THE CENTER OF THE DARKNESS
Good Friday - John 19:1-30
In the beginning was the Word. Words from the opening of the Gospel of John. Words we usually read at Christmastime. They proclaim God incarnate, the Word of God, the Word Made Flesh, coming into this world. But now we are a long way from Christmas. Where is the joy of the child born to us, the son given to us?
And the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him, all things came into being; not one thing came into being except through him. What has come into being in him was life, life that was the light of humankind. And light shines in the darkness, and the darkness…
Well, in the Gospel narrative for tonight, the darkness is gathering. The forces of evil are most visible and most evident in this part of the story. They come from every direction. Before our reading tonight, Jesus is praying in the garden, and Judas, one of his most trusted friends, comes with a detachment of soldiers and police from the chief priests and the Pharisees. Jesus is arrested, and put on trial.
I’m always bothered by the crowd. It’s too big of a change, and too fast. Just five days ago, these great throngs of people gathered around Jesus, throwing their cloaks on the ground to mark his way, waving him along with palm branches and cheering wildly, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” And now, here, at Pilate’s headquarters, a similar crowd is gathered around Jesus. This mass of people is shouting, too, but their words are angry, calling for Jesus’ crucifixion. I can’t help but see the two crowds as the same. The same people who welcomed him into Jerusalem with joy are now, just five days later, driven by fury to destroy him. I’ve never quite been able to make sense of that about-face.
I suppose, to be fair, I’ve never really been part of an angry crowd before. There was a time that surprised me. I remember my 8th grade American history teacher telling us about the protests on his college campus during the Vietnam War. I didn’t understand the politics at the time, and frankly I’m not sure that I do now, but I do remember getting a sense of how exciting it was to be actively involved in trying to shape the world around us. Then I went to a little, non-descript college in central Michigan, nestled in a town that was surrounded on all sides by fields that went on for miles. The only thing we had to protest was how often Chef Eric served bananas foster in the cafeteria. Not exactly worth getting angry about.
But we don’t live in the middle of nowhere. There are plenty of crowds whose tempers burn high in our world today. Just a glance at the news will show you that. Whether it’s crowds rioting in the streets to protest racism and police brutality in places like Baltimore or Ferguson, or crowds gathered around a contentious political candidate, people in our world are angry. It’s an anger that frightens me, to be honest, and I think too that it’s an anger that is well-acquainted with fear. Fear of people who are different than us, of people who are black, or people who are white, of people who are gay, or practice a different religion, or speak a different language, or believe in a different political ideology, or live with different values. They put our own values, our power, our identities, our very selves at risk. Why? Why is it that we think others who are different than us somehow put us at risk? Our unwillingness to value our differences and love what God has made however unlike us it is are part of that spreading, evil, insidious darkness that hides everything it touches.
Pilate is a fascinating character, especially the way John describes him. He’s a politician. And as it turns out, the corruption of politicians isn’t a modern thing. Pilate struggles with what to do. He’s confronted with this Jesus and the crowd’s desire to have him killed. But he’s got a problem. If he’s going to sentence a man to death, he’s got to have a reason. There are laws! So Pilate goes about searching for something, anything, to charge Jesus with. If you read all the things that Pilate has to say in these chapters, you’ll find that almost everything that comes from his mouth is a question. “What accusation do you bring against this man? Are you the King of the Jews? What have you done? So you are a king? What is truth?” Pilate is the kind of politician who is willing to do anything, to twist even the definition of truth to make it fit his view of reality.
Pilate claims to be powerful, to have the power to release Jesus, and to have the power to crucify him. That’s his claim, and ultimately it’s his decision that sends Jesus to the cross. But he knows, he KNOWS that Jesus is innocent, and he does it anyway. He does the wrong thing. Because, ultimately, even though he’s been appointed by the Romans, he has no power at all, but has to do what the crowds want. Even the great Roman Empire, the most powerful civilization that has ever existed, has to kowtow to a handful of angry Judeans. Within forty years, the Jews will finally rise up in defiance of Rome, sick of the last six centuries of occupation by foreign powers, and the only way for Rome to maintain its power over them is to utterly destroy them, crush the resistance, flatten the temple, cart off the national treasures, and make it illegal for any Jews to even enter the city of Jerusalem.
Politics works the same today. How many times have we been promised, for better or for worse, that some candidate will do one thing or another, things that they are, in reality, mostly powerless to bring about? Whether it’s a wall along the Mexican border or universal healthcare and climate change, no president can take on such projects all by themselves, and I highly suspect they’ll have trouble finding a Congress that will do their bidding. It’s all posturing, asking pointed questions and giving the people what they want to hear. And the evil, insidious darkness lays thick on our society.
So Jesus is led to the Place of the Skull. He is stripped of his clothes, nailed to a cross, humiliated for all the world to see. An innocent man is killed by the soldiers and police, a family is torn apart (though at least Jesus has the opportunity to provide for his mother before he dies), a life is taken away for no good reason, except perhaps fear, the fear of the authorities, the fear of the religious leaders, the fear of the crowds.
At the beginning of Lent, I downloaded an app for my phone. I forget how I was put on to it, but I thought it would be an interesting addition to my Lenten disciplines. Even that somewhat flip attitude I had toward it is revealing of the reach of the darkness. This app lists people in the United States who have been killed by police. Now in the interest of full disclosure, I have to tell you that, though it won’t surprise you that my personal politics are pretty liberal, I did have the presence of mind to recognize that if I were going to pray for these people throughout Lent, I should probably be praying for any police officers who have been killed as well. I couldn’t find an app for that. A quick Internet search shows that a whole app probably isn’t necessary; only twelve officers were killed in 2015. That is, of course, twelve too many. I have, though, prayed for all of the police officers involved in the shootings that have appeared on my phone, because, whether they killed out of fear or out of necessity, the taking of another life is traumatic, and how horrible it must be to have to do so simply as part of one’s line of work. The victims and their families, the officers and their families, they all need to be wrapped up in God’s love and care.
I thought this would be a nice, small addition to my Lent, to help me be aware of what was going on in the wider world. Just one or two people to pray over each week. Instead, I have been fed names every single day, sometimes as many as five in one day. About 140 over the course of Lent. Whatever we believe, whatever our values and politics are, whatever we think the reason for this is, it is clear that the death toll on Golgotha in Judea is matched by the death toll in our own Empire.
We’re told that Jesus’ crucifixion was only one of three that took place that day. On that particular hill. Three, just in Judea, which doesn’t count those taking place at the same time in other provinces of the wide-spanning Roman Empire. Jesus’ crucifixion was just one among very, very many. We hang a cross in our sanctuaries and treat it as if it were an object of great reverence. And so we should. But we need to remember that thousands of people died on crosses at the hands of ancient Rome. Jesus was not unique in this. The evil, insidious darkness destroyed, and continues to destroy, lives and families throughout all of history.
So what makes this story unique? What makes this crucifixion matter? It is not the crowds that gathered, or the politicians involved. It is not the method or the witnesses or the place. It is simply the One who was crucified. Thousands died, thousands continue to die, but only one of those killed was God incarnate, the Word of God, the Word Made Flesh, coming into this world.
We are tempted to look ahead tonight, to the Easter joy that is to come. We should not hurry to do that. We need to look, instead, at the evil, insidious darkness that has enveloped our hearts, our lives, our society, our world. We need to be honest about the evil things that we do, and the evil we see around us, and our own evil responses to them. And if we look closely, we’ll see there in the midst of them, Jesus, the Savior of the World. God Himself chooses to dwell among us, to live with our evil, to be involved with our lives, with our pain, with our brokenness. Jesus experiences our hurt, our abuse, our unthinking aggressions, our division, our hatred, our insistence on our own, evil way. Jesus is willing to accept our evil so much so that he would allow himself to be led to the cross. And when the worst of what humanity has to offer, a gruesome, painful death, is inflicted on him, he accepts that too. He dies for us. He goes to the grave for us. There, in the middle of our fear, our hatred, our evil, is Jesus, the joy of Christmas, the hope of the nations, the Ancient of Days.
In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him, all things came into being; not one thing came into being except through him. What has come into being in him was life, life that was the light of humankind. And light shines in the darkness, and the darkness…?
The darkness could not overpower it.