Powers and Principalities
Fri, Mar 30, 2018

God's Son

I am humbled to be with you this evening for this service on Good Friday and I am especially grateful as this is the first opportunity I have had to visit the Bath Church. It was a great blessing to be the preacher for this joint service several years ago on my first Good Friday in Augusta. To be invited once is often just a kindness toward, or an initiation ritual for, the newest pastor in town. But to be invited back to preach again; this is an honor.

Today is Good Friday. I suspect that if you are here for this service you have heard the story before of how we arrived at this day. Each of the Gospel writers shares the events of the final week of Jesus’ life slightly differently. And today we read from the Gospel of Mark. A full one third of Mark’s Gospel is devoted to Jesus week in Jerusalem. He enters the holy city in chapter 11, but seems to spend Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights outside the city in the town of Bethany. Over the course of this week Jesus has disrupted the sacrificial system in the temple and then proceeded to teach within the temple grounds. One night a woman interrupts Jesus’ dinner in Bethany to anoint him for death with costly perfume. On Thursday, his first night spent Jerusalem; Jesus shares a Passover meal with his disciples before going to pray in Gethsemane. There he is betrayed, arrested and abandoned. Convicted in a sham of a trial, he is beaten and taken to Golgotha. There they crucify him, between two bandits, with a sign above his head which reads “King of the Jews.” We join the story here in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 15, verses 33-41. Let us hear this Word of God.

33 When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” 36 And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

40 There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 41 These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

“Dear Lord, baby Jesus.” That is how fictional NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby in the movie Talladega Nights addresses God as he says grace over a meal of “Dominos, KFC and the always delicious Taco Bell.” As Ricky goes on and on about baby Jesus, his wife interrupts to remind him that Jesus wasn’t just a baby. He did grow up. Ricky responds that he likes the Christmas Jesus best and he is the one saying grace. When it is her turn to pray, she can pray to teenaged Jesus or bearded Jesus or whatever other Jesus she wants. Ricky’s best friend chimes in that he likes to think of Jesus as showing up at a party in a tuxedo t-shirt indicating he wants to be formal, but he also likes to have fun. One of Ricky’s sons says that he likes to think of Jesus as a ninja fighting off samurai warriors. Things are getting out of hand, so Ricky Bobby returns to his prayer, “Dear 8 pound, 6 ounce newborn infant Jesus …”

Now, that might seem like an odd way to begin a sermon on Good Friday. After all, Good Friday is not a day for jokes and jest. It is a solemn affair. It is time to contemplate the death of our Lord on the cross. And yet, I think Ricky Bobby’s prayer raises important questions for us, questions that can only be answered on a day such as today.

For unlike the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke, the Gospel of Mark does not trot out the baby book with photos of the infant or the toddler Jesus. No shepherds or stars or magi in Mark. Instead, Mark opens with: “This is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Yes, from the very beginning we know who Jesus is. He is the Son of God. This is a royal title. In Mark’s day it would have been applied to the Roman emperor, not a Jewish peasant. It carries weight and authority. Yes, from the beginning we know who Jesus is.

However, as we read through this Gospel we notice the title is surprisingly absent. In fact, since that first verse the only ones to use the title “Son of God” are unclean spirits and demons. When they do, Jesus sternly orders them to be quiet. This silencing of the unclean spirits and the lack of use of “Son of God” by the disciples or anyone else has even led some scholars to suggest that Jesus intentionally seeks to hide his true identity. He is the Messiah, but that must remain a secret until the appropriate time.

Well, my friends the time has come. The entire Gospel of Mark has led to this day, to this moment. Darkness covered the land from noon until 3 PM, recalling the moments when God first spoke a creative word. Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The bystanders think he is calling for Elijah and try to give him some sour wine in hopes he can hang on long enough for them to see a miracle. Yes, the climax for the story, the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, the moment of our redemption is upon us. Surely someone will speak and finally reveal that this is God’s Son.

It should be the disciples, right? They have followed Jesus for three years. They watched Jesus heal and perform miracles. They listened to him teach. Peter, James, and John even saw him transfigured in glory. Surely they will raise their voice. This is God’s Son.

But they are silent. In fact they are not even mentioned in these verses. They are completely absent. Those who had pledged to follow Jesus to the end have all fled. Are they risk adverse, overcome by fear, or worried about their own self-preservation? Perhaps all of the above. However, in the moment of crisis, the moment of decision, the moment of Jesus’ coronation as king, the disciples are not there.

In her wonderful, and yet painful, book Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, Duke Divinity School Professor Kate Bowler shares the story of the day she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. The nurse calls her with the test results and says she needs to come to the hospital right away. She calls her husband, then her parents and then she calls her sisters who dutifully sit when asked as she tells them the news. Then she writes:

My next call finds my friend Katherine in the bleachers of a Vanderbilt football game, and she will immediately get into the car, a state away, screaming into the windshield. When I wake up from surgery she will be there, and my foggy brain will not recall that I never asked her to come. She knew I needed her. She will sleep in the hospital chair beside me, pretending it is comfortable, and using her no-nonsense voice with the nurse who won’t bring me ice chips.
Yes, there are moments when we just need someone there who knows who we really are and can speak for us when we do not have the words ourselves.

But in this critical moment, the disciples are not there. In fact, the disciples’ collective absence helps to focus the passion story. In the opening episode of chapter 15, a large crowd cries for Pilate to crucify Jesus. The narrative then narrows as despite the soldiers’ torture, one remains to help: a passerby named Simon compelled to carry the cross. Finally, on the cross, two insurgents hang beside him and the crowd offers nothing but mockery. The women stand at a distance. The disciples are absent. Jesus’ own cry expresses his abandonment. The voice that called him “beloved” at his baptism now appears silent. For us and for our salvation, God came into the world as Jesus Christ. And thus we find that only Jesus himself can truly be “there” on the cross.

However, as Jesus breathes his last, God speaks once more. God speaks not in words heard from the heavens, but with an act in the temple. At the moment of Jesus’ death, the curtain in the temple is schizo, torn in two. Mark used the word schizo before to describe the heavens being torn apart at Jesus’ baptism as God comes down. Jesus’ death complete, no longer hidden behind the shroud, God speaks most clearly as God acts on our behalf. God tears open the barrier between the holy and the mundane. God seeks to meet us face to face. Yes, God is there.

Will someone finally notice? Seeing how Jesus takes his last breath we hear the words for which we have longed, “Surely this man was God’s Son.” But they are found on the lips of a centurion. He represents the power structure that has dealt with the threat Jesus posed. He is a member of the enemy. Uttered as a representative of that power, the centurion’s words might declare a final victory over an insurgent who threatened the peace. Professor Sharyn Dowd suggests, “On the level of the story it is a sarcastic comment on the lips of a jaded professional executioner who has just watched one more Jewish peasant die calling on his God.” The centurion’s voice is a final blasphemy. He dismisses the one who died so quickly as “God’s Son” when everyone knew the only son of God was the Emperor in Rome. But unbeknownst to the centurion, his confession is ironically true.

My friends, no one who was “there” truly comprehended the significance of the moment. The disciples are absent. The bystanders misunderstand. Even as God breaks through with the silent tearing of the cloth in the temple, a centurion dismisses one more Son of God who has been handled with ease. Perhaps we can begin to understand why Ricky Bobby likes the Christmas baby Jesus better. That’s a feel good story. This is just painful.

We do not understand how this one on the cross can be the Son of God. How this one can be the Jesus who saves us. How this one can be the Lord of heaven and earth to whom we pray. We do not have answers on a day like today. As retired United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon puts it:

Today is a day for simply sitting here and beholding our salvation on the cross. We are to adore, to behold, to gaze upon God’s victory, experiencing it rather than understanding it. …

We wanted him to do something good for us, something great, and he just hangs there, impotent, mocked by the world, naked, exposed, now crying out in agony to the God who was supposed to save, saving by not saving, delivering by not delivering, embracing through forsaking, coming close by being so very different, true power in complete weakness.

My friends, there is no nice and neat ending to a sermon on Good Friday. There is no quick quip to counter the world’s desire for baby Jesus and distain for the crucified Christ. The Son of God crucified, dead, and buried. Our sin put him there. His love kept him there.

And so we wait. There is nothing more that we can do for we cannot save ourselves.

But as those who have known from the beginning that this story is “the Gospel, the good news, of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” we wait with hope.