16 March 2008

Palm/Passion Sunday Sermon

Below is the sermon from this morning.  I had to sit with this sermon for several days, it just did not want to blossom until late yesterday and early this morning.  The VOR noted that near the end I was channeling my southern preacher voice...

Perhaps it speaks to you.

Half Truths…
The Sunday of the Passion or Palm Sunday 16.March.2008
Psalm 22 & Matthew 27:45-56
text: “Then Jesus cried again…” (Mt. 27:50)
by The Rev’d G. Travis Norvell

This morning we continue our journey examining the temptations of Jesus. This morning we face Jesus’ most severe temptations: not to see the presence of God in the midst of such destruction, with confidence I can say this is our greatest temptation too.

Let us pray: Living God, we believe but help our unbelief. O God, we hear but help us to listen. O God, we know but help our understanding. O God we can remember but help our comprehension. In the precious name of your Son Jesus we ask these things. Amen.

From noon until three o’clock in the afternoon Jesus hung on a wooden cross between two social bandits. After three hours of excruciating pain, after three hours of public humiliation, after three hours of public shame Jesus finally said something, as Eugene Peterson translates he groaned out of the depths crying loudly: Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? He cried out in his native tongue of Aramaic the first line of Psalm 22: “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Surprisingly no one got his reference, all who were there heard Eli and thought Elijah not God. So they wanted to stick around in the darkness to see if Elijah would swoop down from heaven and return.

The Bible is a book rich with irony. Take for instance the scene before us. The entire earth is dark at noon, daily orientation of normalcy is gone, and yet some people are willing to stick around to watch a crucifixion because they think Jesus said Elijah. They think Elijah is about to return. Recall in 2 Kings Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, only one of two figures in the Bible who do not die, the other being Enoch. A tradition concerning Elijah developed stating he would appear to usher in the Messiah. The great irony is that the dudes who are waiting for Elijah to appear and introduce them to the Messiah when all the while the Messiah is hanging above them about to die. They did not need Elijah all they had to do was lift their heads.

But they do not get it.

Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.

We could stop here and have a perfectly nice ending to the story and to the sermon. We could live with mistaking Elijah for Eli. We could live with Jesus’ deep questioning of God: why hast thou forsaken me. We could live with a half truth. But you and I cannot live with a half truth when a full, rich and robust gospel is there for the taking. We know too well ourselves along with those who never cross the threshold of a church that half truth answers simply will not cut it anymore. We cannot claim Christ, we cannot preach Christ and Christ crucified based on a half truth. We are forced, therefore, to take up the hat of a prosecuting attorney who is going to fight, claw, push, shove and dig till we get to the bottom of this story, till we get a full truth.

My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me? These are the last words of Jesus’ earthly life. For three hours he hung in darkness what in the world was he thinking? What questions did he have? How strong was the temptation to jump down off the cross? Why the silence for so long? After three hours he reaches down and with all his might groans: My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me? He did not have the energy to finish the Psalm, but he did not need to.

My God, my God,
why have You abandoned me;
why so far from delivering me
and from my anguished roaring?
My God,
I cry by day—You answer not;
by night, and have no respite. (Tanak translation)

You and I, more or less, Jesus do not express such a question unless we are fully committed to receiving a question. Sure people do gibly ask where is God when a tragedy occurs, that is a normal question that does not require any commitment from the one asking the question, but to ask God why have you abandoned me, well that is an altogether other territory. To ask that type of question is to presuppose there was a relationship, a close relationship, a secure relationship which for no rhyme or reason evaporated.  

For 19 verses the psalm Jesus briefly quoted puts all he/she has on the line. You drew me from the womb, made me secure at my mother’s breast. I became Your charge at birth; from my mother’s womb you have been my God. Now trouble is all around and where are you? The author recounts the experience of being in the grips of death when the psalm pauses and takes a dramatic turn. The radical turn from despair to hope seems so implausible that many biblical scholars think Psalm is two psalms combined rather than one literary unit.

Notice the psalmist never states that he or she has been rescued from their plight or stance. There has been a great turn in his her internal perception of the events. Stripped of life and the prospect of life, stripped of all false pretenses about God’s special favor or protection the Psalmists is left to rethink faith and in an instance the Presence is realized.

But you, O Lord, be not far off;
my strength, hasten to my aid.

I do not think the realization, the resolve and change in the psalm would have taken place if the psalmist did not take God to task, if the psalmist did not plunge into the depths of his/her soul. The psalmist’s faith may have very easily been based on a half truth and would have not been fully grasped unless they had taken the leap to point where questions cease and all that remains is the presence of the Lord.

When Jesus was crucified by the Romans he was the recipient of a well greased and well rehearsed method. Rome created a system to kill people based to create the maximum amount of shame as possible. First the one(s) chosen to receive the death penalty were beaten and flogged, then stripped, nailed to a cross, taunted, remained on public display after death, and then tossed over a hill left for the dogs. Our gospels have sought to sanitize the event somewhat. They all experienced shame and shame is definitely evident in Jesus’ death but some facts are simply too painful to recount.

As Jesus hung on the cross for three hours what was going through his mind. Folk to the left and to the right of him taunted, mocked and shamed him. If he looked about the crowd he would have not seen his core group of disciples, perhaps in the distance he saw Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee, perhaps. He was left alone because he voiced the beginning of Psalm 22 we can only conjecture that he was repeating its words in his head, over and over and over.

Psalm 22 expresses a full gospel faith, a faith that I hope and trust that all of us are grasping and groping for. A faith that is strong enough to doubt, to question, and to look earnestly for the presence of God. I believe Jesus in his great moment of temptation and trial somehow found God’s presence before his death. The gospel of Matthew does not record what Jesus said when he cried again on the cross, but the gospel of Luke does, “Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Those are not the words of simple passivity, those are the words of an active faith that had plunged the depths of the moment and found God’s presence, with peace at hand Jesus died on the cross.

The temptation exists for us this week to rush through Holy Week so we can get to Easter. But to rush through this week is only seeking a half truth, there is a fuller more lively, more difficult and more rewarding experience if we stay with the week rather than rush and push to get it over with. I recently had a friend of mine email some attendance statistics of a large mid-western church, on Easter morning some 1,500 people attended on Good Friday, 250 and on Ash Wednesday, 25. That may be an extreme offering of discomfort but do not take it as a guilt mechanism to attend Holy Week services, but if you feel so moved that is perfectly fine.

We all love Easter, it is beautiful, flowers, pastels, kids in button up shirts and dresses, chocolate imbedded in fingerprints, wonderful hymns of alleluia and the rest. But to get to Easter we have to travel through Jesus’ death, loneliness and despair – it aint easy and it aint for the faint of heart but it can be a very worthwhile and faith deepening experience.

As we prepare for Holy Week I am not asking you to get down to the foot of the cross and see first-hand what happened. I am only asking you to imitate the women who stuck around at a distance. If we can muster the courage to stick around at a distance, if we can stay with our own feelings of discomfort, pain, and alienation we are preparing ourselves for something that we cannot fully explain. We will discover on Easter morning that is was not Peter, James, John or Thomas who report Jesus’ resurrection – it is the women who stayed around to watch Jesus die: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee. This week I invite you stay with Jesus in Jerusalem, , stay with him in your own discomfort, stay with him and Psalm 22, stay with him in your temptations for he was tempted just as we are, he did not trade a truth of God for a lie.

(I am not for sure how I ended, but I added another paragraph in the vein above).

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