Monday, April 13, 2009

Good Friday: God and the Whirlpool

Scripture Reading: Luke 23:1-55 (especially verses 32-43)

When you go white water rafting on the Grande Ronde River, just before you get to Troy, there is a set of sharp bends in the canyon that form a “Z”. And in that set of bends there is a big, strong eddy.

I wouldn’t call it a whirlpool, exactly, because it isn’t nearly scary or threatening enough. It is merely an inconvenience. As an adult, at the oars of my raft, because I know it’s there, I watch for it. I try to avoid it, although I have gotten caught by the edge of it, myself.

Kids, on the other hand, or people I consider to be kids, will row straight into that eddy, and spin around a bit for a while until they get bored, and then they show off their muscle power by rowing out of it.

Sometimes life has eddies; or, even worse, life has whirlpools, and vortexes, and black holes (and no one knows what you find at the other end of a black hole). They suck in individuals, and families, and communities, and nations. Sometimes these whirlpools swallow them whole.

There have been times when I felt as though I was being sucked into the center of one of these things, but one moving in very slow motion. Then I found myself looking around this big world and seeing others in far worse shape than I was. I was in an eddy and they were in a vortex.

It is a mystery how these things happen, and there seems to be a pattern that develops around some people; a holding pattern, a whirlpool-holding-pattern that goes on and on. I see a person or a family who seem to live for years and years in such a pattern. I watch them with amazement, and heartache, and prayer.

The life of Jesus was just such a whirlpool, a swirling vortex. What the witnesses that day thought was the end, the cross, was the center of his life. The first, gentle current of the whirlpool was noticeable even at his birth in Bethlehem; born in a manger, hunted down by the soldiers of King Herod, who ordered that all the male babies two years old and under, in Bethlehem, be killed because of the threat that Jesus seemed to stand for.

Jesus is God in the flesh; God who created a magnificent universe, in which human beings were designed to live in harmony with God, and with each other, and with nature, and with themselves. God looked at this world, and at human life, spoiled by human sin, and selfishness, and hatred. It was horrible. It was a whirlpool, a spinning vortex. And, to save us, and to change the foundation of our lives, God deliberately steered into that vortex, to join us there.

In Jesus, on the cross, God hangs with every human caught in any whirlpool, small or huge. God himself hangs with us there.

I have a good friend in the ministry who has a friend and member of his congregation who has been framed for murder. This friend of my friend is standing trial for this murder. My friend has sat with his friend through as much of the proceedings as possible, and many of the members of that congregation have done the same.

I have sat in court beside a number of people charged with crimes. Some I knew were innocent, and some I knew were guilty.

Over and over, on the day of the crucifixion, people kept objecting that Jesus was innocent, and that he had done nothing to deserve the horrible things that were happening to him. I believe that the cross is the place where Jesus hangs with us when our life, and our world, puts us on trial and proceeds irresistibly against us, in spite of our innocence.

On the cross, Jesus also hangs with us in our sins, and failures. He hangs with us in our breaking of commitments and relationships, and our sources of shame and disappointment. Sometimes Jesus says, on our behalf, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Very often we do know what we do, and we are like the repentant thief who confesses the truth (confesses his guilt and blame) and says, “Jesus, remember me. Jesus, take up my case in your kingdom.” Jesus says to him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” This is the promise of heaven. And, for that crucified thief, death and heaven were only an hour or so away.

But, for the rest of his short life, the dying thief was a forgiven man. He experienced what an unimaginable thing it is to live a new life because of the love and forgiveness of God. We, too, can live a forgiven life, because Christ, on the cross, hangs with us, and hangs for us.

The reality of our sin, and the death that is a part of life, is the whirlpool we are caught in. Jesus steered his course into this trap, so that he could catch us, and hold us, and rescue us by that mysterious forgiveness which is made so strong by his dying for us.

When Jesus died on the cross, the centurion (the army officer in charge of the crucifixion), “praised God, and said, ‘Surely this was a righteous man’”. (Luke 23:47) It would be odd to praise God for an injustice against an innocent person. He meant that God had done a great thing in that very injustice. God had done something worthy of praise on that horrible cross. That death of the innocent Jesus, on the cross, is a gift from God: the best of all gifts.

On the cross God does not explain the mystery of sin and evil in the world, but God confronts it, and does battle with it, and takes it upon himself. He lets the evil of this world have the ultimate power over him, and yet God does not lose the battle.

On the cross, God fights the mystery of the whirlpool of sin that lives within us, and he fights it by the power of his love for us, and by his identification with us. Then Jesus rises from the dead, and this is his promise that, in the battle for our life, Jesus also fights. And Jesus will win.

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