When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.”
Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30)
The story has been told over and over again through music, movies, theater, and more. The Biblical narrative gets read from pulpits of all denominations. Christians of all races, languages, cultures, and economic statuses eagerly have followed him on a donkey through the city gates of Jerusalem – each bearing hope for what he – Jesus – has done or will do – in a world represented by political dominance and religious angst.
That hope continues to be embodied in the ritual practices of our churches today. Just five days ago, voices were heard singing “Hosannas,” as we experienced the processionals of waving palms, singing choirs, and exuberant children making their way down the aisles. Even modern-day donkeys made appearances in congregations around our nation and world. But as we know, that singing of joy and hope 2,000 years ago turns quickly into whispers in the shadows of the Jerusalem streets as the message of the donkey-rider collides with the messages of both the political and religious authorities of his time. And those whispers become louder until, when faced with the possibility of releasing him, the crowd that once sang, now shouts to Pilate – “crucify him.”
From singing to shouting – the price for following Jesus became too steep, too uncomfortable for the crowd to sustain. The one who made their hearts boldly sing was requiring a pattern of life that would compromise a way of life as they knew it. Following him would cause a conflict within themselves as well as with those in authority – religious and secular. It would require a risk, a risk they were unwilling to take – and so the sounds of their shouting would result in his public execution nailed to a tree. There is something about this internal conflict that continues to ring true for us as well.
I have often imagined the sounds of the hammers making their way through his skin and bones. I have imagined the crowd gathered – to judge, to mock, or to simply witness what happens when one takes on the power of the day. The last words of Jesus take us through the journey of his heart as he moves through forgiveness, the care of his mother, his physical pain, his offering up his spirit to God, to his final cry, “it is finished.” And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. Then the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split. (Matthew 27:50–51; Luke 23:45–46)
And I have imagined a deadly silence that followed – a silence so loud that it pierces the air and the depths of all present. It is a silence accompanied by the darkness of the night; a silence caused by the rolling of a stone enclosing his body in the darkness of a tomb.
And so we again gather to hear this story – as the light of hope seems to leave the world. It is in this darkness that we are called to once again find hope. It is in this place – thousands of years later – that we are invited not to allow that darkness – within and around us – to take away the hope we carry because of the One who gives us hope by defying the silence of the darkness and death.
It is clear that the darkness continues to threaten us in so many places – broken relationships, senseless violence, injustice, illness, death, unemployment, hate, racism, addictions, abuse – the list can go on – causing us to despair. But we have what our early ancestors did not know – we have the knowledge and conviction that there is no place too dark where you and I can find ourselves where the risen Christ is unwilling to reach in and take us by the hand saying “gotcha” – bringing us out of the tombs that encase us, into the light of resurrection possibility.
And so it is in that truth – in the retelling of this story – in the remembering of how the singing turned to shouting, that tonight we wait in the silence of the deep darkness – in hope.
“…..after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” (Luke 19:35-38)
When we read this passage, we can imagine the excitement and joy the people felt during this triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The feelings of celebration and anticipation are palpable in the words Luke uses to describe the scene. Yet, only Jesus was aware of the fulfillment of God’s plan that was about to occur.
During this season of Lent, we are called to prayer and reflection on the totality of God’s plans for our lives and our world. The good times and the bad. During one of my secular management jobs, we had an important guiding philosophy – when everything in the business is going well, it’s the job of senior management to say, “Watch out, there are challenges on the horizon.” And when it looks like everything is going terribly, it is the job of senior management to say, “Don’t worry, better things are in our future.” In this way, we helped our company make sustained progress while protecting against the risk of missing a potential threat or being overwhelmed by the challenges we faced.
Similarly, in our life as Christians, we are called always to remember God’s plan for us. To anticipate the trajectory of our lives whether we are rejoicing in the pageantry of Palm Sunday or the somber remembrance of Maundy Thursday. As we sing loud “Hosannas,” we are to remember the coming crucifixion and as we contemplate the cross to remember the resurrection.
There are so many things that break our heart: an increasingly divided culture, young internet heroes that have thousands of followers and no true friends, parts of our world where declaring oneself as a Christian is still a life threating act of faith and the most materially comfortable society in the history of the world that still has the highest rates of depression, addiction, and mental illness ever known. Similarly, there are great reasons for rejoicing: new worshiping congregations in our midst, revitalized ministry initiatives, and daily evidence of the impact that the word of God has in the lives of individuals in our communities and around the world.
We live in a world that is ever more in need of the message of love and hope Jesus Christ provides. At the same time, we see declining affiliation with many Christian faith traditions. I am convinced these seemingly contradictory trends are calling us to new ways to minister to a world in distress. As a result, we face many more opportunities for ministry than challenges.
During this Lenten season, I have given up being consumed by the negatives or overjoyed by the positives. Instead, I have recommitted myself to attempt discernment of God’s will in all that confronts and confounds us, both the joys and sorrows. This goal is a lot harder than I would have thought. As Paul said in his letter to the Philippians,” Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14)
During this season, I pray we will all lean forward into the new possibilities that lay ahead of us, remain open to whatever God has in store for us and our worshiping communities, and that we claim renewed energy to achieve God’s plans and that we anticipate fulfillment of those plans in ways we cannot imagine.
Judas: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”
Jesus: “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
If our scripture lesson for this week were boiled down to just the words spoken, as in the style of a script, what we see above is all we would get. And given what we think we know of the character of Judas and Jesus, if we were to take their words at face-value, we would most likely be getting things wrong! Although very few words are spoken, this passage challenges us to enter into the story at a deeper level, underneath and between the words spoken. There are many intense emotions in the hearts of those gathered that day that could call us into a deeper Lenten journey in our quiet moments, if we allow ourselves to connect our humanity with theirs.
So let us consider the scene of John 12. It is six days before the Passover, and Jesus and his disciples are in Bethany enjoying a meal at the home of their friends Lazarus, and his sisters Martha and Mary. In other words, we are less than a week from Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and crucifixion. Yet, the person who was probably the focus of the evening was Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.
I would guess Lazarus was experiencing one of the few quieter moments since finding himself the center of attention as the incarnation of Jesus’ most recent and wondrous work. He was probably finally able to appreciate the ordinary miracles we take for granted so often until we almost lose them, such as the laughter of friends and the aroma and taste of his sister Martha’s cooking.
Martha was expressing her appreciation for those she loved in the way she found most comfortable – by nurturing them through her cooking. We can imagine how grateful she was to Jesus for bringing her brother back, and how much joy she was deriving by setting Lazarus’ favorite foods in front of him. We can glean something of Martha’s temperament from the familiar story from Luke’s gospel where Martha tried to get Jesus to chide Mary for putting the lion’s share of the hosting chores on her. I can imagine Martha having a sense of how her words are not always received in the warmest light, making a conscious decision in this moment to let her cooking do the talking for her.
If we dare allow ourselves to consider what Jesus would be experiencing in this moment, we might wonder whether he was pondering how close he was to his time of trial? He could count on both hands the number of suppers like this one he was yet to experience before the last one, when he would use those hands to give new meaning to the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup.
Were his thoughts more focused on particular aspects of what was to come as the Son of God, or in his humanity, was he in the midst of some life-review as he considered his legacy on earth? Was there any second-guessing in his mind whether his work was truly coming to an end? Did he have any doubt these often seemingly-clueless disciples would be able to carry on without him? Did the human nature of his God-manself question if he would succeed in being fully-obedient, trusting, and reliant on God’s faithfulness?
None of the intensity described above is revealed through any words spoken or actions described during this meal, until Lazarus’ sister Mary does the first remarkable thing described in this passage. John 12:3 recounts how, “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
This time, Judas Iscariot is the one urging Jesus to chide Mary for this seemingly reckless act. Judas’ words – the first words recorded in the passage – seem totally appropriate for a follower of Jesus: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” But instead of agreeing with Judas, Jesus responds, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Instead of rebuking Mary, he defended her using a rationale I would not have expected to come from his mouth. In fact, if the gospel writer had not included a couple snippets of commentary, I would not have been surprised if some later church fathers questioned whether there had been some recording error. But to make sure we get it, our narrator points out: Yes, the Judas Iscariot who is sounding the most righteous of them all is the one who was about to betray Jesus. And, Judas was rebuking Mary not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.
Ironically, although she may not have been able to explain her exuberant gesture with words, what Mary did was right, and Jesus knew it. Conversely, despite his strident denouncement of Mary, could Judas explain to himself what was causing so much turmoil within him?
As we turn the corner into the last weeks of Lent, maybe the power of this passage for us can be found by meditating not just on the words spoken in it, but as much (if not more) on that part of our reality that does not easily boil itself down to words:
- Like Lazarus, let us take time to be quiet, present, and mindful of the many blessings we take so much for granted in our everyday lives.
- Like Martha, let us consider how, instead of words, we might better communicate our love to those around us in ways they can appreciate.
- Let us look at how our words don’t match our actions, and unlike Judas, let us go even further inside ourselves to come to terms with how and why we are quick to speak on what we perceive to be the wrong-doing of others.
- Like Mary, let us be still and allow ourselves to feel the grace, compassion, and love of God so deeply that we are moved to respond in abundance.
- And like Jesus, let us take time to consider our legacies and help others to do the same, trusting God’s promise never to leave or forsake us as we embrace each day God grants us.
The familiar story of the prodigal son in Luke 15 reminds me of my own sons, now in their mid to late 20’s. The oldest and youngest had not always seen eye to eye. My oldest son was living a fairly ascetic lifestyle on the other side of the country and, not that long ago, was critical of his younger brother for living at home and not seeming to get on with his life. What my older son didn’t acknowledge was that his younger sibling was diligently working toward a meaningful life and career milestone, which he recently achieved. In doing so, the younger one “came to himself” and, though “treat[ed] like one of [your] hired hands” (Luke 15:17, 19), found his calling in the process. Along the way, his older brother evolved from being a skeptic to his champion, expressing confidence that he would be able to meet the challenge. It was extremely gratifying in the end, as a father, to see them recognize, but put aside, their differences, and celebrate the other’s accomplishments together. While Jesus’ parable leaves us hanging as to the relationship of another father’s two sons, we at least are invited to linger in the hope that a similar reconciliation could have occurred there.
As a former banker, I have often been struck by the reference in the Lord’s Prayer, and backdrop to Jesus’ parable, which tells us to “forgive our debtors” (Luke 11:4). This is not exactly something I was trained to do in my secular job. Nevertheless, in many cases, that was the best way out of what might have seemed to be an otherwise untenable situation, even if a borrower had gotten itself into trouble by being profligate and seemingly irresponsible. Occasionally, the company was beyond repair, but more often giving it some breathing room was the best outcome for all involved—its customers, employees, communities and even creditors. To get there almost always required compromise on all sides, and ultimately for former adversaries to work together for the greater good.
In many ways, my experience with such corporate forgiveness was a subconscious practice of the adage, “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” It is God’s grace that allows us to soften our harsh opinions of others, recognize their gifts, and possibly come to believe more in the other than in ourselves. It can entail not just time, but also risking a change in perspective and admitting that we may have been wrong. In forgiving, we realize that we ourselves are also being forgiven. The path to forgiveness requires reflection and reconciliation, and can result in both the resurrection of the person being forgiven and the rebirth of the relationship between that person and his or her forgiver. This path to forgiveness was something the father in Jesus’ story knew very well, and he was inviting the older brother to consider and even to celebrate it. The same is true for us.
The resurrection of old life into new is a kind of metamorphosis, a miracle often not visible to the human eye. In January, my wife and I traveled to the highlands of central Mexico, where the migration of monarch butterflies from North America (a trip these particular butterflies have never made before) ends their annual cycle. Although fully formed, they were still juveniles but already majestic in their beauty, especially given their sheer numbers, which for years had been under pressure due to loss of habitat but have recently rebounded. There were literally hundreds of millions per acre, clustered on the branches of a certain type of fir tree to the point where they appeared to the naked eye to be dark clumps of dead leaves; but, as the sun rose, they fluttered lazily into the light and their orange wings looked like falling autumn leaves against a bright blue sky. With the Lenten season upon us, they make their reverse migration to the north, to begin the cycle of metamorphosis all over again, and reminding us that return trips can and do happen. May we be open to taking such a leap, whether in our own journey of faith or in the embrace of another looking to make their way home, and may each of us be transformed by the prodigal grace of God.