Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Last Word: The Seventh Word from the Cross

For a dozen years I have been participating in the Community Good Friday Service at the Big Pine United Methodist Church. Preachers from the local churches--Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Vineyard, Episcopal--each preach on one of the 7 words Christ spoke from the cross. I was asked to preach on Luke 23:44-49. 

"Father, into your hands I commit my spirit."

It is 3 in the afternoon on a Friday in April, 30 A.D. Jesus has been awake since early Thursday. He has been betrayed with a kiss from a close friend, tried illegally in a kangeroo court, interrogated several times, slapped, beaten, whipped, ridiculed, rejected, marched stumbling through the streets of Jerusalem while carrying a heavy wooden beam, stripped naked, nailed to a cross, jeered at, and endured seeing the shame and sorrow of his widowed mother. His eyes sting from sweat and blood running down his thorn-crowned forehead. His mouth is parched; his throat is raw; his lungs burn from the effort to breathe. His arms ache from the weight of his body while his hands have gone numb from lack of circulation. His legs and pierced ankles scream with pain every time he raises himself on them to get a breath. His back is cross-hatched with lacerations and hanging strips of skin from the whip and he shudders every time it scrapes against the rough wood of the cross. Gnats and flies buzz around him, landing and walking on his helpless body with impunity, feeding on the blood and open wounds. He has been hanging here for 6 hours.

The only mercy shown to him is that the scorching sun has hidden itself for the last 3 hours. Eclipse? Clouds? He cannot turn and see. He can barely lift his head. His strength is running out of him with his blood. He knows that death is near.

God has let this happen to him. God led him to this, the most horrible death imaginable. He has lost his friends, his modesty, control over his own body. But most importantly, he has lost all awareness of God. That loving presence he has always felt around him is gone. That comforting voice that has always spoken to him is silent. That clear vision that has always guided him is absent. He is alone, utterly alone.

Does he curse God? Does he cry out in rage? In pain? In despair? No, he gathers his last breath. He summons the last particle of his strength. He painfully raises his shaking, protesting body to open his lungs and shout one last utterance. Not a roar of defiance, not a wail of despair, but a prayer. A prayer to a God he can no longer sense, the God who has left him to die, pinned to a stake on a rock in a dun-colored hell.

The prayer comes from Psalm 31, a song of David, his ancestor. David wrote it at a time when he was besieged. Part of it goes,
"Be merciful to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
My eyes grow weary with sorrow,
My soul and my body with grief.
My life is consumed with anguish
And my years by groaning;
My strength fails because of my affliction,
And my bones grow weak.
Because of my enemies,
I am the utter contempt of all my neighbors;
I am a dread to my friends--
Those who see me on the street flee from me.
I am forgotten by them as though I were dead;
I have become like broken pottery."

David went from Hero of Israel to a fugitive from his former friend, King Saul. Hunted by the army he once led, David must have wondered if his anointing by Samuel was a blessing or a curse. He too felt separated from God. "In my alarm I said, 'I am cut off from your sight.'"

Perhaps this is why this psalm suddenly comes to Jesus. He is at his rope's end. He is as low and as helpless as anyone can be. He can do nothing himself; everything is out of his control. That is the most terrifying situation in which we can find ourselves. Those who have been mugged or beaten or assaulted say that the worst part of it is realizing that you cannot stop it. The fact that you cannot prevent your attacker from doing anything he wants to you is the most shattering aspect of the whole experience. You are completely vulnerable, entirely at the mercy of your assailant. Jesus is at that point.

It is typical, it is understandable, that when you find that everything is beyond your control, you despair. Horrendous experiments on rats found that when they realized that they will get shocked no matter what they do and that there is no escape, they lie down and let the electric convulsions flow over them. They give up. When I was a private duty nurse, I saw rich and powerful men give up in the face of chronic or debilitating illness. The drive that enabled them to conquer the treacherous world of business dries up in the face of an enemy they cannot out-think, bribe or intimidate. The spirit goes out of them.

When everything is beyond your control, you can act as if all is lost...or you can realize that everything was never within your control. You can wake up from your childish daydream of omnipotence and see your true position in the universe. And then you can throw yourself upon the only one who really is in control: God.

But that is cold comfort to the one who believes that if there is a God, it is an impersonal force that governs the immutable laws of the universe impartially. To expect any relief from such a creator is foolishness. And certainly at this point it looks as if the God who let this happen to Jesus is at best indifferent to his plight. On what basis can he--can we--expect mercy, much less help?

We trust people when they have come through for us in the past. We base our faith in others on our experience of their love. The infant cries until he sees his mother. He knows she will feed him, change him, comfort him because she has done so in the past. Mom means everything will be all right. The same infant looks startled the first time Daddy tosses him in the air. But he catches him and it is all right. The baby begins to love that giddy feeling of free falling because he knows that the strong arms of his loving father are always there to catch him. What was scary becomes thrilling because we know that ultimately we are safe.

In the psalm that is running through Jesus' mind David follows his verse about being cut off from God with this one: "Yet you heard my cry for mercy when I called to you for help." David does not let his awful present blot out his remembrance of God's grace in the past. Despite all the expressions of persecution and suffering in this psalm, there is an undercurrent of hope. Hope is a confidence about the future that is rooted in God's goodness to us in the past.

But what good things could Jesus reflect on? He was born into poverty. He worked hard, supporting his family after Joseph died. When he started his mission, he was violently rejected by his hometown. His mother and brothers thought he was crazy. His cousin John was beheaded. He had been hounded and threatened by the Pharisees and Sadducees throughout his ministry. He was betrayed by one of his best friends. His life as God's Anointed hadn't been personally rewarding. On what could Jesus base his trust?

At the end of It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey sees that, though it may not have been what he wanted, his life was a blessing to all whom he touched. And through being a blessing to others, he himself was blessed. Though Jesus did not seem to benefit by following God, those who encountered him did. The blind regained their sight, the deaf their hearing, the mute their voices, the lame their legs, the possessed their selves. He brought enlightenment to the dim and nourishment to the ravenous. If he could not see God's grace in what God did for him, then he could in what God did through him.

Jesus knew the love of God as it was manifested in his life. He experienced the power of God as it flowed through him into those he healed. He saw the mercy of God as he pronounced forgiveness on the suffering. He could say with David, "How great is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you, which you bestow in the sight of men on those who take refuge in you."

And so, as he hung there, seemingly forsaken by God and man, Jesus could draw upon the mighty acts of God that happened in and through him and he could, with his final tortured breath, pray to the Father who he knew, despite his present condition, loved him. William Barclay says that this verse from Psalm 31 was a familiar prayer to Jews. Mothers would teach it to their children at bedtime. And so we have this most abused man, with his last seconds of mortal consciousness, praying as if he were a child about to drop into a peaceful sleep in his father's arms.

He knows that his labors are over, He knows that he has earned his rest. And he knows that he will awaken again, a new man, at the dawn of a new day, a new era, made possible by his obedience to his Father's will, that through his sufferings, humanity might find an end to its pain and through his sacrifice, we might come to know the love that triumphs over death. 

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