The Sound of Silence

The events of Good Friday are well recorded in all four of the gospels, (see Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 19 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=JOhn%2019&version=NIV ) but it is still difficult to imagine exactly what it must have been like that day. The first crow of the rooster came as Jesus was still on trial before the Sanhedrin, hours of questioning and betrayal that would continue as the sun rose and Jesus as passed on up the chain of power to Pontius Pilate for more questioning. The sun was still climbing as Jesus was beaten and paraded before the crowds. The swell of voices shouting for His execution would have echoed through the public square–“Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” “We have no king but Caesar!” The same taunting would continue as Jesus walked the long Via Dolorosa and came to Golgotha.

By nine that morning, Jesus, bloodied, whipped, exhausted, humiliated, betrayed, and struggling for every breath, was nailed to the cross. He was fully exposed to the bright morning sun, the heat, and all the stares of the angry mob who came to revel in His anguish. He was unable to wipe the blood or salty sweat that trickled from His brow and ran into His eyes; unable to swat away flies who buzzed around His face, elbows, or cheeks. He was unable to block out the noise–curses, curious questions, His Mother’s agonized cries, and, in the lull, the ordinary noises of a crowded city preparing for a celebration.

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As noon approached, there would be the aromas of roasted lamb, market fish, baking bread. The crowds were quieter now, some may have left to seek out lunch or relief from the heat. But the heat and the sun disappeared as darkness rolled in. The angry energy gave way to fear and dread. The earlier shouting was now a an ominous rumbling among the remaining spectators. It was quiet enough to hear Jesus address His Mother and His disciple, John, and answer the thief on the neighboring cross, promising to see him in Paradise. It was possible to hear Jesus cry out later, His voice raspy and broken, but clearly in anguish, “Eloi, Elioi, lama sabachthani!?”

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Perhaps it even got so quiet, as it sometimes does in darkness, that you could hear the three men on the crosses struggling to take each breath–their tortured muscled straining to lift their weight enough to get air past their parched lips and tongues–in and out, as distended muscles demanded more oxygen than their bodies could provide. Did the members of the crowd listen to their own heartbeats in those moments?

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The unnatural darkness would have magnified the moment when Jesus, the Light of the World, breathed His last breath. And I imagine in the moment after that a silence so deafening, so complete, as the Word of God, the Creator of Life and Giver of Breath departed the Earth– as though all light and sound imploded at the loss. A split second only, but one so intensely silent that it must have taken the breath of every onlooker.

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And then, the sound returned full-force– the Earth quaking, the skies crashing, Creation gasping, the Temple Veil ripping, and terrified people rediscovering their ability to cry out. Noise–piercing, and violent and sudden, bringing with it a return of the angry energy of before. But the energy is different now. Subdued. Nervous. Desperate. Empty…

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Insult to Injury

Have you had “one of those” days lately? Nothing seems to go according to plan, and as the day goes on, it just seems to go from bad to worse. Something (or someone) comes along and adds insult to injury.

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Next week, the Church will be remembering what seemed like the last week in the ministry of Jesus Christ on earth. First comes “Palm” Sunday, commemorating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Shouts of “Hosanna!” and crowds of people cheering and waving palm branches–it was as though Jesus was a rock star or a prince of Israel. But just a few short days later, he was arrested, and convicted in a corrupt “trial” by the religious officials. The same crowds who cheered him on were screaming for his death, waving fists instead of palm branches. Pilate, to please the crowd, sentenced an innocent Messiah to one of the most brutal deaths imaginable– public, excruciating, humiliating, torturous crucifixion.

Jesus didn’t just suffer death. He was mocked, insulted, deserted by his friends, lied about and lied to by those he should have been able to trust, stripped naked and whipped, and branded as a criminal as his “fate.” In such a short time, to be so crushed and betrayed, brutalized and humiliated–none of my “bad days” can compare to what Jesus went through. His injuries were horrific; the insults and betrayals were worse. Yet He bore them all. He died in anguish; broken, bruised, beaten, and abandoned.

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And He could have chosen differently. He was perfectly innocent, perfectly authorized to defend Himself, capable of calling all the Hosts of Heaven to testify on His behalf, and perfectly powerful enough to come down off the cross at any time and send all of His accusers and tormenters to oblivion! That Friday wasn’t just “one of those” days. It was not something that took Him by surprise, nor was it something He “deserved.” He chose to go through that day…it was part of His perfect plan. That day. That death. That stunning humiliation and “defeat.”

But Holy Week doesn’t end in insult, injury, defeat, or despair–because God’s ways are perfect, Jesus turned everything to Glory! We will celebrate next Friday– “Good” Friday– because only God can triumph over death, and transform horror into hope, despair into deliverance, and shame into salvation.

Even on “one of those” days, we can find peace and practice praise as we pray to the one who took “one of those” days and turned it into the greatest miracle!

Jesus Died

On this Good Friday, it may seem redundant and unnecessary to point this out, but Jesus died. As the world around us faces a global pandemic, we are forced to face our own mortality. People are dying from COVID-19– people we know; people we know about; people we have never met. Their deaths are more than just statistics. They represent personal loss to all their friends, family, and people in their communities. Jesus’ death was more than just another execution– more than just another dead body to be disposed of before the start of the Sabbath.

Jesus. Died. Emmanuel– God with us– died. Ceased to live. Bled out and stopped breathing. His body was cold and lifeless, wrapped in burial cloths and laid in a tomb. This was not just like sleeping, or missing a heartbeat. He was gone. This is not normally cause for celebration– this was not a “Good” Friday.

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Jesus was not the only religious leader to die at the hands of enemies or rivals. The fact that his followers would commemorate or memorialize his death is not unusual or incomprehensible. But Jesus wasn’t just assassinated. He was condemned to die as a criminal. His death wasn’t just shocking or violent– it was humiliating, vile, excruciatingly painful, and involved public ridicule and anguish. There is nothing glamorous or brave or victorious about a cross. Christians who wear cross necklaces or t-shirts with blood-covered spikes might just as well wear handcuffs or ankle bracelets, or a picture of Jesus in an electric chair to show their devotion to a man who died as a criminal. Even though Pilate declared that he could find nothing wrong, he still allowed the conviction and death sentence to stand. Jesus didn’t win against his enemies– he lost, and he lost everything.

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In our rush to celebrate Easter, and the “rest of the story,” sometimes we lose sight of the cross. Jesus– creator of the universe, perfect in the eyes of the law, beloved by God the Father–died a cruel, humiliating, senseless death. Those who are dying today of COVID-19 are struggling for their next breath, exactly as Jesus did so long ago. Jesus did not just “give up,” he didn’t just go into a coma as a gesture, knowing he would wake up in three days anyway, so why struggle for that next breath, or push through that cramp in his arm or leg, or let the sweat and blood from his forehead run into his eyes, unable to wipe them away or keep the flies from landing around his nose or ears… Jesus died– He heaved and strove and agonized until his heart and lungs and muscles could do no more.

We talk about Jesus as the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Earlier in Israel’s history, God rescued the entire nation of Israel from their slavery to the Egyptians. He caused the angel of death to visit all of Egypt and kill all the first-born throughout the land. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Exodus+12&version=ESV)

All of Passover is a foreshadowing and visual representation of what was to happen at the crucifixion. Jesus became the sacrificial lamb, whose life would be given, and his blood be used, to save us from death and destruction, and allow us to be free. His body was broken, just like the bread of the Passover, to give us life.

Just as the lamb’s blood was placed on the sides of the door posts, Jesus’ blood stained the two ends of the cross where his hands were nailed. It stained the top and bottom of the cross where his head and feet bled, just as the lamb’s blood was placed on the top of the door frame and dripped to the ground beneath.

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Jesus became a metaphysical “doorway”, painted with blood, through which we can enter into a place of safety, forgiveness, and promise. But only by going through the door– only by trusting fully in the work of Jesus’ death (and resurrection)– that we can be saved.

It wasn’t merely the act of painting the lamb’s blood on a door that saved anyone– it involved going into the house, and obeying the word of the Lord. It was wrapped up in preparing for a journey in which they would leave behind their slavery and old way of life, and walk through uncharted territory, led by God’s spirit, to a land of promise they had never seen. No Egyptian, by merely smearing blood on the doorposts or wrestling with the angel of death, or wearing a mask or staying behind locked doors, could defeat the plague. No Israelite could ignore God’s instructions, and roam the streets, trusting the the blood on the doorposts would cover him three blocks away. Death–and life– came on God’s terms. Wearing a cross necklace and “looking the part” won’t substitute for true faith that results in repentance, obedience, and discipleship.

Jesus died. And he rose again! But he didn’t do it so we could sail through life on our own terms. He came to show us that God can take our slavery, our sin, our failure, our sickness and sorrow, even our death– even senseless, humiliating, forsaken death– and give victory, life, and peace to those who follow Him.

And THAT makes this a very Good Friday, indeed!

There my Burdened Soul Found Liberty

Prayer is often about burdens– the burden of need; the burden of sin and guilt; the burden of worry and distress. We bring our burdens to God, to the “throne of Grace;” we bring them “in Jesus’ Name,”, and we bring them to “Our Father.” But how often do we bring them to “Calvary?”

Not the victorious empty cross on the hillside with a beautiful sunset in the background, but the bloody, hot, dry and dreadful Calvary of the crucifixion? How often do we make the pilgrimage to that rocky outcropping with the smell of blood and sweat and death and agony? How often do we cry out to the one who was lifted up, struggling to breathe, pierced, wounded, broken and humiliated? When do we reach out to touch the scars and bruises he received in our place?

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It is at Calvary that we get the real story of Grace, Mercy, and forgiveness–the real cost of victory and peace. It is at Calvary that we see the full extent of God’s Holiness married to the full extent of His Love. Holiness demands justice; Love demands intimacy– together, they require sacrifice.

And it is at Calvary that we find, in the darkest and most hopeless of moments– God forsaking Himself, giving all He IS to bring justice and reconciliation for all we’ve done–that we trade our burdened souls, our worries, our despair for God’s embrace. Arms stretched so wide they are pulled from their sockets; blood spilled from head to toe; breathless and exposed in His passion for your soul and mine–that’s what God offers at Calvary.

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Why do I pray? I am ambushed and overwhelmed and enraptured by such a love. God had no need to suffer even a moment’s discomfort. He owed nothing to His rebellious creation; no mercy, no explanation, no hints as to His character (or ours). The creator of galaxies had no need to lift a finger to save one puny planet or any of its inhabitants from His own right to un-create them and blot out even their memory. Instead, He showed the greatest act of Love across all of space and time–to me!– At Calvary!

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The Empty Cross

The most common symbol of the Christian religion is the cross.  And, while many statues and necklaces and artistic renderings include a dying Christ figure , the kind you most often see is the empty cross.  On this day between the crucifixion and the resurrection, I want to consider the significance of the empty cross.

  • First, the empty cross reminds us that Christ lived.  In spite of those who continue to challenge the historical evidence, there was a man named Jesus of Nazareth.  He lived in a particular time and place, and he was tried and sentenced to death by crucifixion.  His existence caused the modern Western Calendar to be split into two distinctive parts based on the estimated year of his birth, and his life, death, and resurrection gave rise to a movement that has never been stamped out, equaled, or eclipsed.

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  • Second, it reminds us that Christ died.  He was fully human in his capacity to feel pain, rejection, betrayal, hunger, thirst, and grief.  Yet he also experienced joy, companionship, hope, love, compassion, laughter, and growth.  He didn’t just grow old or fade into obscurity.  He didn’t leave his life’s work unfinished, he didn’t compromise or change his message; he didn’t give up or start over with a different “crew.”  Though he never staged a coup, or built up an arsenal, or rose to a seat of power or influence, this homeless, itinerant, soft-spoken rabbi was seen as enough of a threat to the leaders of his time that he was framed, tried and convicted, and sentenced to death.
  • The empty cross also reminds us how he died.  Modern crosses often look imposing and even triumphant, as they tower over a mega church parking lot, or hang on a chain of elegant silver, or stand in rows of chiseled rock in a military cemetery.  “O death, where is your sting?  O grave, where is your victory?”  (I Cor. 15:55)  But the torture before and during the crucifixion were brutal– bones were not broken, but they were pulled out of joint and then forced to bear the full weight of a bloody, swollen and bruised body of ripped muscles and exposed flesh.  Heat caused the salty sweat mixed with blood to drip into his eyes, his open wounds, and around his nose and mouth, but he was unable to wipe any of it away.  Flies gathered; he couldn’t keep them from buzzing or biting.  Each breath was a torturous push and pull of the arms and body upon the nails holding him at an unnatural angle against a wooden bar that rubbed against his already raw back.  And all of this was public; entertainment for the masses of hecklers, and those who were rejoicing in his humiliation and failure.  There was nothing pretty or majestic about the cross on that day.

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  • The empty cross reminds us that Jesus was buried and put under Roman guard.  His emaciated, bloody, barely recognizable remains were wrapped up and prepared with spices.  Guards, whose lives depended on this body remaining in the tomb and undisturbed, were posted, and a huge boulder rolled into place to block entry to and exit from the tomb.  Jesus didn’t spontaneously climb down off the cross, or waltz out of an air-conditioned cave.
  • Finally, the empty cross reminds us that Jesus was the Christ–death could not stop him; the grave could not hold him.  His victory was complete.  He didn’t claw his way out of that tomb; he didn’t sneak out in the dead of night; he didn’t hobble into hiding for several weeks because he was only “mostly dead” of his torturous injuries.  He arose, victorious, recognizable to those who knew him best; healed and full of power.

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There are hundreds of reasons why we “cherish the Old Rugged Cross.”  And, though the cross stands empty, our reasons are not.  Hallelujah!  Tomorrow, hundreds of millions of Christians will be celebrating the empty tomb.  But for today, I want to celebrate the empty cross.

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