Good Friday, March 21, 2008
Matthew 27: 45-50
Socrates died a good death. He believed in the immortality of the soul and for him death was a breakthrough to a higher, purer life. Calmly and even cheerfully, he drank the cup of hemlock.[i]
died a courageous death. He was a Zealot revolutionary crucified like Jesus
by the Romans. He died with the words of the Shema on his lips: “
The Stoics’ martyrs died stoic deaths. Torn into pieces by wild animals in the arena, it was said that they drew unusually large crowds because people were fascinated by their complete lack of emotion at their own deaths. They died, one historian says, “without terror and without hope.”
The Christian martyr Perpetua died a dignified death. As she went to meet the wild beasts in the arena, she asked for a pin to fasten her hair, for she thought it was not seemly that a martyr should suffer with her hair disheveled, lest she should seem to be sad in the hour of her glory. She died with dignity.
Jesus’ death was different. The theologian Jurgen Moltmann says Jesus’ death was not a “fine death.” The Gospel of Mark describes his dying as “greatly distressed and troubled.” (Mark 14:33) Mark says he died with a loud incoherent cry. (Mark 15: 37) The Book of Hebrews says he died “with loud cries and tears.” (Hebrews 5:7)
Matthew and Mark both say he died shouting in a loud voice the words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Only in Luke and John, later Gospels, does Jesus’ death become more peaceful and heroic. The early Gospels tell us Jesus died in profound despair. He died feeling abandoned by God. Over time we have tried to soften the harshness of it, but, if we assume Mark and Matthew are close to the reality, as I do, Jesus’ dying was not pretty.
He dies godforsaken. The only begotten Child of God dies without God, without comfort, without meaning. He descends into hell.
Yet this strange religion of ours teaches this – that this most godforsaken of deaths is the precise moment in human history when we see God most clearly. How can this be? What does this mean?
Professor Moltmann tells us it must mean something about where God chooses to be in our world…that God chooses to be at the very places that, by all our human senses and assumptions, we assume are most godforsaken. It must mean, Professor Moltmann says, that God is in the places of our world where we most assume God isn’t.
Where do we assume in our world God most isn’t? The prisons? The places where people most abandon themselves to their raw appetites? The sex dens? The crack houses? In the midst of war and terror? Terrorist cells? Nursing homes that smell of death?
I want to ask Professor Moltmann: Are we to believe that these sorts of godforsaken places are where God is most present? That these are the places we are most likely to see God? It is hard to imagine.
Are we then to assume, Professor, that this is also true of our personal lives? …that God chooses to be at the very place within us where we feel we are most distant from God? The darkest shadows inside of us where we are most vile? The buried and repressed stuff? The jealousy and selfishness and out-of-control appetites? These godforsaken places within us that we try to deny to even our own consciousness? Can this godforsaken place in me be the place of resurrection and new life? Is that what you are saying, Professor Moltmann? It is hard to imagine.
about the godforsaken places within us as a nation? The racism. Who doesn’t
feel the despair about that these days?
When are we ever going to be able to talk with each other reasonably
about race in
doesn’t want to say God damn to this part of our national life together in
which we just keep crucifying each other over and over again? Can you really
mean, Professor Moltmann, to say that this godforsaken place within our
national soul is where we are most likely to find God in
The biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman tells us that if there is any truth at all to the biblical account of the crucifixion and death and resurrection of Jesus, it must mean this: that in the darkest of times, there is something afoot in the darkness that the prince of darkness himself knows nothing about.[ii] The invisible God is there in the darkness. This is why God is invisible because he plants himself in the places without a particle of light or hope.
But we make a mistake if we try to make too much sense of Good Friday. Today is a confusing day. Martin Luther was said to have sat at his desk in his study for hours on end studying the words – “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” Those who observed him said that he appeared to be as a corpse. Finally, he rose from his chair in exasperation and was overheard to say, “God forsaking God! No [one] can understand that.”
There are no neat and clean conclusions on Friday. No message that a preacher can wrap in a neat package and tie up with a pretty bow. Reason reaches it limits at the cross of Good Friday. This is a day that makes no sense.
Perhaps it is enough to say that there is no hell that Christ hasn’t already visited. So when we find ourselves in our own little hells, we should look for the footprints of Christ and follow them through the hell we are in.
The poet, Miriam Kessler writes:
My God, My God, he cried,
if he is quoted right . . .
Somehow that moan is comforting
to us, alone at night,
who tremble, daring dawn
that He, so wise and strong,
should weep and ask for aid.
Somehow, my lovely distant god,
it makes me less afraid.[iii]
Jesus did not die a good death. He did not die a courageous death. He did not die a stoic death. He did not die a dignified death. He died godforsaken. And somehow it makes us less afraid.
[i] This comparison of deaths, as well as the entire sermon, is strongly influenced by Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (Harper and Row, 1974), 145-159
[ii] Quoted by Rev. Bruce Allen Heggen at http://udel.edu/stu-org/lsa/pages/pastor/sermons/sermonGoodFriday2002.html.
[iii] From a newsletter of the United Methodist Mexican-American Ministries at http://www.ummam.org/newsletters/Apr2006.html.