Good Friday, Year B, 2015 – Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10:16-25; John 18:1-19:42
O King of grief! (a title strange yet true,
To thee of all Kings only due)
O King of wounds! How shall I grieve for Thee,
Who in all grief preventest me?
George Herbert, sweetest of poets, of all poets comes closest to the bitter and sweet heart of this day.
For it is a day, in the first place, of such sadness. Jesus, whom we love, who fills our lives with gladness, now strung up upon a cruel cross. Jesus betrayed by those who call him friend; by his own people rejected…mocked even by the passers-by; left there to die.
He had no form or majesty…that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. (Isa 53:2-3)
Jesus, the one righteous man, suffering the consequences of all that is not righteous in this world; Jesus, the one true man, suffering the consequences of all that is not true.
The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. This is grief: to see with utter clarity all that is wrong in the world and in our hearts, and to see written on Christ’s body its cost.
O King of grief!
John is already pointing to this day at the Gospel’s beginning, and Isaiah knew it long ago.
In the beginning, John said; in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.
In him was life, and the life was the light of humankind. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him…and the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own did not receive him.
From the beginning of the Gospel there is a gap.
Between God’s love in Christ Jesus and our response falls the Shadow.
All we like sheep have gone astray: that is Isaiah in the 6th century BC, asking “Why?” Why Israel’s terrible exile? Why the loss of the promised land? Why this suffering of God’s people by the waters of Babylon? Isaiah’s answer in the chapters which we read today is nuanced and rich—prophetic—pointing to a mystery that begins in God’s love for Israel and encompasses this day also.
One thing is clear: we have gone astray. The exile of Israel to which the whole book of Isaiah speaks for warning or for consolation is a kind of historical unfolding of the repeated choice that the people of God make to walk not with God but apart.
We have all turned to our own way.
What follows, for the people of God now and then; for each one of us, is a kind of disintegration. In him was life…and so what is left, when you turn away from him?
Judas acts out this disintegration in the Gospels. This is what his betrayal is, the distillation of all the acts of turning away in Israel’s life and in each of our lives, now brought to a point in a moment. In John, Judas goes out into the night to betray Jesus; in Matthew after he has handed Jesus over, he kills himself. The two Gospels mean the same thing. What is left, when you turn away from the one in whom is life? And the life was the light of the world. Judas walks in the independence of his mind, thinking he knows how to choose what is good, for him at any rate, apart from and in contradistinction to the word of God in Christ Jesus; Judas walks in the independence of his mind into the dark.
And Judas does not stand alone. It is important to remember this, when we come to this day. We have all turned to our own way. We have all gone, we do all go, now as then, out into the night.
Good Friday brings very close the problem of sin, the abandonment of God; the choice that is independent of the Word.
O King of grief! Who loves and chooses a people who turn away, a people who reap therefore whirlwind and the night.
This is the sorrow of this day. Jesus suffers for love of us, and for the failure of our love. He comes, this Word made flesh, into the darkness; to a people turned away he offers with a startling innocence himself as light. Come back to me, he says, as God has said to his people time and again; let me take you home. The end is known in the beginning: he came to his own, and his own did not receive him. The cross of Christ is our turning away written on the flesh of God.
Who would know sin, George Herbert also says, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains that all his hair,
His skin, his garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through every vein.
God suffers our abandonment of God: see in his hands, his feet, his side, its cost.
O King of wounds!
O King of wounds, how shall I grieve for Thee,
Who in all grief preventest me?
Christ goes before, even in all grief. Our wounds, and he suffers them; our sin his pain; our grief, the inconsolable desolation of the loss of God; this is his, today.
The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all: this too Isaiah knew.
Christ preventest us, goes before us in all grief. That is the ancient meaning of “prevent.”
But it has another meaning too, the meaning we all know. O King of wounds, who in all grief preventest me: here is the second part of what is happening on this day, the part that is joy. Here on this cross, precisely here where our sorrow is strongest, where the real cost of our sin, the betrayal and abandonment of the God we love, is too much to bear; here on this cross Christ comes to meet us again.
We have turned away; we have in fact done our worst; the love of God and the truth of God and the faithfulness of God nailed here before us in Jesus our Lord to the cross. And here before us our Lord Jesus reaches out. To us he reaches out on the cross, to this world into which and for which he came, light in our darkness. To the world that did not know him he reaches out still, and finally, and for all time.
God’s Word is finally revealed in these arms stretched out to draw the wandering world in. This too is what John saw:
And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.
In the cross, the victory of God; a world reconciled. In all grief thou preventest me: Christ goes before us in the grief that is properly ours, and so prevents it. In the suffering of God-forsakenness; in the pain that hunts his cruel food through every vein, Christ is there for us, with us, before us.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
Crushed for our iniquities;
Upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
And by his bruises we are healed.
On the cross God’s love too made flesh; God’s love in Christ Jesus reaching out through and beyond our God-abandonment, to bring us in. By his bruises we are healed.
Here on the cross of Christ It is finished.
And so this day is also beautiful. It is the beginning of the dawn.
This too Isaiah knew, and John.
Out of his anguish he shall see light.
Out of his anguish we shall see light.
And the light shines in the darkness, now and always, and the darkness did not overcome it. This too is the meaning of the cross. So The Agony becomes on this day a song—Christ’s song of love; our song of wonder; the rainbow song. Joy seen through tears; promise of a world that can turn again to God, that can come home.
This is how George Herbert sings it:
Who knows not love, let him assay
And taste that juice which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine
Which my God feels as blood, but I as wine.