Sermon on Good Friday 2016
Sermon at Lancaster Priory
The Revd Dr Liz Horwell
This week as we’ve walked alongside Jesus in his last days, I’ve suggested a number of factors that might have contributed to why Jesus died: the unpredictability of human life, human nature separating ‘them and us’, God’s love which offers itself out and waits for our response, and the whole mix of emotions felt by those in authority – jealousy, anger, envy, self-righteousness and determination to get their own way. As we come to the final hour of Jesus’ life, I’d like to pick up and weave another thread into the tapestry.
Sometimes, I think, we’re surprised in the gospel accounts to discover Jesus speaking harsh words and displaying real anger: slamming around overturning the money-lenders tables in the temple, for instance. But Jesus challenges oppression and injustice because he loves us so much. And perhaps he comes to earth to fight the ultimate battle between God, and the powers of good, and the Devil, and the forces of evil; a battle hinted at in the final chapters of Job where God describes all the ‘untamed forces’ at play in our world which even He has trouble managing.
In the gospels those ‘untamed forces’ come in the guise of the Devil and the synoptic gospels all record Jesus’ encounter with the Devil in the wilderness after his baptism.
Luke records that: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” And the next ‘opportune time’ comes when Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane for his Father to find another way.
And I wonder at what point the devil thinks he’s won? He obviously realises he’s failed in the skirmishes in the wilderness and Gethsemane but I suspect he thought he’d won when Jesus breathed his last words, which in Matthew and Mark are: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Today I’d like to take us to the point just beyond Jesus’ death and ask what Jesus might have experienced in that space between his last breath and his bursting to life again on Easter morning. Bear with me: it’s linked.
So often we’re unwilling to engage in any discussion about death, even that of Jesus. But those three days of silence always seem to me like a time when the entire universe stands still and holds its breath. One of my parishioners in Wanstead used to remark that no matter what the weather in the hours leading up to it, everything seems to go still at 3 o’clock on Good Friday afternoon. There’s a kind of nothingness to that time, a numbness, perhaps akin to the numbness of grieving.
And Jesus goes down (as we all must) what is a solitary path to the grave. He disappears into the shadowy world where the Ps 115 chillingly tells us (vs 17) that “even God’s praises are silenced and fellowship with Him is lost.” We obviously don’t know what happens there: and the gospels give no clue. Yet I think it’s worth pondering.
Each year I spend a week or so in silent guided prayer retreat at St Beuno’s, a Jesuit centre in the mountains of North Wales. For those not familiar with such retreats what happens is that we each have an individual Retreat Guide who chooses each day several short bible passages for us personally and we can go and sit wherever we like: in one of the chapels or in the grounds or just walking around – and try to imagine ourselves into those readings to sense what God is saying to us through them. Sometimes we’re given sections of Jesus’ life which are conspicuous by their absence in the gospels (his growing up years for instance) and we’re asked to imagine in prayer with God what that might have been like for him.
One year my retreat guide suggested I spend time with Jesus starting in Gethsemane and working through and beyond his death to the time before the resurrection. And that experience made me reflect very deeply on what Jesus himself might have experienced.
On this particular day then as I sat praying with Jesus in Gethsemane I asked myself: What was it that Jesus really didn’t want to go through: what did he fear most? And as I listened for a response to that question, it seemed to me that as well as the cross with all its physical pain, the human Jesus was terrified about what came after death; the black and empty void, the place where there is no fellowship with God, where God is absent.
This was what Jesus seemed to fear most: this isolation from God. All his earthly life, Jesus knew God’s presence with him, even in the wilderness. But the place he inhabited on Good Friday after his last breath, seemed entirely black and evil and Godless.
Hebrews 2:14 tells that the devil had power over death:
“since therefore the children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has power over death, that is the devil, and free those who, all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”
This passagewould give credence to the idea that when Jesus died, he inhabited that place of absence of God; and spent those days fighting again the ‘one who has power over death’.
As I spent time with God, with Jesus, in prayer, it seemed to me that only Jesus was able to conquer evil because he gave his whole life, not just his death, for love of us. Only Jesus, in his humanity and his purity, had the ability to overcome the blackness and isolation of death; and death couldn’t hold him because he radiated the pure light of selfless love deep within his being. Darkness could not hold him so he was able to burst back into the light – of resurrection. I’m not talking here about Jesus just slipping quietly out of his grave clothes and into the morning sunrise. I’m talking about him bursting forth from the darkness almost like a rocket, propelled at the speed of light into the light with all its colour and vibrancy and new life. Jesus conquered death, and in doing so he brought new freedom from evil to the whole of humankind: he won this battle!!
John Barton tells us that the way from Good Friday to Easter day must lie through the valley of the shadow. Being human like us, Jesus cannot, does not, dodge this universal human experience; Jesus had to experience that terrible isolation and aloneness. Resurrection cannot bypass death and burial.
But death could not hold him and as a consequence, death no longer has power over us either. We all suffer and die, true, but because Jesus has been there, his light guides people away from the blackness and towards the light of heaven so we never have to fight the darkness alone.
Though the deal is this: we’re called both to love and to stand out against the negative forces that we find in our own generation so that Jesus did not live and die in vain.