It's been awhile, but that's life I guess.
This sermon is a bit of a departure for me stylistically. Let me know what you think!
The world being as it is, it’s not hard to imagine dark times. We’re all traveling through our own shrouded worlds tonight – some of us who’ve lost jobs. Some of us have lost our houses. Some of us have lost our spouses, or our parents, or our children. Some of us are just overwhelmed by complications that we never knew would be a part of this life. Everywhere we turn we see bad news, collapsing companies, missile testing, earthquakes, famine, war. And everywhere we see talking heads spelling out our doom but giving us no hope, no answers, only more questions. Our future is uncertain, our categories are jumbled, our leaders seemingly powerless. It is a dark night indeed.
When Jesus gathered his disciples together for what he knew would be their last Passover, it was a dark night. Though they shared cup and loaf, jokes and familiar stories, prayers and songs, I imagine that Jesus looked deep into the shadows of that room and saw what had already come to pass and that the dark night that was stretching out before him.
When Jesus was hanging from that bloody tree and his disciples had scattered to the four winds, when the only cup that was offered him was vinegar, when the only laughs shared were mocking daggers piercing his already tender flesh, I imagine that he looked deep into the shadows of the men’s souls who surrounded him and saw again the dark night that he knew not the end of.
It is said that when people are on the edge of death that their lives flash before their eyes, that their mind replays for them the seemingly significant and insignificant events that have made up their lives, a sensory overload before all senses cease. It is not hard for me to believe that while on the cross, Jesus’ life flashed before his eyes – the crowds begging for food, the demon possessed, the sleepless nights, the shared meals, the fights in temples, the tender moments when children came forward to him in love.
It is not hard for us to flash backward through the stories of the life of Jesus, remembering his joys and sorrows, his beginnings at this terrible end. So throw back your minds and imagination with me to one of those first stories and how it shaped our Jesus. Come with me to the desert.
He had just been baptized by his cousin John, and a voice from heaven had proclaimed his identity to the whole world “This is my son, the beloved. In him I am well pleased!” In his joy and fear he had done what God commanded and then, inexplicably was driven into the desert. He only knew that his Father desired him to be there and so he wandered. Day and night through parched lands, no food, little water and silent suffering. Interminable silence only broken by the gusts of harsh winds and the scuttling of unclean creatures. 40 days in silence, in hunger, he waited.
And then a stranger appeared. With smooth words and scriptures the stranger tempted him. “If you are the Son of God, change stones into bread.” Be a Messiah of Bread. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself off of the temple mount.” Be a Messiah of Signs and Wonders. “If you are a Son of God, bow to me and receive the kingdoms of the world.” Be a Messiah of Military Power and Conquest. Each time he denied the stranger and his temptations. Each time he denied the temptation to be another kind of Messiah. And so the stranger left him. Temporarily.
Perhaps this is the image, the scene that our dying Lord saw before his eyes as he hung, beaten and dejected upon that tortuous cross. Certainly the scene before him seemed very similar.
When we imagine this story, we tend to see our Lord on a cross on a hill somewhere, with murderous crowds circling beneath him like beetles. But truly, to the world, his death was no more spectacularly different than the death of thousands of criminals before him. The bored and indifferent, and perversely obsessed with death swirled around and past his torture, stopping to gape and gab and read the crimes for which he was punished.
This was another desert for Jesus. He was called onto the cross after the joy of entering Jerusalem. He thirsted for water but there was none, he longed for release but time dragged and dragged and dragged. And the only sounds that he heard were the murmurings of the soldiers as they diced for his clothing and the shrieks of pain from those who suffered and died next to him. And then after time immeasurable, the stranger appeared again.
But this time, the stranger was not alone. The stranger stood amongst the crowd that had just days before cheered Jesus’ entrance, who now stood at his feet and mocked him. He commiserated with the priests, teachers, lawyers and elders who saw him condemned, goading them in their jibes towards Jesus. He perched like a vulture on the arm beam of the crosses of the thieves and degraded Jesus alongside them. And tempted him three more times.
Perhaps this seems strange. “Why” you ask “would the stranger waste his time with any more temptations?” “What left is there to offer?”
Jesus was a man and I’m sure like most men, like most humans, the world had much to offer him with. Money, sex, power. But the only real temptations for him centered around who he was, about what he was going to do, about the role he had in the future of all things. Jesus, the Messiah. We know that title. Of course – Messiah! The one who died for us, we say. Simple. What is there to tempt? But we come after the climax and shocking reveal. We know Messiah in hindsight whereas Jesus and all those around him struggled in the midst of it. Messiah? What kind?
These were Jesus’ temptations. Be a messiah of Bread, the stranger offered. A Messiah who feeds us would never end up on a cross. Be a messiah of wonders, the stranger cajoled. A Messiah who calls upon angels would never die a traitor’s death. Be a messiah of armies and conquest, the stranger begged. A Messiah with an army would never be given over to his enemies to die by suffocation. Avoid the Cross….Avoid the Cross.
And so they are his temptations again.
Hear again the word of the scriptures: Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’ These passers-by mock him. If you are the Son of God, come down of the cross and show us how mighty you are! Destroy the temple? You and what army? If you are the Messiah…come down off the Cross.
Hear the scriptures again: In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, “I am God’s Son.” ’ The priests challenge him. “We know” they say “who the Son of God is. The Son of God will be the King of Israel. The Son of God will always have the protection of God. You the Son of God? You, the dying criminal? You, the abandoned one? Some King! Some Son! If you are the Messiah….come down off the Cross.”
Hear the scriptures again: The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way. Even the thieves, the men who were dying alongside Jesus mocked him. “Son of God? Since when does the Son of any god keep company like us? Son of God? On a Cross? Condemned and close to death? If you are the Son of God…If you are the Messiah….come down off the cross!”
Be a messiah of might by bringing down the temple. Be a messiah who is king . Be a messiah who is pure and only walks with the righteous. Be a messiah…just come down off the cross! Come down off the cross!
All the stranger ever wanted was for Jesus to avoid the cross. To avoid being the Messiah who dies so that we may live. And once Jesus was on the cross, all the stranger wanted was for him to come down. For Jesus to live so that we would die.
Whenever we tell this story to each other, on nights like these, we like to pretend that we are the righteous few who would not have crucified Jesus. We are not in the crowd that mocks, or the priests who shame or the thieves who degrade. We are certainly not the stranger – come down…come down.
But tonight, of all nights, I think that the time has come to admit something. Tonight. Of all nights, before we once again enact that last supper, it is time to confess. We were the crowd who said “Let his blood be upon us and our children!” We were the priests who mocked him “King of Israel? Here’s your crown!” We were the thieves, unrepentent in our sin even unto death: “You are the Son of God?”
Come down off the cross. Come Down Off The Cross. COME DOWN OFF THE CROSS!
We are desperate, just as the stranger was, just as the mocking crowds were, for Jesus to be a different messiah. We can stomach the savior who feeds us. We can bear the savior who entertains us. We can follow the messiah in all of his might. But we cannot, will not have a messiah who saves us. A messiah who must die to do so. And why?
Because we cannot bear the guilt. We cannot bear the shame. And we cannot bear the truth that it is what we so desperately need.
Letting Jesus be the Messiah who suffers, letting Jesus be the Messiah who dies, letting Jesus be lowest and despised is painful. The pain is that of being stretched, of having one hand tied to the tree which is the cross and the other tied to the first tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If Jesus does not come down from the cross, we are pulled between these trees, constantly facing our sin, knowing that we chose to eat of the fruit and so Jesus chose to die for our sakes. Because he will not come down, we are ripped apart. We, like the veil of the temple, have been torn asunder.
He would not avoid it. He would not come down. And he died. And so did any of our pretensions that we could save ourselves.
This is a dark night. And perhaps that is on purpose. The dark invades us and finds its own echoes in our minds, our hearts, our histories. The dark calls to dark and we are confronted with our own sin, our own need for grace, our own culpability between the trees.
Dawn will come. The dark will not last forever. But now it is dark.