Readings for Year A:
Psalm 22, BCP
Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
Theme for Lenten preaching: Isaiah 41:10
This week, I was teaching my students about the 1960s. One of the things I shared with them was the Joni Mitchell song about Woodstock. You know that one, right? Here’s how the song’s chorus goes:
“We are stardust, we are golden, we are caught in the devil’s bargain, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”
Countless writers and musicians have talked about our longing to get back to that garden in the beginning, where we were innocent.
Our story today in the gospel of John begins in a garden. And the mention of that garden is meant to remind us of the garden that Joni sang about. The author of the gospel of John is writing a new version of the creation story.
In the beginning, God placed us in a garden, but eventually, we forgot who we were-- and whose we were. All we had to do was trust in God, who even walked with us each day in the cool of the evening. God gave us freedom, because love can only be given in freedom, and God loved us and all of creation.
Once, we walked in a garden with God, and it wasn’t enough for us. We thought God was trying to box us in, and we responded with suspicion, which led to rebellion. Distrust leads us to be cut off from the love that offers itself to us freely, because we are afraid it will take something from us. It leads to wanting to hurt others-- and sometimes even those who are close to us—before they hurt us.
We disobeyed, and in our freedom, we turned from confidence to fear and, and then shame- shamed for our naked fear, when we had never been given any reason to doubt.
And on that day, God came looking for us. But we hid ourselves- even though we had begun hiding the second we listened to that intruder in the dust cajole us into uncertainty and suspicion. And later, we told ourselves that God had put us out of the garden, when in truth we had turned our backs on home. And we continued to hide from God throughout the centuries, unable to return to full obedience, unable to empty ourselves of all our stubbornness and pride.
At the beginning of our gospel for Good Friday, the Word of God, Jesus of Nazareth, is in a garden too. But Jesus, the bridge between humanity and God, is not hiding. This time, the forces of the world come looking for a rebel and a blasphemer. They are looking for someone who they believe has committed the sins of Adam: rebellion, and claiming to be God. The sins we’ve all been committing throughout time.
Yet Jesus, who is a new Adam, is not hiding from anyone. Instead, he boldly walks out to those looking to seize him. Instead of rebellion, Jesus acts out of perfect obedience, love, and unity with God. Instead of Adam choosing sin in opposition to love, this new Adam, Jesus of Nazareth, chooses to act in love in opposition to sin.
Once again, God knows his love will be met with rejection. This Adam is truly God’s son. Once again, we find the one who wants to give us everything, and we react with doubt, rejection, and fear. Jesus plainly tells us who he is, using the same name that came to Moses out of the burning bush. Those who come to that garden are seeking a rebel; but instead they find God in the shape of Jesus. Yet we still refuse to recognize God as God. Instead WE rebel. WE want to be in charge. Jesus turns our first story of a garden on its head. Jesus will go willingly from that garden, into the place where we all face trials, and place himself in the hands of evil so that he may show that the love of God always wins out over fear and sin.
I am grateful that Pastor Rebecca said the words "the people" instead of "the Jews" in the reading of the gospel passage today, because this passage in particular has been used throughout the centuries to justify anti-Semitism, and that is completely wrong. WE are the ones-- all of us-- who put Jesus on the cross. We are there as Jesus is being questioned and condemned, and we are there as Jesus is executed although not guilty of any crime.
We are Adam and Eve, and we are also the disciples, we are the chief priests and the crowd, and we are Pilate and the soldiers. Each one of those groups represents something about us.
WE are Adam and Eve: We are the ones who run away and hide from the ones we love, and then wonder why we are alone. We are the ones who want God to be powerful enough to grant our wishes, yet weak enough to do our bidding.
WE are the disciples: We are the ones who ask to sit at the place of honor and but shun the shame of Calvary.
WE are Judas: We reject those we’ve pledged to love, betraying them when they won’t do what WE want.
WE are the chief priests and Pharisees: We are the ones for whom a thousand signs are never enough proof.
WE are Pilate: We are the ones who choose inaction in the face of wrong.
WE are the crowd: We are the ones who blindly follow our leaders, even to cheering the slaughter of innocents.
WE are the soldiers: We are the ones who take part in a thousand cruelties, both small and enormous, in the names of doing our jobs.
And all these sins add up. These sins are what put Jesus on the cross.
That’s why these stories mean something to us. But these stories also contain a challenge- to be like Jesus. The challenge is to give up the way of fear. And Jesus’s way to the cross of Good Friday as we see it in the gospel of John today shows us not the way to die, but the way to live.
We want to believe that terrible events like crucifixion and injustice are the work of people who are evil. Yet the line between good and evil doesn’t run between us, it runs within us. It starts with how we respond to fear. So many of the people involved in the Good Friday drama are filled with fear born out of mistrust. And this applies to us as well. We have created a society where we have elevated distrust to an art form, after all. When we lash out at those we love, when we destroy relationships out of dread that we could get hurt, we choose the way of anxiety rather than the way of trust.
And that is the mistake that was made in the garden of Eden, and in the garden in the Kidron valley where Jesus steps forward to meet those who accuse him out of fear and distrust.
The Gospel of John shows us Jesus as the man “who was despised and rejected by others,” as our Old Testament reading for today in Isaiah 52 described, the man “who was wounded for our transgressions, “ and who “by a perversion of justice… was taken away.” But John also shows that Jesus was fearless, and Jesus calls us to be fearless too. As the Son of God, Jesus has, and had, perfect freedom, yet he used that freedom to be nailed on the cross, staring sin and evil in the face.
On the cross, Jesus loved us despite our rejection and defeated our fears, fears that lead us to want to hurt even those who love us. By his path to the cross he showed us how to live a better way—a way of loving us and also, just as importantly, the way for us to overcome our fears and doubts, trusting in God to the very end.
On the cross, Jesus shows us that God is always with us, upholding us when we are afraid. Jesus loves us enough to be falsely accused and condemned, to suffer and to die, and to show us that the love of God breaks even the power of sin. The symbol of torture and shame is transformed into a call to trust.
Jesus is united with us in suffering through his very great love for even those who have demanded his death. Yet death is not the final answer today. Death cannot stop true love. It can only delay it for a while.
On the way to the cross, and on the cross itself, Jesus shows us the way of Isaiah 41:10 —which we have pondered during these 40 days of Lent. You have cards with this verse on them in your service leaflet. Please take them out and look at them. Jesus shows us what happens when we take hold of these words:
“Do not fear, for I am with you,
do not be afraid, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, and I will help you,
I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.”
“Do not be afraid, for I am your God.” God loves us enough to be ours even when we are not willing to submit to belonging to God.
“Do not fear, for I am with you,” God whispers to his beloved Son as he suffocates on the cross through our own fault. Our sin—our doubt, our disbelief, our suspicion, our fear—has put Jesus on that cross. Yet God is there with Jesus, bending down as human freedom plays itself out, even to the point of putting Jesus on a cross to suffer and die.
“Do not fear, for I am with you,” Jesus whispers to us even as we seize him and condemn him to suffer for our own fear and sinfulness.
Like our brethren the Jews, we Christians are a remembering people. We remember each time we worship, each time we read scripture, and we remember each time we share communion together, remembering this moment, when Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. That’s why our liturgy has us sing, “We remember his death, we proclaim his resurrection, we await his coming in glory.” Today, on Good Friday, we remember Jesus’s death. Death for the sake of us all. And we await his coming in glory.
With a quiet “it is finished,” the old creation, which we had misshaped through sin and fear in that first garden, is ended.
But what happens on the cross is not just an ending, but also a beginning. There is a new creation that is begun on that cross, a new world for all of us who look upon it. We are born anew through what happens on that cross.
Our story begins in a garden, and our story ends in a garden, or so we think. The last image we see this Good Friday is another garden, redolent with the scent of jasmine, and hyssop, and more faintly, frankincense and myrrh. Jesus’s body is put into another garden—a garden with a tomb, but from this tomb, death is going to be defeated. Unless a seed falls to the earth and dies, it bears no fruit. The power of sin is going to be, and is, vanquished. Death will itself be, and is, destroyed.
Creation is waiting to burst forth anew.
Creation is waiting to burst forth anew.