Monday, April 9, 2012

God Speaking: Like One Who Must Die

Preached on Good Friday, April 6, 2012
Scripture readings: Genesis 3:1-24; John 19:1-42

In the Hollywood movie business they used to talk about the classic plot of a love story. Act One: boy meets girl and boy gets girl. Act Two: boy loses girl. Act Three: boy gets girl back.

The Bible also tells a classic love story. Act One: God creates world. Act Two: God loses world. Act Three: God gets world back. It’s classic. It’s perfect. It is what God did by coming to our world in Jesus. We are still in the beginning of Act Three. It is far from over.

In the Gospel of John we are told the last words of Jesus; just before he died on the cross. The last words were, “It is finished”. “It is finished!”

Look what Jesus went through on his last day. He was beaten with fists and clubs. He was brutally whipped according to a Roman method that was sometimes fatal. The actual hours he spent nailed to the cross were death by torture: hanging from nails in hands and feet, dehydration, asphyxiation, loss of blood.

If we had gone through all that (knowing that we had come to our final moment, and our final breath) “It is finished” would have meant that it was finally over. “It is finished” would have been, for us, our words of surrender; our words of defeat. But it was not that way for Jesus.

“It is finished” uses an odd Greek word that means reaching the goal, achieving the purpose. It means consummated, completed. It would be like shouting, “Victory!”!

Imagine thinking that such a death (a death by abuse and torture), drawn out to the bitter end, was somehow a victory.

Something in me wants to say that it is the resurrection that makes the death of Jesus a victory. But there is something in this horrible death that makes the resurrection victory. The resurrection of Jesus would not have been victory without this outrage that paved the way for it.

In the perfect love story, the boy getting his lost girl back is a true ordeal. It is a long and suffering quest. God getting his lost world back was a true ordeal; a long and suffering quest.

The lost world is our world, and our world had its beginnings in the life of the first humans: Adam and Eve. At the dawn of our creation God designed us for a thriving life, an abundant life.

It was a life that thrived because it was rich in relationships. It was grounded in the lives of others. Human life was designed to be abundant because it was planted in our relationship with God.

It was through our relationship with God (as our Creator and Father) that our life would spread through our relationships with others, who were also created by God. Our life was designed to be abundant in relationship with the rest of the creation; with the physical, natural world around us. And our life was designed to be abundant in our inner life; so that we would have happiness and delight: knowing ourselves to be growing into what God created us for.

All this goodness and abundance would come from our love and faithfulness to God: knowing how loving and faithful God was toward us. We would say “yes” to what God said “yes” to. We would say “no” to what God said “no” to.

We would be partners with God; God’s special agents in his creation, as bold as that sounds. We would be his living images walking, and talking, and working in his world with him. We would be the mind and the voice of the creation giving to God the praise which no other creature could put into words. And we would offer the creation’s prayers to God. That was human nature, as God intended it to be.

But Adam and Eve chose to say “yes” to what God said “no” to; and “no” to what God said “yes” to. They did it in order to set up a partnership between themselves; to become a team that was able to bypass God, if necessary.

They wanted to have knowledge and wisdom that God might not give them. They wanted to know what to do and how to live without having to consult God. They acted without faith in God. They acted without love for God. In doing this, they changed human nature.

This choice was theirs, in the beginning of the human race. It was their choice of what we were to be. It is often ours to choose what others around us will be, or it is ours to choose the sort of world others will face because of our choices.

All life exists in connection with God. When Adam and Eve chose to go outside the love and faithfulness of God, they went outside of God himself. But there is no life outside of God, and so they went into death. They lived in death. It is possible to do that, for a while.

So when the Lord God came into the Garden of Eden, in the cool of the day, for fellowship with his human children, he found them hiding from him. Although God was still full of love and faithfulness toward them, they were afraid of God, because they had said “no” to his love and faithfulness, and they were no longer able to feel what they had said “no” to.

God tried to talk to them and get to the root of their problem. They answered with half-truths. The man blamed his wife. He was willing for her to pay the price for what he had done. He was a traitor to her, right to her face.

So, the human race was divided against itself. There was cruelty, deception, pride, fear, anger. In the next generation their son Cain would kill his brother Abel. One third of the male population of the earth would kill another third.

The world as we know it was born. Humans, living in this world, could no longer live at peace with God or in peaceful relationship with each other, or with the world that God had made, or even at peace with themselves; not as God designed.

Even in the midst of life, human beings experience sin in the form of a kind of death, because the relationships on which our life depends have been broken. We cannot mend these relationships completely. We cannot make them what they ought to be, because something essential within us is also broken.

My cousin Don lost his first wife to a long battle with cancer when the oldest of their three children was a teenager. Patty was a gentle, compassionate, cheerful Christian. She was a lovely human being. Later on, one of Don’s friends went through a similar chain of events, and I remember Don writing about it; that he approached his grieving friend, and hugged him, and murmured in his ear, “It sucks.”

When the Lord first put Adam in the garden he told him, “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” (Genesis 2:17) It is death (taking many forms, working in our life, even when we are at our best) that makes it suck.

In Jesus, God entered this life: this sweet, rich, beautiful, troubling life. Remember that, in the beginning of his gospel, John tells us that Jesus is the Word that was God from the beginning. (John 1:1-3) Jesus is God expressing himself, so that we can see him and know him as he really is. On the cross we see God encountering our world where it sucks the most.

Adam and Eve tried to get out of their mess by denying it; by denying their responsibility for it, and by trying to make others pay. God took the responsibility for our mess by stepping into it at its worst. This is who Jesus is.

In Jesus we see God’s willingness to completely disappear as a baby wrapped in cloths in a manger in Bethlehem. We see God’s willingness to be a child and to learn as a child under his parents’ guidance. We see God learning to work as a carpenter and get blistered, calloused, and bloody hands from cutting and shaping wood and putting it together as tables, rafters, ladders, plows.

In Jesus we see a God who cares for the sick, and for the caregivers of the sick. We see a God who cares for the grieving, and who grieves alongside them at the grave of a friend. We see a God who cares for the hungry and the needy. We see a God who hates hypocrisy, and self-righteousness, and a petty and lazy faith.

In Jesus, we see a God who takes upon himself the suffering that comes from our separation from him. He lets himself be punished by the Jewish authorities as a blasphemer, and by the Romans as a traitor to the emperor, although he was neither.

Adam courted death by his blasphemous ambition as a creature to become the god he could never be. Jesus courted death by his blasphemous ambition, as God, to become as truly human as Adam or any one of us.

Adam courted death as a traitor against the love and faithfulness of God. Jesus courted death as a traitor against our self-love and self-rule. Jesus came to become the man that Adam failed to be; to become the person each one of us fails to be.

The Roman governor brought Jesus out to his accusers and said, “Behold, the man! Here is the man!” (John 19:5) God came in Christ willing to be the man who must die because he stepped up to be, for us, what we have failed to be.

The Temple authorities told Pilate about the law that God gave to Moses to punish blasphemers (the people who spoke falsehoods about God). They said, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.” (Leviticus 24:16; John 19:7) God came in Christ willing to tell us who he really was, and so make himself to be the one who must die because of it.

Jesus came to die to take our place; almost to suck into himself all the human sin and all the evils of our world. He came to carry the hell of our sin upon his shoulders, and to be the one who must die of it. He did this to break the power that sin, and evil, and hell hold over us, and over our world, so that they could no longer misshape human life.

Broken humans like us cannot mend the world. God came in Jesus, as the innocent one who could die to mend human hearts and make us whole. What happened on the cross has the power of God in it to make the work perfect, good, and lasting. God, expressing himself in Jesus, has the power to see it through until he makes all things new, and the victory will become visible to everyone.

In a broken, human world like ours, broken by our own selfishness, God would be the last one expected to take responsibility for this. God has done the outrageously perfect thing to get the world back; to get us back.

In Jesus we see that the glory, and the majesty, and the honor of God are this, to stoop down to the worst horror that we and our world can offer. He takes it upon himself, and he overcomes it for us.

It is the perfection of God to be the one who stands for us in our greatest need. It is finished! Victory!

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