As promised here is my Good Friday sermon. Enjoy!
The Bad Ending
Every year, we come to this day, like clockwork, and it never gets any easier. Every year, we read the same story, a story told over and over again, a story that we rattle off without a moment’s thought more often than not. How many times do we casually mention that “Jesus died for our sins?” How many times to we throw out the notion that our savior was crucified, hung on a cross to die in the hot sun, and yet never really give any deeper thought to it? How many crosses are hung up in our houses? How many crucifixes find a resting place around your neck, coated in shiny, clean gold or silver, a spotless reminder of a brutal murder? How many hymns talk about the death of Christ, an innocent man, God come down to us, that we sing over and over again, and we feel good about it, and we believe in it, and yet…
When we come to read the actual story as told by the apostles…
When we come face to face with the brutality of the truth…
We are left speechless?
It’s a grim joke of the history of language that we call today Good Friday. For Christians, we question through bitter tears of sorrow, what is so good about this day? It was called “good” originally, because the word “good” used to carry a dimension of holiness, sacredness, and piety. However, I have a hard time calling something that horrifying as the story of the passion as holy, if I’m going to be completely honest with you. The thing with words is that they change over time. Today, we say something is good when it isn’t bad. We call something good when it’s pleasant, pleasing, nice, comfortable, or acceptable. That’s the surface good. Don’t we also call something good when it’s thought provoking? When it’s powerful? When it’s awe-inspiring?
I think, at that level, good works for Good Friday. It’s thought provoking, in that it calls into question the our own vicious and sinful nature, that we could have just as easily been in the crowd of people, screaming at the top of their lungs “CRUCIFY HIM!” It’s powerful, in that I can’t hardly read it in it’s entirety without choking up, and being filled with a sense of mourning, of anguish, and of intense suffering, as well as anger that it happened in this way, and grief that it had to come to this. It’s awe-inspiring, because that’s the only word I’m left with at the end of it.
Awe. Awe that Jesus knew that because the world was as broken and sinful as it was, this was how his ministry had to end. Awe that Jesus had the courage to continue on to the bitter end on Golgotha, despite many attempts on his life from the beginning. Awe that the love of Jesus was so deep, so profound, so utterly complete, he was willing to do this for the world because of our desperate need to witness the brutality of the world made tangible in our sins, and put upon Christ, the final sacrifice. Awe, and sadness.
I still don’t think it’s a very good Friday though.
When I was a kid, I would read “Choose your own Adventure” books. Do you remember those? I couldn’t get enough of them. If you don’t remember or don’t know, they were these books that you had to read a certain way. You would read one page, and at the bottom of the page, you would be given a choice as to how the story was to play out. Say you would come to the end of a hallway, and the path split: Go to page 10 if you want to go left, go to page 81 if you want to go right. Stuff like that. Your choices define the story, and how the end will turn out, at least in theory.
The thing about choose your own adventure stories, is that it’s kind of a lie. The story is still already written down. You may have the power to choose which page you go to, but the endings are already written down, no matter what you choose. The story’s already there, and unless you are the one who physically writes the story, your choices ultimately don’t matter. The story’s going to end, and it’s going to end in a predetermined, predestined way based on your choices.
If you read them like I did, you’d eventually try to go down all the paths, eventually reading all the endings. Inevitably, you would come to the conclusion that some endings are better than others; I would label them as “good” endings and “bad endings.” What I would classify as a good ending is that the character came to some kind of personal growth, or the villain would be vanquished in one way or another, or they found closure of some kind. The bad endings would essentially be that the hero would simply die, usually in a horrifically imaginative way. There was always a constant though, with bad endings:
There were always far more bad endings than the good endings.
I always thought that a strange phenomenon. There were always more ways things could turn ugly, go bad, and end in misery, violence and death. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I turned into the thoughtfully pragmatic yet somewhat paranoid person that I am today. The endings may have been different, but the bad ones always ended in death.
So when I read the passion narrative, I long for the ability to look down at the end of the page, and see some kind of a choose your own adventure choice: If Jesus goes to Jerusalem, go to page 45; if not, go to page 62. If Jesus goes to the Garden of Gethsemane, go to page 132, if he gets out of town immediately, go to page 53. I long for the selfish ability to somehow change things, to spare Jesus life, because I know that he is God, and I know that he did nothing wrong. I want to avoid the bad ending.
But that’s not how this story works. That’s not how the story is told. The story of Jesus’s passion is one that is supposed to be hard to look at, hard to listen to. It’s supposed to be this way, because we need to understand how Christ suffered for us. We need to feel the cool breeze in the garden, and witness the betrayal of Judas. We need to hear the sword slice through the slave’s ear, and we need to feel the cold, metal shackles that bound Christ’s hands. We need to feel the warmth of the fire, and hear Jesus denied by his friend, the person he trusted. We need to smell the rabid crowds as they abandoned the man they called a king just this past Sunday. We need to feel the cool water of the bowl that Pilate washed his hands in. We need to hear the stinging crack of the whip on Jesus’s back. We need to see the blood dripping from his forehead because of the thorns thrust upon it. We need to hear the cross slowly dragged through the streets, scraping across the dirt and stone.
We need to hear the nails pounded into the flesh of our king, breaking bone and wood. We need to hear the moans of the onlookers as the grim demonstration takes place. We need to hear the breath of God become gradually shallower as his lungs slowly suffocate while hanging there on a tree. We need to hear the clanking of coins on the ground as his clothes are divided up. We need to taste the sour wine, the bitterness stinging in our throats. We need to gaze upon our God broken, battered, humiliated, and dying, because this is what our world does to goodness, to honesty, to truth, to light. This is what happens to true love. We need to watch in horror at death, because this is all our fault. The wages of sin is death, even death on a cross.
I want to label this the bad ending. The church calls it the good ending. The truth is… we need to witness Christ Crucified because this was the only possible ending. This was the reason for which Christ came into the world, to save it. And I desperately want to jump ahead to two days later, to when we get to the good ending. But for tonight… we need to dwell on the reality of this ending. The finality of this ending is why we have gathered tonight.
We need to focus on the suffering of Christ, because we need to take into account the cost of grace. Grace has a cost. Love has a cost. The cost for love in this world was paid on the cross. We can’t escape that. We can’t skip ahead. Tonight we need to see Christ, and gaze into the depth of love that was paid for our benefit. Tonight, we witness the passion of our Lord, and say with bated breath:
O Love divine, what hast thou done!
The immortal God hath died for me!
The Father’s co-eternal Son
Bore all my sins upon the tree.
Th’immortal God for me hath died,
My lord, my love, is crucified!