choice. We can choose to become bitter, vengeful, and violent; or we can soften our hearts to trust in God’s compassion and love. We can choose not to close down or turn away from our grief. As disciples of Christ, we are called to love and to forgive. As Christians, we make that choice. In the face of death, the women wept and clung to one another. We don’t know if they spoke since their words aren’t recorded, but their silence –and their presence- was powerful.
What is Jesus’ response from the cross? What do we hear and learn as we picture ourselves at the scene? In the depths of his pain and his dying, he gives us words of comfort and release, of lamentation and love. He turns to his mother and places her in the hands of John. I believe this is more than Jesus wanting to make sure his widowed mother is taken care of. Presumably, she had other children to care for her. Instead, Jesus is asking that she and John become family.
Jesus is also telling us to form a new family, to create a new community where love embraces us and heals us. He is calling us to reconcile with one another and become part of a new creation. God is not acting out of retribution and wrath, but in compassion and mercy and in love and grace. It is here at the foot of the cross as Jesus looks down at Mary and John, a new heaven and earth meet. Jesus knows that in death is new life, through our struggles, we find strength.
We can’t avoid the suffering of this world. We can only go through it, believing Jesus carries us. Every day we must choose love over death. That decision determines our world view, guides our relationships, affects how we approach life’s circumstances and colors our image of God. Can we trust and see the love Jesus offers this day in our own lives, in the violence that surrounds us, in our losses and sufferings?
That is both the challenge and the claim of Good Friday. Pain is not the goal, but becoming vulnerable and risking to love and open ourselves to one another is. Jesus is showing us how to live. His death is the door to new life. It takes courage to tell a hurting, angry, divisive world, to a people who have lost faith or have never had faith that God loves them.
We have not only an opportunity, but a responsibility to share our own stories of brokenness and hurt, and our struggles with one another. The core of the gospel is Jesus reconciling the world to God. If we’re not telling the story, than what are we offering as a church, as believers? It is through the stories we tell of our own deep pain and betrayals that others can begin to see that we are not perfect, we don’t have all the answers. But as Christians, our lives should reflect a power stronger than us, a love that binds us to God and to one another across all boundaries.
We are being called into a new way of life. The cross of Jesus was the ultimate revelation of true power and true love. It is a triumph of good over evil. It is about God who has come into the middle of our pain, and our sorrow, and taken the full face of it unto God’s Self. Through Jesus’ unconditional love, he makes known God’s love. Good Friday means the beginning of change.
Once upon a time, there was a prophet named Jesus who confronted our hardened hearts and gave us hope, who took away our brokenness and healed us through his love. “For now, we watch, we weep, we bear witness, we wait.” Amen.
Jan Richardson, The Painted Prayerbook, Good Friday: Speaking, Still
The Rev. Peter Faass
This past Tuesday, The New York Times had this article: “Afraid of Snakes? Wasps and Dogs Are Deadlier.” Author Nicholas Bakalar stated, “Beware the snake, the spider and the scorpion. But know this: You are much more likely to be killed by a bee or a dog.”
“Of the 1,610 people killed in encounters with animals between 2008 and 2015, 478 were killed by hornets, wasps and bees, and 272 by dogs, according to a study published in Wilderness & Environmental Medicine. Snakes, spiders and scorpions were responsible for 99 deaths over the eight years.”
I didn’t buy it for a moment! Really? In my mind, snakes are lurking behind every pew, killers striking wantonly. Where were these New York Times statisticians in 1250 BCE when, according to the book of Numbers, snake bites were clearly the leading cause of death? As we heard this morning, “The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’ Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.”
Good heavens! People were dying left and right from snake bites and all because they complained about how bad dinner was. Clearly God the chef wouldn’t be trifled with. “Oh, you didn’t like the manna, did you? Well, see if these snake bites are more to your liking.” Certainly, this is an object lesson: When it comes to God and culinary skills, bite your tongue. Better ill fed than dead.
Interestingly, the image of a snake becomes the antidote to the scourge of snake bites in Sinai:
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”
This is a really interesting development. By this point, Moses and the Israelites already received the Ten Commandments. The second Commandment is quite clear: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” (Ex. 20:4-5a)
Wow! The ink is barely dry on the tablets and God is instructing Moses to make a bronze replica of a snake, place it on a pole and encourage people gaze upon it whenever they were bitten by a snake to be healed and live. If that’s not an idolatrous symbol and worship of it, than I don’t know what is!
This sacred pole and bronze serpent survived 500 years after the Exodus finished and the Israelites had entered the Promised Land. In the book of 2 Kings, people were still worshiping that bronze snake when King Hezekiah ascended to the throne. Presumably, the plague of poisonous snakes was over by then, so what was going on here?
Hezekiah was a religious reformer who came to the throne after a long period of apostasy from God’s ways by the Israelites. The snake had become a symbol of Baal, one of the more insidious pagan gods whom God loathed. The lapse of nearly 500 years had invested the bronze serpent with a pagan identity. Hezekiah was incensed by the people’s idolatrous worship of that bronze snake. He contemptuously called it, "Nehushtan," a brazen thing, a mere piece of brass. The text tells us, “He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it.” (2 Kings 18:4b)
Jewish scholars have been puzzled by the apparent breaking of the Second Commandment and worshipping the bronze serpent. One explanation the rabbis offer is that “It was not the serpent that gave life [to those bitten by snakes.] So long as Moses lifted up the serpent, they believed in [God] who had commanded Moses to act thus. It was God who healed them.” So, the healing power lay not in the bronze serpent; it was only a symbol to turn the people’s hearts toward God, who then healed them.
While the bronze serpent was first considered a graven image, it was actually a symbol reminding the kvetching people of God, and of God’s exclusive power to heal and save. As time went on it morphed into a graven image, and one that drew people to a pagan deity instead of the God of Israel. Something which God had given for the good changed into something bad.
How often do take something God has given us for our healing and wholeness -- and turn it intoan idolatrous thing that makes us unwell and unwhole?
I would argue that this happened with Jesus. He was given to us by God as someone of extraordinary goodness; to heal and give us life when we are bitten by the deadly venoms of the world. Like the bronze serpent, Jesus had over time been changed by all too many alleged adherents of him into something that is bad, life-denying and evil - something that worshiped as an evil deity.
As the Gospel of John says, God gave us Himself in the incarnation “in order that the world might be saved through him.” Frequently he has been turned into a symbol of hatred, fear, bigotry and judgment. Someone who does not save the world, but rather destroys it and the children of God.
This Jesus is a fraud, created to mask human fear, hatred, power, lust and greed. John Dominic Crossan describes him as the “slaughtered Lamb” of God who gave his life for the salvation of the world, and who has been manipulated and twisted into the “slaughtering lamb” who soaks the world in hatred, fear, blood, violence.
The authentic, good Jesus who draws us to God through his life of love, compassion, honoring the image of God in all people and nonviolent resistance to evil, has been replaced through human machinations by an idolatrous, evil entity who blesses and leads the violent slaughter of perceived evildoers, inferior human beings, apostates, heretics and degenerates.
This Jesus is a fraud.
This fraudulent Jesus turns us away from the true God and he needs to be destroyed, just as the bronze serpent was destroyed by King Hezekiah.
We need to reclaim the authentic Jesus; the one who draws us to God and heals. We begin doing this by holding fast the words of John’s Gospel: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
We need to be vigilant because evil is always conjuring up ways to draw us toward darkness and away from God. When evil tries to seduce us with its venom, we need to gaze on Jesus, the “light [who] has come into the world.”
Let his light shine in our lives so we may be healed and live. Love the light. The light redeems. The light saves. Hold fast to this truth: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not, and never will, overcome it.” Gaze on that and live.
Exodus 20:1-17, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22
The Rev. Rachel G. Hackenberg
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through the Word, and what came into being in the Word was life and light, which cannot be overcome. The Word became flesh, and we have seen its glory. Though we cannot see God, though the glory of God defies language we might hope to understand, nevertheless the heart of God has been made known by the Word.
The Gospel of John is the story of what happens when the heart of God is plainly revealed by the life and flesh of Jesus. Spoiler alert: What happens when the heart of God is plainly revealed is foolishness for those of us who desire rationalizations and wisdom. What happens when the heart of God is plainly revealed is weakness to those of us who hope for strength and works righteousness. What happens when the heart of God is plainly revealed is mystery for those of us who calculate signs and hedge our bets.
What happens when the heart of God is plainly revealed by the life and flesh of Jesus is foolishness and weakness and mystery, because the heart of God is a jealous heart (Ex 20). The jealous heart of God is the kind of heart that will chase down love and claim love and cling to love wherever it might be found: in the wilderness or the temple, at weddings and on deathbeds, sitting under a tree or hiding itself in parables.
The heart of God heard the ancient Israelites crying out from their enslavement in Egypt and broke with love. In a jealous rage, the heart of God swore to break Pharaoh’s heart as well if that’s what it took to free the people. God took Moses – who, by the way, probably thought that his life was faithful enough, because every day he loved his wife and his kids and he worked hard tending to the sheep so that he could contribute to the well-being of the tribe – but God surprised Moses, overwhelmed Moses, tipped the tables of his contentment, and said, “This is now the love I need from you.”
Out of a broken heart full of love, God brought the ancient Israelites out from slavery, guided them across the Red Sea, led them and fed them daily through the wilderness. Time and time again God delivered the people, renewed their hope, strengthened their courage, loved and loved and loved. Then God said, “See how my heart has broken for you. Now listen, for this is how your heart must break for me:
In the ten commandments, the heart of God revealed itself to be full of power and very much jealous in love. Upon hearing this, two verses after today’s reading ends the ancient Israelites responded by saying to Moses, “Did we say that we were longing to hear God’s voice? We were definitely wrong about that. Let’s not do that again. Moses, you can approach the smoking mountain, you can listen to the thunder and the lightening, we will stand safely over here.”
We are grateful to have the heart of God beating for us. We can be easily overwhelmed to know what the heart of God requires of us. How can the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts and the actions of our lives be found acceptable by that Gaze of Love that does not miss any single one of our faults?
It is foolishness that we hope to try to return any measure of love to the One Who Loves Us. Yet we gather here because we are called to try:
Like Moses, we believe that we are being faithful in our daily diligence to love our families, to be honest in our work, to connect with our church, to represent God’s goodness to the world. We give our gifts to God. We build an altar out of our prayers. We support our friends. We contribute money where it is needed. We lift our voices against injustice. Isn’t this what it looks like to love God?
Yet no matter our diligence, whether we believe we have been faithful or we find ourselves flailing & failing in faith, the jealous heart of God still and certainly interrupts our routines of love and turns the tables on our habits of faith and confronts our weariness:
Sometimes it’s simply a matter of contentment that we resist that call to heartbreak out of which we might love more: we are satisfied with the networks of love & relationship around us, and we have wisely measured a tithe of our love that we give back to the community. In our contentment and routine, we fail to realize that God is calling us to foolishness with our love.
Sometimes it’s an overexposure to the world’s brokenness that we protect our own broken hearts a little more closely, hoping to rebuild our hearts’ strength despite Christ’s example of love in weakness. When you’ve worked so hard to repair your own heart’s breaking, faith can look like a callous more than it looks like love.
Sometimes in the busyness of faith we inadvertently begin to calculate how much heart we can give and when – “On Tuesdays when I take my friend to lunch, that’s my capacity for opening my heart that day because she will talk my ear off. On Wednesdays, my heart’s commitment is to the choir. On Saturday, my heart’s offering is spent on tutoring.” We forget the vast mystery of God’s heart that flashes across the sky and cannot be contained in a schedule.
Sometimes – a lot of times – our hearts are just easily distracted. We think we’re being faithful to God throughout our days, like the Passover pilgrims believed they were being faithful to God by traveling to the temple and exchanging their coins for temple currency so that with the temple currency they could buy doves & cattle & sheep for the faithful offering. And so each day we try to be prayerful: as we read the headlines and run our errands and write some email and notice that no one has taken him off Twitter yet and wonder where is the sanity to write laws so our children can study without fear and calling our loved ones and praying at the dinner table and did anyone remember to buy cat food and we tell ourselves that this is simply the chaos of life through which we love, but in the meantime Jesus is throwing tables to catch our attention so that he say, “Would you please stop chasing cows & birds & sheep through your life and calling it faith? I’m simply asking you to love.”
What happens when the jealous heart of God is made flesh and dwells among us?
That heart drives out everything that is not love, and if we are willing, breaks our hearts so that they might be made new with more room. The breaking has a different look and feel for all of us. Hearts can be broken open by joy, not just pain. Hearts can find the peace of foolishness in the face of difficult challenges. Hearts can stumble over ego or skip into a new adventure. For all of the ways that our hearts can break, for all of the ways that our lives can be turned upside down like tables, whether by God’s hand or by the world’s whims, I know that the renewal and expansion of our hearts never happens alone: God’s love never leaves us alone. God’s love within our hearts is not nurtured alone, not remembered alone.
Months – years – after Jesus turned tables and forecast the temple’s destruction & renewal, when the disciples had their own worlds turned upside down by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, they remembered this moment (John 2:22). They remembered it together, and because of that, they were able to love together.
Nothing comes before loving God. Every bit of love and hope and faithfulness and boldness and creativity that we might strive to show begins with & comes out of loving God.
In the beginning was the Heart, and the Heart was with God, and the Heart was God. And we have seen its glory.