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Journey to the Cross: The Light Goes Out?

April 5, 2020 Sermon
“Journey to the Cross:
The Light Goes Out?”

SERVICE OF SHADOWS

6th Sunday of Lent – April 5, 2020

[Beginning – only the one right-most candle on the cross should be lit.]

Introduction

We arrive at the last Sunday of the season of Lent.  Our Meditation Time, our time to connect with God, has been different during Lent as a way of setting Lent apart from the rest of the year.  Each Sunday, one Shadow has been read. That is, one scripture reading about the ways people thousands of years ago contributed to Jesus’ crucifixion; one scripture reading that should guide each of us to reflect on the ways in which we fall short and need to turn back toward God.

After each reading, we have extinguished one more candle as a way of reminding us how human sinfulness contributed then and still contributes today to the extinguishing of God’s Light to this world.  Today, we extinguish the last candle, a solemn moment. I encourage you to spend your meditation time this morning asking God about how this Sunday’s shadow is manifest in your life and what God wants you to do about it. 

Today’s Shadow – The Shadow of Mockery.

From Mark 15:16-20

16 Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. 17 And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. 18 And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 19 They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. 20 After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

We extinguish a candle today to remind us of the mockery of the Roman soldiers and to wonder about the ways in which we participate in this kind of mockery, maybe not of Jesus but perhaps of any of God’s children.  Isn’t any kind of mockery cruel? Aren’t all kinds of mockery related to that which led to Jesus’ crucifixion?

[Extinguish the leftmost lit candle.]

SCRIPTURE AND SERMON

Scripture Reading – Matthew 27:45-54

45 From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. 46 About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

47 When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”

48 Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. 49 The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”

50 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.

51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

54 When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”

“Journey to the Cross: The Light Goes Out?”

When Jesus died that day, so many people watching must have thought that their hopes had died as well. Darkness came over all the land that day.  Choose a candle and extinguish it. Remember the darkness that the whole world—and heaven itself—must have felt that day. 

Faith Bosland begins the 11th station of the cross, the station about crucifixion, with these words. At that station, participants are asked to extinguish a candle…hopefully, you have just done the same at the end of your Service of Shadows reading.  

When you extinguished that candle – after reading the words, “then they led him out to crucify him” –  how did it feel? Like darkness? Like hope had died?

In my ministry, both in conversations with people I know and in reading the thoughts and reflections of people like Bosland, I get the sense that people think/believe that the hopes and dreams of the people in the world died on that day right along with Jesus.

And yet, I’m not sure that’s quite the way the gospel writer Matthew portrayed the situation.  Go back and re-read the scripture reading for today.

(Take time to go back and re-read the scripture.)

Did you notice what happened when Jesus died…according to Matthew?

  •  At that very moment, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” 
  • At that very moment, there was an earthquake.
  • At that very moment, dead people came up out of their graves and started walking around.

Just out of curiosity, if you were around when those things happened, how would you have read the situation?  Hopeless…or hopeful?

By the way, I get why so many people read these things as reasons to fear, as signs of bad things to come, as signs of hopelessness.  But I’m not sure that’s the way people at the time would have interpreted these three happenings.

Similarities to a zombie-apocalypse notwithstanding, these things that happened at the moment Jesus died seem to me like they would have indicated the OPPOSITE of a hopeless moment to first century people…even before anyone really GOT that Jesus was going to be resurrected.  Indeed, I would suggest that even if Jesus would not have been resurrected – even if our scripture reading today about Jesus’ death was the end of the story – it would have been an incredibly hope-filled ending, leading people to proclaim, “Truly this man was God’s son!” (Which, come to think of it, they DID, even before Easter, before resurrection.)  Let me explain.

“At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.”

When you hear about a curtain in the temple being torn in two, from top to bottom, I wonder what you think about.  Do you imagine a curtain over a window providing protection from the sun and privacy from outside passers-by? Without context, I would imagine all of us would wonder why Matthew bothered to mention a curtain at the temple being torn in two.

With context, something incredibly important – something very much worth mentioning – was taking place.  Even though the NRSV translates this piece of fabric as a “curtain”, it wasn’t like any curtain I’ve ever seen.  According to Jewish tradition, the curtain was 3.5 inches thick. And it had a very important purpose. This curtain separated the Most Holy Place of the temple from the Lesser Holy Place.  In other words, this curtain separated God’s resting place on earth – you might call the place “God’s kingdom on earth” – from the parts of the earth reserved for people to dwell (the kingdom of people).  

So, what Matthew says happened at the moment of Jesus’ death is this: the curtain that separated God’s kingdom from the kingdom of people tore…not just a little bit but completely in half, meaning the barrier that separated the Kingdom of God from the kingdom of people was removed!!!

Let me ask you: is the destruction of the barrier between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of people a hopeless thing or a hopeful thing?

Remember, a great big part of Jesus’ ministry, what many scholars would suggest as the focal point of Jesus’ ministry, was to proclaim the in-breaking of God’s kingdom on earth.  What Jesus spent his ministry preaching about, giving hope for, was the in-breaking of God’s kingdom on earth. And at the moment of Jesus’ death, what Jesus had been giving hope for was fulfilled.  For me, that’s hopeful.

“At that moment…the earth shook, the rocks split…”

Typically, we think of natural disasters as being bad things.  We think of them as being bad for a variety of reasons. They are bad because they’re beyond our control.  They are bad because they are powerful. They are bad because they typically result in the loss of life.

Interestingly, the only one of these three reasons for natural disasters being considered “bad” that is objectively bad has to do with the loss of life, which, noticeably, is not mentioned as having happened as a result of the earthquake that accompanied Jesus’ death.  If anything, the opposite happened (but we’ll get to that in a bit.) So, let’s take away the loss of life part and consider the other two reasons people tend to think of natural disasters as bad: great power that’s beyond our control.

Would we think of a natural disaster in the same way IF it was under the control and power of a loving God?  I mean, as powerful and beyond our control as natural disasters – earthquakes, storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, etc. – are, wouldn’t they be much less frightening if we KNEW God had power over them and wouldn’t let them hurt us?  This would change everything.

And that’s exactly what happened with that earthquake.  People experienced an earthquake that wasn’t hurting anyone, an earthquake that coincided with the death of a person proclaimed to be God’s Son.  Wouldn’t that lead people to have an emotion of something OTHER than fear, maybe even something akin to hope, knowing that the power of a loving God was on display, power over the most powerful forces known on this earth?

At that moment…the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.  They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.”

Imagine for a moment that something like this actually happened in our lifetime.  Imagine what would happen in our world today if all the people who had died of COVID-19 around the world suddenly came up out of their tombs and “appeared to many people.”  Imagine if some people you know and loved who had died for any reason suddenly came out of their tombs, were resurrected, and appeared at your door.

I get it that the first emotion we would experience would be terrifying shock.  Actually, that appears to be the first emotion those first century people experienced.  The people who were physically closest to Jesus when all that went down “were terrified”…understandably.

But think of what would happen as time continued to move forward.  After a while, you discover that your loved ones were truly resurrected. They weren’t zombies or lab experiments or aliens or anything like that; just as God had demonstrated power over nature with the earthquake, God had demonstrated power over life and even death with these mass resurrections.  Wouldn’t your emotions change? Wouldn’t your emotions turn toward hope? Just like those who were in closest proximity to Jesus when he died, wouldn’t you soon proclaim something amazing about God?

My friends, when Jesus died, the Light that was Jesus’ presence on this earth most certainly went out…for a while.  But the LIGHT of God did not go out; rather, it brightened considerably. People witnessed firsthand God’s power over everything they knew, even the most powerful forces they feared – earthquakes and death.  People witnessed firsthand that everything Jesus had been teaching about the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God being real, being true. The physical, literal barrier separating God’s kingdom from people was destroyed, and the results were all-too obvious: people who had moved on to God’s kingdom up there, out there, were suddenly running around the earth down here…again.

If these events from the moment of Jesus’ death aren’t reason to hope, aren’t reason to proclaim, “Surely [Jesus] was the Son of God!”, I don’t know what is or would be.

But what does this mean for us on our journey to the cross with Jesus throughout this Lenten season and as this season comes to a close?

For more than a month, I’ve been sharing with you some things that we should – perhaps MUST – do on our journey:

  • Be still from time to time, letting go of the stuff and noise that separates us from God;
  • Discovering and using the power of God in Jesus that is also manifest in us;
  • Worshipping without inhibition;
  • Staying vigilant by consulting God for every decision of our lives;
  • Living unselfishly, preferring others at least as much as we prefer ourselves;

For more than a month, I’ve been sharing what we must do as part of our journey.  Today, as we remember Jesus’ death, I do something different; I call you to look at what God has done through Jesus for you…already.

We live in a season in which hope is in short supply for some.  

  • We’re being asked by our government to stay inside and away from all the people we love;
  • We’re vulnerable to this virus that has swept across the globe, and we’re afraid;
  • Any of us could legitimately get sick and die;
  • The stock market, along with much of the economy, has cratered;
  • Maybe you’ve lost your job…at least temporarily and with an uncertain future, or someone in your household has;
  • Maybe some people you love have become sick or worse;
  • And there’s no end in sight…no one can tell us with authority when this will come to an end;

And that’s just our temporary, COVID-19-related reasons for hope to be in short supply.  There are other reasons:

  • The continued decline of Christ’s Church;
  • The continued dis-unity in our nation and world;
  • Terrorism;
  • Disputes between nations that threaten to escalate into full-blown fighting war;
  • Trade disputes between nations that totter on the brink of trade wars;

In the midst of the uncertainty and the great many reasons for a lack of hope, isn’t it amazing to know:

  • God is so powerful God can control nature…should God choose to do so;
  • God has removed the barrier between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of people so that, should you so choose, you can live in God’s Kingdom NOW – you don’t have to wait until you die;
  • God has power over death.  God has resurrected people before and God can resurrect people again.  And most assuredly, God’s power over death means there’s a future for you even when your time on this earth is over.

My friends, what God did at the moment of Jesus’ death, doesn’t it give us, give YOU, the hope you need to be able to endure anything, even COVID-19?  Doesn’t the awareness of God’s power, God’s power that God has, can, and will use lovingly on your behalf, mean that there is more reason to hope than there is to fear?  Doesn’t an awareness of God’s power on display even BEFORE Easter…before we get to our remembrance and celebration of Jesus’ resurrection…provide all the hope we need in this time?

These are troubling times, for sure.  In the midst of these troubling times, let’s remember what God has done BEFORE when the this world has endured troubling times, trouble enough to crucify and kill God’s Son: God worked some of the most amazing miracles ever witnessed…all to give people hope, all to give us the hope we need right here, right now.

Amen.